Travelling among Friends, at various times I hear people identify themselves as Hicksites. This often seems to convey with it a sense of tremendous openness to a range of beliefs. The unifying beliefs for these Friends today focus on that of God within each person, and the centrality of the Inner Light. When referring to Hicksites, it is easy to assume that this defines their faith as well. Often discussion of the separations of 1827/28 mentions disagreements over the Bible and the atoning death of Jesus Christ. This makes it easy to see Hicksites as non-Christian and much like Friends who show up at Friends General Conference each summer.
There is no such thing as a “Hicksite theology” per se, and generally Friends did not change their books of Discipline immediately after the separations.  I came across a delightful slim volume published in 1832, Select Anecdotes handed down through my predominantly Hicksite family. I saw it as providing a glimpse of what Hicksites taught their young people about their faith.It was only later that I discovered that my grandfather’s family were Orthodox and now one of my commentators below has given information about its author, John Barclay. My apologies for the error.  I will leave this post in place, changing the basic premise to a question wondering how prevalent this theology might still have been among Hicksites or if it only represents my Orthodox New York relatives.

Select Anecdtoes, written by John Barclay, a British Friend, combines stories from various early Quaker writings with some moral instruction, and “it is hoped, may be a means of exciting in the youthful reader, a desire to become better acquainted with the history and doctrines of our predecessors.”  These stories provide lots of blood, robbery, imprisonment, storms at sea, and other adventures with clear instruction as to the virtues and beliefs of Friends. What follows is a brief summary of the theology taught to young people 150 years ago.


Tremble at the word of the Lord. In the opening story of the book George Fox converts his jailer through his “innocence and circumspection of conduct.” Fox’s jailer eventually was so afraid he had wronged Fox, he queried him about his beliefs and finally confessed to Fox “he believed what I had said of the true faith and hope was true. Both the jailer and one of Fox’s judges declared the next morning that the plague was upon them for keeping him jailed. “This was Justice Bennet of Derby, who was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord.”

Follow the word of the Lord and the Lord will protect you. Robert Barclay showed his faithfulness one day when accosted by a robber at gun point on the highway. His response was to ask “how came you to be so rude?” at which point the robber let the pistol drop and offered him no further violence. The editor emphasized how it is important for Friends to be cognizant of the steadfastness of others in the face of hardship, especially as they become more settled into a life of ease and comfort.

Take up the cross and live under God’s guidance, not the ways of the world. Many Friends recount how they responded to God’s voice in the face of obstacles. Again and again, Friends told how the decision to listen to the inward Christ brought them scorn from their friends or persecution. At the same time “in thus doing I had great comfort from the Lord, and did receive from Him living satisfaction, and encouragement to go on in my way,” in the words of Richard Davies in 1656. Often the decision to turn to the way of Christ was taken in fear. At first, Davies feared being deceived by the Quakers who were a persecuted minority at the time. Soon, he had reason to fear more direct consequences as his mistress took a stick and struck him on the head for using “thee” and “thou” when he spoke to her. His parents turned their backs on him at first thinking he was bewitched. He came to see these trials as ways to demonstrate his willingness to follow Truth and to grow in his faith.

The inward light of Christ lies not in outward signs. Thomas Story told a Lutheran after seeing all the images in their churches: “the primitives [early Christians] had the mind and spirit of Christ; they bore in their own bodies the dying of the Lord, and wore his cross in their hearts, by which they were crucified to the world and the world unto them, with all its show and vain-glory: and this cross is that living virtue and life of Christ appearing in men’s hearts now, as well as in those days; working the same effects in all who believe, follow and obey it, being the saving grace and light of Christ unto all people.”

Divine grace operates universally on the human heart. Anthony Benezet described some Pennsylvania Indians who promoted a piety which they “apprehended to be the effect of an inward work, whereby the human heart became changed from bad to good.” These people refused to fight even when other tribes threatened to enslave them during times of war against the English. Benezet cited one Indian in particular who experienced the love of his Creator in his heart. He was transformed by that love which took away the corruption of the human heart and made it “soft and good.” In this man’s description of his inward experience, Benezet saw the baptism of the Spirit as described by scripture, even though the man had no learning nor knowledge of scripture. Benezet cited this as evidence of the true work of the Spirit of Christ in all people.

No difficulties or dangers can keep Friends from Meeting for Worship. John Ashton of Kilconimore, and his wife demonstrated the persistence and zeal appropriate to Friends. When at liberty after being imprisoned for their faith, “they constantly attended the meeting at Birr twice a week, generally walking on foot thither, being about seven English miles and a very bad road, wading through a river both going and returning. In winter they sometimes had the ice to break in crossing this river; and John said he had wept to see the blood on his wife’s legs in coming through it.”

