FGC’s “Uniform Discipline” Rediscovered

Published in “Quaker History,” Vol, 89, Fall 2000

Charles E. Fager

 [NOTE: The FULL TEXT of this “Uniform Discipline” Is now online in a PDF file.]

One of the most thrilling feats of Quaker scholarship known to me is Henry Cadbury’s discovery and reconstruction of George Fox’s suppressed Book of Miracles.

While hardly in the same league, I felt the spirit of Cadbury’s investigative erudition hovering somewhere close by one morning this spring when, reading a report on the proceedings of Friends General Conference for 1926, the following closing paragraph appeared:

“The Discipline committee, appointed at Richmond in 1922, presented a printed report consisting of 140 pages. It presents a clear conception of Friendly faith, principles and business procedure, in modern language, so that not only those accustomed to Friends’ expressions but any interested stranger can understand. The Conference passes this proposed discipline on to its constituent Yearly meetings with the hope they will adopt it as way opens.”

(FI 7th mo. 31, 1926: 623)

What this obscure paragraph disclosed was that FGC had once had a Uniform Discipline!

The very idea seemed preposterous, utterly foreign to the pluralistic — not to say sprawling — ethos of FGC as I have known it over the past 30 years or so. Besides, while serving for almost a decade on that body’s Central and Executive Committees, I had never heard a single reference to any such document in any session, or read of it in any report or publication. There must have been some mistake.

Moreover, such a project also seemed entirely out of step with what I knew of the Hicksite Quaker tradition of which FGC was the heir. Their forebears’ opposition to Orthodox efforts to define and enforce religious uniformity was a key factor in the Separations of 1827-28 which brought their branch of Quakerism into being. For that matter, controversy had long dogged the Orthodox yearly meetings own labors in this direction, most notably among those affiliated with the Five Years Meeting. That body’s Uniform Discipline, developed in 1900, had been a source of endless controversy among its member groups, especially concerning the place of the Richmond Declaration of Faith within it. For FGC to now be undertaking something similar seemed totally out of character. (Mekeel, Chapters VII & VIII.)

The staff at the Friends Historical Library, where I was doing this reading, shared my puzzlement: they had not heard of any FGC Uniform Discipline either. But Mary Ellen Chijioke, the FHL’s very resourceful Curator, went foraging in the depths of their collection, and soon returned with a 140-page volume bearing the nondescript title, “Suggested Revision of the Rules of Discipline and advices of the Religious Society of Friends.”

The date was right: 1926; but it was catalogued as a draft revision of the Philadelphia (Hicksite) Yearly Meeting’s Discipline, a venture which was completed the following year.

Closer inspection of the title page, however, showed this classification to be in error. In small print near the bottom of the page was an overlooked, telltale notice:

“Presented for consideration by the Revision Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, appointed 1923, co-operating with the Uniform Discipline Committee, appointed 1923, by Friends’ General Conference.”

And below that, in still smaller type: “This book is offered as the text for a Uniform Discipline for our [FGC’s] seven Yearly Meetings.”

So there was the proof: FGC had indeed once had a Uniform Discipline.

Or had it? How come none of us in the FHL Reading Room, some extremely knowledgeable about FGC history, had ever heard of it? Could the document, which was after all only “suggested” to the FGC yearly meetings for their “consideration,” have fallen on deaf ears and been lost in some obscure eddy of history?


Not at all, we learned. Soon there was a stack of these member YM’s Disciplines on the table, and they yielded more remarkable facts: All were revised between 1926 and 1930, and all but one did indeed incorporate this Uniform Discipline, or almost all of it. Yet for some reason, the FGC offering was not identified in them as an Ur-text or archetype. (The variant was from New York Yearly Meeting, of which more presently.)

This process was confirmed by a review of the FGC Central Committee minutes: They show that a Uniform Discipline Committee was appointed at sessions held in Richmond, Indiana in 1922 (CC, 8/30/1922, p. 115), with William C. Biddle of Philadelphia YM as Clerk. Biddle reported on its work, including consultations with the member Yearly Meetings, each year until 1926, when the Central Committee’s minutes of 7/9/1926 (p.171) noted its approval and submission to member Yearly Meetings, exactly as stated in the Friends Intelligencer report.

“Modern language,” however, was by no means the only innovation in the Uniform Discipline’s [hereafter UD] pages. While there has not been time yet for a comprehensive textual analysis, even a relatively cursory comparison of this Discipline with its immediate Hicksite predecessors disclosed substantial changes in substance as well.


Here are a few of the UD’s features which stand out:

1. “Dearly Beloved” — Individualism and The Elders of Balby

The UD begins by showcasing a quotation familiar to most unprogrammed Friends today, but which was new in Hicksite Disciplines, from the Elders of Balby in 1656:

“Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

This statement, the UD is careful to note, was “the earliest advice on Christian practice issued by any General body of Friends.”

