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manner of walking that Quakers hoped to encourage when they constituted
their government.

Constituting the Quaker Meeting
Because of the libertinism of some members, Fox and other leaders found it
necessary to bring the Society of Friends into the Gospel order by establishing
a governmental structure that would provide a framework to facilitate correct
process. It became clear early on that there were some Friends who spoke
better on behalf of the Truth than others. The preponderance of the power to
decide the direction of the meeting thus lay with the “weighty Friends.” These
Friends were ordinary people who would make their spiritual gifts known to
the meeting by their peaceable conversation and orderly walking. It would be
clear to all that they, regardless of gender, age, social status or other worldly
quality, had been called by God to minister to the group. Once God had
ordained them, they were then approved by the meeting to travel as ministers.
This was the extent of the procedure. Not all individuals whose voices carried
weight became “public Friends,” as they were called. Some remained at home
and served as elders or overseers of their meetings.
The structure that resulted from the identi¬cation of weighty Friends was
to be a sort of federal system with governing bodies organized hierarchically
and geographically “ preparative weekly meetings, regional meetings that met
monthly and quarterly, which were themselves governed by a strong central
body that met annually. Representatives to these bodies emerged organically
from the meetings with their spiritual authority established by the speech-act
process. “[I]n every particular meeting of Friends,” explained William Dews-
bury, “there be chosen from among you, one or two who are most grown in
the power and life, and in discernment in the truth, to take care and charge
over the ¬‚ock of God in that place.” They should also serve as “examples to
the ¬‚ock.”71 There was no single pastor of the meeting.

70 Barclay, Anarchy, 22.
71 William Dewsbury, “The Life of William Dewsbury,” in William Evans and Thomas Evans,
eds., The Friends™ Library: Comprises Journals, Doctrinal Treatises, and Other Writings of the
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 41

The business of establishing the order of church government began in the
1650s at the local level. The institution of the central government was most
dif¬cult; it took around ten years, from the late 1660s to the late 1670s, for it to
take hold. The federal system was a departure from earlier Quaker process in
that it took some of the decision-making power out of the hands of individuals,
especially at the local levels. In the years before the central government was
established, most Quakers believed that a uni¬ed decision at the local level
equaled an infallible decision; in this new federal structure, although the local
meetings retained a degree of autonomy, the only decisions considered to be
infallible were those made at the higher levels of the quarterly and yearly
meetings of elders and ministers. The individual, then, had to submit his or
her will to the meeting as it was guided by the body of the meeting.72 “Every
[member],” wrote John Banks, “ought to be subject and condescending one
unto another, in things which are already settled and established as to church-
order; and not any one say to this or the other, I would be left to my freedom
and liberty.”73
Quaker government was, then, a representative democracy with what we
might call a spiritual aristocracy of leadership. But even with this rule by
the holy, in theory, there was no oligarchy. Barclay wrote: “That God hath
ordinarily, in the communicating of his Will under his Gospel, imployed such
whom he hath made Use of in gathering of his Church, and in feeding and
watching over them, though not excluding others.”74 All members, therefore,
had a role in choosing representatives and all were allowed to attend the
“meeting for business.”75 There was a popular sovereignty in the Quaker
meeting that was more than the theoretical popular sovereignty that existed
in the British government. Because God might give any individual member,
no matter that member™s standing in human society, a clearness he has not
bestowed on the others, all voices need to be reckoned with on an individual
basis according to their weight. Appropriate to this group process, there was
no head of the church to act as leader. The closest Quakers came to having such
a ¬gure was the clerk of the meeting. But his was more a bureaucratic of¬ce
than a position of leadership. It was the clerk™s job to discern the “sense of the

Religious Society of Friends (Philadelphia: J. Rakestraw, 1837“50), 2: 213“310, 233. (Hereafter
referred to Friends™ Library.)
72 Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 30“35.
73 John Banks, “Dear Friends and Brethren, unto whom the salutation of my love reacheth” (1684)
in Friends™ Library, 1: 55.
74 Barclay, Anarchy, 68.
75 “Institution of the Discipline,” Friends™ Library, 1: 109“41, 112. There were “meetings for
worship” and “meetings for business.” The latter was the political assembly of the church
and dealt with the governmental issues within the Society. About the meeting structure and
representation within it, Bauman notes that all members were in theory allowed to attend
meetings at any level, but in practice only the most active attended the Quarterly and Yearly
Meetings. Also, the number of representatives was fairly small. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting,
for example, during the ¬rst half of the eighteenth century, the number of representatives was
around 1 percent of the total membership (For the Reputation of Truth, 65“66).
42 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

