Quakers today number some three hundred and thirty-eight thousand (2002 figures) in over sixty countries. They differ in language, culture, and national allegiance, and in the emphases that they place on different aspects of Quakerism. At times it must present a very confusing picture. For example, in the USA in the state of Ohio alone, there are churches or meetings (congregations) from seven separate yearly meetings1,* which represent four branches. Present-day Quakers range from groups emphasizing belief in scriptural inerrancy and the divinity of Christ to those with mystical and/or liberal tendencies, which emphasize the doctrine of the universal Light and the basic harmony of all deep religious experience. How has such diversity arisen? What follows is but a brief outline of a complex story.
There were good reasons for the creation of separate yearly meetings as Friends spread to the English colonies in the seventeenth century, and eight yearly meetings had been established in North America by 1821, largely for geographical reasons. However, towards the end of the 1820s, separations within existing yearly meetings began to develop.
Friends were not impervious to the new ideas and schools of thought which abounded in the late eighteenth century, and individuals viewed what they saw as traditional Quakerism through the varying lenses of the Enlightenment, emerging liberalism and evangelical renewal. The "great separation" of 1827-28 began in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Approximately two-thirds of members ranged themselves in the group that came to be called "Hicksite," and emphasized the role of the Inward Light in guiding individual faith and conscience, while the remaining third, eventually known as "Orthodox," espoused a more Protestant emphasis on Biblical authority and the atonement. Similar schisms rapidly followed in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere.
Both sides experienced further schisms. The main body of Orthodox Friends followed the lead of English Friend Joseph John Gurney into increasingly evangelical beliefs; over time, many meetings adopted forms of worship very close to those of traditional Protestant churches. Orthodox Friends who resisted what they saw as the Gurneyite threat to traditional Quakerism either withdrew or were expelled to form "Wilburite," "Conservative," or "Primitive" groups2 (before the Civil War In the United States) or independent "Beanite" yearly meetings (after 1865 in the western US). Those Hicksites who found the discipline of the yearly meetings too narrow for their call to social reform founded "Congregational" or "Progressive" groups.
The early twentieth century saw the most recent round of schisms as those who had been most deeply influenced by the Holiness revival and the Fundamentalist movement split from Gurneyite yearly meetings to form the "Evangelical" branch of American Quakerism.
Just as the latter schisms were taking place, other Friends were seeking reconciliation and reunification. The process took half a century, but New England Friends led the way by reuniting in 1945, and efforts in other yearly meetings reached fruition in 1955 with the reunification of three more: Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia.. The twentieth century also saw the emergence of three broad confederations of yearly meetings--now known as Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, and Evangelical Friends Church International--roughly corresponding to Gurneyite, Hicksite, and Evangelical patterns. Reunification has meant that many yearly meetings belong to more than one such confederation, while others remain independent. The majority of yearly meetings are affiliated with Friends World Committee for Consultation, formed to provide a vehicle for all to seek the common thread in the varieties of Quakerism worldwide.
Perhaps an inevitable result of the separations among North American Friends has been the emergence of similar divisions in yearly meetings around the world. Many of these meetings have arisen from missionary work of the various wings of Quakerism, particularly those rooted in the Gurneyite and Evangelical heritages.
Today, the world "profile" of Quakers is multifaceted--and continues to change. Our variety has many dimensions: religious faith, form of worship, community life, and concern for the traditional Quaker social testimonies (ways of expressing our beliefs in action). Those who attempt to divide Friends into categories of " liberal" versus "conservative" or "programmed" versus "unprogrammed" often find themselves surprised by the reality masked by any overly simplistic approach.
Friends World Committee3 is the networking body for Friends of all branches worldwide.
*Written 1991 by Val Ferguson, General Secretary, Friends World Committee for Consultation. Revised 1997 by FWCC and Mary Ellen Chijioke, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College; more revisions by FWCC with the Quaker Information Center in 2005, adaptation in 2006 by QIC for this website.
For further reading, see Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, The Quakers (Richmond, Indiana, USA: Friends United Press, 1994). The Faith and Practice/Book of Discipline of each yearly meeting often includes a look at these historical developments among Friends.
1. A yearly meeting is a number of individual congregations who have grouped together for either geographic or theological reasons. As the name implies, all members (or representatives) of the local congregations meet once yearly to worship and transact business together, with other representative gatherings meeting in between to work on ongoing concerns.
2. See A Short History of Conservative Friends from the webpage of North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
3. The first goal of the Friends World Committee for Consultation is to promote loving understanding of diversities among Friends while we discover together, with God's help, our common spiritual ground. No small task! It has been pursued through publications, visitation, and conferences and gatherings large and small--often involving representation from Quaker groups not affiliated to FWCC. Intimate "mission and service" gatherings have brought greater global and theological understandings; five World Conferences have not only enabled Friends to engage in dialogue and to worship with one another but have also brought sharpness of focus and expression to worldwide Quaker witness.
The second goal of FWCC is to encourage full expression of our Quaker witness in the world. Thus, for example, FWCC acts as Friends' official voice at the UN, where it gives international expression to concerns for peace, disarmament, abolition of torture, women's rights, racial equality, and the right sharing of the world's resources.