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27 Ibid., 38.
28 Ibid., 18“19.
29 Ibid., 16.
30 Ibid. Emphasis added.
31 On “the Lamb™s War,” see Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, esp. 33“71.
32 For example, the controversy surrounding Quaker leader James Nayler™s behavior in 1656 in
Bristol “ reenacting Christ™s arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday “ was an important catalyst
for change in the Society. See Barbour™s description of this incident, The Quakers in Puritan
England, 62“64.
32 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

From Fox™s perspective, and most Friends agreed, such organization of the
church was not “a step back into earthly things, but a step up into the life
and order of the gospel.”33 A small but vocal minority of Quakers, however,
became increasingly uncomfortable with what they perceived as Fox™s growing
personal authority among Friends and his seeming wont to impose his vision
for the Society on others. In 1675 a number of Friends, led by John Wilkinson
and John Story, separated from the Society under protest that the new meetings
were conducted under a spirit of outward (i.e., man-made) authority and that
there was too much control over the behavior of individuals. The Wilkinson-
Story Controversy was a major episode in the de¬nition of Quakerism in that it
brought to the fore the perennial question of authority in Quaker ecclesiastical
and civil governments. It was a question, fundamentally, about who had the
power to determine the law according to God.
The partisans of the Wilkinson-Story faction were not swayed by Barclay™s
argument for church government. Instead, they described the evolution of a
more corporate Quakerism as an attempt “to deprive us of the law of the Spirit
and to bring in a tyrannical government: it would lead us from the rule within to
subject us to a rule without.”34 The most extensive denunciation of this “out-
ward rule” came from William Rogers, spokesman for the Wilkinson-Story
faction, in The Christian-Quaker, Distinguished from the Apostate & Innova-
tor (1680). Here he disputed the legitimacy of the very idea of a church govern-
ment among Quakers. The words “church government” itself, he argued, are
“mostly used under the profession of Christianity, by those who have become
Persecutors.”35 In no sense did Rogers accept Barclay™s claim that government
was necessary for Christian fellowship or innocuous to the Spirit. “Govern-
ment over the Consciences of Believers,” he argued, “we take to be contrary
to the Principle of Truth and Liberty we have in Jesus Christ.”36 No kind of
outward structure, guidance, or direction could force the conscience of the
believer; Christ™s Light alone must convince him. He objected to creation of
the basic Quaker meeting structures, denying “that Monthly and Quarterly
Meetings are called the Church, and ought to be submitted to.”37 It is not a
stretch to call these Friends spiritual anarchists, as Barclay did.
But beyond simply objecting to having their inward lives regulated in any
way, the Wilkinson-Story faction located the source of these “Evil Practices”
in one man, the now-clear leader of the Society of Friends, George Fox. They
were determined that the power of being the de facto spiritual leader of Friends
had gone to his head, and he was seeking to glorify his own ambitions for
greatness by making all Quakers his disciples. Accordingly, Rogers disputed
the implication, as he understood it, of the progovernment Friends “that the
33 George Fox quoted in Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 252.
34 Ibid., 292.
35 William Rogers, The Christian-Quaker, Distinguished from the Apostate & Innovator (London,
1680), 45.
36 Ibid., 48.
37 Ibid., 11.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 33

Lord hath ordained G[eorge] F[ox] to be in that place amongst the Children of
Light in this our Day, as Moses was among the children of Israel in his day.”38
Rather, they saw Fox as someone who was “over-driving, imposing, lording
over Mens Consciences, setting up in the Church another government then that
of the Spirit.”39
It was the rise of threats to the survival of the meeting from within that
prompted Barclay to write his treatise on church government. Barclay explained

some are so great Pretenders to Inward Motions and Revelations of the Spirit, that there
are no Extravagances so wild, which they will not cloak with it; and so much are they
for every one™s following their own Mind, as can admit of no Christian Fellowship and
Community, nor that of good Order and Discipline, which the Church of Christ never
was, nor can ever be without; this gives an open Door to all Libertinism, and brings
great reproach to the Christian-faith.40

Quaker leaders feared that individuals™ departure from the fundamental prin-
ciples that initially brought Quakers together and united them would cause the
disintegration of the sacred body.
There was therefore an individualistic, democratic, and informal element
of Quakerism that was important for Quaker process, but dangerous, tending
as it did to encourage libertinism. Thus Fox and other leading Friends moved
to establish a church government through new structures, those monthly and
quarterly meetings to which the Wilkinson-Story faction objected, as well as a
strong central government, London Yearly Meeting. They argued that govern-
ment as such not only was ordained by God but was the form it should take
and the processes by which it should function, the “order” and “method.”

