Part I. Faith
A. Historical Sketch
The seventeenth century was a time of political and religious ferment in the British Isles. The formalism of the Church of England had become a hindrance to many spiritual seekers, and new sects were coming into being. The Church itself was in some confusion between Puritan and anti-Puritan tendencies. In mid-century the Puritans prevailed, both politically and religiously. They dethroned and beheaded King Charles I and instituted the Commonwealth, which ruled the British domain for more than a decade. It may have been significant in the religious controversies that the "authorized" version of the Bible, the so-called "King James" Bible of 1611, had made the Scriptures available to more English-speaking people than ever before.
George Fox, who initiated the gathering of the people later called Quakers, was born in Leicestershire in 1624. He was an unusually serious boy. As a teenager he troubled his parents by refusing to attend Sunday services, preferring to spend the time in Bible reading and solitary meditation. From the age of nineteen, George Fox went on frequent walking journeys over the midland counties of England, talking about spiritual matters with those he met along the way. Clergymen were often confounded by his incisive interpretation of scripture, and could provide little guidance for the young man. After much searching and despair, he heard an inner voice that said:
There is One, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.
Here and there he found kindred spirits, and he continued to experience "openings," such as:
I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, and an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that I also saw the infinite love of God.
(George Fox, 1647)
[I saw] that every [one] was enlightened by the Divine Light of Christ …and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came into the Light of Life, and became children of it.
(George Fox, 1648)
Such revelations led to a belief in a "seed" of the Divine in every human being, usually called by Friends the Inner Light, or the Light of Christ. Fox taught that those who led their lives in strict obedience to God's will would come to "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone." No clergyman, no intercessor, no liturgy or ritual was required. The only need was to experience the Divine Presence nothing else mattered. That Presence became so real to the early Quakers that they marveled that "Christ has come to teach his people himself." They also discovered that divine revelation came equally to women, men, and children. Some of the most active and intrepid ministers were women.
At first Fox and his followers called themselves Children of Truth, or Children of Light, or sometimes Friends of Truth. Because of persecutions they were often in courts and prisons. Judge Bennett of Derby first dubbed them Quakers in 1650 because in their earnestness they bade him tremble. So they came to be known as Quakers, although they eventually adopted the name Society of Friends, or the Religious Society of Friends. The name "Quaker" first given in derision has become a badge of honor and is used interchangeably with "Friends."
On a journey northward in 1652, George Fox climbed Pendle Hill in Lancashire near the border of Yorkshire and saw a vision of "a great people to be gathered." He continued northward about thirty miles to Preston-Patrick Chapel. There he found the people, congregations of "seekers" who had been gathering for worship. These people, including their ministers, responded to Fox, and within two years he had sparked the emergence from the area of more than sixty Quaker ministers, men and women, on fire with an old faith become new. Within two more years their gospel had been carried to every county of England, to Wales, to Scotland, to Ireland, to several countries of Europe, and to such distant places as Constantinople and the American colonies.
Margaret Fell, wife of Judge Fell, was "convinced of the truth" in 1652. Swarthmore Hall, the Fells' home on the northwest coast of England, became a meeting place and refuge from persecution for George Fox and other Quaker ministers. Margaret Fell corresponded extensively with Friends everywhere and helped sustain the equality of women with men in the Society of Friends.
1. Quakers in Maryland and Virginia
The first Quaker known to visit the colonies of Maryland and Virginia was Elizabeth Harris, who came in 1655 or 1656 and found an immediate response. She was followed by a stream of others traveling in the ministry of the new faith. Many people of Maryland and Virginia joined the new movement. Although few early records of Virginia Yearly Meeting exist, it appears that George Fox initiated the first movement toward organization in that colony during his visits in 1672 and 1673.
In Fourth Month 1672, John Burnyeat, who was about to return to England after a lengthy ministry, called a General Meeting (to last several days) on West River, south of present-day Annapolis, for all Friends in the Province of Maryland. It happened that George Fox and several other English Friends had been visiting in Barbados and Jamaica, and arrived in Maryland in time for that historic meeting, which marks the beginning of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends.
