Quakers Acting Badly: Bans, Brawls & Bungled Burials
Is the Truth of Friends Stranger (& Uglier) Than Fiction?
Some who read the last post here, about a potential “housecleaning” visit to a local Friends meeting by a Yearly Meeting-appointed doctrinal “Auditing Committee,” might have found it far-fetched.
And indeed it was fiction, though based on an actual proposal for a purge of North Carolina YM-FUM.
But far-fetched? The idea of a top-down inquisition which required members to “sign-on-the-dotted-(Creedal)-line? Or worse?
Nope. Not far-fetched at all.
Here we’ll take a quick tour of just a few actual events. And let’s begin with the very true story of Joel & Hannah Bean, prominent 19th century Friends.
The Beans were Easterners, quite Orthodox, who went west. In time they became Clerks of Iowa Yearly Meeting in the 1870s — he of the Men’s YM and she of the Women’s.
But when the YM got “revived” in 1877 by some very assertive evangelists, their supporters dumped the Beans for clerks of their own, along with anybody else who was not ready to join in the whole revival package.
But the Beans didn’t join the split. They disliked schisms. Instead, they moved from Iowa to San Jose, California, where they started another meeting and hoped for peace and quiet. Their new group was still under the long-distance umbrella of the now-revived Iowa YM.
But putting some space between them didn’t give the Beans any relief. The new leaders in Iowa pursued them, as they did all other ministers, and insisted they answer and sign a document that was a declaration of loyalty to the new leaders’ holiness doctrines.
The Beans were staunch Christians; but their traditional-oriented answers didn’t satisfy the revival leaders. The pair were removed from the roll of recorded ministers, and soon dropped from membership.
The Beans, though, were well-traveled, and had many F/friends across the U.S., and in England. Several hundred Quakers from these two countries signed a published letter of protest, which, of course, impressed the Iowa leaders not a whit.
That wasn’t the end for the Beans, though. The Iowans ordered their meeting laid down. But the Beans owned the meetinghouse in San Jose, and decided to keep it going. And soon enough, Joel’s original Meeting in New Hampshire claimed him and Hannah as members and ministers, making them “legitimate” again, if at an even greater distance.
Inadvertently their San Jose Meeting became a pioneering prototype of the independent kind of Quakerism, which in another generation began to proliferate up and down the Pacific coast and eastward across the country.
And by the time of their deaths the Beans had became the unintentional godparents of a whole new branch of American Friends, three unprogrammed yearly meetings whose membership ranges from California to the Rockies, and its influence continent-wide.
Thus the Beans’ story has a pretty happy ending.
Some of the others, not so much. Consider the Hicksite-Orthodox split in Ohio Yearly Meeting, in September of 1828, a year after the separation began in Philadelphia.
Many Quaker historians pass by this event, because it ended in nothing less than a full-fledged riot which they are embarrassed to recount: Quakers fighting other Quakers, especially for possession of the Clerk’s table (which was smashed to pieces) at the big meeting house in the ironically named village of Mt. Pleasant.
Large groups of each party stormed the building, claiming to be the rightful occupants. Windows were broken, some Friends were either pushed or fell out of them, and in the ensuing chaos the elders of one party had several elders of the other party arrested by the sheriff for causing a riot in a religious meeting.
(Evidently the authorities didn’t know whether to lock up these fighting Friends or laugh at them: when one batch came to trial and was convicted of “rioting” nearly a year later, they were sentenced to spend thirty minutes in jail and pay fines of six and one-quarter cents.)
But the split was serious enough. And it wasn’t the last in Ohio.
In the same meetinghouse in 1854, there was another split. No Hicksites this time: just two varieties of Orthodox: the “Gurneyites” (ancestors of the evangelical branch) versus the Wilburites (now called “Conservative” Friends) hardcore traditionalists who rejected the revivalists and their new ideas.
The 1854 split itself was peaceful enough. But there was a sticking point afterward: The Orthodox YM had started a school there in Mt. Pleasant in 1837; which group was going to get it?
Wilburites had occupied it when the split came. But then fourteen years later, in 1868, the Gurneyites went to court, claiming they were the “real” and “legal” Quaker body in Ohio, and they should have the school.
The case dragged on for years, while the Wilburites kept teaching their very plain-dressed pupils.
But in the summer of 1874, the Ohio Supreme Court voted 3-2 for the Gurneyites, and the Wilburites had to vacate it. (How much did this supreme court case cost the two YMs in legal fees? There are no numbers, but it had to be a bundle.)