“Order” and “Method” in the Quaker Society
Quakers considered the order and method of governance, the authority struc-
ture and the decision-making process, to be among the most important compo-
nents of their faith. Because of this, Quakers were quintessential bureaucrats.
They believed that a particular collective process must be followed if God™s
Truth were to be accurately discerned. The means by which Quakers wor-
shipped “ when worship is de¬ned as legal discernment “ were more important
than the ends. Indeed, as we shall see, the means were almost an end in them-
The goal of each meeting was accurate discernment and eventual consensus
or unity in the spirit. The outward or visible process of collective interaction
in which Quakers engaged to achieve these goals was characterized by the
speech-action of its members “ when members should speak, who should speak,

38 Ibid., 10.
39 Ibid., preface.
40 Barclay, Anarchy, 6.
34 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

how they should speak, and what they spoke. Each of these rules of speaking
grew out of the inward communion with God, and thus the beginning point
of every meeting was silence. Just as the individual waited in silence for the
spirit, so did the entire meeting. Discernment and achieving consensus were
not a deliberative process in the usual sense, with debate and argumentation;
that would be to employ reason in the wrong capacity. Rather, the meeting
was based on knowing God through quiet introspection and contemplation.41
Members were admonished not to speak unless they could improve upon the
silence, and as John Burnyeat, convinced of Quakerism in 1653, described a
meeting, “we met together and waited together in silence; it may be sometimes
not a word in our meetings for months; but everyone that was faithful waited
upon the living word in our own hearts.”42 Indeed, the absence of speaking
could be as profound a spiritual experience as speaking. Neither were there
outward rituals to follow. The members simply waited on God and spoke
whenever they were moved to do so by the spirit. And when they were moved,
they were obliged to speak, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. It was,
in fact, a sin and denial of God™s will to refuse to deliver his Word. Of course,
as the meeting grew and individual members had variant interpretations of
the Inner Light, disagreement became more frequent, as the Wilkinson-Story
Controversy demonstrated.
Accordingly, an important feature of the discernment process was not just
when to speak or to remain silent, but who had authority to speak. An author-
ity structure began to evolve that was a sort of democracy, although different
in several ways from what we might suppose.43 It was based on a fundamen-
tal degree of spiritual egalitarianism. All men (i.e., all people) were created
(spiritually) equal in that all had the equal opportunity to receive, discern, and
express God™s Light in their consciences.44 But all men did not receive equal
measures of the Light, nor did they have equal powers of discernment or facility
of expression. Thus, while every member of the meeting had a voice, not all
voices had equal weight. Barclay explained that God gives “unto ever member
a measure of the same Spirit, yet divers, according to the Operation, for the
Edi¬cation of the Body.”45 There was a delicate balance to maintain so that

41 But, in a sense, neither are these words accurate. They imply a greater role for human will and
reason than Quakers allowed. Waiting for and receiving God was a passive act that required a
cleansing, opening, and emptying of the conscience of human in¬‚uences.
42 John Burnyeat quoted in Howard H. Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experi-
ence among Friends (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1972), 30.
43 Their religious organization notwithstanding, Quakers, like most other men of their time, were
decidedly hostile to the idea of political democracy. See George Fox, A Few Plain Words to
be considered by those of the Army, or others that would have a parliament that is chosen by
the voices of the people, to govern three nations. Wherein is shewn unto them according to the
Scripture of Truth, that a parliament so chosen are not likely to govern for God and the good
of his people (London, 1660).
44 It is important to note that this spiritual equality did not translate into civil or social equality
until, one might argue, the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
45 Barclay, Anarchy, 10.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 35