The Balby quote was not entirely unknown among Friends then; it had also appeared near the beginning of the 1921 revision of London YM’s Discipline. It can even be found in the Philadelphia Orthodox Discipline also published in 1926. However, the Orthodox placed it at the very end of their book, under the heading “Universality of the Light,” and joined it with a statement from Robert Barclay praising God for having “chosen us and…sent us forth to preach this, the everlasting gospel unto all: Christ nigh to all, the light in all…that men may come and apply their minds to it.” (P-O. 1926, p.122)

For FGC Quakerism, as the UD conceived it, Balby’s eschewing of “rules and forms” in favor of being “guided” was not to be just a nice thought; it was intended as a touchstone. One clear outcome of this stance was a ringing affirmation of the centrality of the individual: As the UD took pains to point out, among Friends, “Each person must prayerfully seek individual guidance and follow his own conception of God’s leading.” (UD, p.8)

How far this manifesto moved FGC from earlier conceptions of Quakerism can be seen on the first page of the 1879 Philadelphia Orthodox Discipline, which opened with an affirmation of corporate identity which had been standard in Philadelphia Disciplines since at least 1806:

“As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men, to inspire them with degrees of the same universal love and good will by which the dispensation of the gospel was ushered in, these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in spirit, according to the direction of the holy Lawgiver; as also for the exercise of a tender care over each other, that all may be preserved in unity of faith and practice….For this important end, and as an exterior hedge of preservation to us against the many temptations and dangers to which our situation in this world exposes us, rules for the government of the Society have been made and approved from time to time…” (P-O, 1879, p. v-vi)

2. A New Congregational Polity

Another outcome of FGC’s decentralism was institutional. In the UD, the center of organizational gravity was made decisively congregational: “The Monthly Meeting,” it declared, “is the fundamental working unit of the Society. Further, the local meetings’ relationship with larger bodies was expressed in consultative language: they “report” to Quarterly and Yearly Meetings (UD, p.81).

By contrast, as late as 1918 the Philadelphia Hicksite Discipline still described meetings in terms of “…their subordination to one another (emphasis added),” in which Monthly Meetings are “accountable to” Quarters, which were in turn “accountable to” the Yearly Meeting. (P-H 1918, pp. 12-13) The Philadelphia Orthodox Discipline of 1926 flatly restated the traditional view: “the Yearly Meeting is superior to Quarterly; Quarterly to Monthly; Monthly to Preparative Meetings. Our procedure provides for the furnishing of reports and other information by subordinate to superior meetings….”(P-O 1926, p. 62, emphasis added)

And not least as an indication of the UD’s novus ordo seclorum Quakeriana, it included an innovative procedure for establishing monthly meetings outside the bounds, and potentially without the approval of, existing meetings, by direct affiliation with FGC itself:

“When there is a group of Friends belonging to two or more Monthly Meetings, one of which is not a part of the Friends’ General Conference, application to form a Monthly Meeting should be made to the Friends General Conference, or its appropriate committee.”

(UD, p. 84)

It is not clear whether this provision was an actual FGC initiative, as much as an effort to respond to the growing presence of unaffiliated meetings.

3. An End to Recording Ministers

The role of recorded ministers and their “select bodies” had long been in decline among Hicksites generally. (Bradley) Lucretia Mott was an early and militant advocate of their elimination. Here is what she wrote about it in a recently discovered 1847 letter to a sympathetic cousin, after clashes with “select Meetings” in New York:

“Long years’ reflection and observation have convinced & confirmed me in the opinion that our Select body, as also the Hierarchy or ecclesiastical establishments, & privileged orders in all sects, are the main obstacles to progress– and until the true Freedom of Christ–the equality of the Brethren is better understood, we shall do little by organizing & re-organizing. So believing I visited ‘our Brethren’ & spake against Select Mtgs. & in favor of Women’s Rights, but producing no other effect on the powers that be than increased opposition.” (Mott letter, p. 3)

Mott’s was not the only critical voice, however, and over time the complaints gathered force. Hicksite Disciplines from the late 1800s show the once-August and autonomous Meetings of Ministers and Elders, whose members were appointed for life, being steadily reduced in weight and status.

For instance, Hicksites in New York in 1907 changed the name to Ministry and Counsel, and set 3-year renewable limits on ministerial “acknowledgments.”(NYYM, pp.41-3) In Philadelphia, as late as 1894, Ministers and Elders were still appointed for indefinite terms. But they were also sternly admonished that “None of the said meetings of Ministers and Elders are in anywise to interfere with the business of any meeting for discipline….” (P-H 1894, p. 22) And by the time of Philadelphia’s 1918 Discipline, they had been displaced by a Committee on Ministry and Counsel, whose members served specified four-year terms, with no provision whatever for recording or “acknowledging” ministers. (P-H 1918, pp.18-25).