In his Journal George Fox recorded this event:
Then there was a meeting appointed by John Burnyeat about three score miles off, which held four days, which we went to though we were weary. And there came to it …many considerable people of the world, and a glorious meeting we had. After the public meeting there were men's and women's meetings [for business] and I opened to Friends the service thereof and all were satisfied.
(George Fox, 1672)
Although little opposition was met in Maryland, which tolerated any Christian sect, the situation was different in Virginia, where only the established Church of England was allowed. There was much persecution, particularly on the Eastern Shore, forcing the Quakers to migrate northward into Maryland. Elsewhere in Virginia, the Quaker movement prospered in spite of opposition.
By 1700 there were about 3000 Quakers in Maryland, possibly the largest religious body in the colony at that time. The Yearly Meeting for Maryland held two sessions annually, one at West River and the other at Third Haven (now Easton) on the Eastern Shore. After 1774 sessions were held but once a year, alternating between the eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1785 the western shore meeting place was transferred from West River to Baltimore.
With the building and improvement of roads on the Eastern Shore, Friends there were drawn toward Philadelphia as a center of commerce. At the same time the Friends from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting who were migrating to Northern Virginia, Western Maryland and adjacent parts of Pennsylvania and establishing meetings there, found Baltimore to be their urban magnet. In 1790, by mutual agreement of the two yearly meetings, all Maryland's Eastern Shore meetings were assigned to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and all meetings in Northern Virginia, Western Maryland, Nottingham Quarter and meetings farther west in Pennsylvania were assigned to Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
2. Compensation of Native Americans
Unlike Friends settling with William Penn, who purchased their land fairly with freely signed deeds, those moving into the Shenandoah Valley found no natives remaining with whom to negotiate. As early as 1738, Quaker settlers in that area were pricked by their conscience as to how their lands had been procured, and by 1778 many of them had subscribed to a fund designated "for the benefit of the Indians, who were formerly the Native Owners of the lands on which we now live, or their descendants if to be found, and if not, for the benefit of other Indians." Likewise, English Friends of tender conscience helped add to the fund. In 1795, Baltimore Yearly Meeting first appointed an Indian Affairs Committee, one of its charges being to administer these funds. This endowment remains to this day, as does the concern of these early Friends, and the effort for mutual understanding and cooperation continues to be actively pursued.
3. Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction
Many Friends in the southern colonies, and some in the north, were slave owners. However, through the labors of John Woolman (1720-1772) and other concerned Quakers, members of the Society gradually became convinced that it was contrary to the love exemplified by Jesus that any human being should be held in bondage. Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 1777 concluded that any members holding slaves were to be disowned; Virginia Yearly Meeting made the same decision in 1784 after Friends persuaded the Virginia legislature to pass a law permitting manumission, and by 1790 nearly all Quaker slave-holders had indeed freed their slaves. Life in slave states became difficult for those who had freed their slaves. For this and other reasons, many Quakers from Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and some from Maryland migrated west. The Society disappeared in Georgia and South Carolina and became greatly reduced in North Carolina and Virginia.
As a result of the westward movement, Baltimore Yearly Meeting set off Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1812, the first Friends Yearly Meeting west of the Alleghenies. In 1844 the remnant of Virginia Yearly Meeting decided to become a Half-Year's Meeting within Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Orthodox.
During the Civil War Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friends suffered not only because of their refusal to participate, but also because many of their farms and homes were in the path of the fighting. Young men faced disownment by their Meetings if they enlisted in the army, or imprisonment if they refused to be drafted or hire a substitute. In the North, President Lincoln's understanding of the dictates of conscience moderated the persecution somewhat, but in the South many Friends died in prison because of their refusal to join the army.
After the war Friends responded to the overwhelming need of the freed slaves for food, clothing, and education. They also provided aid to Quakers in the devastated states of the South, particularly North Carolina, during the Reconstruction Period.
