Elias Hicks

Some historic events become immense puzzles where the more one looks, the more forces one sees at play – and the harder it becomes to explain precisely what happened, much less why. The Salem witch trials in Massachusetts and the Watergate scandal in Washington are two examples. Yes, one can say that people were hanged or a United States president resigned, but these remain only the tip of the volcano in the collision of tectonic plates. In the Society of Friends, this would have to be what has become known as the Hicksite Separation, named after an elderly Friends minister from rural Long Island. In fairness, Elias Hicks (1748-1830) is more likely a victim than an instigator in the explosions that shattered American Quakerism. Technically, only Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Ohio, and Indiana yearly meetings, and their affiliated local meetings, divided, but the effects were far more pervasive. Friends could not see two rival bodies each living fully in the Truth – one had to be more faithful than the other, and choices had to be made regarding which party one could side with. The divisions ran through families, local congregations, and even those few yearly meetings that had managed to remain intact: which body, Hicksite or Orthodox, do we send our epistles to, and which ones are acceptable in the exchange of traveling ministers? These activities, central to the fabric of the Quaker world, had helped keep Friends in harmony across the globe over generations. Now, keeping harmony across the street or across the room was endangered.

There are many ways of analyzing the separations of 1827-28, as research examining socio-economic conditions and regional differences among Friends demonstrates. Conditions in Britain and the New World had meant that the Quaker movement was evolving differently on both sides of the Atlantic. In The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783, Jack D. Marietta examines how “the three Johns” – John Churchman, John Pemberton, and John Woolman – reinvigorated the application of Quaker discipline on both its members and its meetings. The process cost the Society of Friends perhaps a quarter of its membership in America, but it did strengthen the remaining Quakers to maintain their peace testimony through the Revolutionary War and to eliminate slaveholding from their ranks. The latter, at least, came as a result of top-down institutional decision-making, from the yearly meeting down to the monthly meetings down to the individual Friends and their families – something few modern Quakers would tolerate. There have always been tensions over how much authority meetings might exercise over the lives of their members. The tensions also existed between the local congregations, or monthly meetings, and the larger regional bodies, or yearly meetings. Pointedly, the “three Johns” worked from the vantage point of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, extending their influence far beyond Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The trigger for the Hicksite separation came in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s refusal to accept the traveling minute issued by New York Yearly Meeting on behalf of Elias Hicks; in effect, the Pennsylvanians were telling their equals in New York that the minister’s teaching was unsound – and in doing so, the leaders of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting were placing themselves above those of New York. From an organizational point of view, one might argue a division had already taken place.

From a functional point of view, there are questions about the service of the elders themselves, whose work was to nurture and uphold Friends who had a gift for vocal ministry. There are arguments that some elders, at least, had already overstepped their role and tried to fill a vacuum in Quaker ministry. Another argument would suggest that the vacuum resulted from eldering that had instead inhibited the expression and growth of Quaker ministry – something that would explain how Elias Hicks appears as the last prominent minister to largely hew to the traditional Light/Seed teaching of Friends. Was there no one else left to defend the longstanding Friends’ vision?

Ostensibly, the controversy was theological – and in its aftermath, many Friends tend to view theology itself as intrinsically divisive. Admittedly, Hicks was an outspoken, sometimes inflammatory minister – a complex, if largely unschooled, farmer who emerges as a complex figure, by turns conservative or even anti-intellectual and by other turns liberal and far-reaching. Mitchell Santine Gould touches on this in “Walt Whitman’s Quaker Paradox” (Quaker History, Spring 2007): “the Hicksite schism was about something more than Christology or even ministerial power. Decades before Lucretia Mott, Elias Hicks affirmed God’s wisdom in giving to humanity what Mott called ‘the comfort of animal propensities.’” Gould then mentions that Hicks’ “argument begins by rejecting any role for Satan in human affairs” and turns to a note by Whitman, “He once said to my father, ‘They talk of the devil – I tell thee, Walter, there is no worse devil than man.’” Gould continues: “Because scholars have inevitably focused on Hicks’s Christology, however, we have yet to appreciate the profound cultural implications of Hicks’s rejection of Satan. Indeed, Hicks is today viewed as an itinerant preacher and a firebrand advocate of reform in Quaker governance, but not as a philosopher and teacher in his own right. One author relegates him to the former role with a simple, dismissive, ‘Hicks was no theologian.’”

