Recently the full text of the Richmond declaration was put on the World Wide Web. It was also described on these lists as a “classic statement” of Quaker belief.
As you look it over, however, it would be worth keeping in mind that there is a plurality of views about this Declaration and its place in Quaker history.
In fact, a strong case can be made that few if any documents in our history have been the source of greater grief and trouble for Friends than the Richmond Declaration of Faith. Sadly, its long, sad and destructive history is by no means ended.
I summarized such a case in 1987, when the proposal came to Friends United Meeting to “re-affirm” the Richmond Declaration on the occasion of the centennial of its formulation in Richmond, Indiana in 1887. Amid much, all too typical controversy, this proposal was not approved. But given the continued advocacy of this document in some quarters, it is worthwhile restating the case against it here. This will be presented in three parts.
That the Richmond Declaration was a source of division among Friends was evident from the beginning. Indeed, the Richmond Conference of 1887 began by asking the question: “Is it desirable that all the Yearly Meetings of Friends in the world should adopt one declaration of Christian doctrine?”
But not all “Yearly Meetings of Friends in the world” were represented at the Conference. Neither Hicksite nor Conservative YMs–at that time probably the majority of American Quakers–had been invited.
Why not? Because, as Mark Minear notes in his book Richmond 1887, many of the organizers, pillars of their brand of Orthodoxy, “considered themselves to be the only true Friends in America.” The rest of Quakerdom did not count and need not be consulted–or their existence even acknowledged. Further, some of the more extreme evangelical Quakers, advocates of water baptism and communion services, while technically eligible, were also prevented from attending.
So these facts lead up to the first particular in an indictment of the Declaration, namely:
Number One: It Never Represented Most Friends
This is a crucial fact to recall at the outset of any discussion of the Richmond Declaration’s past or future: It was produced by an intentionally unrepresentative group, who presumed nonetheless to define and speak for “All Friends”, then and now.
This should be recalled not least because such an outlook is still to be found among us. To be sure, the conviction that supporters of the Declaration and the tradition which produced it are the only “true” Friends is not always stated candidly. (Or at least it wasn’t until various self-appointed spokesmen began chasing around on Quaker online lists repeating it ad nauseam!) But the attitude is there nonetheless, and shows up in many quieter, more passive- aggressive ways, which cumulatively make its existence just as evident–and as offensive–today as it was in 1887.
But there is even more to the matter of the Richmond Declaration’s divisiveness. It is something of a skeleton in the Gurneyite closet that, while the Richmond Declaration pleased the delegates to the Richmond Conference, it was by no means as pleasing to the delegates’ Orthodox brethren back home.
In fact, only six of the thirteen YMs represented in Richmond actually adopted the Declaration and included it in their books of Discipline. This is an embarrassing historical fact which its advocates rarely acknowledge, but it is the plain truth. It was a very tough sell: The majority of the Orthodox YMs, presented when presented with the Declaration, either finessed, ignored or rejected it.
Significantly, among these naysayers were the YMs of all the members of the Declaration’s drafting committee. (My own YM, Baltimore [Orthodox], was one such: Its Richmond delegates were greeted warmly and patronizingly on their return; their report–including the Declaration–was dutifully included in the minutes of the YM session. And then the whole thing was promptly ignored forever after; end of story.
Perhaps the most stunning rebuke came, however, in London, whose gathering all but gave the back of its hand to the Declaration and to its own member, J. Bevan Braithwaite, who was the declaraction’s principal compiler. It appears that Braithwaite hoped to use the Declaration to shore up the Orthodox leadership in London, which was under increasing internal challenge from a progressive group of mostly younger Friends. But the plan didn’t work; indeed, rejection of the Declaration marked the beginning of the end for the Orthodox ascendancy.