4. "Quietism," Division and Reunion
Through the 18th and part of the 19th centuries the Society changed from a vital movement of convinced Christians bent on spreading the Light of Truth, to a group feeling threatened by contamination from an indifferent world. The emphasis shifted to discipline for survival, so that the Truth as seen by their forebears would not be lost. Marriage outside the Society or before a "priest," being seen in a church, participation in war or militia drill, failure to attend meeting, incurring debts, drunkenness, brawling and fornication were typical grounds for the disownments which greatly reduced the Society.
But new ideas inevitably crept through the walls built around the Quaker communities. Tensions arose between Friends: sometimes between younger and older, rural and urban, or wealthy and less well-to-do Friends. Sometimes there were divisions even among Meetings in a Yearly Meeting. Theological controversy arose over Christian authority. Which should have primacy the direct revelation of the Inner Light, or the Scriptures? One's direct experience of God, or personal salvation through Christ's sacrifice? Elias Hicks became the apostle of Christian authority through the Inner Light.
In 1827 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting split into "Hicksite" and "Orthodox" Yearly Meetings, and the following year Baltimore and several other Yearly Meetings did likewise. Four-fifths of the constituency in Baltimore became Hicksite. This controversy did not divide the small Virginia Yearly Meeting, which remained Orthodox.
A further division occurred in the 1840's and 1850's between a conservative branch of Orthodox Friends associated with the name of John Wilbur, and a more evangelical branch of Orthodox Friends who had come under the influence of traveling evangelists, notably Joseph John Gurney from England. This Gurneyite movement partly accounts for the existence today of Friends with an evangelical theology. The Wilburite group long maintained the testimonies of plain dress and speech, and continued the traditional worship based on silence, as did all Hicksites. After 1870 a number of Meetings adopted a programmed form of worship and engaged the services of pastors. This movement only slightly influenced the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings, though it is still widespread elsewhere.
Feelings ran high between the two principal groups, and Meetings not inclined to divide were eventually forced to choose sides. Not until 1866 were the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings able to appoint committees to work together amicably on the sale of the Yearly Meeting pasture land in the city. The fact that two members of the Janney family, each representing one of the separated Yearly Meetings, served on these committees, illustrates the depth of the division.
With the passing of years, the early bitterness between the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings gradually became less acute. Both Yearly Meetings participated in service groups such as the Associated Committee of Friends on Indian Affairs and the American Friends Service Committee. Eventually the annual sessions of the two Yearly Meetings were held simultaneously, enabling them to have some joint sessions and to appoint some joint committees. After World War II some new Monthly Meetings affiliated with both Yearly Meetings, and most divided local Meetings reunited, taking dual affiliation with both Yearly Meetings.
In 1957 the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings began holding their sessions jointly in the same location. Finally, on January 1, 1968, after 140 years of separation, including three years of intense planning for reunion, the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings became again one Yearly Meeting.
5. Statement on Spiritual Unity, 1964
During the process of reuniting, the following statement from the Committee of Ten, 1964, was accepted:
The Committees appointed by the two Baltimore Yearly Meetings to study together the question of what in our religious experience would justify the union of the Yearly Meetings see that much spiritual basis for unity now exists among us. This is evident in the uniting of a number of local meetings, so that at present almost half the membership of the two Yearly Meetings is in united Meetings; in our Young Friends movement; in the joint work of our committees; in our cooperative efforts of many kinds; and in many shared experiences of worship. All these joint activities obviously would not exist without some measure of unity of spirit.
Our two Yearly Meetings have a wide, rich, and diverse heritage, chiefly from historic Christianity interpreted by Quakerism. We not only tolerate diversity, we encourage and cherish it. In every local Meeting we struggle, usually patiently, with the problems that arise from our divergent convictions; and we usually find ourselves richer for our differences. In most if not all of the Monthly Meetings within the two Yearly Meetings will be found, successfully co-existing, persons as far apart in religious vocabulary and practice as there are anywhere in the Yearly Meetings. Yet these Friends worship together every Sunday, and share nourishment for their spiritual life. Such association is beneficial and even necessary.