The victorious Gurneyites proceeded to spend $5000 (a lot of money in those days) to update and modernize the school building.
But in January 1875, with the renovations almost completed, the school building mysteriously caught fire one cold night and burned to the ground.
One historian says of this that “Many Gurneyite Friends were sure they knew how the fire had started, but the sober Wilburites were horrified at such a suggestion. Our sources give us no clear answer on that.” (1)
Indeed. In any event, the Gurneyites abandoned the school project. Wilburites, though, built a new one about twenty-five miles away in Barnesville. It’s there today as the Olney Friends School, claiming a history that goes back to the original pre-separation school in Mt. Pleasant.
There were plenty of other lawsuits in connection with the Hicksite-Orthodox division, especially around Philadelphia, where meetinghouses and land were repositories of social history and family wealth. We won’t dwell on these, though they were long and often quite bitter, and must have cost a fortune in fees. (But then, some of the richest Americans in those days were Philadelphia Friends.)
More striking is the record of mass disownments, mainly conducted by Orthodox elders, going from house to house in Quaker neighborhoods, and walking into meetings to pronounce anathemas on hundreds of “Hicksites” at a time, unless they returned to the “true fold” at once. The main historian of these events does not shrink from calling it “a systematic purge.” (2)
Some of the most bizarre incidents, though, were matters of life and death. A large Quaker burial ground in Philadelphia fell under Orthodox control; but many families from both groups had relatives buried there.
When a young girl from a Hicksite family, Ann Shotwell, died a few months after the split, her relatives refused to apply to the Orthodox for a permit to bury her there. Yet the cemetery was surrounded by a wall, with a single gate, that was locked.
A Hicksite elder used an axe to open the lock, and had Shotwell’s grave dug. Not long thereafter another Hicksite burial party broke a new lock off the gate to get in and bury their departed Friend.
Fed up with their exclusion, a group of three Hicksites and two burly laborers showed up one day not long afterward, on the other side of the cemetery. They proceeded to batter a hole in the wall, to install a “Hicksite” gate.
The enraged Orthodox called City Hall, and the mayor personally issued arrest warrants for the five as trespassers, for forcible entry and rioting.
The five sat in jail for several days, refusing to post bail and insisting they were martyrs for religious freedom.
A sympathetic judge threw out the charges. But the Orthodox tore down the new Hicksite gate and closed up the hole in the cemetery wall. (3)
Nor are protracted lawsuits only a relic of the 1800s. New York Yearly Meeting was hit with a big one in the 1990s, growing out of a tug of war over money and property.
The prize was the property and funds belonging to Friends World College, an experimental school started in 1965 under the sponsorship of the yearly meeting. The school, which was devoted to “study travel,” sent its students trekking around the world to learn how to become “agents of constructive social change.”
It was a classic 1960s experiment, and like many such, soon fell on hard times. By the early 1990s it was near collapse and in debt. A plan was finally hatched to merge it into a nearby university.
But a group of the school’s original backers denounced the plan as a giveaway of property and funds worth several millions, and sued to stop the Yearly Meeting from going through with the deal.
The case, like so many, dragged on for years. The New York Times took note of it in a 1996 article. One of the lawyers involved described the case thus: “‘It’s being very bitterly fought and it’s continuing. It’s difficult, because I don’t believe anyone on either side is acting any way but on principle. For that reason it’s difficult to compromise.’’”
Ultimately, the college property transfer went through. But when tallying the impact, the Yearly Meeting Trustees reported that they had spent $63,000 on legal expenses. (More than $100,000 in 2015 dollars.)
I have avoided pointing fingers in these sketches, leaving the rights and wrongs to others, and to history.
But do any of these incidents suggest anything about the risks being run in North Carolina YM in its current travail?
I don’t know the future and won’t make predictions. But it is not hard to see that the combustible materials for litigation are close at hand: several million dollars in endowments funds; a sizable camp property, some who insist the differences are insuperable and intolerable.
On the other hand, monthly meetings here own their own properties, including cemeteries. So maybe the Friendly Carolina dead can at least rest in peace.
Given the Quaker record, that’s something.
1. William Taber, Be Gentle, Be Plain, p. 39.
2. H. Larry Ingle, Quakers In Conflict, p. 220.
3. Ingle, Ibid., 219-220.