FGC’s "Uniform Discipline" Rediscovered -- Continued -- 2


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)


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