the right people spoke at the right moment, while others were appropriately
limited. They also sought a balance between looking to the group for guidance
and acting on immediate individual leadings. As minister Job Scott explained
in the late-eighteenth century, members of the meeting “were advised to keep
their own gifts, and not depend upon one another, to the neglect of occupying
their own talents; lest they as individuals, and the meeting at large, suffer loss
How members spoke “ the words they used and the physical manner in
which they were delivered “ was indicative of the Speaker™s spiritual weight and
facilitated the discernment-consensus process. Indeed, the process was ful¬lled
through speech-action. As described previously, speaking was necessarily pre-
ceded by silent waiting for guidance. In the early years of the Society, it was also
preceded by quaking. When God™s light illuminated the soul, the individual was
so appalled at the sight of his own sins that he quaked with fear. Similarly, when
many Friends were led to testify before the meeting, the prospect of speaking
before the group was frightening enough “ especially for women, who were
forbidden to preach by other religions “ to make them tremble. Such prelim-
inary physical actions lent authority to the words that followed because they
indicated the submission of the individual™s will to the divine spirit; God was
¬‚owing through that individual contrary to the will of that person.
The particular choice of words that the preacher “ for to speak in meeting
was to preach “ used was of the utmost signi¬cance. Quakers self-consciously
rede¬ned and manipulated words unlike any other early modern group. It was,
as they intended, one of the things for which they were best known. In 1788
Brissot remarked, “The Quakers, of all others, have a language of their own,
which cannot be easily understood, without having read some of their books,
such as Barclay™s Apology, with a great deal of attention.”47 Indeed even today,
books about Quakers written with the expectation of a non-Quaker audience
often include a lexicon to explain their unusual terms and word usage. As when
any particular language is used, it signi¬es the speaker™s unity with the group.48
The most widely known way Quakers differed from others in their speech
was by using the “plain speech” “ addressing people using the informal singu-
lar thee and thou rather than the formal plural you. They did this to indicate
their belief in spiritual equality and to reject the formality and vanity of the
world™s customs. For example, they also used the word “convince” where most
Christians said “convert.” When someone is convinced of Christ, it signi¬es
an inward, voluntary change by the individual, whereas when someone is con-
verted, it is something happening to the person from the outside. All speech

46 Job Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours of that Faithful Servant and Minister
of Christ, Job Scott (London, 1815), 124.
47 Jean-Paul Brissot de Warville, A Critical Examination of the Marquis de Chatellux™s Travels in
North America in a Letter Addressed to the Marquis; Principally Intended as a Refutation of
his Opinions Concerning the Quakers, the Negroes, the People, and Mankind (Philadelphia,
1788), 25.
48 On the uniformity of Quaker language, see Peters, Print Culture and the Early Quakers, 171.
36 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

should, of course, be “holy conversation” as opposed to “carnal talk.”49 Sim-
ilarly, what they did not say was signi¬cant. They did not use salutations
or season™s greetings, nor would they swear oaths to the government. Their
unorthodox use of speech is more apparent in their interactions with non-
Quakers, and will be discussed shortly.
In addition to the timing of speech, and the words used, the physical man-
ner in which the words were delivered was also important and lent authority
to the speaker.50 Quaker women, for example, demonstrated their submis-
sion to divine direction, and thereby their spiritual authority, by preaching in
a “sing-song” manner unlike male preaching in either Quaker or non-Quaker
societies.51 We can see the importance this manner of preaching held in the fact
that renowned Hicksite minister Lucretia Mott undermined her authority with
more traditional Quakers by not using this style.52 The speech-acts of individ-
ual members could either facilitate or fundamentally disrupt the discernment
process and corporate unity on which achieving consensus depended.
Determining exactly where the weight lay in the meeting based on speech-
acts was a delicate balancing act. Everyone had to assume his or her divinely
ordained role or there was the risk that “some forward spirits be pushed for-
ward into too great activity, in a formal manner, by the backwardness and with-
holding of others.”53 The principle that guided Friends in seeking this balance
was their most important testimony, the peace testimony.54 Although some of
the earliest Friends held to peaceful principles, paci¬sm was not a de¬ning fea-
ture of the group until 1660 when George Fox was led to declare his testimony
on this law.55 Very generally speaking, the peace testimony was a nonviolent

49 For a discussion of conversation in the context of the family, see Barry Levy, “˜Tender Plants™:
Quaker Farmers and Children in the Delaware Valley, 1681“1735,” Journal of Family History
vol. 3, no. 2 (1978), 116“35.
50 See also Mack, Visionary Women, 151“52.
51 On “sing-song” preaching, see Kenneth Carroll, “Singing in the Spirit in Early Quakerism,”
Quaker History vol. 73 (1984), 1“13, esp. 10“13. On speaking as a demonstration of political
authority, see Maurice Bloch, ed., Political Language and Oratory in Traditional Society (New
York: Academic Press, 1975).
52 Nancy Isenberg, “˜Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the Same Worship™: Women™s
Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America,” The Journal of American
History vol. 85, no. 1 (1998), 98“128, 120.
53 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 124.
54 For thorough discussions of the peace testimony, see Peter Brock, Pioneers of the Peace-
able Kingdom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); Peter Brock, The Quaker
Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990); and Meredith
Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Paci¬sm in the Seventeenth Century
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
55 As Weddle points out, some Quakers did, even after the advent of their peace testimony, take
up arms on occasion. However, by the mid-eighteenth century, those who did so were read out
of their meetings. On the institution of the peace testimony, see George Fox, A Declaration
from the Harmles & Innocent People of GOD called Quakers. Against all Plotters and Fighters
in the World (1660). Interestingly, the ¬rst line of the book reads: “Our Principle is, and our
Practices have always been to seek peace, and ensue it” (emphasis added). Another tract admits
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 37