Why was there so much opposition to the Declaration even among its Orthodox constituency? This leads to Item Number Two in the case against it, namely:
Number Two: It Is Not A Good Statement Of Quaker Faith
A traditional, principled opposition to creeds was one important aspect of the reluctance with which some otherwise Orthodox Friends greeted the Richmond Declaration. Another was that, quite simply, many Orthodox Friends did not believe much of it. The Declaration’s statements on the Inner Light, for instance, are quite at variance with Quaker statements on the subject from George Fox on down.
In addition, it accepted the coming of the pastoral system among revival-influenced Friends, which, whatever one thinks of it now, marked an equally drastic departure from long-established Quaker structures, one still shunned by many Quaker groups with Orthodox lineage.
But these are by no means all of the Declaration’s internal problems. Its literalist approach to the Bible is one which early Friends, including our finest theologian Robert Barclay, devoted some of their most eloquent writing and preaching to refuting 200 years before. And by 1887, such literalism had little credibility even among some of the most devout Orthodox Friends.
Further, its stress on what it called “Sanctification” or “holiness” attempted to import wholesale into Quakerdom a highly controversial Wesleyan doctrine which left many Friends, then and now, completely cold. This holiness doctrine substituted an instantaneous emotional experience for the lifetime of inner discipline and outward witness called for by Fox and other early Friends’ statements on the subject.
In sum, as Mark Minear’s book acknowledges, the Declaration at best expressed the views of a Quakerism subdivided no less than five times:
It was, he wrote, “the Christian message as held by the traditional, Orthodox, Gurneyite, evangelical Quakers of the conference.”
Rufus Jones, who came from solid Gurneyite stock, called it “in every sense a relic of the past…a poor, thin, mediocre expression of vital Quaker faith….”
Yet despite its failure to be adopted by more than half of the YMs at the 1887 conference, the Richmond Declaration is still too often treated by advocates as if it were a universally acclaimed manifesto which authoritatively summed up the normative Quakerism of its day (and ours). In my view, it is more accurately seen as a partisan and divisive minority instrument, one which was widely perceived as such even then in much of its own constituency.
But if the Richmond Declaration was highly problematical in 1887, which it was, in the 1990s the situation within Quakerism today is vastly more diverse, and makes it that much more irrelevant, except as an object of historical study. Which points to the third item in the case against it, to wit:
Number Three: It Does Not Fit The Reality Of Quakerism Today
In the beginning, as the minutes of the Richmond Conference clearly show, many supporters of the Declaration saw it was a way to build a doctrinal wall around their version of “authentic Quakerism,” to make of it an Orthodox fortress from which unsound members could be expelled and outside challengers repelled. It often looks as if some of its contemporary advocates have much the same goal in mind.
But the Declaration did not succeed as a wall in 1887; nor did it succeed in Friends United Meeting in 1987. And it seems unlikely that it can be made to work that way now, except perhaps in those groups prepared to use it, in defiance of Quaker tradition, as a creed. Of course, some have been willing to use it this way, which brings us to the next particular in our indictment:
Number Four: It Has Often Been Used As A Creed
Some delegates to the 1887 Conference insisted loudly, and no doubt sincerely, that the Declaration was neither intended nor able to be used as a creedal test of any Friends’ faith.
But they were wrong. Within five years, it had been used as just such a weapon, in the historic, tragic case of Joel and Hannah Bean.
We can’t do justice to the Beans’ story here (It is well-told in David Le Shana’s book, Quakers in California; and I summarized it in an earlier series of posts)
Suffice to say that the Beans were internationally respected ministers from Iowa YM, who migrated to California in hopes of preserving a silence-based worship and escaping theological witchhunts as the revivalist-pastoral forces gained control of Iowa YM. But the Iowa revivalist authorities pursued them to California and harassed them repeatedly. Ultimately they were dropped from membership. The YM investigating committee’s final report in 1894 declared that the Beans were “entertaining and advocating doctrines which…are contrary to the fundamental principles held by our church, as expressed in our Declaration of Faith.”
What Declaration were they talking about? It was the Richmond Declaration, which and been incorporated into the Iowa Discipline in 1891.
