Thoughts on division

Quakers are always going on about our interest in peacemaking, and our practice of making decisions on the basis of unity. The truth is, we have a long and unhappy history of division, and maybe we’d be better off if we acknowledged it.

Here in our area, Indiana Yearly Meeting was formed in 1821. For generations, Indiana was the largest yearly meeting in the world. The yearly meeting had scarcely started when the great Hicksite/Orthodox separation tore American Quakers apart in 1828. It left a legacy of suspicion, bitterness and mutual intolerance which we’re still dealing with today.

A series of healthier separations took place in the 1800’s, as Indiana Yearly Meeting “set off” a number of new groups as Quakers grew and expanded. Western Yearly Meeting (1858), Iowa Yearly Meeting (1863), Kansas Yearly Meeting (1872) and Wilmington Yearly Meeting (1891) are all “daughters” of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Less  happy separations happened in the mid-1800’s, as “conservative” Friends resisted the more evangelical theology of a new generation of ministers. Conservative Friends remain as a group of small but spiritually lively yearly meetings in Iowa, Ohio and North Carolina.

While most Orthodox Quakers in the Midwest joined in the trend toward programmed worship and pastoral leadership in the late 1800’s, there were battles over just how far towards the evangelical right Friends should go. The Richmond Declaration of 1887 can be interpreted as drawing a line to keep Friends from abandoning our traditional rejection of water baptism and outward communion.

Friends also divided over many of the ideas of modern science, and in particular over the teaching of evolution, and Earlham was the center of an attempted “heresy trial” in the 1920’s. Many Friends continue to be divided over the acceptance of modern Bible scholarship and less-than-literal interpretation of the Bible.

As a result of these controversies, Central Yearly Meeting split off from the mainstream in Indiana, and Ohio Yearly Meeting moved more to the right over the years, eventually becoming Evangelical Friends International – Eastern Region.

This weekend (July 27-28) Indiana Yearly Meeting is planning to split again, with 18 monthly meetings leaving. 14 of them have agreed so far to join the New Association of Friends.

Although Friends on both sides are trying to avoid bitterness and public blaming, I can’t help but be sad about this new division. Well-meaning Friends are trying to spin this as a positive development, and maybe some of us will emerge strong and healthy again. But Indiana Yearly Meeting is a shadow of what it was – in numbers, in energy, in effective ministry, in vision.

Differences of opinion, differences in worship, and differences in understanding of the Bible don’t have to be causes of division. The primary cause is Friends who say, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree, you should leave.”

Quakers would be more honest if we would admit to ourselves and each other that a big reason we care about unity is that our history is one of division. And our perspective on peacemaking might change if Quakers admitted how often and how bitterly we have fought with each other.

I feel a little hope from the past. In 1843, Indiana Friends disagreed strongly over whether it was right to help escaping slaves to freedom or not. No one supported slavery – that issue had been settled for Friends back in the mid 1700’s. But one group felt it was a moral imperative to help escaping slaves, while the other side felt bound to remain within the law. Indiana Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends existed separately for 13 years, until they finally re-united in 1856.

Maybe, someday, something like that will happen again here in Indiana, as society changes and as we all have new experiences. But I grieve for our lost unity, however fragile it may have been.
I plan to do whatever I can to help Friends in my own meeting to survive and thrive, and I am giving my full support to the New Association of Friends.

Many readers have written to me here on these pages, expressing your care and concern. Please keep us all in your prayers.

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9 Responses to “Thoughts on division”


  1. 1 Lynn Mills July 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks, Josh, for this thoughtful and insightful discussion of our ugly “tradition” of splitting. I, too, am sad but hopeful for the future of Friends.

  2. 2 Pam Ferguson July 25, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you Josh…..this week I have been sad too, and your words express why we should be sad. This too shall pass, but I hope and pray we learn much from what has happened.

    Pam

  3. 3 Howard Macy July 25, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks, Josh, for your thoughtful reminding us to remember and your encouragement to find genuine ways to keep unity.