The FGC UD took up and generalized Philadelphia’s elimination of the practice of recording. In the place of ministers, there were to be standing committees of Ministry and Counsel for Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, whose main duty was to “foster the spiritual life of our Meetings for Worship.” (UD, p.102) About the only visible remnant of these groups’ former status was the privilege of appointing their own Clerks (UD, p.92). This elimination of the office was incorporated in all the FGC member YM’s disciplines which followed the UD’s appearance.

No account of the Discipline Committee’s reasons for the change has yet surfaced. But the general sentiment in FGC was likely suggested by this terse summary of a Round Table session on worship led by Elton Trueblood at the 1934 Cape May Conference:

“Recorded ministry was discussed. It makes the good speakers more responsible, but makes the poor speakers less responsible. It was decided that this is contrary to the principle of religious democracy held by Friends. Many meetings have ceased recording their ministry in recent years.”

(FI 8/11/1934, p. 509)

4. Theology

While insisting that “The Society of Friends has no formal creed,” the section entitled “Basic statement of Faith,” nonetheless presents some pretty definite theological theses, among them (all from UD, pp. 7-9):

Divine immanence: “Friends believe that God is immanent in the world of men and things; and that ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’”

Universalism: “God endows every human being with a measure of His own Divine Spirit by which He reveals Himself to all His children.”

Jesus as an Ideal Man: “This manifestation of God in man was most perfectly exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth. As we submit ourselves to the leadings of the Christ Spirit we are enabled to live a life of love in conformity with the will of our Heavenly Father.” Also: “Friends have always believed that the spirit which animated Jesus of Nazareth was fully divine and that his teachings, example and sacrificial life were the fullest revelation in humanity of the will of God and that to try sincerely to follow him in spirit and in truth is the true Christian life.”

The Bible as Helper: “In the historic Christian revelation as recorded in the Bible, especially in the life and teachings of Jesus, the same spirit is recognized as that which works in the individual soul. These records are helpful in guiding individuals in their search for fuller knowledge of spiritual things and in testing and clarifying their impressions of truth and duty.”

Private Religion: “No mediator, rite, or sacrament is a necessary condition of worship or communion. All that is necessary is a seeking spirit on the part of a worshiper.”

The Personal Church: “The essential purpose of religious organization is to foster and encourage the spiritual life of men and bring the human spirit into intimate relations with the Divine Spirit….As the relationship with God is a purely personal one, the basis of the Meeting is silent communion, that each may seek help and guidance for his own difficulties and problems, as well as for those of the group.” (UD p. 22,23)

Just how distinctive this “non-creedal” set of doctrines was can be easily shown by a comparison with the Philadelphia Hicksite Discipline of 1918. It still retained a section, under the heading of “Conduct and Conversation,” which stated:

All anyone in membership with us…shall deny the divinity of Christ, the immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit, or the inspiration of the Scriptures, he ought to be tenderly treated with for his instruction, and the convincement of his understanding, that he may experience repentance and forgiveness.” (P-H 1918, p.50.) (Earlier editions went on to specify disownment as the consequence if such “repentance” was not soon forthcoming.) Nothing remotely like this is to be found in the UD, or its progeny.

In addition, the 1926 Philadelphia Orthodox Discipline, while speaking rather circumspectly, still authorized disownment as a last resort, “If any of our members…profess beliefs or engage in practices which are not in accord with the gospel of Christ….”P-O 1926 p.101). It also made clear that “Friends do not differ from other Protestant Christian denominations in the essentials of Christian faith, but it was the great concern of George Fox and the early Friends to turn men away from form and creed to reality and life.” And: “With other Christians, Friends believe in God the Father of omnipotent power and infinite love. They believe in his Divine Son, Jesus Christ, who came to reveal to men His nature and His love, and whose sinless life, sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection offer the way for our salvation.”(both, P-O 1926, p. ix)

The depth of these contrasts should not be overdrawn. The processes of contact and conciliation which resulted in a merger of the two Philadelphia yearly meetings in 1955 were already underway. By 1935, the Orthodox Discipline was revised to insert a section on “United Meetings,” which acknowledged that “…there are neighborhoods…in which our members are joining in worship, or conducting First Day schools, or holding meetings for business, with members of the [Hicksite] yearly Meeting and other Friends, and…in some cases such groups have merged completely…” (P-O, 1935, p. 66)


The Discipline’s Fate

Between 1926 and 1930, all seven FGC Yearly Meetings revised their Disciplines. In 1927, William C. Biddle, Clerk of the UD committee, reported to the FGC Central Committee that APhiladelphia (YM) has adopted the Uniform Discipline,” and added that he expected that Baltimore Yearly Meeting would do so as well, “with a few local modifications.” (CC 7/1/27, p. 188) The next year he told of further progress in Baltimore and Illinois, adding that he expected Indiana and Genesee Yearly Meetings to adopt it shortly. (They did.) The only negative news was that “New York has not adopted it.”(CC Ibid.)

