Where did Progressive Friends come from? How did they get started?
To get at these questions, we have to start by taking down a myth: the myth of the peaceable Quaker liberals of the nineteenth century. They were the ones called Hicksites, who got that name when most American Quaker groups tore themselves into two competing, mutually hostile streams.
The split with their rivals, called Orthodox, was a big traumatic deal: families as well as meetings divided; there were even some actual brawls–pretty shocking stuff by Quaker standards, which may be why most Quaker historians tut-tut and shrink from recounting the blow-by-blow. Then there were lawsuits about property that dragged on for years, and bitterness that lingered for decades.
Which is to say, there’s plenty that’s melodramatic and lurid in that saga– but we’re not going to go over the gory details here. (Read Larry Ingle’s fine book, “Quakers In Conflict” for that.) The split needs to be mentioned in passing, though, because once the dust settled, the conventional accounts of the aftermath tend to focus on the continuing difficulties among the Orthodox– more doctrinal disputes and schisms–while the Hicksites, treated by most historians as incipient mushy liberals, were said to be moving steadily toward letting their members follow their own lights, and thus didn’t sink into new group squabbles.
Howard Brinton, in his Friends for 300 (now 350)Years, undoubtedly the most widely-read one-volume Quaker history of the past few generations, put it most baldly:
“Since the Hicksite, or liberal Friends, had assumed a position which allowed for a wide variety of theological opinion, no further separations occurred among them. They reduced the authority of elders and overseers so they did not continue to lay the same emphasis as did the Orthodox on time-honored Quaker traditions.” (P.232)
Would that it were true!
But Brinton was wrong. Dead wrong.
The Hicksite honeymoon, if there was one, didn’t last very long. By the mid-1830s, less than ten years after their emergence, the Hicksite Quakers faced growing internal discord. A “wide variety of theological opinion” was developing, but it was quite controversial and often subject to sanction, including disownment. And the authority of elders and overseers, not to forget ministers, was dominant, and not reduced until after much turmoil and schism.
Those are just the facts, for which ample evidence is in my book “Angels of Progress.” And by the early 1840s, these tensions were tearing the Hicksite communities apart.
The Hicksite tensions had both external and internal sources, of which we can only sketch a few here. Externally, the relatively young United States was, already by the 1830s, deep into the conflict over slavery that would ultimately confound all compromise, defeat the best statesmen, lurch from one crisis to another, and finally fall into the abyss of civil war.
Before it did, however, American society would also face a surge of reform efforts taking on many issues besides slavery– women’s rights, drunkenness, war, prisons, and more, each of which produced powerful and contentious activist organizations. Then from another direction came a panoply of challenges to the reigning religious establishments and their dogmas: clergy and scholars who questioned received notions about the Bible; thinkers who undermined venerable theologies; and scientists, above all Darwin, who began subverting the central conceptions of what it meant to be human.
In addition, there was the unsettling impact of the growth of American democracy itself: voting rights, for instance, expanded steadily into the 1830s–still limited to white males, but steadily broadening participation even so. In New York state, for example, the abolition of property tests for most elections tripled the size of the electorate in one stroke. (In Philadelphia, however, heavily Quaker wealthy elites resisted the expansion of voting at every step, to maintain their power.) Plus public schools were beginning to appear, literacy was increasing, and there was plenty to read, including iconoclastic free-thinkers like Thomas Paine.
All these stresses were present and spreading in the insular Hicksite world. By the early 1830s, a small but vocal and growing band of renegades were visibly drawn to one, or more often, many of these suspect issues and causes. We’ll meet some of them next time.