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Moderates in London Yearly Meeting, 1857–1873: Precursors of Quaker Liberals

  • Edwin B. Bronner (a1)


The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, which originated in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, has gone through many changes. After the exuberant, expansive early years, most Friends entered a period of quietism, in which they waited patiently for divine direction and largely withdrew from the society around them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of Friends on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the evangelical movement which had taken hold in both the Anglican church and the newer Methodist denomination. While some Quakers were caught up in such ultra-evangelical activities as revivals and the holiness movement, others turned away and accepted the new liberalism which appeared in Protestantism.



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1. See Wilson, Roger, “The Road to Manchester, 1895,” in Seeking the Light, ed. Frost, J. William and Moore, John M. (Wallingford, Pa., 1986), pp. 145162.

2. The three Friends were Francis Frith (1822–1898), William Pollard (1828–1893), and William Edward Turner (1836–1911).

3. William Edward Turner to Rufus M. Jones, 5 September 1901, Rufus M. Jones Collection, Haverford College Library, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

4. While various historians wrote about changes which began in London Yearly Meeting both before and after 1860, they tended to emphasize the new foreign mission program, the Adult School Movement, the Home Mission work, and the increased emphasis on the Bible, all to make Quakers more like other nonconformist denominations. Emmott, Elizabeth Braithwaite, The Story of Quakerism (London, 1908), pp. 212240;Jones, Rufus M., The Later Periods of Quakerism, vol. 2 (London, 1921), pp. 946962;Isichei, Elizabeth, Victorian Quakers (London, 1970), pp. 158165. Two recent authors, John Sykes and John Punshon, suggested that the changes were precursors of the reform at the end of the century, but neither one elaborated on the matter; Sykes, , The Quakers, A New Look at Their Place in Society (London, 1958), pp. 240, 241;Punshon, , Portrait in Grey: A Short History of Quakers (London, 1984), p. 191.

5. Isichei, , Victorian Quakers, pp. 158165.

6. The full title was Extracts from the Minutes and Epistles of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, held in London, from its First Institution to the Present Time, Relating to Christian Doctrine, Practice, and Discipline (London, 1861). It was usually called the Book of Discipline.

7. In the United States the evangelical wing of American Quakerism was often called “Gurneyite”, and Braithwaite was a leading supporter of American evangelicals, especially when some British Friends began to question what were regarded as excesses by the revivalist group; see Hamm, Thomas D., The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800–1907 (Bloomington, 1988), passim.

8. Bronner, Edwin B., “The Other Branch”: London Yearly Meeting and the Hicksites, 1827–1912 (London, 1975), p. 15;Isichei, , Victorian Quakers, p. 161.

9. As early as 1851 Bright wrote in his journal, “Dissatisfied as usual at the determination of the leading Friends to resist any changes or any fair consideration of the ‘State of Society.’” Two years later he spoke Out against the “minor testimonies and peculiarities, feeling that they materially retarded the spread of our great principles”; Mills, J. Travis, John Bright and the Quakers, vol. 2 (London, 1935), pp. 7, 8.

10. The Friend 16 (1858): 80. It also contained an editorial about the contest on pages 70 to 71. The editor of The British Friend reprinted the notice but rejected the idea that the Society was in decline and needed to be reformed (16 [1858]: 96–98). (All references to The Friend refer to the one printed in London, not the older journal with the same name published in Philadelphia.)

11. Jones, , Later Periods, pp. 945950. Much of the first half of Isichei's Victorian Quakers deals with the condition of the Society before the mid-1850s.

12. Punshon, , Portrait in Grey, p. 191. Since The British Friend opposed all changes, one questions this suggestion. Punshon also mentioned the founding of the Friends' Quarterly Examiner in 1859 as an influence; however, it did not appear until 1867.

13. Isichei, , Victorian Quakers, p. 158.

14. Bronner, , Other Branch, pp. 17, 18. A schism took place in Philadelphia in 1827 between the so-called “Orthodox” Friends and those called “Hicksites”, named for a Long Island farmer and minister, Elias Hicks (1748–1830). The Hicksites challenged the authority of the Orthodox, and they in turn were denounced for doctrinal unsoundness. This schism, which spread to much of American Quakerism, lasted well into the twentieth century.