Gould observes: “Hicks’s views on the Devil were consistent with his rationalist views on Jesus and the Christ (the latter two, of course, being quite distinct in his mind), and his conception of divine and infernal impulses sprang alike from a profound humanism and psychological sophistication.” A crucial question in all of this is just how much Hicks was influenced by a traditionally Quaker understanding of Christ as Logos – and typically presented in the context of Light and Seed metaphors – and how much he may have misconstrued.

In reading the Hicks’ letters, I find he often links his understanding of the Light and Christ with a concept of reason, “a mutual union of the spirit of God with the rational spirit of man,” as he wrote to William Poole in 1821.

To cast the divisions, however, along the lines of a Light versus Blood dichotomy is telling in its own way. Increasingly, Light has come to be associated with personal experience, perhaps even as conscience or deep intuition, while Blood represents the Crucifixion and Atonement of Jesus as told in the Bible; Meetings that went Orthodox after the division placed a new emphasis on Scripture readings during worship, while it is difficult to generalize about those that went Hicksite. Regardless of conditions at work at the time, nobody today can view Elias Hicks except through one’s own cultural and partisan lenses. We can ask why passions remain so intense when it comes to references to this man, who is seen as either a defender or corrupter of Quaker ideals. It is clear, however, that the Long Island farmer “had been preaching and ministering acceptably for half a century before he became the focus of Friends’ internecine quarrels. Elias Hicks, like George Fox, was no man’s copy, and in trying to arrive at an estimate of his effect on the Society of Friends’ subsequent history, it is essential to distinguish between what he himself taught, and the conclusions other people drew from what he said,” John Punshon writes (Portrait in Grey). “The irony of the whole situation was that, while his opponents saw the logical consequences of Elias Hicks’ position, he himself did not assert them.” Punshon then inserts a pointed insight: “The party that became known as the ‘Orthodox’ took the view that evangelical doctrines were both true and also the correct understanding of what early Friends had taught.”

The account of the Hicksite Separation, as told in the 1963 edition of Handbook for Friends by what was then Ohio Yearly Meeting (Gurneyite), now Evangelical Friends International,  is disturbingly telling, especially for those of us who have always heard it told from “our side” of the conflict: “Neglect of the written Word of God was to bear a sad harvest among Friends, for how shall they avoid error who know not the truth? Silent worship, for those who are well-instructed in divine truth, has real benefits; upon those who neither read the Bible nor hear it expounded the effect may be very different. Members of Friends, over a period of decades, failed to instruct their children in the doctrines of the church. As a result the Friends Church became victim to a group of erroneous teachers, among whom Elias Hicks was most prominent. Hicks was an eloquent minister of New York Yearly Meeting.

“Hicks’ doctrines were alike dangerous and unscriptural. He made much of the ‘Light within’ and regarded Bible-reading as productive of ‘fourfold more harm than good.’ He taught that our Lord was only a man, though superior to the rest of mankind, that He died only as martyrs die, that His death has no value to us beyond the example of it. He made much of the final authority of each man’s own conscience.

“Those who knew the truth of the Holy Scriptures were grieved at such heresy, and they rose to refute it.”