The Bean case became an international Quaker cause celebre. It is worth recalling now not only because it amply justified the fears of many Friends that the Richmond Declaration would be used as a creedal weapon of religious repression. It was also fateful in that from it came the germ of what has become a whole new stream of Quakerism: the unaffiliated yearly meetings.
If there was any need to show the corrosive effect of documents like the Richmond Declaration on the fabric of the Society of Friends, the case of the Beans alone, from which so much has come, would provide ample evidence. But it was in fact only an opening salvo of the internal skirmishing that accompanied its emergence, skirmishing which has become a chronic and debilitating feature of much American Quaker history ever since.
Number Five: It Has Divided And Troubled Friends From The Beginning
Besides many other local conflicts, the main arena of this combat, at least as far as historians have taken note of it, soon shifted to the cooperative body of Orthodox YMs that was the ultimate organizational outcome of the Richmond Conference of 1887. This body took shape in 1900, under the guidance of Rufus Jones, and was called the Five Years Meeting of Friends. (It’s now Friends United Meeting, or FUM.)
The theory of the Five Years Meeting was that, from a uniform Declaration of Faith would follow a uniform Book of Discipline, which would define a structure for new, large-scale cooperative projects, especially missions, preaching a uniform gospel to “the lost” peoples of the world.
But it is a great irony of history that the document which was intended as the charter of a united Orthodox Quakerism soon became its most divisive bone of contention. Indeed, the key problem in creating the Five Years Meeting was that the founding document, the Richmond Declaration, was so unsatisfactory to so many even within the Orthodox-Gurneyite fold.
Jones himself, charged with drafting the new Uniform Discipline, declared later that he had resolved to have nothing to do with the Five Years Meeting if the Declaration had to be included in the proposed Uniform Discipline.
At first Jones had his way. In 1900 his draft of the Uniform Discipline was completed and adopted by his home Yearly Meeting, New England, minus the Richmond Declaration.
But no sooner did the Five Years Meeting gather in 1902 than there were demands that the Declaration be added to the Discipline. That session “adopted” it, but did not in fact incorporate it into to its Discipline, due to the continuing opposition of many. And thus began a process of chronic and apparently unresolvable conflict over its place and meaning that has never really ended. The Declaration has never, in fact, been incorporated into the “Uniform Discipline” of Five years Meeting/FUM.
The next crisis over the Declaration came in 1912, when a resolution was narrowly adopted describing the Richmond Declaration as one of a number of “historic statements of belief” approved by the FYM, by which cautioned that it was “not to be regarded as constituting a creed.” (Emphasis added.)
Evangelical opposition to this final clause was intense, however, and climaxed at the 1922 meeting. This 1922 session, after strenuous debate, repealed the clause in hopes of staving off withdrawals by some of the dissenting YMs.
But did repealing the clause stating that it was NOT a creed thereby mean that the Declaration now in fact WAS a creed?
That was what its strongest advocates were after. Oregon YM, for instance, soon adopted a statement insisting that all committee and staff members of the Five Years Meeting be compelled to certify their agreement with it as a condition of their office. It seems evident that the Oregon leadership expected that the application of such a standard would produce a purge or “unsound” elements from the body, beginning with Rufus Jones.
But others had different ideas. Oregon’s demand for creedal application was not in fact not heeded, and it pulled out, in 1926. Since then, all efforts to adopt a new “uniform discipline” for FUM, including the Richmond Declaration in the body of the text, have failed, for essentially the same reason. Along the way, three other YM followed Oregon’s example.
To this day, threats of, and rumors about, pullouts by more YMs are a standard feature of any discussion within FUM that touches theological or ethical issues involving the main elements of the Richmond Declaration. This has made for a tradition of shabby and shameful church politics-by-intimidation that is unworthy of Friends but, alas, all too common in the largest Friends association.
