The Trouble With “Ministers”

by Chuck Fager

A Starting Point

Recently there has been talk in some groups of unprogrammed Friends of reviving the “recorded ministry.” One of the most recent and extensive such discussions came in the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend, the periodical of New England Yearly Meeting. Along similar lines, in the late 1990s, Friends General Conference (FGC), the liberal unprogrammed association of U.S. Quakers, set out to develop a “Traveling Ministries Program.”

This notion has encountered dissent, however. In The New England Friend issue, which was heavily And transparently weighted in favor of the idea, Marcianna Caplis did not go along with the program, asking, “Since we are all ministers, why record the gifts of any?” Similarly, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the Traveling Minsters program proposal in FGC ran into more opposition and unease than its sponsors expected, uneasiness which has not disappeared despite the program’s formal approval.

These notes are an effort to understand and reflect on this uneasiness about the effort to revive the practice of “recording ministers” among liberal unprogrammed Friends groups. Here I speak, of course, only for myself; but I don’t think I’m alone in these thoughts and concerns. I also believe the ramifications of the issues involved go far beyond the ranks of the groups mentioned above.

Behind the uneasiness about seeing the “recorded ministry” resurrected among us, it is not hard to discern a not-very-articulate fear about putting us, however unintentionally, on a slippery slope toward a two-tier, or two-class Society of Friends. As Marcianna Caplis put it, “Recording some individuals as gifted in ministry implies a caste among Friends.”

Neither these apprehensions about recording, nor their advocacy, has proceeded with a very developed sense of the history of the institution among Friends. But the anxiety about it expresses a gut-level sense which in my view is historically well-founded and should be taken very seriously.

Snapshot of a Two-Tier History

These anxieties should be taken seriously because of a stark and sobering fact, which is all-but unmentioned by the advocates of reviving the practice, namely:

For most of its history, the Religious Society of Friends was, in fact, a two-tier body. There were rank-and-file members – thee and me – and then there were the ministers and elders. (While women could be ministers and elders, the ones who really counted were almost always men.)

Ministers and elders, who were appointed for life, had their own “select” meetings, typically at all levels, monthly, quarterly and yearly. While the specific structures varied somewhat, these “select” meetings exercised “oversight,” that is to say, control, over most of the main elements of a meeting’s life. They determined, among other things:

  •         who could speak, when, and about what;
  •         whose membership needed to be re-examined for “soundness”;
  •         what could be published;
  •         who served in which offices or on committees;
  •         who could travel in the ministry; and
  •         what items deserved to go on the agenda of business meetings.

Which is to say, they controlled just about everything.

Indeed, the incident cited as among the earliest mention of recording, in London in 1722, was all about such control and exclusion: an effort was made to purge one William Gibson from the ranks of the Second Day Meeting–which was the Society’s elite inner circle–and the policy result was that no ordinary Friend was to be admitted thereto without the proper credentials, namely “recording.”

Ministers and elders also had oversight of individual conduct. The movie Friendly Persuasion includes a very funny sendup of this in the scene where a delegation visits the Birdwell family to check on whether Jess has been so worldly as to buy an organ (he had, but it was hidden in the attic). On film, the episode is hilarious; in real life, by the time of the Birdwells, the mid-nineteenth century, such “oversight” became increasingly burdensome to more and more Friends.

There are myriad stories, most of them small-scale and obscure, about ministers exercising oppressive “oversight” over members, in matters great and small, from items of doctrine, to questions of politics, social action and witness, as well as personal behavior.

But some of the stories of ministers in action are not so obscure: their elitism and oppressive tactics had much to do with the tragic separations that began in the late 1820s.

At first, the Hicksite YMs maintained these offices, since they felt they were re-establishing original, authentic Quakerism. But ministers and elders soon proved as troublesome among the Hicksites as they had among the Orthodox. This was especially true in disputes over antislavery and early women’s suffrage activism.

The first known moves to abolish this Quaker hierarchy emerged in Michigan, where a group of Friends active in abolition and suffrage work grew tired of having their efforts obstructed by the ministerial elite. In 1843, Michigan Quarterly Meeting abolished the meeting of ministers and elders. The same year, Palmyra Meeting in New York went farther and abolished the offices themselves. Then Palmyra joined Michigan in asking their YM, Genesee, to do the same. The YM did not agree, and the upshot was the first of a series of separations between Hicksites and what came to be called Congregational or Progressive Friends.