Vocal ministry in worship is freely offered in response to the inward appearance and voice of Christ in one’s soul. The conversion of Thomas Taylor, a well-known priest, was used to shows how Friends’ ministry differs from that of other churches. “. . . Thomas sitting still, at last a tender spring of life sprang up in him, and he spoke very well in it to the people, both of his own condition, and the people’s; and now how they must turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . And the Underbarrow priest and some other professors were offended and opposed him; but the Lord’s power came over them all: for he was looked on in the time of his priesthood to be above them, And Thomas Taylor grew in the grace and truth of Christ, and came to know the word of the Lord, and preached Christ freely, as then he had received freely, and forsook his parish steeple-house, and his old parish wages, and the rest of the priests that preached for hire . . .”

Concluding Thoughts

Quakerism, for all nineteenth century Friends, was about “primitive genuine Christianity”. Part of this was knowing theirs to a practical religion: one to be lived out daily, not one of pious theory. Obedience to the Light of Christ was paramount, not personal desire or the opinions of non-believing family and friends. The author was concerned about the growing worldliness and increasing wealth of members of the Society of Friends. He charged each Friend to look to their own deportment in the Light of Christ. Everyone who professes to be a Christian (which all Quakers were!) was expected to “examine, how far they as individuals are contributing by their lives and conversation to the growth of that vanity, pride, and earthly-minded-ness, which are but too prevalent.”

The Anecdotes is a fun example of narrative theology. It shows without question how intertwined theology and life have to be if one is to call oneself a Friend. At first glimpse, if written today, it would be easy to assume it were an evangelical document. Full of biblical passages and stories of how people preached and spread the word even in taverns and a wrestling ring, it is not what might be expected to appeal to Hicksites, leaving me to wonder how much my Hicksite and Orthodox ancestors who lived on adjacent farms shared its perspectives. Its stories of the universal nature of the Light and the emphasis on the Inward Light of Christ, resonate with more liberal Friends today while among some Orthodox, especially as the nineteenth century unfolded, this doctrine became more and more suspect.



George Fox, speaking of his travels in America, says, “We went to Narraganset, about twenty miles from Rhode Island, and the governor [of Rhode Island] went with us. We had a meeting at a justice’s, where Friends never had any before; the meeting was very large, for the country generally came in; and people from Connecticut, and other parts about. There were four justices of peace. Most of these people had never heard Friends before; but they were mightily affected, and a great desire there is after the Truth amongst them. So, that meeting was of very good service; blessed be the Lord for ever!
“At another place I heard, some of the magistrates said amongst themselves, If they had money enough, they would hire me to be their minister: this was where they did not well understand us, or our principles. But when I heard of it, I said, It was time for me to be gone; for if their eye was so much to me, or any of us, they would not come to their own Teacher. For this thing, namely, hireling ministers, had spoiled many, by hindering them from improving their own talents; whereas our labour is to bring every one to their own Teacher in themselves.” (I John 2.27).
“For every one’s eye ought to be to Jesus, and every just man and woman may live by their faith (Heb. 10.38) of which Christ is the author and finisher. By this faith every man may see God, who is invisible; which faith gives the victory; so every one’s faith and hope standing in the power of God, therein all have unity, victory, and access to God’s throne of grace; in which faith they please God. By this faith they are saved, obtain the good report, and subdue all the mountains betwixt them and God.” (Anecdotes, p. 151-153)

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  1. Pingback: Margery Post Abbott shares 19th century Quaker teaching anecdotes - Quaker Ranter

  2. Jnana Hodson says:

    For me, one of the most perplexing aspects of Quaker history is the fact that Elias Hicks is apparently the last public Friend to articulate an understanding of the Inward Light that is essentially in line with the original Quaker thinking. Had Job Scott lived, the story would be different, but as it stands, I find no younger ministers articulating that radical theology. What published theological thinking we have comes from the Orthodox and Wilburite lines.
    Missing, too, is a presentation of just when, how, and where the teaching of Inward Light becomes inverted into a Transcendentalist Inner Light, which would seem to be a uniquely Hicksite perspective. I’d love to receive examples of usage before the 1878 denunciation by Ohio Yearly Meeting (Gurneyite).
    I suspect that the failure to develop and advance a distinctly Hicksite theology (one that did more than repeat the earlier history) is the primary reason Hicksite meetings largely vanished from the Midwest within a generation or two of the separations; many meetings east of the Appalachian Mountains, in contrast, had sufficient size and ongoing identity to continue as an ongoing culture.
    The challenge for us, of course, is in presenting our own faith in ways that invite others to join in and grow spiritually with us.

