Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Reflections  >  A fractured history of Quakers in America

A short fractured history of Friends in America

Friends have been in the Americas for three centuries, and from time to time their Religious Society has been split. Some splits still affect the Society, although in the last hundred years or so there have been attempts at reconciliation, partially successful. This document gives a brief overview.

map of splits

One reference for these paragraphs is Margaret Bacon's The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America. For another account of the same history, see Mike Hopkin's Quaker Alphabet Soup.

The first significant split among Friends in the American colonies occurred in the Philadelphia area in 1692-93, little more than a decade after Penn's "Holy Experiment" had started (and about a year after George Fox died). This schism is generally overlooked among Friends, perhaps because the "Keithians," calling themselves "Christian Quakers," were successfully suppressed by Friends holding the reins of power in Penn's colony. At a key juncture, they had George Keith and several supporters arrested and prosecuted for sedition. Although the jury failed to convict on the most serious charges, the Keithians were never able to build up their momentum again. Not much later, Keith went to London Yearly Meeting and asked them to endorse his position, but the Friends in London disowned him, and a few years later Keith joined the Episcopal Church. During this period, the established group of Friends was known as "Lloydians," after Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Lloyd. (William Penn was Governor, but was in England throughout this time of conflict.)

For one account, written by a non-Friend, see the pages here on the Keithian schism. Several elements of this account seem particularly striking in light of the dynamics of later splits. The initial conflict centered on "the sufficiency of the inward Christ," as distinct from the "historical Christ" given in Scriptures. This question still resonates in Friends' religious thinking. Also, it's interesting how Friends tried to handle the growing conflict using their standard devices; in the end the differences proved irreconcilable. Then, once the Keithians established themselves as a separate group, with stronger emphasis on specific doctrines and practices such as baptism and communion, they faced further division over such matters, and within a decade or so most if not all of the "Christian Quakers" joined other denominations such as Seventh Day Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

Quakers in other parts of the American colonies -- particularly in Rhode Island, Maine, on Long Island, New York, and in smaller numbers in Maryland and south -- apparently were not much affected by these goings-on in the Philadelphia area, and the Lloydian/Keithian schism might be called a local affair.

In the early 1700s it may have appeared that Friends would be one of the major denominations in the American colonies. By the end of the century, however, they were only a small minority in the United States. This slow fade can be attributed, at least partly, to what is called "Quietism," that is, a tendency to stand on tradition in the absence of strong leading from the Spirit. This tendency affected Friends on both sides of the Atlantic. During this period, many members of the Society were disowned from, or "read out of," the Meetings they were born into -- for instance when they married "out of meeting" or violated Quaker testimonies pertaining to fancy clothing, music, gambling, etc. Meanwhile, the Society of Friends attracted few new members, appearing austere and old-fashioned, though perhaps honest and well-meaning. During the same period, interestingly, Quakers struggled toward and finally arrived at testimonies against slavery, and against direct involvement in the affairs of state, especially when these involved military preparations and campaigning. These struggles and the resolutions which developed can be seen as another dimension of the Quietist tendency.

During the American Revolution, some Friends (such as Betsy Ross and General Nathanael Greene) actively sided with the pro-Independence side and were read out of their meetings. In Philadelphia, they formed the Free Quakers, a group that maintained a Friends Meeting from 1781 to 1834. When the war was over, many more left the Society of Friends in the face of widespread feeling that Quakers had favored the British side, according to Kevin Phillips in his book, The Cousins' Wars (1999, pp. 211-17 and 643-44 fn. 68). Daniel Boone is one of the more famous individuals in American history whose family left Friends at this juncture.

Perhaps a number of factors -- Quietism, waves of disownment, neutrality during the Revolutionary War, and anti-Quaker sentiment after the war -- combined to reduce the relative size and influence of the Society of Friends in America during the 1700s. Meanwhile, as the frontier opened up beyond the thirteen colonies, Friends began to move in large numbers into the interior of the continent. Many settled in Ohio and Indiana, and later in Iowa, and in these areas the heartland of American Quakerism developed.

The most serious splits in the Society of Friends in North America occurred in the early and mid-1800s, when Friends came under the growing influence of the Methodists and other evangelical groups first active in Britain. Changes seem to have started with younger and more forward-thinking Friends, often living in the larger cities, who were more affected by the new and vibrant evangelical movement. As these Friends gained influence, they pressed for changes in their meetings. Thus, for instance, "in 1806 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting revised its discipline and introduced for the first time an article making it a cause for disownment to 'deny the divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit, or the authenticity of the Scriptures'" (Bacon, p. 86). This shift led to a fresh exodus from the Society, but many Friends resisted and over the next two decades their frustrations became centered with the ministry of Elias Hicks, a Friend and travelling minister from Long Island, New York, who championed a more spiritualistic and less dogmatic approach.