Friends in our two Yearly Meetings are clear on certain principles which are so basic and essential that we tend to take them for granted and forget that they are essential and probably the only essentials. We all are clear that religion is a matter of inward, immediate experience. We all acknowledge the guidance of the Inner Lightthe Christ WithinGod's direct, continuing revelation. All our insights are subject to testing by the insight of the group, by history and tradition, and by the Bible and the whole literature of religion. All the Meetings for Worship of our Monthly Meetings aspire to openness to God's communication directly with every person. Worship is primarily on the basis of expectant waiting upon the Spirit, a communion with God in which mediators or symbols are not necessary. We are all clear that faith is directly expressed in our daily living. We all seek to move toward goals of human welfare, equality, and peace.
We have a profound, often-tested, durable respect for each individual's affirmation of his own religious experience, which must be judged not only by his words but also by his life. From the stimulus of dissimilarity, new insights often arise. Each Friend must, as always, work out for himself his own understanding of religion; and each Monthly Meeting must, as always, fit its practice to its own situation and the needs of its members.
The consolidated Baltimore Yearly Meeting continued affiliation with both Friends General Conference (FGC) and Friends United Meeting (FUM), two organizations founded near the turn of the century by the two main branches of Quakerism, Hicksite and Orthodox respectively. The Yearly Meeting office was moved from Baltimore to Sandy Spring, Maryland.
6. Early Quaker Testimonies
The testimonies of Friends are a witness by which principles of the Society are translated into a mode of behavior sometimes contrary to the prevailing customs or law. While some of the testimonies adopted in the vastly different culture of seventeenth century England may seem quaint or obscure now, others are as vital today as when they were adopted. Some testimonies emerged later as Friends responded to conditions in a changing world which tended to deny the presence of God in every person or in which complete truthfulness or openness was being avoided. That every individual possesses a seed of the divine is the basis for most Quaker testimonies. In addition to the testimony against slavery, there are others which should be noted here.
One of the first testimonies articulated by Fox and adopted by early Quakers was that of equality of men and women before God. The testimony was evident in their marriage ceremony where both parties recited identical vows, their encouragement of women as ministers of the gospel, and the setting up of separate women's meetings for business. The latter was resisted by many at first, but ultimately adopted because it was felt that women would not speak in a mixed meeting. Women, along with the men, suffered imprisonment in the early years for their adherence to the testimonies and sometimes for simply having meetings for worship. Although women Friends have been recognized ministers throughout the last 300 years, the testimony of equality of both sexes has been fragile. The separate women's meetings were rarely equal to the men's, and paralleled Quaker women's status in their homes. The actions of the women's business meetings were subject to final approval by the men while the men's business meetings controlled the money and property. Inspired by the original testimony, Quaker women in the nineteenth century rose to the forefront of the antislavery, women's suffrage, and temperance movements, often evoking the express disapproval of their meetings. In Lucretia Mott's words:
Let women then go on not asking as a favor, but claiming as right, the removal of all the hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being let her receive encouragement for the proper cultivation of all her powers, so that she may enter profitably into the active business of life. … Then, in the marriage union, the independence of the husband and wife will be equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.
(Lucretia Mott, 1849)1
In response to a plea that "the entire equality of women be recognized," the Hicksite branch of Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 1870 restructured its committees to allow fuller participation by women. In 1890 the Orthodox branch deemed separate women's meetings to be no longer needed, and by 1903 the Hicksite branch had also merged the separate meetings for business.
It was the practice in the 17th century for men to remove their hats in the presence of their social superiors and even of their peers, but not of their inferiors. Friends refused hat honor in the presence of anyone, a practice which caused them much trouble, especially when they went before the king with their petitions. The practice in meetings for worship was to sit with hats on, but to remove the hat while speaking or praying.
Another sign of inequality of the times was in the use of personal pronouns. The flattery of the plural forms you and your was regularly used in address to a single person of equal or higher rank, but to one of lower rank the terms thou, thee and thy were used. Friends used the singular, more familiar "plain speech" to all. This practice set them apart in succeeding centuries as the rest of the English-speaking world took the other course and came to use the plural forms indiscriminately.
