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Organisation and power in the Society of Friends (1852-1859) - article ; n°1 ; vol.19, pg 31-49


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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1965 - Volume 19 - Numéro 1 - Pages 31-49
19 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1965
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Allo Isichei
Organisation and power in the Society of Friends (1852-1859)
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 19, 1965. pp. 31-49.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Allo Isichei. Organisation and power in the Society of Friends (1852-1859). In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N.
19, 1965. pp. 31-49.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1965.2571
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0003-9659_1965_num_19_1_2571ORGANISATION AND POWER
cleavages decisions sect distribution represent the executive of of democratic study tration being Its rest dictory accompanied of bility the the authority members growth In directly because group dictated Christadelphians of of Plymouth an of theories responsibility about the minimal this power officials extremely formal which of of or tend necessarily by here process by actual informal theological obliquely of Brethren contradictory This its not has organisation authority organisational and organisation individualistic power ideology discrepancy as to of the where the analysis decision unchanging its upon perceive its interpretation illustrates informal existence cannot 1) raison component the is and is and of insensitive arrangements substructure making absence appears the likely confused be être the group concentration this an will of consequent mirrored American has informal second many to an individuals of of mechanisms in schism God meant to develop ideology extreme ideas central of change are different pattern in for theology but Baptist is contradiction of the changes about not the the and form power stressing body tacitly development The dichotomy dictated so group obvious as and the Convention the in developments which with does of fissiparous in the locus accepted mutually formal resultant Its the power the which by the alternative individualistic is organisation between liberty of and thought utility experience hands structure is repeated to is concen contra history desira nature in make often case and but the its to to of
Ecclesial independence has undoubtedly been cause of divisions and
schisms the absence of central arbitrating authority has enabled schisms to
ramify. 2)
The history of nineteenth century American Quakerism is largely pattern
of repeated schisms in England however schisms within the sect were infre-
am indebted to Dr B.R Wilson for his detailed criticisms of this article in draft
Paul HARRISON Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition 1959 passim
accept his definitions of power and authority but his elaboration of theory of power for
non-authoritarian groups chapter 11 does not apply to the type of power elite produced in
Bryan WILSON Sects and Society 1961 273
quent and insignificant and detailed analysis of power and organisation reveals
the existence of informal power concentrations 3)
study of the American Baptist convention is in part an analysis
of number of competing theories of church government The antagonism is
much more fundamental however when it occurs not between several ideals
of policy but between polity as such and belief in the ultimate authority of the
enlightened individual Many sects have experienced this kind- of tension between
recognition that organisation was necessary and strong conviction that it
was undesirable In some sects however the dichotomy between group
authority and private judgment was moderated by generally held belief in the
paramount authority of the Bible but Fox asserted the inspiration of the
Spirit in the heart of the individual as an authority above that of Scripture
Thus when preacher spoke of the Scriptures. by which they were to try all
doctrines religions and opinions. couîd not hold but was made to cry out
and say Oh no it is not the Scriptures. 5)
theory of the Light Within made all forms of ecclesiastical constraint
seem intolerable The black earthy spirit of the priests wounded my life.