New York did retain its own distinctive text in its 1930 revision. However, much UD influence can be detected in it, from the prominent placement of the Balby quote, to the abolition-by-silence of the recording of ministers. But New York was not alone in retaining its individuality. None of the FGC yearly meetings adopted the UD exactly as it was written. For one thing, the phraseology about “the Christ Spirit” does not show up in any of the other Disciplines I have seen.

Nevertheless, the UD clearly shaped a generation of Disciplines, and many of its key points can still be identified in current Disciplines of FGC-affiliated yearly meetings.

Overcome by Events?

As is true of all such books among Quakers, FGC’s UD was expected to be subject to review and revision. In 1928 the Central Committee, after noting William Biddle’s report on the document’s progress among constituent bodies, minuted that, “The Discipline Committee is retained.” (CC 7/7/28 p. 188)

And in 1941, an effort to revise the Uniform Discipline was underway, or at least trying to get underway. A set of minutes turned up of a meeting of the “Committee on Discipline in Friends General Conference,” held in Baltimore, with “many Baltimore Friends” in attendance. However, the minutes also indicate that, unlike the 1926 effort, this initiative was not so well-received:

“Baltimore Friends,” note the Minutes, “recommend that no change be made in the Discipline at this time, because the Discipline as it now exists is in use by the different Yearly Meetings, and changes should not be made unless and until the Yearly Meetings all approve.” (Minutes, 11/28/1941) There were also objections to several of the proposed new Queries, on topics ranging from tobacco to preventing war, as well as to the very idea of having a common set of Queries for all the constituent yearly meetings. (Ibid.)

Other records of this revision process have not yet turned up; but it seems doubtful that much came of it. Looming over the Baltimore session was the shadow of imminent U.S. entry into World War Two, which drastically changed most agendas, both inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends. (It is also worth noting here that a parallel effort in Five Years Meeting in the same period, aimed at revising its Uniform Discipline, ultimately failed as well.) (Williams, p. 266.)

Not long after the war, the FGC scene was subject to additional major changes: some of its meetings, including Genesee and Ohio, disappeared by laying down or merger. Then a move toward reunification began rolling through its heartland from Philadelphia, to New York and Baltimore. In each of these, new Disciplines had to be written, encompassing a much wider range of perspectives and tradition. In 1959, a reunited New England Yearly Meeting also joined. New England had no early Hicksite heritage, but was drawn in by the force of its new, strongly individualistic, formerly independent meetings.

And then, before anyone quite realized it, the Sixties were upon us all. And somewhere amid all this continuing change, FGC’s 1926 landmark got lost in the shuffle; and not only lost, but forgotten.

This brief treatment hardly does justice to FGC’s Uniform Discipline. There is much more to be learned about its origins, shaping, and impact. That it could be so influential, yet so completely forgotten, underlines the fact that study of FGC history, like that of most of Quakerism in the twentieth century, is still terra incognita. It also suggests that many other, doubtless even more illuminating discoveries await those intrepid enough to embark on its exploration.




CC ‘Friends General Conference Central Committee, Minutes, in the Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore PA.

FI = Friends Intelligencer.

NYYM = New York Yearly Meeting. Discipline, various editions.

P-H = Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite), 15th and Race Sts. Discipline, various editions.

P-O = Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox), 302 Arch St. Discipline, various editions.

UD = Uniform Discipline. Philadelphia, FGC, 1926.


Bradley, A. Day. “Progressive Friends in Michigan and New York.” Quaker History, Vol. 52,

No. 2, Autumn, 1963, pp.95-103.

Mekeel, Arthur. “Quakerism & A Creed,” Philadelphia 1923.

Minutes from “A Meeting of the Committee on Discipline of Friends General Conference,” held at Park Avenue Meeting House, in Baltimore, Maryland on Eleventh Month 2nd.[1941].” (In the Friends Historical Library.)

Mott, Lucretia. Letter to her cousin Nathaniel Barney, June 7, 1847. Reproduced in the Lucretia Coffin Mott Correspondence, Winter 2000. p. 3. Pomona, CA: Lucretia Coffin Mott Project.

Williams, Walter. The Rich Heritage of Quakerism. Newberg, Oregon, 1987.

Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.

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