Landmark: Manchester 1895

Chuck Fager

Seventy years after Hannah Barnard was rebuked and sent packing by London Yearly Meeting, British Friends were still getting in trouble for openly challenging evangelical dogmas.

In 1872, for instance, Edward Bennett, who had once been a respected monthly meeting clerk, was disowned for voicing doubts about literalist versions of biblical inspiration, the divinity of Christ, and the doctrine of the atonement. The same year, David Duncan of Manchester was likewise disowned, precipitating a small separation there; Duncan had been a leader in a vigorous young adult study group which had been looking into evolution, new approaches to Scripture and other risky subjects,

As late as 1879, the Yearly Meeting epistle doggedly reiterated what had been the official London line for more than forty years:

“We have ever accepted the Scriptures…as the authentic record of the truth of God, given by his inspiration….To the Christian the Old Testament comes with the solemn and repeated attestation of his Lord…. Such a knowledge as this is still the true antidote to that speculative unbelief which under the character, it may be, of `advanced science’ or `higher culture’, pervades so much of the popular reading of the present day.”

In addition to upholding strict doctrinal standards, the evangelical hierarchy was increasingly engaged in promoting a “home mission” movement, which involved sending paid evangelistic workers out among the “lower classes.” This movement attracted many working people, who were treated to literacy classes, Bible study, and, increasingly, programmed worship. There were even murmurs about introducing the pastoral system to it and thus to English Quakerism.

Nevertheless, behind the solid front presented by the ringing affirmations of the annual epistles, currents of dissent were gaining strength among British Quakers, especially younger ones. The expulsions of Bennett and Duncan, for instance, were “the last great heresy hunt in London Yearly Meeting,” as one historian puts it; fifty Manchester Friends signed a statement denouncing the treatment of Duncan, without endorsing his views. These young Friends also followed the harrying of Joel and Hannah Bean by evangelical leaders in America, and this reinforced their resistance to introducing what was called “the one man system.”

These currents began increasingly to ruffle the surface, until in 1895 they joined into an irresistible wave of change. This wave crested at a conference in Manchester in Eleventh Month, 1895. The centennial of this watershed event will be marked by a gathering in England, but it is almost unknown among American Friends, which is too bad.

The key figure in this liberalizing trend was a highly-regarded young Friend, John Wilhelm Rowntree. At the 1892 Yearly Meeting he had spoken eloquently of sinking briefly into unbelief, then having his faith miraculously renewed. Such redemption stories appealed to the evangelicals; but Rowntree went further.

The faith he had recovered was not that of the evangelicals. Unlike them, Rowntree welcomed the new approaches to the Bible, science and social problems that were stirring all around him. He was sure they could be used consistently with authentic original Quakerism, and could help in the Society’s renewal. But, he said, in his time of trial he had not been helped by the narrow attitudes and stereotyped doctrinal sermons so often heard from his “revered elders,” the evangelical ministers. In fact, he insisted, few members of his generation were being edified thereby, and in truth the Society was losing many of its most promising youth.

How oppressive evangelical rule was felt to be by many shows in a sarcastic joke about the elders told by John Wilhelm’s older cousin Joshua. “I hope it could no longer be said of them, as was said once to a Friend, asked if he were not a member of the meeting for Ministry and Oversight,–`I should have thought thou wast old enough, and rich enough, and dry enough to be a member of that meeting.'”

Thus one can imagine the weighty older Friends being impressed despite themselves by the young Rowntree’s fervor and eloquence. His family was a pillar of the Society; he had shown himself an able businessman, always an important qualification; they knew he was right about the exodus of bright young Friends, and the restiveness of many who had remained. Something, clearly, Needed To Be Done, if only to keep the lid on.

So a committee was appointed, on Home Missions. When it first met in 1894, the liberals were disappointed because most of its members were evangelicals, and it seemed firmly under establishment control.

But also among the members were John Wilhelm’s older cousin, Joshua Rowntree, and W.C. Braithwaite. Braithwaite’s father, Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, was perhaps the weightiest evangelical minister of the day; but his son was to become one of the most distinguished liberals. Joshua Rowntree was likewise respected by both the establishment and the liberals; but as we have seen in his comment about the elders, his sympathies lay with the latter. Joshua had also been a successful politician, as mayor and Member of Parliament, and between them, he and Braithwaite proceeded to carry out a brilliant piece of either Friendly diplomacy or a palace coup, take your pick.