stance in relation to God™s creations. Historians have usually considered its
application to war and the treatment of men.56 But this testimony had a much
wider sphere than we might suppose. As nineteenth-century Quaker Thomas
Clarkson put it, Quakers adopted a “larger interpretation of the words in the
sermon upon the Mount” than most.57 It applied not simply to war and killing
but also to mundane interactions with all God™s creations. Within the ecclesi-
astical polity, God™s creation of the individual conscience must be respected.
Similarly, speech-action as a divine creation also fell under the purview of the
testimony. Most importantly, however, preservation of God™s creation of the
constituted body was paramount. Within the meeting, then, conversation and
walking must be holy, orderly, and peaceable.
Because the discernment of Truth was a communal effort, it was inextrica-
bly bound with the preservation of corporate unity. Quakers thus had a sense
of communal and ecclesiastical obligation of the highest order. As Barclay
asserted, those who “study to make Rents and Divisions” are “prostrating the
Reputation and Honour of the Truth.”58 Moreover, their safety, their protec-
tion from sin, and their persecution from the outside world lay in their unity.
Barclay explained that to preserve the uniqueness that bound them together,
“certain Practices and Performances, by which we are come to be separated
and distinguished from others, so as to meet apart, and also to suffer deeply
for our Joint-Testimony; there are, and must of Necessity be as in the Gath-
ering of us, so in the Preserving of us while gathered, Diversities of Gifts and
Operations for the Edifying of the whole Body.”59 The unifying uniqueness of
the body was based on the acts of its members “ the practices, performances,
and operations.
In spite of the importance of unity, because of the individual™s access to
the Light, dissent was a critical element of the discernment process as a way
to the Truth. For Quakers, bringing the Light of Truth to their community
through dissent was a form of proselytization. As indicated previously, there
was a special commission placed with the individual to follow Christ™s example

that, although Quakers once bore arms against the king, “[y]et being now altered and turned in
their judgement to the contrary, and that it is not lawful (in the Administration of the Gospel)
to ¬ght against, or go to war with Carnal Weapons in any wise, there is no danger of us on
[this] count.” P. H., The Quakers Plea, answering all Objections, and they proved to be no way
dangerous, but Friends to the King: And may be tollerated in their Religion, with safety to the
Kingdom (1661), 4“5, in Quaker Tracts 9 vols. [1658“76] (London, 1661), 4: 923“36.
56 The exact de¬nition and applicability of the peace testimony remained unsettled for Friends
for almost another century, and even after that, warm adherence to causes such as American
liberties in 1776 or abolitionism in 1861 led some Quakers into battle. It was the cause of
many of the biggest controversies within and outside of their Society when they controlled the
Pennsylvania government.
57 Thomas Clarkson, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Taken from a View of the Education and
Discipline, Social Manners, Civil and Political Economy, Religious Principles and Character of
the Society of Friends, 3 vols. (New York: George Forman, 1806), 3: 29.
58 Barclay, Anarchy, 25.
59 Ibid., 34.
38 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

and “[give] Witness to the Dispensation of the Gospel.”60 A crucial and indis-
pensable part of this witnessing was that conscientious believers should be
“Discerners of Evils” who have a duty to “reprove” and “warn” the meeting;
they ought not to remain silent.61 The Truth might be “divers in its Appear-
ance,” and if the dissent “layeth not a real Ground for Division or Dissension
of Spirit, Fellow Members ought not only to bear one another, but strengthen
one another in them.”62 The Truths that dissenting members brought to their
meetings were their “testimonies” for God to man.
As important as individual Truth-seeking was, however, it was not more
important than the unity and harmony of the meeting. Because of the imper-
ative to preserve unity, although it was incumbent upon the majority to hear
dissent as a way to the Truth, the dissenter was equally obliged to follow a
prescribed method in bringing his testimony to the meeting to preserve the con-
stituted ecclesiastical polity. “For there is no greater Property of the Church of
Christ,” said Barclay, “then pure Unity in the Spirit that is a consenting and
oneness in Judgment and Practices in Matters of Faith and Worship (which yet
admits of different Measures, Growths and Motions, but never contrary and
contradictory Ones).”63 In other words, contradiction and disunity come from
man and his misinterpretation of the Gospel, not from contradictions in the
Gospel itself. In order to dissent correctly, the dissenter must ¬rst engage in the
process of communion with God “ purify himself of his own sel¬sh motives
and approach the meeting in humility as Christ™s agent. If, however, the meet-
ing does not hear him at ¬rst, he must then exercise “Forbearance in Things
wherein [the others] have not yet attained, yet . . . [the dissenter] must walk so,
as they have him for an Example.”64
This idea of walking as an example was drawn directly from primitive
Christianity and was a refrain throughout Quakerism. As Christ™s way of
walking was a model for Quakers, so their “walking in the way of Christ” was
a model for one another and non-Quakers. They believed that although some
individuals may have had a more advanced understanding than the group, in
time God would eventually reveal the Truth to all. There was, in other words,
an idea of progressive revelation for the group as well as the individual. If still
there was no uni¬ed sense, the matter must be put aside for the time being
so as not to jeopardize the fundamental unity and harmony of the meeting.
Dissent thus should be a slow process of persuasion, convincement, and gradual
revelation, not coercion. In theory, there was no elitist tyranny or democratic
despotism in a Quaker meeting. But dif¬culties could develop in two ways “
if the dissenters did not respect the process and asserted their interpretation of
the Truth in a disruptive way; or, if the body tried to repress the voice of the