meeting,” that is, the collective feeling of the group about which direction to
proceed. The clerk must do this by taking into account what is said, what is
not said, and the weight of the individuals who did or did not speak, and then
combine these communications to determine if there is consensus or whether
to wait until God has “opened the way” further. Contemporary Quakers liken
the dif¬cult job of the clerk to herding cats “ guiding the individuals in the
same direction must be done by persuasive suggestions rather than coercive
measures, and it must take into account the idiosyncrasies of each member.
If the process of discernment demonstrated in the Woolman example was the
ideal, there was always a fundamental and perennial tension between persuasive
efforts Friends might employ and coercive ones that were out of keeping with
the peace testimony. This tension naturally turned on the issue of where power
resided in the body of the meeting “ with those who had or who sought
power. As the church government was being established, coercive power lay
with the leaders. In accordance with good church order, they argued, if anyone
contradicts the “fundamental Truth” that brought “a People” together, that
person should be cast out. The problem, of course, is when all have the ability
to discern God™s Truth at least to some degree, the “Truth” may be hard to
de¬ne. Although most Quakers held that the Truth was ultimately decided
by the group, for detractors of the new church government this raised the
dif¬cult question of how far the positive law of the meeting would extend to
regulate the conscience and behavior of the individual. Barclay was unwavering
on this point: The church had authority over matters of the conscience and
the power to discipline members for transgression of divine order. “That any
particular Persons de Facto, or effectually giving out a positive Judgment, is not
Incroaching nor Imposing upon their Brethren™s Consciences,” he claimed.76
The proof for Barclay about the true meaning of the Light was not only that
the weightiest Friends discerned the need for church government, but also that
Scripture and reason were on their side. The church government, these sources
all agreed, could denounce any doctrine that is contrary to the bonds that held
them together, “the original Constitution,” as he called it.77 And “Whatsoever
tendeth to break that Bond of Love and Peace,” proclaimed Barclay, “must be
testi¬ed against.”78 In the early years, the preponderance of power and the use
of coercion resided with the minority of de facto leaders of the meeting.
A point that should be kept in mind is that, although the positive law was
powerful, the exercise of it was relatively mild for a church government so
adamant about its understanding of Truth. Disciplinary measures and punish-
ments were meted out ¬rmly but gently, and with continued concern for the
spiritual well-being of the transgressor. If there were a dissenter who persisted
in expressing himself in a disruptive way, thus threatening the harmony of the
meeting, the meeting had the latitude “ the responsibility even “ to exclude
that person, to “disown” him. The way Quakers understood it, because such

76 Ibid., 73.
77 As opposed to the written constitution.
78 Barclay, Anarchy, 57.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 43

a dissenter was following his own will rather than that of God, “[b]y refusing
to hear the Judgment of the Church, or the whole Assembly, he doth thereby
exclude himself, and shut out himself from being a Member.”79 Yet the Quaker
belief in perfectionism conditioned how the transgressor was dealt with. Thus
the meeting should not entirely exclude a transgressor from contact with the
faithful and continued spiritual guidance. “[W]e also meet together,” Barclay
explained, “that we may receive an opportunity to understand if any have fallen
under [the Enemy™s] Temptations that we may restore them again.”80 There
was always hope of repairing the relationship and saving a soul. The respon-
sibility for identifying and dealing with disorderly walkers lay not exclusively
with the elders, ministers, and overseers of the body, but “with any other who
discerns them, and is moved to speak to them.”81 In the disciplinary process,
the individual was ¬rst dealt with privately. The transgressor was then brought
before a judicial body, and if he was still unrepentant, he was then disowned.
Even after this, however, representatives from the meeting retained contact with
him and extended the opportunity for him to repent before the meeting and
be restored as a member. And the only way this restoration was possible was
if there were order in a church government that could facilitate and approve
it.82 While this was a gentle means of discipline, there is a kind of force and
tenacity about it that should not be overlooked. Quakers were determined not
just to make converts but to keep people within their fold using all the power
allowed them. They ought to be “a body ¬tly framed together in unity.”83


The Creation of a Written Constitution
In 1669 Quakers codi¬ed their laws and institutions in a written document.84
The Quakers™ government and their implementation of the law was based
previously on a practice akin, but not identical, to the British common law
tradition. According to Friends, the meeting was constituted before the formal
Discipline was established. As they explained it,

it may be safely asserted, that there was never a period in the Society when . . . that order
and subjection which may be said to constitute a discipline did not exist. But as the
number of members increased, those mutual helps and guards which had been, in great
measure spontaneously afforded, were found to require some regular arrangements for
the preserving of order in the church.85