In its first phase the movement had no formal organisation held together
by the personal charisma of Fox but it soon became clear to him that some
organisation was necessary if the movement was to survive Some of his followers
opposed this development bitterly as contrary to the genius of Quakerism but
most like Penn realised its necessity In 1675 Penn
..raised the whole question of Church discipline contending that if the
Church were silent it would be overrun with lukewarm hypocrites and loose
walkers. Church order was no doubt new thing which had come through Fox
but it came in its due season. 7)
But to accept the need for organisation was not to eradicate the ambi
valence with which it was regarded The tension remained to trouble Quaker
consciences especially in periods when Light Within theology was stressed
thus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when this type of
theology was revived number of books were written dealing with the tension
between authority and the individual conscience 8)
The contradiction was softened however by the adoption of Quaker
democracy system which is designed to answer the classic individualist cri
ticism of the democratic method by lending due weight to minority opinion
In Quaker business meeting decisions are made not by majority vote but by
taking the sense of the Meeting In this process the Clerk who acts as
chairman and as secretary tries to formulate decision which represents
basic consensus of agreement if deep disagreements exist no decision is made
and the matter is postponed All present are free to speak and the sense of
the meeting is based on qualitative as well as quantitative estimate
Parallel detailed research into American Quaker organisation would be necessary to
establish whether there is any connection between the American schisms and different decision
making mechanisms
Cf the Christadelphians and the American Baptist Convention
Journal ed John Nickalls 1952 40
Ibid. 39
Quoted in William BRAITHWAITE The Second Period of Quakerism 1961 ed.) 299
See especially Edmund HARVEY Authority and Freedom in the Experience of the
Quakers 1935 passim Edward GKUBB Authority and the Light Within 1909 passim
Every contribution counts as one but some as more than one Penn made
an excellent statement of the Quaker ideal of decision making
In these solemn assemblies for the service there is no one who
presides among them after the manner of the assemblies of other people Christ
only being their President as he is pleased to appear in life and wisdom in any
one or more of them to whom whatever be their capacity or degree the rest
adhere with firm unity. 10)
There is an obvious criticism of this method which applies to all inspira-
tionalist procedures The philanthropist William Alien met it in an aristocratic
home in Switzerland
Then said the Duchess how are we to distinguish between the divine
influence and the working of our own imaginations acknowledged that
this was the point of difficulty. 11)
To discover how this intensely individualistic system worked in practice
it is necessary to analyse Quaker business deliberations and decisions
at time of violent controversy when the issues at stake were deemed more
important than the preservation of mechanisms for reaching agreement The
sixth decade of the nineteenth century is particularly suitable period for such
an analysis in depth 12) for the matters under discussion then were thought
to affect the very existence of the group and the nature of its relationship to
the wider society Essentially the conflict took place between conservatives
who thought of the sect as gathered remnant which should live in the
greatest possible isolation from its environment and reformists 13 who
sought to break down the barriers protecting the sect which were seen as cripp
ling restrictions affecting its life and work in the wider society The most
important practical issues at stake were whether or not to abolish the
two main insulating devices compulsory endogamy and the peculiarities
that is distinctive modes of dress and speech)
Of the many Quaker business meetings the locus of power and of authority
should undoubtedly be sought in the Yearly Meeting which assembled
annually in May Its meeting place until 1905 was always London which in
itself had important effects on the distribution of power 14 Yearly
Meeting stood at the apex of an elaborate organisational pyramid The Pre-
Robert Davis quoted in Hugh DONCASTER Quaker Organisation and Business
Meetings 1958 68
10 PENN The Rise and Progress of the people called Quakers 1834 edition 44
11 Life of William Alien 1846 302
12 The analysis which follows is based on Proceedings of Yearly Meeting skeletal) the
accounts the quasi official monthly journals The Friend and The British Friend and espe
cially on the much fuller MS accounts by Samuel Alexander 1847 and 52 Joseph Rowntree
1855 57 and 58 John Stephenson Rowntree 1854 56 and 59 and William
1856 and 59 all of which are preserved in Friendes House Library London Henceforth these
are referred to by name of author and date only It should be remembered that the Rowntree MS