60 Ibid., 9.
61 Ibid., 57.
62 Ibid., 58.
63 Ibid., 54.
64 Ibid., 55.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 39

dissenter. In other words, there was a constant danger of anarchy on the one
hand or tyranny on the other if the peace testimony were not observed.
The clearest example of Quaker process at work is in the origins of the
antislavery testimony in the mid-eighteenth century. Although isolated concerns
had been raised about the divine lawfulness of slavery as early as 1675, still
by the late 1730s, there were few Friends who saw it as a pressing concern
for the Society as a whole.65 Benjamin Lay, predating the famous abolitionists,
John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, was one of the ¬rst to come forward
with the testimony of abolitionism. But at the time, the Society was neither
ready for his message nor appreciative of how he delivered it. Not only did Lay
expect Friends to manumit their slaves immediately, he employed shock tactics
to make his point. In 1737 he published a broadside entitled, All Slave-Keepers
That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates Pretending to lay Claim to
the Pure & Holy Christian Religion. He also once kidnapped the child of a
fellow Quaker so he would know how slaves felt to have their children sold
away. But the meeting for worship was the main forum for the expression of
his testimony. He was known during the winter to stand in the doorway of
the meetinghouse with one shod foot inside and one bare foot outside in the
snow to symbolize the slaves who had no shoes. His ¬nal act was much more
dramatic. He arrived at meeting in a cloak that concealed a military uniform
and a Bible, hollowed out and ¬lled with a bladder of red liquid. At a crucial
moment in the meeting, he rose, threw off his cloak, and stabbed the Bible
with a sword to symbolize that slavery is a bloody act of war against mankind.
For this aggressively provocative expression of disunity with Friends, Lay was
disowned in 1738.66
Only a few years later in the 1740s, John Woolman approached Friends
with exactly the same testimony, but with a very different delivery. Rather
than shocking them and denouncing them as apostates for holding slaves, he
delivered “hints” and “soft persuasion,” preaching gently to them, urging them
to examine their ways.67 In sharp contrast to Lay™s tone and language, Wool-
man compared his fellow Quakers with biblical ¬gures, writing, “It appears
by Holy Record that men under high favours have been apt to err.”68 He even
went so far as to assure them, “I do not believe that all who have kept slaves
have therefore been chargeable with guilt. If their motives thereto were free
from sel¬shness and their slaves content.”69 Also, to ensure the receptiveness

65 The ¬rst Friend to denounce slavery was, according to Barbour, William Edmondson in 1675
(The Quakers in Puritan England, 242).
66 Gary B. Nash and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its
Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 49.
67 Michael Alan Heller, “Soft Persuasion: A Rhetorical Analysis of John Woolman™s Essays and
˜Journal,™” (Ph.D. Diss., Arizona State University, 1989).
68 John Woolman, “Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes,” in Phillips P. Moulton, ed.,
The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989),
69 Ibid., 211.
40 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

of the meeting to his testimony, Woolman waited almost twenty years for the
right time to present it, after many weighty Quaker slave owners had died.
His testimony was then heard willingly by Friends and adopted by most of the
Society in 1758. Later slave ownership became a cause for disownment from
the meeting.
Clearly, then, it was not Lay™s testimony as much as it was his conversation
and walking that displeased Friends. It was accusatory and disruptive. His
actions seemed as calculated to sow discord as they were to abolish slavery. He
did not heed Barclay™s advice that “some [dissenters are] behoved to submit, else
[the group] should never have agreed.”70 Woolman, on the other hand, waited
patiently and approached the meeting in a spirit of love. It was Woolman™s

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