First came a carefully-prepared proposal for a conference on a vaguely-worded list of current concerns. It was eased through the Home Missions committee, and then through the 1895 Yearly Meeting, without being made more specific about what the actual program might look like. Then when a sub- committee was named to plan the program, Joshua Rowntree was the chair and only non-evangelicals were selected.

By the time the full Home Missions Committee was presented with the detailed conference program it was October, barely a month before the gathering, and the overwhelmingly liberal list of speakers (which included every member of the planning sub- committee) had already been printed in the British Friend for all to see. There was, evidently, hell to pay in the committee session; but the evangelicals had been outmaneuvered and were faced with a fait accompli.

When push came to shove, part of what kept the Home Mission Committee from squelching the Manchester Conference was the overwhelming response it had evoked. The idea hit a nerve and opened the floodgates; close to 1300 Friends and attenders showed up, a huge crowd by Quaker standards, then or now. Secular reporters also showed up, and their dispatches appeared in major papers all over England.

Participants were not only excited, they were also intrepid. They heard forty-one separate addresses in four days, with only brief times for discussion, all the while under strict instructions to maintain customary Quaker decorum by neither applauding nor booing. The participants were also treated to a new high-tech innovation, electric lighting.

Yet if the evangelicals were not in control at Manchester, they were not excluded or silent. Several of their leading ministers, including the venerable Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, were on the program. The elder Braithwaite did his best, insisting that

“…we are not here to suggest any change in the position which our Religious Society has ever maintained in relation to all that our Heavenly Father has been pleased to reveal concerning Himself in the Gospel of His Beloved Son….”

He also sought in particular to shore up the evangelical view of biblical authority: his lecture contained fifteen scripture references(a typical evangelical Yearly Meeting epistle in that era included about forty), and cited a Professor Driver on “the general conclusions of what is popularly styled `the Higher Criticism,'” to the effect that “`These conclusions …do not touch either the authority or the inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old Testament.'”

Luke Woodard, an American Quaker revivalist minister, added his voice to this diminishing chorus:

“It will be our experience that those who preach the great foundation truths, Christ and Him crucified, for the salvation of men, entire sanctification through the baptism and indwelling of the Holy Ghost; these are the most successful in reaching human hearts and in bringing them to a knowledge of the truth.”

This was standard stuff. But at Manchester, it was decidedly a minority view, and that fact was clearly exhilarating to many in attendance. J. Rendel Harris, a rising young biblical scholar, spoke shortly after the elder Braithwaite, and stated the new attitude flatly:

“We have been told in these meetings that the Scriptures are the ultimate test of truth; if that un-Quakerly proposition be true, then criticism of them is a gross impertinence; but the internal discords of all Scriptures, and of all explanations of Scriptures, ought to be enough to convince us that we have no infallibility in the house, not a drop!”

Furthermore, the insurgents insisted, they were not adulterating Quakerism with modernist notions, but rather getting back to its roots, in order to better face up to modern times as authentic, rooted Friends; they, not the evangelicals, were most true to the spirit and belief of the first Friends, especially when it came to the Bible. Thomas Hodgkin put it this way:

“Two centuries ago, before a single scientific difficulty had been discovered in the Scriptures, the early preachers of Quakerism protested against that unwise and untrue mode of speaking about the Bible which has caused all the difficulty. George Fox was a man who had studied the Bible from cover to cover….

“[Fox] was filled with reverence for its teaching, and was willing to spend long years in noisome dungeons rather than violate that which the Bible taught him was the command of Christ. Yet for all this he steadily refused, and his consistent followers have to this day refused to call that precious book `The word of God.’ I must believe that he was divinely taught and guided to see the dangerous consequences to faith which would flow from that mistaken title.”

Perhaps the most striking expression of this new attitude came from John William Graham, who was to be one of the most thorough liberals of this new generation. Graham compared the scriptures to an ancient sacred building, in a richly-developed simile which is worth quoting in full(I have divided the first paragraph for easier reading):

“Over the Bible a change has come like the process of restoration of an ancient church, covered formerly with a uniform coat of speckless and infallible whitewash, thickened and renewed by the devotion of generations, but obscuring the construction, concealing features of architectural interest, all its past vicissitudes, and the thoughts of its builders. The first effect of such a process is defacement, desecration and plentiful dust. we cannot then just worship there at all.

