Quaker Theology #13 Winter 2007


"Putting the Bible into Perspective:
Hicksites and the Theological Treatment
of the Bible in Progressive Reform"

Jody Cross-Hansen

This article is part of one chapter of my doctoral dissertation–a work-in-progress in which I am examining the Nancy Hewitt hypothesis that perhaps the Hicksite schism was a positive event because it led to liberal reform among women. The jury is still very much out on this hypothesis.

At least in the area of abolition where I have done the most research so far, the hypothesis does not seem to fly–I am not finding the Hicksite women were any more involved in abolitionist activity than Orthodox women, or involved in any different kinds of abolitionist reform. I think that in the area of women’s rights the hypothesis may hold better.

But in the meantime what I have found is that when advocating and performing their activist activities, the Hicksite women reformers seemed to enjoy a greater freedom in their argument. They were not forced to work within the context of the Bible as their ultimate authority or as a sacred object that must be reckoned with. If the Bible contained passages supporting slavery or the oppression of women, the Hicksite women had the freedom to point out that the Bible, after all, was merely a book, written by male human beings in a much earlier era. They seemed to have felt freer to argue from the point of view of logic or contemporary social thought. They were not involved in more or deeper reforms than the Orthodox women were, but they did seem to enjoy a freedom that the Orthodox women did not have, to step aside from the Bible and place it, as Elias Hicks and Hannah Barnard did, in greater perspective.

The Hicksite schism involves many complex theological, sociological, and economic factors, which by practical necessity must remain outside the scope of my study. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the schism to me relates to the Hicksites’ treatment of the Bible, particularly the idea that if there is a conflict between the scripture and the "inner light", that the inner light takes precedence. This was a controversial idea in the 19th century, and it would still be a controversial idea for many contemporary Christians. But of course, this particular idea (and the origins of the Hicksite schism) are originally attributed to Irish Quaker Abraham Shackleton and the female Quaker minister from New York, Hannah Barnard in the late 18th century. 1

Hannah Jenkins Barnard (c.1754-1825) was a "recognized minister" in the Society of Friends. Barnard received recognition prior to 1793, and in 1797 received a certificate to visit England and Ireland, where Barbour and Frost note that she "associated with the so-called New Light, or rationalistic, Friends... who confirmed her doubts about the moral authority of those portions of the Old Testament dealing with war." 2 Barnard’s ideas on the Holy Scripture raised a furor in Europe and as a result, "in 1801 the London Yearly Meeting undertook a full investigation as to whether Hannah Barnard’s beliefs were those of Friends. " 3 The investigation which ensued is fascinating, and bears many resemblances to the earlier trial of Anne Hutchinson in New England. We know most of what we do about Barnard and her case because the controversy reached such heights that detailed tracts were published in Europe on both sides of the controversy . These include accounts by Thomas Foster and William Matthews, who defended Barnard and warned of the dangers of this type of inquisition to the Society.

In the course of the inquisition, which took place on more than one day, Barnard insisted first, on attending the meetings at which her case was to be discussed, and later, on bringing in notes she had kept of the previous meetings. One of the ministers involved in the proceedings remarked later on her worthiness as an opponent in debate: "‘We fought Hannah’ (says he) ‘with very simple weapons; for at reasoning, she was quite too many for all of us.’"4 Note, however, that under the circumstances, this could be a questionable compliment. In this instance and at this time in history the role and value of reason in religion were subjects for debate, especially within the Society of Friends.

In relation to the place of God in advocating the wars described in the Old Testament, Barnard asserted her conviction that:

"...war is, in my full belief, a moral evil, which man has created for himself, by the misapplication of his powers, or, in other words, by the abuse of his free agency; and that it will continue to plague mankind, until they view it in the same light, and resist those lusts from whence it originates." 5

One of Barnard’s detractors explained:

"‘...that it was as consistent with the attributes of the Almighty for him to destroy his rational creatures lives in that way, as by an earthquake, or bodily disease; and though it was indeed very shocking to the feelings of the human mind, to contemplate the horrors of war, yet it appeared to him very easy to reconcile it, and justify the ways of God to man, when he considered that He, the great Giver of life, had it fully in his power, to make ample compensation to those, whom he thus subjected to suffering, and death, in this world, by richly rewarding them in the next!" 6

To this, Barnard responded:

"I was amazed... at hearing such language, from the mouth of a professed ambassador of the Prince of Peace...but replied....yet his thus permitting it, does by no means prove his positive command, or even approbation of the deed." 7

In another similar exchange, Barnard questioned the integrity of the panel of Friends, alluding to their peace testimony:

"Friends...I am astonished to hear men, professing themselves members of a religious society, marked and admired above any other that has risen up for several years past, for their pointed testimony against war, now warmly pleading for it, and that in a manner which metamorphoses moral agents, into mere machines, passive as an earthquake, or an old tree blown down by the wind, and taking away life. Would my Friend be willing his sentiments, as now expressed, should be published to the world?" 8

In regard to the story of Abraham and Isaac, Barnard declared "that whatever was the ground of Abraham’s belief, it was his duty to make the preparations thus described, he was absolutely forbid by the Almighty, to ‘carry the deed into execution.’" 9

On the place of scriptures to the faith, Barnard noted:

"I told them....with regard to the scriptures, I thought it was fully evident from their printed testimonies, that they [Society of Friends] did not consider them the primary, the infallible rule of faith and life, but that this title belongs only to the holy spirit, inwardly communicated for all sufficient saving instruction, and that the scriptures themselves are subject to, and only rightly understood through its divine illuminations.’ To which they replied, ‘So do we.’"

...."As to myself, I confess, I dare not so far stretch myself beyond my measure, as to pass any thing off for doctrine, among my fellow creatures, that does not appear rationally consistent, and plain to me." 10

At one point Barnard defended herself by comparison to Robert Barclay, "for he made use of learned and logical arguments, that I was not mistress of; and had also laid it down, as a certain maxim, that the Spirit of God never contradicts right reason." 11

Further, on the infallibility of scripture, Barnard warned of :

"...the baneful effects of attaching divine infallibility to that book. And I repeat my belief, that it does not belong to any society, or book, but to the great source of eternal truth only; a sufficient portion whereof, having enlightened every man that comes into the world, it would lead him right, if he attended to it, and out of the spirit of war, and every other immoral action, and disposition." 12

At one point in the dialogue one of the elders suggested that they might have all been better off if Barnard had been less public about her views:

"At length one of them expressed his regret, at my having openly avowed my sentiments; saying ‘Suppose thou had believed them, if thou had only kept them to thyself, it could have made no difficulty and Friends would have remained quiet, but the publishing them had done the mischief, and occasioned much trouble to himself, and many others." 13

In the end, after multiple meetings with Barnard, the elders came

to conclusions very close to their original ruling. That was,

"It having been made appear evidently to this meeting, that Hannah Barnard holds sentiments concerning some parts of the Old Testament contrary to the belief of the society, from its first rise to the present time, it is therefore the judgment of this meeting, that she has separated herself from them, and consequently it is highly improper that she should travel in the capacity of a minister among them; and it is this meeting’s advice to her to return home." 14

Barnard had appealed that decision and pressed the group to be more explicit in their complaints:

"...examine the subject, and either discharge me from the bonds and censure, thus laid upon me, or clearly specify, and furnish me with reasons, for approving, and continuing the same." 15

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