79 Ibid., 14.
80 Ibid., 46.
81 Dewsbury, “The Life of William Dewsbury,” 2: 234.
82 On this disciplinary process, see Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 258“59. For
a contemporary description, see Dewsbury, “The Life of Dewsbury,” 2: 233“34; and Joseph
Pike, “Some Account of the Life of Joseph Pike,” Friends™ Library, 2: 374“75.
83 Banks, “Dear Friends and Brethren . . . ,” in Friends™ Library, 1: 56.
84 An extensive discussion of the Discipline is “Institution of the Discipline” in Friends™ Library,
1:109“41.
85 The Book of Extracts from London Yearly Meeting, quoted in Friends™ Library, 1: 114.
44 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

In the earliest meetings for business, Quakers took detailed minutes of the
proceedings that described the issues and concerns raised by members and
how they were resolved. The implementation of the law was then based on
these records that grew organically from the meetings, which were founded on
Friends™ discernment of the Light, Scripture, reason, and history. For Quakers,
Scripture was the most important history book. It was “A faithful Historical
Account of the Actings of God™s People in divers Ages.”86 The origin of historic
precedent was vital. Tradition and custom not based on the Light, on the other
hand, were invalid. In that Quakers identi¬ed with the primitive church and
saw themselves as acting in the same spirit, apostolic precedent was the most
trustworthy. Barclay wrote,
[W]e are greatly con¬rmed, strengthened and comforted in the joint Testimony of our
Brethren, the Apostles and Disciples of Christ, who by the Revelation of the same Spirit
in the Days of Old believed, and have left upon Record the same Truths; so we having
the same Spirit of Faith, according as it is written, I believe, and therefore I have spoken;
we also believe, and therefore we speak.87

Quakers™ own experiences and actions were valid precedents as well, as
long as they were in keeping with earlier precedents enacted in the living
spirit of Christ. Because precedents were so important for establishing and
further developing their legal code, Friends examined their origins very closely
and tended toward conservatism. They naturally distrusted “Innovators” who
were “given to change, and introducing new Doctrines and Practices, not only
differing, but contrary to what was already delivered in the Beginning; making
Parties, causing Divisions and Rents.”88 A precedent enacted in the wrong spirit
could harm the meeting for years to come.89 Importantly, however, change was
not rejected out of hand. A theory of change formed part of their theology and
ecclesiology and was built into their written constitution.
In 1669 as the leaders worked to establish the central church government,
Fox, acting as a representative of the body, drew up the ¬rst Discipline of the
uni¬ed meeting. The Discipline was the Quakers™ ecclesiastical constitution.
Its title was Canons and Institutions drawn up and agreed upon by the Gen-
eral Assembly or Meeting of the Heads of the Quakers from all parts of the
kingdom . . . January 1668/9, George Fox being their president. Even from the
language in the title, we can see that this document looked very much like the
civil constitutions that were being written at this time; it was a statement of
the origins and purpose of the Quaker meeting and codi¬cation of the law
Friends had discerned through their consciences and transcribed thus far. It
dealt with laws that governed Quakers in relation to one another and, to a
degree, to the outside world. Among the topics covered are the representatives
86 Barclay, Apology, 3.
87 Barclay, Anarchy, 25.
88 Ibid., 9.
89 On the tension between precedent and established conviction in the meeting, see Bauman, For
the Reputation of Truth, 55.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 45

