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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.)

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