Despite this troubled and troubling record, there are still yearly meetings which cherish the Richmond Declaration, and reprint it prominently in every edition of their Books of Discipline. It is again ironic that several of these YMs then go on to flagrantly ignore some of the Declaration’s own tenets, such as those against “the ordinances,” baptism and communion, and its strong statement of Quaker pacifism (one of the few passages that appeals to me). Even in evangelical Quakerism, there is little evidence that the Richmond Declaration opened the way to a uniform discipline, or much of anything else that was uniform.
But that’s fine. Given Friends’ decentralized polity, if some yearly meetings want the Declaration, they can have it. If some of them think it should be applied as a creed to everybody in Quakerdom but themselves, well, that’s their opinion. And certainly, students of Quaker history can learn a good deal by studying the Declaration and its sorry record.
But as a basis for any kind of unity or association or constructive relationships among the larger family of Friends, it simply hasn’t worked. And as a “classic statement” or putative Quaker creed, the Richmond Declaration’s record puts it in a class with ideas like New Coke or the Contract On America, and there is more than a century of sad experience to back up that conclusion.
To be sure, those who consider the larger circle of Quakerism to be the territory of the devil will hardly be troubled by this record. But in my judgment such a reaction only further highlights the document’s inadequacy, and the myopia of its advocates in this regard.
Come to think of it, an obscure virtual corner of the World Wide Web is just about the right place for the Richmond Declaration. Down here in the real world, Friends, it’s been nothing but trouble.
(Note: the views expressed here are solely my own. Copyright © 1996 by C. Fager.)
Speaking for myself,
In response to my second instalment on the Richmond Declaration, Bill Samuel posted some comments suggesting that I had distorted or misinterpreted the Declaration, its meaning and its history in several areas.
When these comments appeared on soc.relgion.quaker, they drew a reply from Friend Anne Anderson. Friend Anderson is otherwise unknown to me, but her remarks were so apt that, with her permission, I am re-posting them here; following them I will offer a comment on a point she was unable to address
(Please note: She begins by quoting Bill Samuel referencing my text, then commenting on it, then she offers her own response, including quotes from the Richmond Declaration itself.)
Subject: Re: The Case Against the Richmond Declaration-IIFrom: email@example.com (Anne Anderson)Date: Wed, 14 Feb 1996 13:50:45 GMTMessage-ID: <DMrqGL.9Kz@nullapollo.hp.com>In article <wsamuel.317.0A923A27@nullcpcug.org> firstname.lastname@example.org (Bill Samuel) writes the indented parts marked with “Bill Samuel:”, and Anne writes the parts flush with the left-hand margin. Bill Samuel:
From Richmond Declaration of Faith, “The Holy Spirit”:
We own no principle of spiritual light, life or holiness, inherent by nature in the mind or heart of man. We believe in no principle of spiritual light, life or holiness, but the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, bestowed on mankind, in various measures and degrees, through Jesus Christ our Lord…. The Holy Spirit must ever be distinguished, both from the conscience which He enlightens, and from the natural faculty of reason, which when unsubjected to His Holy influence, is, in the things of God, very foolishness…. We disavow all professed illumination or spirituality that is divorced from faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, cruicified for us without the gates of Jerusalem.
Bill Samuel: The section on The Holy Scriptures is not literalist at all, and seems to me to be very compatible with Barclay’s published views on the Scriptures. From Richmond Declaration of Faith, “The Holy Scriptures:”
It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever;….The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized record of the doctrines which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion.
Bill Samuel: I looked in vain in the Declaration for any endorsement of a doctrine of instantaneous emotional experience, or anything contrary to an approach of a lifetime of inner discipline and outward witness. From Richmond Declaration of Faith, “Justification and Sanctification”:
We believe that justification is of God’s free grace, through which, upon repentance and faith, He pardons our sins, and imparts to us a new life. It is received, not for any works of righteousness that we have done, (Titus 3:5) but in the unmerited mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Through faith in Him, and the shedding of His precious blood, the guilt of sin is taken away, and we stand reconciled to God….He, the unchangeably just, proclaims Himself the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus….