probably overemphasise the role of Joseph Rowntree and of Yorkshire Friends in general
13 Reformist and conservative my terminology
14 In 1905 it was held in Leeds after violent controversy One can safely ignore the
Yearly Meeting in study of power distribution for an accurate description of
its status and function see The Proceedings of the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends
etc. reprint from The Patriot 1837 11
parative Meetings which formed the lowest layer of the pyramid were simply
the local for Worship acting as business meetings their function was
to send delegates and information to the Monthly Meetings This last which
covered wider area was an important administrative unit dealing with
marrying out for instance or the recipients of poor relief Monthly Meetings
sent delegates and information to the Quarterly Meeting which usually cor
responded to county or group of counties The Quarterly Meeting in its
turn sent delegates to Yearly Meeting with information about the state of the
Society in their region and in some cases proposals for change
In practice attendance at Yearly Meeting was not confined to Quarterly
Meeting delegates anyone with the requisite leisure piety and financial
resources to make the journey to London could and did attend There is no
official estimate of the numbers who attended though all accounts suggest that
in the fifties attendance was fairly constant from year to year
In 1814 Joseph John Gurney guessed that 1200 men were present 15
there were 19800 members of the sect in England in that year according to
J.S calculations 16 In 1847 Samuel Alexander estimated an
attendance of thousand 17) this was the year of Samuel unofficial
census which showed the number of sect members to have fallen to 15345 18
Seven years later John Stephenson Rowntree counted an attendance of 600-700
at the opening session 19 in 1862 he thought that 590 were present 20
The Tabular Statement for 1863 giving the figures for 1862 shows that by
that time there were only 13809 sect members 21 If these estimates may be
trusted they show that the absolute numbers attending were declining steadily
despite the improvement of communications effected by the growth of the railways
An opinion quoted in work by William Thistlethwaite however suggests that
attendance had increased threefold since the erection of the meeting house
in Bishopsgate Street in 1793 22)
The absolute numbers attending and the proportion these formed of total
membership which declines slightly from 6.06 I8!4 t0 28 in 1862
are however less significant than the percentage which numbers attending
comprise of those eligible to attend i.e of adult 23 male Quakers The
Tabular Statement of 1863 shows that in 1862 there were 6463 male Quakers
If one assumes that the age of distribution obtaining in the general population
applies to Quakers also 24) it would seem that in 1862 2718.98 Quakers were
15 Joseph Bevan BRAITHWAITE Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney... 1902 one volume
edition) 54
16 John Stephenson ROWNTREE Quakerism Past and Present... 1859 94
17 ALEXANDER 1847 Yearly Meeting 94
18 Quoted in J.S Past and Present 87
19 1854 Yearly Meeting 93
20 1862 72
21 The Friend 1863 124
22 Four Lectures on the Rise Progress and Past Proceedings of the Society of Friends in
Great Britain etc. 1865 139 the statement is attributed to Friend recently deceased
and presumably refers to long time period
23 Since the youngest speaker recorded in the fifties was 27 have taken 24 rather
than 21 as my dividing line
24 Statistics from B.R MITCHELL and Phyllis DEANE Abstract of British Historical
Statistics 1962 13 The greater prosperity of Quakers had demographic implications it
is probable that infant mortality was lower and life expectancy higher than in the general
population these factors may well cancel each other out as far as the distribution of sect
members age groups is concerned
eligible to attend since 590 actually did so it follows that 21.70 of those who
were able to Mens Yearly Meeting actually did so One major further modi
fication needs to be introduced before one can estimate the proportion of sect
members who actually contributed to policy decisions 25) but before this is
analysed it seems necessary to consider the relationship between Yearly Mee
ting attendance and religious status within the sect
Like the Christadelphians Quakers rejected professional ministry and
aspired towards the spontaneous ministry of laymen But by the mid-nineteenth
century the Society had evolved part of the way at least towards professional
ministry the evolution went much further in larger Quaker group in America
which had adopted professional pastorate by 1880 In England the primitive
theory of spontaneous inspiration had been modified to guard against eccen
tricity or heterodoxy by the practice of officially recording ministers man
or woman who spoke fairly often in meetings for worship and proved acceptable
was officially recognised in this way Recorded ministers sat separately in the
gallery facing the rest of the congregation There was no prearranged
pattern of speaking and in theory the unrecorded were equally free to speak