“That epoch is now over; the dust is cleared; the defacement is too complete to deface any longer, and it is found that nothing has been lost but the late accretions. The old building, with all its rugged edges, its patched-up gaps, and its evident repairs, is before us now, in many styles of architecture, with the enemy’s cannon-balls sticking here and there in its masonry, and with the gargoyles, past spirits of terror, gaping from its spouts. We love the pathos of it, and admire the richness. We really know it now partially, and for the first time. This knowledge has become part of the durable stock of mankind. It will never be lost or reversed. The clergy know it and their flocks soon will.

“All this George Fox and Robert Barclay would have welcomed. The claim for the mechanical infallibility of the Scriptures rests on less than any other great intellectual position known to me. It has nothing to rest on but the ill-informed views of the bishops of the early centuries, and against the dicta of those bishops Friends are in revolt on every kind of question. When we cease to be afraid of the competition of other books with the Bible, we shall find out by how much it excels them all.”

There was much more along similar lines, stretching late into the evening. The timing of the session has the savor of careful tactical thinking about it, as the formal papers spilled over and used up most of the little time for discussion. For as the planners must have expected, some of the evangelicals present were aghast at what they had heard, and were on their feet as soon as the floor was opened.

The first Friend to speak, though, suggested that they simply adjourn, because no words could add to the “excellent papers” they had just heard. But an evangelical immediately retorted that, “I heartily support the proposal on the understanding that many of us don’t agree with many of the things that have been said.”

To this another shocked Friend added, “I believe the last point must be emphasized, or many of us will go home exceedingly burdened. If all of these things go forth to the public as the views of the Society of Friends the position will be exceedingly serious. Much has been said that I can heartily agree with, but much that has pained many here.”

The transcript notes that “A large number of Friends briefly concurred.” Then “A Friend” said: “I feel concerned to utter my earnest protest against the views uttered here to-night. It seems to me that this Conference, representing London Yearly Meeting, cannot do justice to itself without placing on record a protest.”

But the next Friend recognized, Samuel J. Capper, declared to the contrary that, “Many of us feel that never in our lives have we so appreciated the privilege of being Quakers as to-night.”

The time was up, but another protester urged that “…if we cannot continue this discussion to-night, there should be an opportunity tomorrow morning for many to speak on the papers read to-night. I do not think it would be right for us not to have the opportunity to do so.” The chairman said he would ask the Arrangements Committee to allot some time, and the session closed.

The next morning, however, the committee declined to interrupt its packed schedule, and the conference went on. There were fewer objections thereafter; perhaps the elders realized that they had not been beaten as much as simply swept aside. What, in the end, were they going to do?–the most determined and eloquent dissidents were their own sons and daughters.

And so the Conference’s assault on the establishment–for such it was, even if expressed in decorous Victorian phraseology–continued and broadened, under the headings of “The More effectual Presentation of Spiritual Truth,” and “The Vitalizing of our Meetings For Worship.”

Here the liberals insisted that the style, as well as the content of the evangelical-dominated ministry was a deadening force in British Quakerism, tedious and anti-intellectual as well as oppressive. John Wilhelm Rowntree had already begun the barrage in the opening session, lamenting that:

“I believe it is sadly too true that spiritual pride, false respectability and unmanly deference to mere wealth or title, have crept into our Church; and wherever they are still to be found we see the melancholy spectacle of an invertebrate Christianity, which in its sluggish self-complacency is even ignorant of its weakness.

“A lady recently told me, `I had thought of becoming a Friend, but I found you were a pearl of such great price that I had not the spiritual pride to join you.'”

Now a woman Friend, Anne Warner Marsh, joined the onslaught, and it is not hard to hear the accumulated anger of a generation between her lines:

“…We need, and I believe it is God’s will we should have, in the ministry intellectual force as well as spiritual power, if we are to appeal successfully to the cultured and educated classes. The men and women are yet to come to the front who shall take this part with the courage and humble assurance of some of the first messengers of the Quaker Church.”

She then took aim at the British evangelicals’ flirtations with programmed worship and pastoralism:

“It is, at this moment of the world’s history, the gravest possible error to forsake our colours, or even to try to emulate others who may seem to be doing greater and better work. Especially does it seem to me that we need to enter the clearest and most emphatic protest against all ritualism and priestly assumption. The magnitude of this danger to the Christian church is only too apparent, and the time may not be far distant when we shall have to join hands with others, the world over, in a righteous crusade against this insidious and deadly snare to Christian liberty.”