Sanctification is experienced in the acceptance of Christ in living faith for justification, in so far as the pardoned sinner, through faith in Christ, is clothed with a measure of His righteousness and receives the Spirit of promise; for, as saith the Apostle, “Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11) We rejoice to believe that the provisions of God’s grace are sufficient to deliver from the power, as well as from the guilt, of sin, and to enable His believing children always to triumph in Christ. (2 Cor 2:14) How full of encouragement is the declaration, “According to your faith be it unto you.” (Matt 9:29) Whosoever submits himself wholly to God, believing and appropriating His promises, and exercising faith in Christ Jesus, will have his heart continually cleansed from all sin, by His precious blood, and, through the renewing, refining power of the Holy Spirit, be kept in conformity to the will of God, will love Him with all his heart, mind, soul and strength, and be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8:2) Thus, in its full experience, Sanctification is deliverance from the pollution, nature, and love of sin.
Bill Samuel: It seems to me that Chuck is reading an awful lot between the lines to come up with all this negative stuff about the Declaration. I suggest Friends read it for themselves, and compare it to early Quaker writings, including Barclay’s Apology. I don’t think an objective reader would find the kind of radical departure from the early Friends that Chuck finds in the Declaration. Once again, the URL for the Declaration is: I did not see much to support the idea of a pastoral system, and of course there is nothing in the Declaration itself about the actual numbers or percentages of Friends who accepted it, but the rest seems right on. I have also read Barclay’s Apology, and find in it a much more open and light-filled revelation than I find in the Richmond Declaration.
Anne Anderson, Framingham Friends Meeting, Framingham, MA
RESUME COMMENTS BY CHUCK FAGER:
On the matter of the Declaration and the pastoral system: It is remarkable that Bill Samuel suggests that the Declaration had no relevance to it. Mark Minear, in his book on the conference, notes that the matter of the legitimacy of the pastoral system “brought forth the longest discussion, and sometimes debate, that the conference exprienced. More than eighty pages of the total 281 pages of discussion in the `Proceedings’ dealt with this subject.”
Furthermore, the advocates of accepting pastoralism carried the day at Richmond, though their victory was couched in a euphemistic Quakerese that is almost a kind of code. It is because of this circumlocution that Anne Anderson could not identify the relevant statements.
The key statements that amount to acceptance of the pastoral system are two: The second sentence of the section on “Public Worship”: “(worship) stands neither in forms nor in the formal disuse of forms…” This is a code-phrase meaning programmed worship is okay; you can find it in most pastoral YMs’ books of Faith and Practice.
The second is in the sixth paragraph of that same section: “And while, on the one hand, the Gospel should never be preached for money, on the other, it is the duty of the church to make provisions that it shall never be hindered for want of it.” In plain English, this means it is now okay for Friends meetings to pay pastors.
These two statements were quite enough to legitimize the pastoral system, at least as far as the YMs who wanted to do so were concerned. If this textual evidence, and the evidence of the Confernece “Proceedings” were not sufficient to establish this, the fact that it was the YMs who became pastoral which adopted the the Declaration and still maintain it in their Disciplines should be the clincher. As Yogi Berra said, “you could look it up.” Likewise, no non-pastoral Orthodox YM has made the document part of its Faith and Practice.
I have taken this much space on these matters because it is worth showing that, while my opinions about the value of the Richmond Declaration are quite arguable, the accuracy of my reporting about the Declaration and the conference which produced it has been solidly substantiated, not only by the text, but also by the proceedings of the conference, and the history of its use since then.
Besides Mark Minear’s book, “Richmond 1887,” one other valuable resource for interested Friends is a monograph written by Arthur J. Mekeel entitled “Quakerism and a Creed.” It details the course of the Richmond Declaration in the creation of Five Years Meeting through 1922. The book is hard to find, but worth it; the story it tells is a sad and often unedifying one, but an important piece of Quaker history all the same.