The peace testimony was stated in 16602 in England when Friends declared they would not fight for any cause whatsoever. This testimony of non-participation in war in any form has been maintained by the Society of Friends ever since. In a world in which social, economic and political conditions often lead to conflict and war, the peace testimony remains central to the broad structure of social concern.
The testimony of plainness in speech and living was adopted from the beginning. Friends wore clothes that were merely modest and functional, avoiding ostentation and decoration. The same principle carried over to their homes, meetinghouses and furnishings. Art, music, drama, and dancing were considered vanities which took the minds of Friends away from the sober, godly life or were a reminder of the excesses of the established church. Since the period of Quietism, when plainness was a badge of a "peculiar people" and a hedge against an evil world, the emphasis has shifted to simplicity and informality.
A testimony against the taking of oaths came directly from the New Testament, Matthew 5:34-37 and James 5:12.
But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation. (James 5:12)
Speaking the truth on all occasions has been a cardinal Quaker principle, and Friends believe the practice of taking oaths implies that a person might be telling lies on other occasions. This testimony caused Friends much distress, for in the first half-century of Quakerism, a neighbor could accuse a Quaker of being disloyal to the crown and have the accused taken into court and asked to swear the oath of allegiance. Refusal to take the oath might be followed by forfeiture of property, half going to the informer. In spite of such consequences, the testimony against taking oaths was generally observed. Most jurisdictions today acknowledge anyone's right to affirm rather than swear.
Friends were always aware of the evils resulting from the consumption of alcohol. Drunkenness was considered to be a condition in which a person was not his or her true self. Friends became part of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century and maintained committees on temperance until recent times. Temperance meant abstinence, which was felt by many to be the only sure way to avoid addiction.
George Fox reminded Friends that the days of the week and the months of the year are named for pagan gods and ancient Roman emperors. As Christians they should not pay homage to these gods in the conduct of their everyday lives. Thence developed the custom of numbering the days of the week as First Day, Second Day, etc., and the months as First Month, Second Month, etc.
Holidays, Friends maintain, are no more holy than other days. Some, particularly Christmas and Easter, had retained many of the trappings of the pagan holidays which had occurred at nearly the same time of year as the Christian ones, so Fox admonished Quakers to conduct their business on the supposedly holy days as they ordinarily would, and some Friends schools continued to hold classes on Christmas into the twentieth century. Gradually, however, recognition of major Christian holidays has become accepted by most Friends.
Many other activities commonly engaged in by the rest of humanity have been considered to be contrary to the testimonies of Friends. One example is gambling and speculation, because the gains therefrom are not earned through one's own labor and can cause serious loss to others; another is membership in secret societies because they are not open in their activities, are exclusive, and may tend to encourage the formation of conspiracies or may reduce sympathy for some portion of society.
Another corollary of the fundamental Quaker belief that there is the seed of God in every person is the testimony against paid ministry. George Fox in his early searching found the established clergy to be both corrupt and incompetent in spiritual matters. The Society recognized from its early times that some members possessed gifts of ministry, but abhorred any monetary reward for the practice of ministry as a trade rather than a calling. Friends might be released to travel in the ministry by provision for expenses and support of their families, but any sort of salary for such service was unheard of until the late nineteenth century.
For further discussion of current Quaker testimonies, see below under The Life of the Spirit.
7. Enforcement of Testimonies
During the earliest period little need was felt for formal enforcement of the observance of the testimonies, although many controversies about them did arise among Quakers in the 17th century. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, conformity was enforced by threat of disownment, a measure often carried out. At the same time, rather than creedal statements to which members were required to assent, "Queries"a set of penetrating questions were used to remind Friends of the tenets of their faith. In the 20th century there has been considerable variation in the use of queries.
For further information about the history of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, see A History of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends, the tercentenary volume by Bliss Forbush. (Published by Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends, 17100 Quaker Lane, Sandy Spring, MD 20860, 1972, 155 pages.)