15. London Yearly Meeting, 1857; The British Friend 15 (1857): 147156;The Friend 15 (1857): 99105;Proceedings (1858), pp. 14, 15. British Friends gathered in London for a week in May of each year to conduct the business of the organization, hence the name “yearly meeting.” The Extracts or Proceedings contained a record of the sessions, reports of committees, and various other information. The Meeting for Sufferings was an executive committee which met regularly between the annual sessions to conduct the business of the yearly meeting. Originally, the Meeting for Sufferings gathered to plan ways to assist those Friends suffering persecution; see Doncaster, L. Hugh, Quaker Organization and Business Meetings (London, 1958), p. 19.

16. The British Friend 16 (1858): 146159;The Friend 16 (1858): 97101;Proceedings (1858), London Yearly Meeting, pp. 1118. Instead of requiring members to subscribe to a prescribed list of regulations, Friends devised the system of writing questions or “Queries” for members and local worshipping groups to consider and answer. Thus there were Queries about marriage practices and about the peculiar dress of Quakers and forms of speech; see Doncaster, Quaker Organization, pp. 25, 34, 48.

17. The British Friend 16 (1858): 126128, 167, 168;The Friend 16 (1858): 106.

18. The British Friend 16 (1858):319, 320;The Friend 16 (1858): 215, 222, 223. Some of these men had opposed changes earlier but came around during the conference. Joseph Rowntree (1836–1925), Yearly Meeting notes, 1857, 1858, Ms. S, 127, 128, Friends House Library, London.

19. Additional supporters were Henry Ashworth (1794–1880), Thomas Clark (1793–1864), John Fowler (1792–1861), Dr. Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866), and William Thistlethewaite. The British Friend 17 (1859): 144156;The Friend 17 (1859): 99105;Proceedings (1859), pp. 1620. John Stephenson Rowntree kept a journal during the 1859 yearly meeting; Ms. S, 368, Friends House Library.

20. An editorial in The British Friend said Peculium was so short of the mark that it deserved no prize (18 [1860]: 19–21).

21. Fothergill, Samuel, Essay on the Society of Friends (London, 1859). Apparently, he was not related to eighteenth-century Quaker Fothergills.

22. (Gloucester, n.d.), p. 113. The other essay was by an unnamed author, The Principles of Ancient Quakerism Considered (London, [1859]).

23. (Philadelphia and London, 1860) He had already published his biographies of William Penn and George Fox. His essay was published anonymously.

24. The British Friend 18 (1860): 37;The Friend 17 (1859): 211, 226, 227.

25. “Nehushtan” means worthless fragments, shattered pieces of brass.

26. (London, n.d.).

27. (London, 1860). The British Friend 18 (1860): 178;The Friend 18 (1860): 97, 98.

28. Doncaster, Phebe, John Stephenson Rowntree: His Life and Work (London, 1908), p. 10.

29. Ibid., pp. 11, 12; Jones, , Later Periods, pp. 947950;Isichei, , Victorian Quakers, p. 69. Like others, she points out that Rowntree changed his mind about birthright membership later in his life.

30. Doncaster, , Rowntree, pp. 1215;The Friend 18 (1860): 13.The British Friend published numerous attacks on the book all through 1860 beginning with the review (18 [1860]: 34–37).

31. “Advices,” like the Queries, were designed to make Friends review their actions in response to advice contained in that section of the Discipline. See Doncaster, , Quaker Organization, pp. 34, 48;The British Friend 18 (1860): 134149;The Friend 18 (1860): 105109;Proceedings (1860), pp. 1134. Among the persons who supported these changes were Thomas Binns (1798–1872), Rickman Godlee (1804–1871), John T. Grace (1827–1891), and Benjamin Seebohm (1798–1871).

32. The Friend 18 (1860): 132133;The British Friend 18 (1860): 113, 140142, 147, 154.

33. The British Friend 19 (1861): 129142;The Friend, n.s., 1 (1861): 137147;Proceedings (1861), pp. 830. In a Friends meeting for business a person called the Clerk or Presiding Clerk conducts the business session and actually writes the Minutes, which record decisions made; see Doncaster, , Quaker Organization, p. 69.

34. First-Day Schools in Britain were primarily adult education sessions for working class persons, with Bible study added to more secular lessons.

35. The British Friend 20 (1862): 135144;The Friend, n.s., 2 (1862): 127137;Proceedings (1862), pp. 919; J. S. Rowntree, journal at 1862 yearly meeting, Ms. S, 369, Friends House Library.

36. While working on this paper I began to suspect there were also some women who fall into this group, but time and space do not permit exploration of the subject. Women such as Caroline Fox (1819–1871), Matilda Sturge (1829–1903), Jane Budge (1833–1907), and Helen Priestman Bright Clark (1840–1927) should be studied.

