The nineteenth century witnessed significant changes within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakerism had arisen amid the tumult and experimentation of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. One of many radical religious groups of that era, Friends had proclaimed God’s availability to each individual through the Inward Christ or the Inner Light, rendering creeds, outward sacraments, and clerical hierarchy unnecessary. Quakers worshiped by gathering in silence until the spirit inspired someone to speak. To the scandal of many in that day, women as well as men felt led to preach in Quaker worship. Early Quaker spirituality embraced both the inward and the outward life: inner purification led to a powerful sense of union with God and with one another, and the victory of good over evil in the soul energized Friends to seek to transform human society. Quaker social ethics emphasized equality, simplicity, integrity, and peace. When decades of persecution persuaded Friends that the rest of the world was not going to join their program, they withdrew into a quieter, settled life of spiritual discipline, tending toward separation from the larger society. William Penn’s Holy Experiment in colonial Pennsylvania, however, kept alive the Quaker ideal of a humane political and social order until Friends withdrew from the legislature in the 1750s, when the English crown insisted on a militia. The American Revolution, during which Friends as pacifists maintained neutrality and suffered for it from both sides, pushed Quakers even further into a sectarian existence.


By 1820 new winds were blowing. Westward migration to Ohio and Indiana produced new social settings and structures, and the “hedge” that had separated “God’s peculiar people” from “the world’s people” was successively lowered. Some Quakers began to find common ground with other religious groups on matters of philanthropy or social reform, such as abolition. The evangelical movement was at the forefront of many progressive social issues at that time, and evangelical theology began to influence some Quaker thought. The attraction to the evangelical movement was also a conscious move away from Quaker traditions of the eighteenth century. Quaker thought in that era is often described as “quietist.” The turning inward of Quakers as a group paralleled an inward turning of each individual. Quietist thought built on the earlier Quaker understanding of the Inner Light and held that the only trustworthy religious experience was an inward, direct dependence upon God for guidance. Quietism was suspicious of all human initiative. Elias Hicks (1748–1830) can represent the quietist position for the nineteenth century, though he himself did not use this term. In his understanding, in order to allow the Inward Christ to work in the soul, the self must abstain from all willing and acting. The animated devotion of evangelicals looked to him like emotional self-indulgence. The appropriate goal of the religious life was instead to lose the self in union with God, to experience annihilation, to become nothing. Evangelicals would find his description of God too impersonal, but to Hicks this did not matter because the aim was selflessness, a state in which there was practically speaking no self left that could be in relationship with a personal God. His views may remind others of the exalted but austere ideals of medieval mystics such as Meister Eckehart or Sufi mystics such as Ibn al-’Arabi. Hicks was a radical on the issue of slavery. When others suggested that slaves should be purchased from their keepers in order to be set free, he replied that slave owners had no right to additional payment. Not only should they be denied such funds, but they should also be required to set their slaves free and then compensate them for previous services rendered. Hicks promoted a boycott of slave-produced goods. Yet his radical ethic was also separatist: he did not believe that Quakers should cooperate with other antislavery activists. Such social promiscuity could endanger the purity of God’s peculiar people. Some antislavery speakers, for example, were professional clergy, so to work with them could be seen as tacit approval of clergy. Hicks was reluctant to compromise on any issue. Other Friends found the quietist impulse in Quakerism too confining. The sectarian strain prevented collaboration with other sincere Christians on the pressing social issues of the day. Quietism was inadequate to the needs of the times. Additionally, the lofty severity of quietist inwardness felt like a denial of human emotion as a divinely given gift. Evangelical piety focused on love, centered in the love of God. The divinity of Jesus demonstrated God’s love, and the humanity of Jesus affirmed the human qualities of the individual believer. To evangelicals, the suffering of Christ awakened in the faithful a sympathy that extended to others who are suffering. This sympathy motivated evangelicals to participate in efforts to relieve human suffering, such as the antislavery movement or prison reform. Among North American Friends, quietists and evangelicals vied for political power within Quakerism, resulting in a schism in 1827–1828, first in Philadelphia and then spreading throughout North American Quakerism. The evangelicals called themselves Orthodox Friends. Their counterparts were the Hicksites, who came to include both quietists and liberals. Liberals valued reason over emotion and questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The progressive mood of the era fostered a desire for freedom from what liberals perceived as narrow dogma. Some quietists, fearing the heresy that they found inherent in liberalism, chose the Orthodox camp over the Hicksite. By mid-century this resulted in further division among the Orthodox, resulting in three major factions: the evangelical Gurneyite Friends who took their name from Joseph John Gurney (1788–1847); the quietist Wilburites whose name derived from John Wilbur (1774–1856); and the increasingly liberal Hicksites named after Elias Hicks. Later, the evangelical revivals of the late 1860s and beyond brought changes to the evangelical Quaker worship, which came to resemble mainstream Protestant worship with hymns, a planned sermon, and a paid pastor. But before those innovations, the divisions among Quakers must have seemed insignificant or imperceptible to the wider world. While it is true that other Protestant denominations in the United States were likewise dividing along the same lines regarding the evangelical movement, both Quaker parties continued to hold on to common Quaker traditions that were not matters of doctrine. Both parties continued the same pattern of worship in silence. Both groups allowed women to preach. Both sides followed the same pattern of plain dress. Both continued opposition to slavery and war.