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Reflections  >  How the Quakers got their "members"


A short history of the concept of membership among Friends

by Marshall Massey


#1

Subject: A short history of the concept of membership among Friends - #1
Date:
Tue, 4 Mar 1997
From: MMASSEY@delphi.com (Marshall Massey)
Newsgroups: soc.religion.quaker


Friends --


Joe Hindorff asked, on February 16, what I meant about "meetings taking greater care in their membership process". I want to answer his question, and I promise that I will.

However, Chuck Fager has reminded us, on February 26, that we actually have a prior task: we first need to understand what Friends have meant by "membership" *historically*, and why. For only when we know what this word "membership" means in the context of our faith and practice as a whole, can we talk with any real understanding about what is needed in admitting people *to* membership.


Chuck writes of membership that
cf> Formal Membership was not a feature of the RSOF until
>> about 70 years after Fox began preaching. Furthermore,
>> it developed mainly as a means of settling disputes over
>> which meeting was responsible for whose widows and
>> orphans out of the local meeting welfare funds. (This
>> story is told in "Quaker Social History," by Arnold
>> Lloyd.) Resolving such jurisdictional disputes was an
>> unavoidable task, but it does not thereby define Quaker
>> authenticity.


Now, I admit that this is true as far as it goes, but it is very far from being the whole of the story. The development of the Quaker concept of membership passed through at least four distinct phases in those first seventy (or according to other authorities), eighty years; and we cannot possibly understand the purpose and good reasoning behind it unless we are willing to look at those separate stages separately.
The first stage belonged to the fluid years of the middle and late interregnum, roughly from 1647 through 1655. In that period, as Christopher Hill has written, the idea of membership was unthought of and in fact purely irrelevant to people's concerns, because the idea of distinct "sects" or "denominations" was likewise not yet thought of:


Men spoke of Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists and Quakers in the 1640s and 1650s; but there were no organized sects which accepted these names then. Some who were called "Presbyterians" went to churches which we should call "Independent"; some "Independents" were elders of the Presbyterian state church. ....We must never forget the fluidity of religious groupings before persecution forced organization upon what we may begin to call "sects" after 1660. In the forties and fifties you did not find buildings marked "Baptist chapel", "Congregational chapel" or "Quaker meeting-house" as you walked down the street: you found congregations of like-minded believers meeting where they could find room -- in pubs or in private houses. They would have regarded themselves as part of the church of Christ, and would have resisted any sectarian labelling. Their congregations included sermon-tasters, Seekers, attaching themselves to no fixed congregation.

-- Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (Penguin, 1993), pp. 35-36


Now, why was this so? One of the reasons was that the Friends of this time were living in a world where, for a full thousand years, there had only *been* one denomination -- the "Catholic" (literally meaning "all-inclusive") Church. Even after the separation of the Church of England, there was no thought of two denominations, Catholic and Anglican, co-existing side-by-side. The task, as people saw it, was simply to establish the *true* church, which every Christian would be a member of.

A further reason for this lack of clear distinctions between the sects was that the Quaker, Baptist, Independent, and other movements were still very young: they had not yet begun to think along clearly differing lines. As Geoffrey Hubbard observes,


...Quakerism was not ... offering anything completely original. The essential insight was not new, and while the combination of beliefs and practices was novel, the elements were all to be found in earlier groups, particularly in the Anabaptists, the Particular Baptists and the Familists, the sect founded by Henry Nicholas in 1530 in Holland whose writings were in Fox's library at his death.

    The concept of the inward light was expressed by Nicholas in terms acceptable to any Quaker, and the Familists were very Quaker in their use of silence in their meetings (they were not alone in this), in their rejection of war and oaths and their insistence on plain speech. The Particular Baptists opposed tithes and "Hireling preachers" and extended the functions of the laity to include women among their preachers; the Anabaptists rejected oaths and war; and even the Ranters, though they had a reputation for lack of balance leading to excess, contributed something of the doctrine of the free spirit, the indwelling God.

-- Hubbard, Quaker by Convincement (Quaker Home Service, 1974, 1985), pp. 22-23


A third and final reason why the sects were not sharply distinguished at this time, with separate memberships, was that it was a time of millennial belief. People had faith, or at least hope, that the darkness of the world would soon be overthrown, and the reign of the Saints begin. Possibly Christ would come again in all his glory, too. Why bother with membership rolls at such a juncture?

Still, as this first period progressed, people began discovering the differences that separated their views -- and reacting with flames, much like new participants in religious newsgroups and mailing lists on the Internet. Baptists and Independents attacked Levellers and Quakers; Quakers denounced Ranters as well as Baptists and Independents. Gradually, people came to think of themselves in terms of some particular sect that they felt a special kinship with.


