Friday, November 6, 2015

Hicks and Gurney Fight it Out at Silver Bay

Students in Steve Angell's "Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity" class this fall were asked to imagine a scenario in which Joseph John Gurney and Elias Hicks met up in a present-day context with which the students are familiar. Below is one of the resulting essays, from MDiv student John Edminster:

In the fantasy-narrative here unfolding, Elias Hicks (1748-1830) was brought back to be keynote speaker at New York Yearly Meeting’s 2016 Summer Sessions. While the Sessions Committee was arranging this, the Worship-at-Sessions Subcommittee decided to call up Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) to lead evening Bible Study during the week. Some expressed concern that Friend Elias and Friend Joseph John[1] might not get along well, but the sense among the planners was, “we’re not a creedal religion, no one’s salvation depends on doctrinal correctness, and there’s that of God in every person, so there’s no good reason for them not to get along.” And that was that. At week’s end the Epistle Committee reported that Friends found their visits “stimulating.” But only those who attended knew how very stimulating they were.

Poor Joseph John: he’d no sooner gotten his name-tag on the Inn Porch than Friends started mobbing him about the FUM employment policy, LGBTQ concerns, and the environment. Eventually Ruth, a sensitive old-timer, took him off for a quiet cup of tea and brought him up to date on the issues that exercise Friends nowadays. Joseph John seemed dismayed that Biblical teachings weren’t among them. Ruth explained that though the yearly meeting has an advice[2] about Scripture-reading, Friends here pretty much let other Friends make what they like of Scripture – if it’s read at all. Some do; many don’t.

“But it’s ever been the belief of the Society of Friends,” cried Joseph John, “that the Holy Scriptures were written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, we might have life through His name!”[3] He caught his breath and went on: “And secondly, the accordance of the truths revealed in Scriptures, with what we know in ourselves, and observe in the world around us, and more especially the adaptation of the gospel of Christ to the condition of fallen man, supplies us with a further conclusive proof, that the Creator and moral Governor of the universe is the Author of the Bible.[4] God speaks to us through the Bible, Friend! Can’t we hear Him pleading with us? ‘Return ye now, every one from his evil way – for as I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked!’"[5]

“But just how is humanity ‘fallen,’ Joseph John? And will you be telling the Friends in your Bible-study classes that there’s a ‘hell’ or a ‘damnation’ that they’re in danger of? That’s going to be a hard sell here. They don’t think of themselves as wicked. Best-selling author Phil Gulley has argued –“ But here Ruth broke off, for Joseph John had buried his head in his hands and begun weeping.
Over dinner she persuaded Joseph John not to risk losing his Bible-study audience by insisting on the literal scientific and historical truth of the Bible. “Stick with the moral teachings of Jesus,” she advised. “If you want to assert that people are in bondage to ‘sin’ and you can’t use a less charged word like ‘brokenness’  or ‘proneness to error,’ OK, Joseph John, take your chances, but stay away from mentioning the ‘devil.’ It’ll just blow people’s circuits.”

“Circuits?” Joseph John asked, wide-eyed.

Linda, meeting Elias’s train up in Ticonderoga, greeted him with the happy news that the Hicksite separation of 1827-28 was now largely forgotten, New York Yearly Meeting’s Hicksites and Orthodox having reunited in 1955. “Anyway, we’re mostly Hicksites here now.”

Elias smiled wanly in an attempt to be friendly, his smiling muscles weak from disuse and his alertness to the temptation of pride triggered by the mention of “Hicksites.” We’ll just see what they mean by that word, he thought. He didn’t have to wait long. His keynote speech, delivered shortly after dinner to a packed auditorium, was entitled “The Requisites to the Being and Well-Being of a Christian.” The first principal requisite, he began, was “a real belief in God and Christ as one undivided essence – known and believed in, inwardly and spiritually.” The second was “a complete, passive obedience and submission to the divine will and power – inwardly and spiritually manifested – which when known, brings to the Christian state through a crucifixion of the old man with all his ungodly deeds. And thirdly, in order for the preservation and well-being of a Christian, it is necessary that they often meet and assemble together for the promotion of love and good works.”[6] The audience, stunned by the unexpected Christian language and particularly by the call for “the crucifixion of the old man,” sat in breathless silence.

“But thanks be to God,” Elias concluded at length, “who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law to all those that believe and are witnesses of his spiritual appearance in their hearts to take away sin and finish transgression and fulfill all righteousness in those who willingly deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him in the way of regeneration. Even so, let it be, saith my spirit, with the spirits of the faithful. Amen forever.”[7]

“Are there questions, comments, or ministry rising?” the Clerk asked.

A hand shot up in the back. “Yes – the Friend in the black suit.”