but in practice recognised ministers tended to speak frequently and perhaps
automatically while the unrecorded member who wished to speak had to cross
difficult psychological barrier The obituary notice of Joseph Hopkins provides
one illustration among many
The call was now made still more plain. but to give up and speak as
minister before his neighbours seemed impossible 26)
The practice of recording was abandoned in 1924 for this reason
There were two other types of status in Quakerism that of the Elder and
Overseer In theory the Elder supervised ministry and the Overseer watched
over the conduct of Meetings for Worship in general The Eldership was however
more honorific and tended to be regarded as compensatory status symbol for
affluent and socially eminent Friends who did not speak in ministry
The Eldership used to be looked on as status to be acquired by Friends
not ministers who through social position and comfortable income had
weight in Society. 27)
Both types of status were mirrored in the composition of Yearly Meeting not
for any necessary or organisation reason for the role of ministers in business
meetings was unaffected by their ministerial status but because the personal
predominance and status which were reflected in the positions of minister and
elder were also reflected in Yearly Meeting Of the 141 individuals of ascertai-
nable status who are recorded as speaking in Yearly Meeting between 1852 and
1859 69 were recorded ministers and 43 were Elders
One might well expect that those who felt called to speak in Meetings
for Worship would also dominate business meetings but there is little such
correlation Many of the most active participants at Yearly Meeting were Elders
including four of the seven men listed as speaking thirty times or more in the
eight year period Josiah Forster Joseph Sturge Joseph Rowntree and John
25 See infra
26 Obituary in Annual Monitor 1882 93
27 Edward GBUBB Eldership Definite Service 1934
Allen Those who were active in decision making assemblies were often successful
business men who felt competent to discuss matters of policy but felt inhibited
from direct religious exhortation There was close causal connection too
between upbringing and readiness to speak in ministry and children from fami
lies where either or both parents were ministers were more likely to regard
call to the ministry as probable and natural than members from families such
as that of Joseph Hopkins mentioned above Before analysing the distribution
of power in Yearly Meeting that is determining the relationship between
formal and actual power it is as well to examine the state which the Quaker
theory of authority had reached by the mid nineteenth century What was the
formal geography of power in the minds of participants It was noted earlier
that discrepancy between formal and actual power tends to be accompanied
by intellectual confusion as to the nature and locus of authority phenomenon
Harrison notes in the American Baptist Convention The same confusion occurred
in Quakerism and an analysis of the debates of the reveals kaleidoscopic
range of authorities cited the Bible was the most popular followed by the
writings of the early Friends the example of the primitive church reason
and expediency One speaker even appealed to Canon law At the heart of this
confusion lay the problem of the relationship between the enlightened individual
obedient to the inner dictates of the Spirit and the pragmatic need to submit
private judgments to group decisions This dichotomy was partially obscured in
the nineteenth century by the adoption of evangelical tenets and consequent
tendency to emphasise the authority of scripture rather than of the Light
Within but despite this shift of emphasis it is clear that the Quaker ideal of
polity was profoundly individualistic 28 It is in the context of theoretic indivi
dualism and respect for minority opinion that the relationship between formal
and actual power must now be considered
The major formal purpose of Yearly Meeting was to make decisions affecting
the internal life of the group and its relationship to the wider society To analyse
the way in which this purpose was accomplished it is necessary to ask number
of related questions
With whom or which groups did proposals needing decisions in this
case proposals for change arise
On the basis of what information were decisions made What was the
state of knowledge in the decision making body about the condition of the
Who formed the influential groups who made decisions
Were the decision makers divided into interest groups what were the
social circumstances of the members of those groups and in what other areas of
sect activity if any did they play significant part
In theory proposals for change had to come from unanimous Quarterly
Meeting While this proposal had the merit of filtering out frivolous or ill-
considered suggestions it introduced an undoubted bias against change for even
traditionally radical Quarterly Meeting such as Yorkshire reproduced in
microcosm the divisions which split Yearly Meeting Thus when Joseph Rowntree
persuaded Yorkshire Friends to sponsor his proposal to liberalise Quaker marriage