(TO BE CONTINUED)


Marshall Massey

personal mail: <MMASSEY@delphi.com>
*earthwitness project*: <epc@earthwitness.org>
The Environmental Projects Center: <Enviro_Proj@compuserve.com>


A short history of the concept of membership among Friends

#2

by Marshall Massey

Subject: A short history of the concept of membership among Friends - #2
Date:
Tue, 4 Mar 1997
From: MMASSEY@delphi.com (Marshall Massey)
Newsgroups: soc.religion.quaker

(PART 2 OF ESSAY)


As far as I can tell, the second phase in Quaker thinking regarding membership began about 1656 -- the year of Nayler's fall in Bristol.

Worldly hostility toward the sects was now sharply on the rise, much of it centered on concerns about immorality. Quakers found that being identified with spiritual megalomania, or Ranterite craziness, now carried far too high a penalty in terms of relations with the world. In addition, most of them found that megalomania and craziness were *personally* off-putting. Having spent a decade in coming to understand what they, as a group, had in common that distinguished them from other sects, they began demanding of one another that they all hold to that common thread and live accordingly.

For all these reasons, *disownment* now came into its own as a means of increased self-definition.


Here is John Punshon describing this phase: The ... Friends were anxious to maintain the purity of their own standards against 'the World' and were vigilant lest any known Quaker depart from them. There are instances of Quaker drunkenness, lying, fornication, marriage to 'one of the World' or 'by the Priest' and sundry other malefactions. If the Friend repented, the procedure was for the offender to publish a paper in the community making it clear that the misdeeds were offensive to Friends' principles. This procedure was entirely similar to that of the other dissenting churches, who also faced these problems.

   This was done to 'clear Truth' not to humiliate the offender. It provided an opportunity for the Society to 'disown' disorderly conduct. ... We are dealing with the ordinary pressures of life, and about the way some Friends found it impossible to resist them without compromising their profession of Truth. They accepted admonition ... because they felt they belonged.

-- Punshon, Portrait in Grey (Quaker Home Service, 1984), pp. 133-34


I would call your attention to the relative gentleness of this sort of disownment. At least as Punshon describes it, it seems to have not been the harsh and unkind thing it would become in later centuries. Its central idea was not the casting out of sinners but the bringing into being of change and reform. It was a discipline Friends engaged in together, voluntarily, helping one another rise to a higher plane of being.

You may also have noted, in the quotation above, how Punshon says that other sects were experimenting with similar sorts of discipline at about this time. Other historians have remarked on this, too. Thus, for example, Christopher Hill tells us:


The Fenstanton Baptists distributed poor relief, and used it as an instrument of social control. A women who went to the parish church -- 'forced so to do for the maintenance of herself and children' -- got seven shillings to satisfy her necessities as soon as she had repented. As the world closed in on the sects, their organization tightened and was more and more used to impose social attitudes. In 1655 the church resolved that no 'member of the congregation whatsoevers shall travel from place to place without the advice and consent of the congregation to whom he belongeth', such consent to be in writing. No more freelance itinerant ministers, going where and with whom the spirit suggested!

-- Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1972, 1975), pp. 375-76


The Quakers, of course, adopted this same device and called it a "traveling minute". It was a corporate discipline, similar both in feeling and effect to disownment, by which the community could implicitly disavow those ministers who did not preach in an acceptable manner.

Christopher Hill seems to understand very clearly why such new measures of discipline -- including disownment -- had become such a necessary step; for  without internal purity,  he writes,  survival as a sect was impossible . (Op. cit., p. 378)

Without internal purity, the misbehaviors of people like Nayler would unleash a type of persecution that would be fully merited and hence not survivable. Without internal purity, the compromises of people like the Preston Patrick Friends would lead to a loss of backbone and an eventual dissolution of the movement back into the surrounding culture.

In sum, without internal purity, there could be no clear, holy witness to hold up to the world. So it is no coincidence that it was at this very time, 1656, when George Fox wrote to  Friends in the ministry  as follows:

...Be patterns, be examples in all your countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.


(TO BE CONTINUED)


Marshall Massey

personal mail: <MMASSEY@delphi.com>
*earthwitness project*: <epc@earthwitness.org>
The Environmental Projects Center: <Enviro_Proj@compuserve.com>


A short history of the concept of membership among Friends

#3

by Marshall Massey

Subject: A short history of the concept of membership among Friends - #3
Date:
Wed, 5 Mar 1997
From: MMASSEY@delphi.com (Marshall Massey)
Newsgroups: soc.religion.quaker

(PART 3 OF ESSAY)

In 1660 the third stage began. For that was the year that the English not only restored their monarchy, but also restored the old Church of England to power. And Parliament and the King also began enforcing the laws against the sectarians more harshly, as well as instituting new, even harsher laws -- the Quaker Act 1662, the Conventicle Act 1664, the Five Mile Act 1665, and the Second Conventicle Act 1670.