“Friend Elias,” began Joseph John, “I heard thee say that the Messiah was ‘a true and real man, possessed of the same nature of our first parent, Adam, [who] by his faithfulness to divine requisition and the leadings of Holy Spirit… overcame the wicked one… setting an example to all his followers and assuring them… that… they might come to… be strengthened through divine aid to rise superior to all temptations and the possibility of falling. For to effect this by his example, his precepts, doctrines, and commands was the great and glorious end of his coming.’[8] Was that the only end of His coming, Elias, to be an example and teach doctrines? And was that ‘same nature of Adam’ His only nature? For Paul plainly taught ‘that Jesus Christ… subsisted in the nature and condition of God, [and] so humbled himself, as to take upon him the nature and condition of a servant and a man.’[9] And ‘those who look upon Jesus of Nazareth as a mere man, almost necessarily deny the doctrine of his propitiatory death and sacrifice on the cross.’[10] But that sacrifice, Friends! That sacrifice served a vast purpose, ‘nothing less than the redemption of the world – the deliverance of mankind from the bondage of sin and Satan, and from the bitter pains of eternal death, and his final translation to the kingdom of everlasting rest and glory!’[11] But ‘under the imagination that we have the whole Christ, as a thing or substance, in ourselves, [as Elias and his followers claim,] we first disregard, and then deny, the divine, incarnate Saviour, of whom the Scriptures testify.’”[12]

At this the whole auditorium burst into disorder, with some Friends waving their hands to be recognized, others holding their arms aloft to signal for silence, and others standing and speaking without waiting for the Clerk’s recognition. But Joseph John had not yet relinquished the microphone. He went on, shouting over the din: “I know that some of you ‘secretly entertain the good old faith of the Christian Quaker; truly believing in Jesus of Nazareth, as… the Saviour of the world. Do not such individuals dangerously compromise their principles, so long as they continue in church-fellowship with ministers and others… who are publicly known… to repudiate these essential doctrines of the christian religion? In the tenderness of christian affection, I submit this weighty consideration to the verdict of their consciences! “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” – ‘[13]

Thus began the week. Gurney won some sympathizers over the course of his Bible-study sessions, but no defectors from the reunited yearly meeting; experience, it seemed, had proven separation too costly. Hicks, without intending it, persuaded many self-styled Hicksites to stop using the term to refer to themselves. Most Friends left Summer Sessions unsure just what the differences were between the two old men in plain dress – “I don’t get it,” said Ruth. “They’re both Christians.”

Linda quipped, “Remember the theme of last year’s summer sessions, ‘320 years – one faith?’[14] I’ll bet they think twice before using that slogan again.”

John Edminster is a first-year MDiv student at ESR. He moved to Richmond along with his wife Elizabeth (also an ESR student) from New York City, where he is a member of Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting (New York Yearly Meeting).

[1] "Gurney was born at Earlham Hall near Norwich (now part of the University of East Anglia), the tenth child of John Gurney (1749–1809), who was a banker (Gurney's Bank) and a Friend himself. He was always called Joseph John." Emphasis added. [accessed 10/11/2015].
[2] NYYM’s second advice reads: “Friends are advised to read frequently the Scriptures and such other books as will inspire and instruct, and to encourage the practice by their families and others.” Faith and Practice (1998 ed.), [accessed 10/18/2015].
[3] The section of the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith entitled “The Holy Scriptures,” which has a Gurneyite heritage, begins: “It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written so that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.’ (John 20:31)." [Accessed 10/9/2015].
[4] Gurney, Hints on the Portable Evidence of Christianity, New Edition (Philadelphia: Henry Longstreth, 1856), p. vi.
[5] Ezek. 18: 23, 31, 33:11; cf. Jer. 18:11, 35:15 (KJV).
[6] Quoted from Paul Buckley, ed., The Journal of Elias Hicks (San Francisco: Inner Light Books, 2009), p. 349.
[7] Ibid., p. 223.
[8] Ibid., p. 292.
[9] Gurney, Biblical notes and dissertations, intended to confirm and illustrate the doctrine of the Deity of Christ, 2nd ed. (London: L. Rivington, 1833), p. 95, emphasis added. The reference is to Philippians 2:5-11.
[10] Gurney, A Letter to the Followers of Elias Hicks, in the City of Baltimore and Its Vicinity (Baltimore: Wood & Crane, 1840), p. 4. [Accessed 10/18/2015].
[11] Ibid., p. 9.
[12] Ibid., p. 17. Emphases in the original.
[13] Ibid., p. 5, inconsistent capitalization of the word “Christian” as in the original; exclamation point added. The scriptural quotation is from 2 Corinthians 6:17 (KJV).
[14] NYYM Minute 2014-11-27, [accessed 10/18/2015]. See the author’s "'320 Years, One Faith': What does faith ask of me now?" article in Spark, May 2015. May2015-Edminster [accessed 10/18/2015]. 


  1. Good use of your wit, John! To resolve the chaos, the plot might have had a deus ex machina in the arrival of Fox, who might have said the following:

    None know the atonement of Christ but by the light within...Mark! He saith, the light is that which gives the knowledge, and the light within doth not set up another atonement: but they that deny the light within set up another atonement than Christ. we should be made free from the law of sin and death while we are upon the earth. and here the blood of Jesus is witnessed, and the atonement, and the Father and the son; and this is all seen with the light within (Works, 3:121).

  2. Brilliant and illuminating story! We have "unified" the supposed followers of Gurney and the supposed followers of Hicks not by taking what is best in both men's teachings but by ignoring much or all of what both stood for.

    Their differences seem small to us, and perhaps they are, but the gulf between either of them and today's Quakerism is huge.