chosen to attend the “General Meetings” to report on needs of the unfortu-
nate and the transgressions of members; appropriate timing and places for the
General Meeting; guidelines for proper deportment among members, includ-
ing peaceable conversation; the education of children; choosing burial places;
and recording important events such as births, deaths, and the persecution of
Friends by the civil government.90
According to Friends, this constitution was, because of its origins in a collec-
tive process of discernment, perfect in its fundamental elements and therefore
sacred and perpetual. The creation of the Discipline was a case in which “the
Judgment of a certain Person or Persons in certain Cases . . . is infallible” and
for this reason, it was appropriate for the General Assembly to “pronounce
it as obligatory upon others.” But here Barclay made a point that was crucial
for the survival of both the written constitution and the ecclesiastical polity.
The infallibility of this judgment “is not because [these men] are infallible,
but because in these Things & at that Time they were led by the infallible
Spirit.”91 Insofar as the written constitution was in keeping with the spirit,
it was perfect and perpetual. If aspects of it were not discerned in the right
spirit, however, they would not be binding. This meant that the written con-
stitution, like the constituted body, was not a static thing. On the contrary,
because Quakers believed in adhering to the “living spirit” as opposed to the
“dead letter,” they left the form, function, and laws of their government open
to change. The written constitution was a living entity, ¬‚exible and amendable
to remain in keeping with the spirit. “Seasons and Times,” explained Barclay,
“do not alter the Nature and Substance of Things in themselves; though it may
cause Things to alter, as to the Usefulness, or not Usefulness of them.”92 In
other words, although the fundamental law embodied in the constitution was
eternal, changes in the written document might be necessary in order to apply
the law as times changed and as God gave man greater clearness of his will. A
constitution, like a man, was imperfect, yet perfectible.
This idea of creating and amending ideas and texts was based on a belief
in progressive revelation in individuals and the community. Quakers therefore
exhibited the same attitude toward the interpretation of all of their theologico-
political texts as they did their constitution. In 1672 they established an “edi-
torial committee” that would screen and approve all works printed under the
auspices of the Society.93 In the reprinted edition of the works of Quaker polit-
ical theorist Isaac Penington, for example, they edited his work not strictly
according to a standard of original intent of the author in keeping with his
historical circumstances, but rather according to the eternal Truth as they had
come to understand it. Accordingly, with due respect to the author™s abilities
90 A more detailed discussion of this constitution can be found in Braithwaite, The Second Period
of Quakerism, 256“60.
91 Barclay, Anarchy, 67.
92 Ibid., 24.
93 Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the
Colonies and Abroad, 1700“1775 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 36.
46 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

of discernment, they deleted passages that they found to be out of keeping with
the Spirit and retained the ones that agreed with it.94
The ¬‚exibility of the Quaker ecclesiastical constitution is evidenced in its
evolution from the seventeenth to the late-eighteenth century. The 1669 Disci-
pline is sixteen pages long; the 1798 Discipline is 135 pages. Over the years it
was rewritten and expanded, and it evolved to include a preamble that stated
more clearly the purpose of the Quaker meeting, new laws that governed the
meeting, clari¬cation or amendment of old laws, and features to make it more
useful as a reference tool for members, such as a table of contents and an index.
The document was printed in limited numbers and then circulated among the
members who then transcribed it for their own use.95 But, as evidence of their
con¬dence in the infallibility of the spirit leading the original General Assem-
bly, the essence of it remained the same, including the very language they used.
There were also some administrative changes. These were the creation of a
system of elders as additional authority structure in 1727 and the institution
of birthright membership around 1737.96 As will be explored in later chapters,
there was also a change in the peace testimony in the mid-eighteenth century.
Other than these, the basic theology and ecclesiology remained the same among
all Friends™ meetings until the Hicksite Separation in 1827“29.
Barclay™s treatise on church government, The Anarchy of the Ranters, writ-
ten after the Canons and Institutions, but before the settlement of London
Yearly Meeting, served a similar function as The Federalist Papers (1787“88)
did in the American founding. It was to clarify the basic principles of the polity;
explain and justify the new, strong central government; and convince the infor-
mally constituted body to accept it in order to make the unity formal. Also
like the implementation of the U.S. Constitution, the structure was imposed on
those who may not have been fully persuaded of its legitimacy.
The constitution of the church, the fundamental law that governed it, and
the structural order it prescribed were all thus divinely ordained antecedents to
the written constitution and the formal structures of government implemented
by man. The man-made document and structures were handed down directly
from God and were merely carried out by man as best he could. Because the
church government, the structures it created, and the processes it prescribed
were all ordained by God, they were sacred and perpetual. But because man

94 D. F. McKenzie, The London Book Trade in the Later Seventeenth Century (Unpublished
manuscript, Cambridge University: Sandars Lectures, 1976), 33. I am grateful to Stephen Foster
for bringing this manuscript to my attention at a Newberry Library seminar.
95 See the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Books of Discipline, HQC. See Michael Warner, “Textu-
ality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitution” in The Letters of the Republic: Publication
and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1990), 97“117. Warner describes the origin, form, and function of a constitution in very
similar ways to this. The constitution is formed through a collective effort and legitimized by
its distribution among and use by the members of the polity. But he dates the origins of this
theory and process at the American Revolutionary period.
96 Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 542, 459.
Origins of Quaker Constitutionalism and Civil Dissent 47