rules conservatives tried to block discussion of the proposition on procedural
grounds because it came from divided Quarterly Meeting
28 This point is made fully with examples in my article From Sect to Denomination
in English Quakerism British Journal of Sociology September 1964 SOCIETY OF FRIENDS THE
John Candler doubted whether the meeting could entertain the proposi
tion not coming from unanimous Q.M said Yorkshire Friends were merely
shifting the Arena of discipline from York or Leeds to London Several speakers
caught at this view of the case probably with view of getting rid of disagreeable
to them question by legal or constitutional as it was termed difficulty 29)
In this case the Clerk waived the objection but it became real problem
when Joseph Sturge attempted to introduce discussion of the peculiarities
that is distinctive modes of dress and speech on his own initiative long
discussion arose as to the propriety of introducing the question as it did not
come through the usual channel of subordinate meeting 30 The popularity
of the proposal and personal standing won the day but the incident was
significant showing that mechanism with conservative bias could only be
by-passed by nonorganisational factors the personal charisma of leader or
the popularity of proposal Proposals which lacked the revolutionary implica
tions of those sponsored by Rowntree and Sturge passed through the organisa
tional channels smoothly whether or not they were finally sucessful
The decisions of deliberative body which lacks formal party divisions are
deeply influenced by the nature of the information which is placed before it to
illuminate and so guide its decisions Proposals for change were designed to
remove abuses inefficiencies and anomalies in the condition If such
proposals were to be successful it had to be clearly shown that the abuses existed
and that they had the bad effect which was claimed
The Society was aware of the relevance of information to the decision-making
process and time-consuming but basically simple procedure had been evolved
set of standard questions were presented to the Preparative Meeting which
after deliberation entrusted set of statistical answers to its Monthly Meeting
representative The same process took place at the Monthly Meeting and the
Quarterly Meeting and in due course the Quarterly Meeting representatives
read the totals thus compiled to Yearly Meeting
Unfortunately for variety of reasons the information obtained by this
laborious process was almost useless The key reason as the elder Joseph Rowntree
realised was that they asked the wrong questions 31 They dealt with the
conduct of members but omitted the crucial question of the numerical state of
the Society how many left it each year and for what reasons By recording the
number of conversions to Quakerism and ignoring the much larger total of
disownments and resignations they managed to produce positively misleading
impression of growth There were other weaknesses the questions asked tended
to be abstract and general though convention lent some rigid meaning and
so not susceptible of statistical answer It was obviously impossible to return
quantitative answer on behalf of whole county to question such as the third
query Are Friends preserved in love one towards another if differences arise
is due care taken speedily to end them and are Friends careful to avoid and
discourage tale-bearing and detraction On at least one occasion the diffi
culty of the task led to conflict in Yearly Meeting about the accuracy of the
answer returned 32 Finally the practice of answering the queries region by
29 J.S ROWNTKEE 1856 Yearly Meeting 6-7
30 The Friend 1858 99
31 British Friend 1854 145 Joseph ROWNTBEE 1855 Yearly Meeting 46 Ibid.
1857 50
32 The Friend 1856 97
region was numbing and confusing even those with no radical axe to grind
could be persuaded of the folly of reading aloud sets of statistics for almost
every county in England There was only one answer to the rhetorical question
of the Gloucestershire radical Samuel Bowly and he provided it himself Who
from these answers could get at all true idea of the state of Friends in the
north of England It was clearly impossible. 33 There was only one real
defence for the queries that of traditionalism of respect for procedure drawn
up by our ancestors in best wisdom as one inveterate conservative put it
The inadequacy of this procedure had several important implications They
introduced bias in favour of conservatism by fostering false sense of optimism
or at least concealing the numerical decline Reformists had two possible
courses of action to bypass the formal procedure and produce their own
statistics or to press for organisational change and revision of the official queries
Both techniques were adopted Joseph Rowntree senior his son John Stephenson
Rowntree and William Thistlethwaite each compiled figures about the state
of the Society but statistics from partisan source were automatically suspect
Similarly the advocates of reform pressed year by year for revision of the
queries but their success was partial and delayed The queries were revised