37. Frith, Francis, “‘Evangelicalism’ from the Stand-point of the Society of Friends,” (London, 1877).

38. Several of the younger men wrote about the need to maintain the balance. Backhouse, James Jr (18251890), “Revelation and Inspiration,” The Friend, n.s. 7 (1867): 116, 117;Hodgkin, Thomas, Thoughts on the Inspiration of the Scriptures (London, 1865);Rowntree, Joseph, On the Necessity for Simplicity and Breadth in the Interpretation of Scripture (London, 1875); and Thorp, Fielden, “Considerations on the Genuineness, Authenticity, and Divine Authority of Holy Scriptures,” Friends' Quarterly Examiner 2 (1868): 71104.

39. Strachey, Barbara, Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Family (London, 1980), pp. 31, 3849.

40. These men repeatedly opposed all changes. Eventually, some of the ultraconservatives broke away under the leadership of John Grant Sargent in 1863 and founded the Fritchley Friends Meeting; see Lowndes, Walter, The Quakers of Fritchley, 1863–1980 (Fritchley, 1980).

41. Edward T. Bennett (1831–1908) was disowned by Dorking, Horsham, and Guildford Monthly Meeting for espousing unsound doctrines. He appealed the decision to London Yearly Meeting, which held a day's discussion of the matter and upheld the decision. He was the last person to be disowned for unsound doctrines. Francis Frith was on the committee appointed so investigate his belief. Williams, Beryl, “Francis Frith (1822–1898),” Friends Quarterly 23 (1984): 364370. Charles Thompson (1819–1903) supported David Duncan in the Manchester Controversy but did not resign from Friends.

42. John Henry Douglas (1832–1919), who preached in England in 1866 and 1867, later became a leading revival preacher and ultra-evangelical. Sarah Smiley (1830–1917) came from Baltimore Yearly Meeting in 1869 to hold general meetings. She was baptized shortly after she returned to America and left Friends. Dougan Clark (1828–1896) went to England in 1877, where he aroused a good deal of opposition by his preaching and teaching. He claimed one could partake of the sacraments and remain a good Quaker.

43. In his new book, The Transformation of American Quakerism, Thomas D. Hamm has described what he calls “The Renewal Movement, 1850–1870” in America. There are similarities between the moderates and the men and women in the American Renewal Movement, but there are also a number of differences (pp. 36–73).

44. Most of the biographical information is from the “Dictionary of Quaker Biography” in typescript, found in the Friends House Library in London and the Quaker Collection, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

45. Memorials of Samuel Bowly (Gloucester, 1884), p. 36.Tyrell, Alex, Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain (London, 1987), p. 233.

46. Westlake, William C. in the Friends' Quarterly Examiner 3 (1869): 560.

47. Manchester Friend 2 (1873): 20. William Bennett was the father of both Alfred W. and Edward T. Bennett.

48. Proceedings (1875), p. xiii.

49. Bryant, G. E. and Baker, G. P., eds., A Quaker Journal … William Lucas, vol. 2 (London, 1934), pp. 497, 498.

50. Friends' Quarterly Examiner 1 (1867): 6.

51. Friends' Quarterly, 15 (1967): 397, in “A Backward Glance over a Hundred Years.”

52. lsichei, , Victonan Quakers, PP. 6164;Scott, Richenda, “Authority or Experience,” The Journal of the Friends Historical Society 49 (1960): 7681.

53. The British Friend 27 (1869): 135, 136.

54. The Friend, n.s., 10 (1870): 132, 133;MrsMinutes, , London Yearly Meeting, vol. 28, 05. 23, 1870, 243, Friends House Library. Two other moderates served on the Epistle Committee: Samuel Fox and William S. Lean, both “active” moderates.

55. After David Duncan died in August 1871 a separate group was formed by Friends who resigned from the main body. It lasted until 1874, and later the members joined the Unitarian Church; see Isichei, , Victorian Quakers, pp. 6264.

56. The Friend, n.s., 13 (1873): 289320;The British Friend 31 (1873): 279303;Friends' Quarterly Examiner 8 (1874): 1324, 302313.

57. The Friend, n.s., 14 (1874): 135.

58. The Friend, n.s., 13 (1873): 203.

59. Ibid., pp. 226–228, 253, 254.

60. Ibid., p. 320.

61. Creighton, Louise, Thomas Hodgkin: Life and Letters (London, 1917), p. 71.


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