Lucretia Mott was another militant advocate of this reform. Here is what she wrote about it to a sympathetic cousin, after clashes in 1847 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 Eceliastical 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. In N.Y. Select Mtg. I repeated the heresy, & was denounced by [a prominent minister] G.F. White. Nothing daunted I bearded that Lion– After Mtg. Amos Willets told me many were dissatisfied– I answered, that ‘it wd. not surprise me if all were.’ He retorted, “the fire brand which thee failed to kindle in Philada. Y.M. thee has brot here, & it wd. have been better for you to have stayed at home.” I laid my hand on his arm, saying, “Amos, how little thou understands me!”

(Letter from Lucretia Mott 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.)

A more detailed critique of the recorded ministry, and the division it produced, can be found in the very eloquent 1853 manifesto of Pennsylvania Progressive Friends, the Exposition of Sentiments, which is now available in full text on the Web.  This manifesto and its implications are discussed further in my essay, “Beyond the Age of Amnesia: Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology,” in Quaker Theology #3.

As organizations, the Progressive Friends soon faded away. But as one researcher noted in the journal Quaker History (Autumn 1963, Vol. 52 No.2, p.103), “most of the reforms for which the Progressive Friends pressed were eventually adopted” by the Hicksite YMs, above all, the abolition of the offices of ministers and elders. The newer FGC YMs, along with the unaffiliated YMs of the West, never had them.

That this history is little-known is not only due to ignorance; there has yet been very little scholarly attention to it, as is true of modern liberal Quaker history in general.

The traditional two-tier structure these Friends protested against was not part of the Quaker movement in its earliest, wilder days. It largely grew out of the work of Fox over several years to “settle” the meetings in England – “settle” meaning, in large part, to “settle down.” This process is thought by many historians to have been a key to the survival of the Society during a time of often intense persecution.

In the short term, the strategy worked; the Society survived. Once the period of persecution ended, however, the two tiers remained, and the power of the ministers and elders became, if anything, even more entrenched; some would say ossified, and it lasted for another two centuries.

I want to underline the fact that the elimination of this system from the FGC and Unaffiliated groups was not an accident, or the result of a fit of corporate absentmindedness. Those who abolished the offices of minister and elder knew what they were doing, and meant to do it.


They had concluded, based on long and painful experience, that the offices did more harm than good to the Society. These Friends were saying, loud and clear, that the Testimony of Equality was meant to apply within the Society as well as outside it.

They were also making a theological statement: The work of Spirit-led “ministry” belongs to all Friends, according to their/our varied gifts and callings. It is not to be the preserve of some select group, especially a largely self-selected group. And let me state plainly that I believe they were largely right in these assertions.

Back to the Future

But if the two-tier system is gone from the predominantly liberal unprogrammed branch of Friends, that doesn’t mean it is forgotten. Over the past several years I have heard a number of voices raised, calling repeatedly for the resurrection of this system, or some equivalent. I’m not sure if they realize it, but these advocates, it appears to me, are seeking much the same goal as those who first established it: to “settle down” a Society that some feel has gotten too loose and “unsound.”

Most of these calls are examples of what I call “Handbasket Theology”: FGC-Unaffiliated type Quakerism, it contends, is going to hell in a handbasket; we’re the hapless victims of what one of the main exponents of this view derides as an “amorphous definition of a Quakerism in which anything goes.”(Marty Grundy, Pendle Hill Lecture, 10/12/1998) We desperately need, among other things, ministers and elders to snatch us from the jaws of spiritual destruction.

For the record, I happen to think this “Handbasket Theology” is mostly a lot of baloney; but a detailed critique is for another time. (To see some samples of this “Handbasket Theology,” I suggest a visit to the Pendle Hill website – and then a review of some of the Monday Night Lectures posted there, particularly those by Jeavons, Drayton, Caldwell and Grundy. For another critical response, see my review of the study, Among Friends, in Quaker Theology #2) The question before us is the effort to revive the practice, the uneasiness that has dogged it, and how this history relates to both.

I believe it relates directly.

The idea is presented as a chance to return to the good old days when ministers provided “spiritual leadership” among Friends, and kept the Society together, bringing news, good preaching, and spiritual nurture, resolving problems and enriching the spiritual life of meetings and individuals.

There is truth in this view, of course, and the regularly cited archetype of such ministry is John Woolman, as gentle and nurturing a spirit as one could hope for.

For a Quaker, there is an inescapable kind of romance to the stories of his journeys among the natives, and his long quiet labor against slavery. Further, a little time spent browsing among the shelves of many a meeting library will turn up the journals of many another such minister, less gifted in style than Woolman perhaps, but as dedicated and intrepid.

Who could be against reviving an institution that produced such personal devotion and contributed so much to the Society at large?

