In a number of ways, Illinois Yearly Meeting is a throwback to a much earlier era in Friends’ history. Business meetings are held in an 136-year-old meetinghouse without air conditioning, just as they have been since the first sessions in 1875. Following a practice that goes back to the seventeenth century, the yearly meeting’s ministers and elders (now called the Ministry & Advancement Committee) met on the day before the annual sessions commenced. Many of those in attendance camped on the meetinghouse grounds, while others shared rough summer-cabins (i.e., naturally ventilated by the chinks in the walls and with no running water) that were built out of materials salvaged when an old dormitory was torn down.
For the last decade, the historic meetinghouse and its grounds have taken up a large portion of the business sessions. It started with termites in the meetinghouse and a concern for the safety of the dormitory, moved on to a grand plan for a new kitchen, dining hall, and dormitories, and finally to the unexpected purchase of six adjacent acres, complete with a farm house, barn, and assorted out-buildings. Fundraising for this last endeavor was accomplished in the space a few days!
Half a dozen ad hoc and standing committees have been involved in all this work, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a certain degree of property-weariness had set in. But if anything, the steady improvements to the site have energized the meeting – both in its annual sessions and in-between – and to support the work, contributions have more than tripled since 2000.
But not all energy is tied up in bricks-and-mortar. This year, the Ministry & Advancement Committee presented a vision statement for service to the monthly meetings and their members. A centerpiece of this plan is two annual series of events, called days of spiritual sustenance, that are aimed at providing spiritual nourishment to those who, in an earlier time, would have been recognized as ministers, elders, and overseers – especially, those in smaller and more geographically isolated meetings.
While the yearly meeting encompassed much of the theological range found elsewhere among Friends, it seems to have held these in creative tension, rather than points of contention and discord. This isn’t mere tolerance of each other’s divergent views – they seem genuinely to respect the diversity and enjoy their times of worship, business, and more informal discussion together.
William Penn wrote more than 300 years ago, “They meet together – they help and support one another. It is common to hear someone say, ‘Look how the Quakers love and care for one another.’ If it is the mark of primitive Christianity to love one another and know intimate religious communion, to meet frequently to worship God and care for one another, then – bless the Lord! – they have it in abundance.”
You could say it today at Illinois Yearly Meeting.
Paul Buckley is well-known among Friends for his many articles on the history, faith, and practice of the Religious Society of Friends and for his books, The Quaker Bible Reader, Twenty-First Century Penn, Owning the Lord’s Prayer, The Journal of Elias Hicks and most recently, Dear Friend: Letters and Essays of Elias Hicks. He also gives short courses, workshops, and retreats for groups across the Quaker spectrum and occasionally teaches at the Earlham School of Religion.