Silvanus Thompson, a mathematician and scientist, was equally forceful (again, the paragraph is divided):

“Having received the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child [a Friend] may as a little child fearlessly ask questions about even the most sacred things. He may have unexpected lessons to learn. He may have to learn that not all of that which was for centuries received as truth will pass the test; but he will not learn in vain if amid all he preserves unsullied the heart of the little child.

“That was the spirit which animated Fox and Penn, Barclay and Woolman,–men denounced in their lives as heretics and subverters of the truth,–men who, filled with the spirit of Christ, followed out their convictions, and took their part in the movements of their age, fighting against ecclesiastical domination, and idle forms of ritual, against dogmatic orthodoxy, against worldliness and time-honoured social wrongs; and were by the grace of God what they were, lights lighting the world. To their own Master they stood or fell: before no lesser tribunal would they hold themselves bound to give account.”

“…My point then is that modern thought will clear away only the human error that has grown up around divine truth; and that, of the accretions which it will clear away, the greater part have already been renounced by Friends. But that which is divine truth, modern thought will leave wholly untouched, or will touch but to confirm. The Kingdom of God cometh not by observation; neither will it depart by observation; the Kingdom of God is within you.”

These speakers have been quoted extensively because it seemed the best way to begin to do justice to the flood of assertive energy that flowed through the Manchester meetinghouse during those remarkable sessions; there is much more of such eloquence in the nearly 400 pages of its proceedings.

Yet for all the gales of talk, the Manchester Conference did not really “do” anything. It set no policies, made no decisions, and adopted no minutes beyond perfunctory cover letter notes for the transcript it sent up to the Yearly Meeting.

Nonetheless, it shook British Quakerism to the core. Most historians agree with Richenda Scott’s judgment that “The Manchester Conference is one of the great turning points in the history of the Society.” John William Graham looked back on it more than thirty years later as the moment when “Liberal Friends found one another, discovered that they were not isolated people under local disapproval, but a body with the future in their hands.”

For another participant, William Littleboy, who later became a highly respected Clerk of London Yearly Meeting, the tensions in play were still vivid in 1913: “It was a critical occasion,” he recalled, “and but for the over-ruling Hand, might easily have resulted in a separation.” Or a heresy hunt, had it been Manchester 1872, rather than 1895.

But it is too much to say, as Roger Wilson, a more recent writer does, that at the Conference “…the evangelical dominance in Yearly Meeting evaporated, abruptly but peacefully.” The evangelical establishment had been undermined, but it was by no means gone: It managed to stave off a liberalized revision of London’s Faith and Practice for almost thirty more years.

For that matter, the continuing conflict soon reached into the area of peace witness, when England fought the Boer War in South Africa a few years later. Faced with war fever, censorship, jingoism, and atrocities (the Boer war saw the invention of the concentration camp–by British forces) liberal Friends, including most of the younger leaders who had surfaced at Manchester, took part in various forms of peace witness, some quite risky. But many of the leading evangelicals supported the empire, and the war, and the resulting internal controversy was extended and often bitter.

Even so, at Manchester the handwriting was on the wall for the evangelical establishment. And in fairness it must be said that the ascendancy of the new generation, while clearly overdue, was not a wholly unmixed blessing. For one thing, while fiercely proud of their Quaker distinctives, their actual performance was in many areas less than stellar.

Take the testimony of gender equality, for example. At the closing public session, Anne Wakefield Richardson grandiloquently declared that,

“…so completely does the spiritual view of human life and its responsibilities, upheld by George Fox, efface, or rather fuse, the differences of men and women into one corporate and living unity, that the very traditions of our Society (even amongst those members who do not fully realize the spiritual truth that is at the root of our methods of thought) have produced an atmosphere on this subject in an assembly of Friends which would, I think, be impossible to find in any other gathering.

“And hence arises a peculiar difficulty for a Friend who is a woman to speak to any other audience upon such a subject, for we are accustomed in no way to differentiate ourselves or be differentiated when we are breathing our native air. We meet together as one in the Divine regard.”

That Friends were unique in their view of women was true enough. But whether all differences were “effaced” or “fused” among them is open to question. That the evangelicals were male-oriented was clear. But the young progressives were not much different: the conference committee was all male; so were all the chairmen of the sessions; three out of four papers were by men; and almost all those recognized to comment on the papers were men.