Well I could be, for one

Why? Because Woolman’s saintliness is not the whole story, not by a long shot. And when I hear constant references to Woolman, with never a mention of some of the others who tore the Society in pieces, who tried to hound Lucretia Mott from the ranks, and who spoke of ordinary Friends as no more than rabble, then I am put on my guard, and I begin to wonder what other agendas are afoot that we are not being apprized of.

The rumblings associated with this attempted revival of the recorded ministry have me more than a little worried. I believe others are worried as well, and that this unease has and will come back to haunt the liberal branches of the Society, unless it is dealt with.

How could it be dealt with?

For starters, we could take off our historical blinders and candidly examine the broader history of the two-tier Society, and weigh the costs, as well as the benefits of that system. (In doing so, let me hasten to add, books of Faith and Practice and yearly meeting minutes are of very little value as sources; when they deal with difficulties and conflicts among Friends, virtually all such official records are euphemized to the point of de facto falsehood. Those who would know the truth must look elsewhere, among less official documents, including letters.)

With a better understanding of the actual history of the recorded ministry, and the reasons for its abolition, we would be better able to make sound judgments about how we want to relate to the ideas for its revival. Thus far I have heard little mention of this broader history, or the reasons for the elimination of these offices, in the discussion of the program. In the New England Friend, Brian Drayton, one of the most vocal advocates of its return, entirely neglects the aspects of its history elucidate here. For me such elisions set off loud danger signals.

Once examined, I believe most liberal Quaker groups would have little difficulty deciding they want no part of efforts to revive a two-tier Society of Friends. In that case, we could become more intentional and articulate about discussing ways to develop and recognize gifts among members in ways which will keep them from being used, intentionally or not, to that end. Such more informed discussion work would, I believe, be very reassuring to the many who have lingering doubts.

A Better Way

After all, there has long been a program alternative to two-tier revival efforts. It was formulated by a group of leading Friends in England and the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century, and led to the foundation of Woodbrooke and Pendle Hill, among other projects.

This program emerged from a struggle against an entrenched and deadening ministerial establishment, and its goal was the exact opposite of such elitism: to develop a wide range of varied “ministries,” built on a broad base of knowledge, spiritual deepening, and Spirit-led activity among Friends of all walks of life. It focused on identifying and developing their diverse gifts and callings, and aimed to reach as many Friends as possible.

My sense is that at its best, some of the thinking behind the calls for revival of recording partakes of this tradition. And to the extent that the recognition of gifts among us could articulate and maintain such an equalitarian and universalist focus, I could support it.

But that is not all I have heard in behalf of the revival of recording. Between the lines, behind the scenes, in other forums, I hear echoes of the Second Day Meeting in 1722. For instance, the equalitarian impulse in FGC Quakerism has been recently ridiculed as the fuzzy-minded notion that, “If someone is sincere, we should accept whatever they happen to think, say, or do as equally valid and acceptable with everyone else’s thoughts, words, and actions.” I believe the advocates of recording could ease some concerns by clarifying its focus and rationale, to put a definite, visible distance between it and such talk.

One step toward this clarity would be to make some specific qualifications to its operations, perhaps as follows:

  1.   The advocates could make explicit an udnerstanding of how a nbew version of recording would be reconciled with, and indeed reinforce, a commitment to an equalitarian, inclusive basis for Quakerism and ministry.
  2.  They could make clear that their version of “recording” will not confer or “recognize” any special status for those receiving it.
  3.  Similarly, they could make absolutely clear that there would be no return to the system of “select meetings” which ruled the Society from above for so long. No mere verbal commitment would suffice for me; I want to see structural safeguards.
  4. One step in this direction would be to have definite time limits on such recording. Such “term limits,” were in fact the first limitation placed on ministers in the process that led to abolition, as part of the work of dismantling the two-tier Society.
  5.  The advocates could be vocal and intentional about looking beyond the traditional forms of “ministry” (preaching, disciplinary oversight), to cultivate the widest possible range of Spirit-led callings.

A Concluding Query

Can a revival of recording be made a step in the direction of further developing the inclusive alternative to ministerial establishmentarianism?

I hope so, though quite frankly I still have deep doubts. But if it is to be so, I believe this direction could be made more explicit. The character of the discussion thus far shows an inadequate level of historical and theological awareness, and the drawbacks of this ignorance could be grave. If the advocates do not lift up and develop a focus on how it will support this unprogrammed, equalitarian tradition of the ministry of all, the idea has little future. I am also convinced that if it drifts into becoming a stalking horse for a project of reviving the two-tier Society, both it and the groups dabbling in it are headed for serious trouble.

This is a road we have traveled before, Friends, and it leads not to a dead end, but worse: to quicksand and crackup.

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