in 1860 but the practice of returning written answers continued until 1905 As
system of obtaining information they had almost nothing to recommend them
they were inadequate to fill their function yet by their existence they dis
couraged the creation of more effective procedures To reformists the situation
was intensely frustrating for they realised that comprehensive supply of
information was sine qua ïîï for sustained and consistent policy As the
younger Joseph Rowntree realised inadequate knowledge led to disjointed and
inconclusive deliberations
No clear statement of what the condition was of what the evils were of
what was wanting in the discipline or constitution and on the other hand no
general plan no broad view of the remedy but number of excellent frag
ments 34)
In considering the real locus of power in Yearly Meeting it is crucial to
remember that decisions were shaped exclusively by what was said in the meeting
Quaker assembly is perhaps unique in that power equals articulateness for
the sense of the meeting is revealed by speeches In an assembly
where voting procedures are used decisions may be influenced by myriad of
external factors and speeches contribute only to the extent that they influence
opinions which are duly expressed in votes In Quakerism those who were present
but silent made no contribution to decision making so we can discover the identity
of those exercising power by the simple expedient of listing the names of speakers
in Yearly Meeting Such compilation shows that slightly over one tenth of
those attending Yearly Meeting contributed to its debates 35 The number
recorded as speaking in individual years is follows
852 52 speakers
1853 records inadequate
1854 65 speakers
1855 65
33 Ibid. 1858 97
34 RowNTKEE 1857 Yearly Meeting 15-16
35 Percentages are based on the total attendances estimates given above
1856 85 speakers
1857 75
1858 61
1859 105 speakers
Average 72.55
The inadequacies of the records doubtless mean that some speakers escaped
mention though comparison of the sources suggests that they probably list
most speeches which made any impact it is still clear however that at very
conservative estimate four fifths of those attending the decision making body
made no contribution to decisions at all One might well wonder why they took
the trouble to attend some came from sense of duty when appointed Quar
terly Meeting representatives and many undoubtedly saw the meeting as an
opportunity for spiritual renewal because of the admixture of prayer and
exhortation in its proceedings 36 Others welcomed the opportunity to meet
relatives and friends and to transact London business while younger Friends
often welcomed the opportunity to see In 1856 plain elderly friend
applied the text The leaders of this people cause them to sin to the practice
of sightseeing between sessions 37) and in 1905 the Pall Mall Gazette reported
an interview with one of the most prominent Quakers in London who explained
the transfer of Yearly Meeting from London to Leeds as response to the fact
that the attractions of London are becoming too much for some of our
people. 38)
The theory that in Quaker assembly power equals articulateness which
forms the basis for much of the exposition which follows requires one important
modification it was possible that Quakers intrigued between sessions and
made informal attempts to influence the views and decisions of the Clerk There
are several scattered references to such procedure in 1846 disgruntled
opponent of Evangelicalism displeased at the fact that Joseph John
proposed ministerial visit to America had been approved wrote that It was
soon manifest to me that everything had been cut and dried by the Table Friends
prior to our coming together 39 variant of this when many Friends were
anxious to speak in crucial discussion was for Friend to ask the Clerk between
sessions for an opportunity to speak At the opening of the Manchester conference
in 1895 the Clerk stated that It is asked that Friends should not attempt by
sending up cards or by representations out of meeting to obtain an opportunity
at the expense of anyone else 40)
By definition such procedures were informal and secretive and so ind very
little place in surviving records They may however reasonably be neglected in
an analysis of power distribution for several reasons First the Clerk was chosen
for his justice and impartiality and the records show that Yearly Meeting Clerks
undoubtedly possessed these characteristics though like anyone else their
judgment was liable to be subconsciously swayed More importantly the theory
of the sense of the meeting was known to all present all knew that judgments
ought to correspond to opinion as reflected in debate Any judgment which did
36 Cf accounts of Yearly Meeting passim and Joseph Bevan BKAITH-
WAITE Memoirs of Joseph John Gumey op cit. 34-5
37 William ROWNTKEE 1856 Yearly Meeting 89-90
38 Pall Mall Gazette 13 1905 Newspaper cuttings in Friends House Library CC90
39 Selections from the Correspondence of William Hodgson 1886 95
40 Report of the Proceedings of the Conference of members of the Society of Friends held.
in Manchester 1896 16