was fallible, and because God did not give man “clearness” of his will all at
once but rather revealed it as he saw ¬t, they were also ¬‚exible and amendable.
By modern categorizations, Quakers were thus bureaucrats of a very peculiar
sort. Theirs was a collective, informal, legal-charismatic authority. In some
important ways, it was opposite from Weber™s legal-rational model and his
charismatic model, although it shared some similarities with both. It was legal
in the sense that it followed the rule of law, but it rejected rationalism as its
foundation. It was charismatic in the sense that authority was perceived to come
from a divine source, but unlike Weber™s charismatic authority, the authority
of the Light was not in a single individual leader, but rather was embodied in
the collective. It was also informal in that the process was, at least in theory,
internalized, thus rendering formal structures unnecessary. On the other hand,
the Quaker model does comport with charismatic leadership in the sense that
the process had to become routinized for the group to survive. But the collective
nature of the charisma kept it from dissipating, as does charismatic power in
individuals. Thus Quaker bureaucracy combined elements of authority that are
contradictory in the usual models.
Quakers used this bureaucratic authority “ their process of walking and
conversation “ for two related purposes: ¬rst, as described previously, they
turned it inward upon their members to preserve the unity of the group by
controlling the individualizing aspects of the Inward Light; and second, they
turned it outward toward civil society and government. But in the latter case,
it was to expand rather than limit individual liberty.


Quaker Civil Disobedience: Preaching by Example
The Quakers™ legal discernment process began as an individual and collective
quietism, or inward withdrawal, and resulted in outward activity.97 In other
words, they looked inward for God™s mandates, which directed them to engage
intensively in the world. The main reasons Quakers organized themselves and
established church government were to worship God properly, organize charity
efforts, and to ensure unity in the meeting. There was another reason, however,
that prompted Friends to organize “ public relations. They needed both to
facilitate their proselytizing and to combat the resulting persecution from the
civil government.
As noted earlier, in the years before the establishment of the Discipline,
Quakers were a much more enthusiastic group than they would later become.
As is true of many new movements with powerful ideological momentum


97 Quietism in general, as well as Quaker quietism in particular, is a complex of theological ideas.
Inward seeking, bodily and spiritual stillness, and a distrust of human abilities are among the
things that characterize Quaker quietism. For a thorough discussion, see Rufus Jones, “Qui-
etism in the Society of Friends,” The Later Periods of Quakerism (Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1970), 1: 57“103. The mistake has been when scholars have interpreted Quaker quietism
to mean a complete and permanent, rather than temporary withdrawal from the world.
48 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

and charismatic members, it was seeking converts. Early Friends were thus
ardent proselytizers. One of the names they called themselves was the “First
Publishers of Truth,” where “to publish” means “to make public” through
all media. They saw themselves like the Apostles, “Instruments” sent by God
to go “forth and [preach] the Gospel in the Evidence and Demonstration of
the Spirit, not in the Enticing Words of man™s Wisdom; but in Appearance, as
Fools and mad to those that judged according to Man.”98 The goal of early
Quakers was to convince the entire world of Quakerism.99 In the civil polity
as in the ecclesiastical, for Quakers, to dissent was to proselytize. They hoped
that “their Words and Testimony pierced through into the inner Man in the
heart, and reached to that part of God in the Conscience.”100 Accordingly, they
traveled as missionaries and public Friends and sent epistles around the world “
to the sultan of Turkey, the emperor of China, and the pope in Rome. And,
moreover, to be true to historical precedent, they did so “in Appearance as”
fools and the insane. These early Friends set out to provoke, to disrupt, and to
become martyrs for the Truth.
The basis of their aggressive campaign was their understanding of God™s
law and the process by which they brought it to the public. Members were
continually “put in mind of the necessity of trying to be good examples to
others, in bearing a faithful testimony for the truth.”101 In setting an example
for the Truth, Friends acted upon their testimonies “ that is, fundamental
points on which divine law and human law and conventions disagreed and
which inhibited liberty of conscience. In following God™s law above human
law, Quakers were giving their testimony on a range of issues that challenged
civil, ecclesiastical, and social order. They took the initiative as individuals to
confront the law.102 In this sense, they were like the antinomians who rejected
the prevailing legal order and followed their own instead.103 But they were not
identical; their law was not purely inward.



98 Barclay, Anarchy, 12. See Hill on “radical madness” (The World Turned Upside Down, 277“
84). He ¬nds that “[s]uch actions were also a deliberate form of advertisement for the cause”
(280).
99 Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England, 127.
100 Barclay, Anarchy, 12.
101 George Churchman, 2nd mo. 5th day, 1781, The Journal of George Churchman, 1759“1813,
8: 22. HQC.

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