  3. James Tower says:

    Great article. If memory serves I believe some unprogrammed Friends in Salem OR just gave me a book by you to borrow called “broken with tenderness” or something like that. I haven’t gotten to do much more than thumb through it yet. I haven’t yet gotten to meet any Hicksite Friends but am interested in starting a conversation around what a Quaker theology for our day would look like. I am an evangelical Friend who is joining the convergent conversation, though I have been challenged by expressions of the faith that do not understand Jesus to be the light. I am interested in ways various Quakers and their various theologies can learn from each other. Like you it seems, I think narrative theology holds a piece of the puzzle. I have been trying to find new ways to communicate theology in our time, like this…


  4. Edsel Burdge, Jr. says:

    The only problem is that John Barclay was not a Hicksite. He was a British orthodox Friend of a decidedly traditionalist bent. In addition to the “Selected Ancedotes,” which was geared to a juvenile audience, he edited many early Quaker writings. My copy of his “Selected Anecdotes” is an American reprint done by Isaac Hooper, a prominent N.Y. Hicksite and abolitionist. Hooper reprinted several British Quaker books, particularly by a Henry Martin, who wrote several books critical of the Beaconites and Joseph John Gurney. In some cases, Hooper made editorial comments in his reprints where the British traditionalists were critical of Elias Hicks.

    If one had to categorize John Barclay, I think he would more handily fit into the Wilburite camp, even though this term is a bit anachronistic, since he died he 1838, several years before the 1845 Gurneyite-Wilburite split in New England. However, Barclay did correspondence with John Wilbur, who he met when the latter was in England in 1832, and he approvingly quoted Wilbur’s “Letters to a Friend” in a footnote of his edition of “Diary of Andrew Jaffray.”

    If one wanted to examine the contours of 19th century Hicksite theology, it would seem to me that Samuel Janney’s “Conversations on Religious Subjects between a Father and His Two Sons” (1860), or John J. Cornell, “Essays on the Views of Friends” (1884) might serve better.

  5. Steven Cleary says:

    Where can I get a comprehensive book on Hicksite thinking and history

    • quakeradmin says:

      Hi Stephen

      Unfortunately there is no single comprehensive book on the Hicksites. Tom Hamm of Earlham College has told me he is writing such a book but I have not seen it appear. The best books are standard histories such as Barbour and FRost “The Quakers” or ones on the Hicksite/Orthodox separation such as the one by Larry Ingles. Tom Hamm does have two books out that would be of use, The Quakers in America and The Transformation of American Quakerism (which focuses on the Orthodox Friends. Hope this helps.

  6. Patricia Millerioux says:

    I grew up in a meeting in Westbury, New York in the 60s & 70s just outside of Hicksville. Two members of our meeting were Eloise & Lydia Hicks. I was a child & had no idea of separation between branches, but I know that my maternal grandfather was read out of meeting in Indiana in the late 1800s for marrying a non-Friend. He remained spiritually Quaker.
    When I attended, the Westbury meeting identified as Hicksite. I definitely went to First Day School, but biblical studies were sparse. It was more about conscience. We talked a lot about the Inner Light & what that might inspire us to do. Silent Meeting was just that; I’ve never found a Meeting in the DC/Maryland area where people don’t stop talking for the whole hour. It’s exhausting to me & too cumbersome to be spiritually moving, for my needs. So, I just practice Quakerism on my own.

    • quakeradmin says:

      Hi Patricia

      My family helped found Westbury Meeting and my grandmother was a member until she died in 1984 — The bigger meetinghouse there is the old Hicksite one where she grew up in and the smaller building near it (now part of the school, I think) was the Orthodox meetinghouse where granddad and his family attended. I’ve been told that theirs was the first Hicksite-Orthodox marriage in the Meeting, and perhaps more widely among New York Friends. Grandmother’s family owned the pond on Post Ave about a mile from the meetinghouse and farmed the land that is now under the LI Expressway.

      I’m sorry you haven’t found a satisfactory meeting. I know ones like Florida Avenue in DC have a wide reputation for being filled with talk, often with a political bent. When I’m in DC I usually attend Langley Hill Meeting, which is where my nephew and his family attend– a fairly small, not too talkative gathering. There also at least used to be a small worship group that met on the grounds of Sidwell Friends School that was quiet the time or two I attended.

      Thank you for writing.

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