Independents and Baptists took to worshiping in secret, in order to evade the civil penalties, as the Catholics had been doing all along. This left the Friends (because they were committed to a single standard of truth) as the only dissenting sect still worshiping openly. Thus Friends had to bear, alone, the full brunt of this new persecution.

The statistics are eloquent. In 1658, the next-to-last year of the second phase, there were just 119 Quaker prisoners in all of England; in 1659, the very last year, only 140 prisoners. (Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England (Yale Univ., 1964), p. 225.) Then the new phase: 535 Friends, in the the city of York and the county of Yorkshire alone, imprisoned in just two months of 1660. (Ernest E. Taylor, The Valiant Sixty, 3rd edn. (York: Sessions Book Trust, 1947, 1988), p. 114) One hundred twenty Friends, from a single meeting in Gloucester, arrested on a single day in 1661. (Barbour, loc. cit.)

And that was only the beginning. H. Larry Ingle reports that after the Conventicle Act 1664,


Within a year five London meetings alone produced over 2,100 arrests of Quakers whose only crime was being at worship, although it was probable that some of these imprisonments included people incarcerated more than once.

-- Ingle, First Among Friends. George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism (Oxford Univ., 1994), p. 212


Hard figures for the Quaker movement as a whole are not available, but it has been estimated that fifteen thousand English Friends suffered government persecution in the 1660s and 1680s. (Joseph J. Green, Quaker genealogist, cited in Elbert Russell, The History of Quakerism (Friends United Press, 1979), p. 107.) And this at a time when *the entire English Quaker movement* numbered only forty or fifty thousand!

Suddenly the burden of supporting the families of the imprisoned rose to staggering proportions -- and all the worse because so many Friends, even outside of prison, were having their properties confiscated wholesale. For all that Friends might have wanted to help provide for every sort of sufferer, they felt they had to focus their very limited means on charity to their own. This attitude compelled the Quaker movement to work on defining its membership more clearly. (Punshon, op. cit., p. 133)

At first the work of clarifying who was a member was a purely local affair, each community defining its own. But after 1679, the Meeting for Sufferings in London had weekly supervision of a national stock of funds for the relief of Friends who were dispossessed or in prison. (Barbour, op. cit., p. 231) Thus, only thirty years after Quakerism was born -- which was much sooner than most modern Friends realize! -- the need to know *precisely* who was a Quaker, and who was not, was already of real concern at a national, policy-making level.

Meanwhile, other forces were also coming into play. Friends were winning their campaign for toleration, winning over their enemies by determined persistence in their faith, by their obvious high standard of morality, and by their growing gentleness toward the world around them. Simultaneously, King Charles II converted to Catholicism, and sought to win some tolerance for his own co-religionists.

In 1672, these matters had progressed to the point where the King was moved to extend an "indulgence" to dissenters, Friends included. But the condition the King set on this "indulgence", so it would not be abused, was that congregations had to register under a denominational name in order to qualify. (Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p. 36) This was a further spur to the Quaker movement to define its membership clearly, this time by deciding which whole congregations belonged and which did not.

Still another important element of this third period was the Wilkinson-Story and Keithian separations. These were instances in which whole congregations withdrew or were expelled from communion with the larger body of Friends. What was involved here was that different groups of Friends had arrived at different conclusions concerning what *range* of different kinds of people might be included within the total Quaker membership -- so that now the Wilkinson-Story group wanted to allow a *wider* range than the main body of Friends was willing to tolerate, including those who compromised with social evils -- and the Keithians wanted a *narrower* range, a range limited to the purest. I suspect this sort of shake-out might have been an almost inevitable part of working out a common understanding.

If the first phase (1647-55) was one in which Friends developed the *abstract idea* of what a Quaker was, and the second phase (1656-59) was one in which Friends began separating themselves from those who did not fit that idea, then this third phase (1660-1695) was the one in which Friends had to make up their minds as to who, among their diverse attenders, down to the most oddball and the most ordinary, really *did* fit that idea enough to deserve the name "Friend".

Together, these were the three preliminary steps that were absolutely necessary in order to make a *consistent* process of membership possible.


(TO BE CONTINUED)


Marshall Massey

personal mail: <MMASSEY@delphi.com>
*earthwitness project*: <epc@earthwitness.org>
The Environmental Projects Center: <Enviro_Proj@compuserve.com>


Note: For awhile, Marshall Massey wanted to finish the series of essays before we posted them to this site. They remain, "(TO BE CONTINUED)."