This bias did not go completely unremarked. In fact, by the end of the first afternoon session, Friend Ellen Robinson complained. “We should,” she said, “be very grateful to [the chairman] if he can kindly silence the men a little bit.”

An unidentified Friend agreed: “Might it not conduce to the order of the meeting if men and women Friends were to speak alternately?” A male Friend echoed this suggestion.

But the Chairman brushed the proposal aside; nothing more was heard of it, and men continued to do most of the talking.

Another ambiguous area involved the issue of seeking new Quakers. All the liberals declared in favor of membership growth, and were confident that their notions and impulses would promote it. An entire session was devoted to close analysis of the Home Mission literacy/Bible study classes, organized around the country under the evangelicals’ influence. Despite the fact that these classes had attracted tens of thousands of working people, comparatively few of them, it seemed, had gone on to actually join the Society.

Amid all the statistics and the oratory, however, one major explanation of the dearth of new members coming from the adult schools went unmentioned:

It was the 500-pound gorilla, the C-word, Class with a capital letter.

The liberals were, almost to a person, university educated, rising intellectuals, professionals and business people; not a few were quite well to do. Did these Friends really want to populate their meetings with, er, the “lower classes”?

No one said outright that they didn’t; but the sentiment was not unknown among Friends. At an earlier conference, in 1869, called to consider what to do about membership for workers attracted to the mission meetings, one Robert Barclay of Reigate presented a paper which argued explicitly and forcefully against the idea:

“The Christian community is totally distinct from a social bond; Christ’s kingdom is not a worldly kingdom; and if we mix up with it social relations, intellectual advantages, which have a monetary value and other privileges which tempt the worldly minded, we utterly destroy (as far as we do so) the purely religious and Christian object and bond of the Church of Christ…Do you wish to invite chimney sweepers, costermongers [street hawkers] or even blacksmiths to dinner on First-Day?”

No one spoke this way at Manchester. But the question of crossing class lines downward was still in the air, and unresolved. One of the women Friends, for instance, spoke grandly of inviting working people to her home for certain carefully choreographed, uplifting events, and assured her listeners that they were thoroughly splendid occasions, and the working people were very appreciative of the attention.

The patronizing classism fairly leaps off the pages of the proceedings; but before any Friend in 1995 judges those of 1895, let us look carefully around at our own meetings and their makeup.

Similarly with the ringing statements on the need to be fearless in the pursuit of new truth about the Bible and all matters religious. It is easy enough to find in them a welcome throwing off of hoary and autocratic evangelicalism. And that is not all; much fruitful thinking was done by the Manchester generation, and much faithful witness borne in the face of war and other outward challenges.

But this harvest petered out somewhere after the First World War. Much of its legacy has since degenerated into what is, on the one hand, little more than ethical humanism with silent meetings, or on the other an effective identification of Quakerism with activist politics of a more or less leftist sort, or on yet another, the equation of the Inner Light with Jungian psychology or some New Age gimmickry.

Yet to point out these eventual shortcomings of the Manchester liberals is not to dismiss or condemn them, but only to recognize that they too were human, fallible men and women of their time. Can we legitimately fault them for not solving the problems of our time? They had their hands full with the problems of their own. Many felt their call was to preserve and renew the Society of Friends on the eve of a new century, and at Manchester they took a giant step toward doing it.

And what of us, in their centennial year? It is useful here to recall the words of Isaac Penington, as quoted in Manchester:

“That, through which men are saved, is the dispensation of truth in their age. The measure of light which God gives forth in every age, that is the means and proper way of salvation in that age; and whatever men get or profess of the knowledge of truth declared in former ages, yet making use of that to withstand the present dispensation of truth in their age, they cannot thereby be saved, but may thereby be hardened against that which should save them.”

To which Frances Thompson, who quoted it, added that Friends, “of all people, should hail with joy the thought that knowledge of all kinds is progressive, that the Divine revelation to man is not finished, but ever unfolding, that for every age the manna of God’s truth is given, and that it is our inestimable privilege to as well as our duty to welcome the light which may just be reaching us, as from some til now unseen, though none the less fixed star of Heaven. Nay more, we are guilty if we shut our eyes to it, and prefer to live by the light vouchsafed to an earlier age.”

They did their part. Are we doing ours?

Copyright © 1995 by C. Fager. All rights reserved; fair use OK.

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