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?


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