Tensions between urban and rural Friends, issues of control, and personality conflicts compounded the difficulties. Matters came to a head in 1827 -- "the Great Separation" -- when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting split into two yearly meetings, colloquially called Hicksite and Orthodox. Each faction consolidated their control of meeting houses, schools, graveyards, trustfunds, etc. The following year, New York and Baltimore Yearly Meetings split. In these three places, Hicksites had the numerical majority. Subsequently, Ohio Yearly Meeting split roughly in half (and "roughly" is the word for it), and Indiana Yearly Meeting, newly created, became Orthodox after a small number of Hicksites split away.

In the following decades, the evangelical movement in the United States and Britain strengthened, and Orthodox Friends felt more pressure to conform to its principles. Joseph John Gurney, an evangelist from a prominent family of British Quakers, came to the American states and, in the course of events during the 1840s-50s, several Orthodox Yearly Meetings split into Gurneyite and Wilburite factions, the latter named after John Wilbur, of Rhode Island, who travelled from meeting to meeting to oppose Gurney and the changes that Gurney was urging on Orthodox Friends.

In Philadelphia, Friends remained divided between Orthodox and Hicksite Yearly Meetings. The Orthodox Yearly Meeting, however, refused to be drawn into any further splits, succeeding by the simple expedient of not formally recognizing any other Orthodox Yearly Meeting, whether Gurneyite or Wilburite. (It is said, however, that they leaned toward the Wilburites.) The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was finally reunited in 1955.

In the years after the Civil War, many Gurneyite meetings turned to what was called a "pastoral" system of worship, perhaps trying to keep up the evangelical enthusiasm with the help of paid pastors. In reaction to this turn, however, some Friends broke away to establish Conservative Yearly Meetings in North Carolina, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Canada, retaining the historical mode of silent "unprogrammed" worship. Conservative Friends also kept the plain dress and plain speech (thee and thy) of the early generations of Friends, maintaining these traditions well into the 20th century, although they have been dropped as matters of discipline.

The "unprogrammed"/"pastoral" distinction refers to the mode of worship, and marks the most obvious difference among Friends today. Hicksite and Wilburite Friends, having already separated from Gurneyite Friends, were not affected by the shift towards programmed, pastoral worship in the late 1800s. Conservative Friends separated while this change was underway, in order to avoid it. By the mid-20th century, Wilburites and Conservatives have blurred together in Quaker vocabulary, the two groups having arrived at roughly the same place via somewhat different paths. They generally distinguish themselves as more "orthodox" than the Hicksite "liberals," in biblical Christian terms. However, the terms "Hicksite," "Wilburite," and "Gurneyite" are now considered antiquated, and of mainly historical interest in light of further changes and reconciliations achieved during the 20th century.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Gurneyite Friends consolidated into what was called the Five Years Meeting, a grouping of Yearly Meetings that hoped to include a range of beliefs and practices including both "pastoral" and "unprogrammed" worship. The most fundamentalist and anti-modernist of these Friends broke off, however, and eventually formed the Evangelical Friends Alliance, now Evangelical Friends International (EFI). Five Years Meeting has become the Friends United Meeting (FUM), the single largest body of Friends in North America. Meanwhile, in some places Evangelical Friends have been experimenting with baptism and communion, putting themselves (unknowingly?) on the theological ground staked out by Keithians three centuries earlier.

In the same era that the Five Years Meeting started also came the formation of the Friends General Conference (FGC), and eventually the reconciliation of Orthodox, Hicksite, and Wilburite Yearly Meetings in the eastern U.S. Some of these Yearly Meetings are associated with both FUM and FGC. In other areas, particularly in the Midwest, FUM-affiliated meetings (and so-called "churches") predominate, with FGC and Conservative meetings scattered more thinly about. Evangelical Yearly Meetings in the U.S. are based in Ohio, Kansas, the Rocky Mountain States, and along the Pacific coast, although there are also a few Evangelical Friends' churches scattered in other parts of the country.

Some Quaker groupings:

An "upside-down" version of the above graphic:

See also:

The above continues to be a working draft. All comments are welcome. Email them to me at CONTACT. Thanks.