  4. 4 Bill Clendineng July 26, 2013 at 9:26 am

    The separation becomes official this week, but separations don’t happen in a few days or a few years. Typically, meetings begin quietly separating themselves out from the Yearly Meeting and other meetings for years before anybody talks about it out loud. In time it can no longer be ignored, and then begins the clean-up operation, usually with a lot of emotional violence, but sometimes peacefully.

    I am an optimist. I think this is a great new beginning as the New Association of Friends and Indiana Yearly Meeting set out on their separate paths.

  5. 5 Bob Carter July 26, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    As a member of Richmond First Friends, I am now losing my membership in Indiana Yearly Meeting, for which I am extremely sad. I value my connections with many dear friends in the New Association, of which I am now a missionary member; but at the same time I mourn the loss of being connected with many other dear Friends with whom I am perhaps more theologically compatible. If not for being anchored in Christ, I would be feeling quite spiritually adrift these days. I know who I am in Christ, but who am I among Friends? I resonate with those who express a sense of sorrow, but like Bill I keep a sense of optimism because I know Who holds the future, and that He is a God of healing, grace, and love.

  6. 6 executivesoulblog July 26, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Josh, you speak my heart and mind so much more articulately than I could. Thank you very much. I, too, pray for reuniting one day. Sending prayers to Indiana. . .

    Margaret Benefiel

  7. 7 Clem July 27, 2013 at 7:12 am

    I am in favor of keeping Christ in Christmas, and Religious in Society, or Association. “New” means nothing without the One who makes all things new by God’s Plan. Surrender in Love to Christ first – then associate with whomever you like.

  8. 8 M. James McAdams July 28, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Personally, I’m excited to see what Jesus Christ is doing in Indiana Yearly Meeting! This process has been been given a great deal of thought, prayer and planning. People have been treated fairly and now liked minded people can worship, fellowship and labor together without the weight of what divides us as Quakers. Best wishes to all those who are part of the New Association of Friends and to all those in Indiana Yearly Meeting!

  9. 9 David Hadley Finke July 31, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    First, to affirm your good pastoral ministry to a group that is broader than West Richmond Friends. I’ve gladly been a part of that larger company, in YMs that have not directly been involved in the present split which you document and mourn, but which have in some measure been affected by other splits, long ago. My own MM (57th St.) was founded with dual affilliation (WYM and ILYM, FUM and FGC) as an attempt in the 1930s to witness to Unity. In some ways, the history of Friends in the 20th century includes large measures of work to overcome the divisions from the 19th century, and yet we’ve found ever new things to fight and divide about, which pains me.
    While appreciating the overview of Friends history you’ve given, I want to add a word of supplement if not of correction. Two points:
    (1) Your listing of the YMs in the Conservative tradition is correct for the present, but omits mention of an important element in the history of Indiana Quakerism: Western Yearly Meeting/Conservative. The gentle perspective from “Slow Friends” who were not taken with the enthusiasm of evangelical revival, still is in my view a leavening presence within WYM (into which they merged), and from time to time has helped hedge against a headlong rush toward rigidly enforced evangelicalism.
    Let us keep the Conservatives of WYM in our sense of history.

    (2) There were a number of groups calling themselves “Ohio Yearly Meeting.” Only one of them morphed into Evangelical Friends International: Eastern Region. There is still one YM called “Ohio Yearly Meeting,” and because it’s the only one with that name, they usually do not feel the need to append “(Conservative)” behind their title: a distinction, however, which is used in both North Carolina and Iowa.

    I was glad that you mentioned Central YM and its origins. Most Friends are unaware of this Holiness group of Quakers. It was heartening to me in recent years to see the loving outreach to them given by staff of FWCC. Who knows when those seeds may yet sprout.

    Again, I thank you both for this forum, and for the careful expression of concern, and leadership in organization, which you have given.

    In Christ, —DHF


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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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