There is simply no way of examining the Separations, then, without including Hicks. While he expostulated an experience of Inward Light largely in line with what Quakers had preached all along, many of his rejoinders to the English-led evangelical invasion were downright explosive (as his “fourfold more harm than good” or his dismissal of the Blood of the Lamb as being no more efficacious than the blood of a goat demonstrate). Many who had experienced mystical union as the Light of Christ must have dismissed talk of salvation through the Blood of Jesus as incomprehensible; similarly, the focus of the evangelicals leaves me wondering exactly what they were sensing in their worship and whether the history of the Society of Friends would have been different had the techniques of meditation and receptive prayer been taught. The result, regardless, was a gap in the two languages – and no translation. Imagine how phrases such as these must have fallen on their ears: “I never committed any sin but that I loved it better than my God,” “You are never tempted by a devil without you, but by a devil within you,” “There are no fallen angels, only fallen men and women,” or “The business of life is to turn inward.” These reflect rough-and-tumble realities of faith encounters in daily life, not abstract reasoning. Hicks acknowledges the everyday struggle to stay in harmony with God – that is, to stay focused in the Light. D. Elton Trueblood (The People Called Quakers) mentions Walt Whitman’s “memory of the rude eloquence of Hicks” – which impressed the poet so much he kept a bust of the old Quaker in his home – and Trueblood notes “Elias Hicks went to such extremes in the glorification of the Inner Light that he saw human learning as either unnecessary or positively harmful. ‘Now what vast toil and labour,’ he said, ‘there is to give children human science, when the money thus expended might be better thrown into the sea.’”

Although many Friends today celebrate Hicks as a liberal, his message was essential conservative; it should serve as a cautionary tale to remember that the mainstream Protestant overlay espoused by his adversaries represented the progressive voice of his era. The length of his messages – in reality, sermons incorporating Scriptural passages and typically lasting thirty-five to forty minutes, and at least once two hours – would upset today’s quietist Friends; paradoxically, his descriptions of resisting sin would find more sympathetic ears among today’s pastoral Friends than among those who consider themselves Hicksite. Furthermore, his positions on secular issues no doubt tainted his credibility on doctrinal matters, at least in the eyes of the evangelicals. For example, despite the title, Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal, Bliss Forbush quotes from Hicks’ opposition, in 1817, to construction of the Erie Canal: “If the Lord had intended there should be internal waterways, he would have placed them there, and there would have been a river flowing through central New York.” One of the Philadelphia elders who opposed Hicks during the crucial events leading to separation was Thomas Eddy, a prominent evangelical who not only promoted construction of the canal, but also sat on its board. Here, incidentally, we have an example that overturns our anticipated identifications: Eddy’s, with its emphasis on science and progress, seems the one more in tune with today’s quietist Quakers, while Hicks seems to be more in tune with some of today’s evangelicals (though not necessarily Friends).

Consider, too, that at the center of controversy, Hicks was nearly eighty – hardly a time of life to adjust flexibly to change. Placed on the defensive, he resorted to hard language. “It has been seriously questioned whether there would have been a separation in 1827-1828 if it had not been for the aggressive influence of visitors from England,” Rufus M. Jones observes (The Later Periods of Quakerism). Thomas Shillitoe, Anna Braithwaite, George and Anne Jones, and Elizabeth Robson, among others, “were theologically sensitive, aggressively orthodox, and on the look-out for doctrinal unsoundness.” In all of this, it is striking that Hicks appears to stand alone as a prominent minister holding to Light-based theology. Were there no others of ability, or was he really the last of the line? Look, in contrast, at the number placed against him.

Hicks, however, did nothing to shy away from controversy. As Forbush observes (A History of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends), “Elias Hicks could not admit that all parts of the Bible were inspired, such as the record of the expense of building Solomon’s house for Pharoah’s daughter and the account of the cruel wars of the wicked kings of Israel. Instead of [Stephen] Grellet’s insistence that salvation came only through the outward life and death of Christ, Hicks said salvation came through the Christ spirit acting within.”

Here, then, is the basic point of dispute in this controversy (calling this a debate is inappropriate, since there was no commonly understood language): the place of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Atonement in Quaker Christology. Although Barclay insists, in the title of Propositions 5 and 6:XV in the Apology, “The atonement and sacrifice of Christ are exalted by our doctrine,” this apparently could not satisfy those who insisted on positions that would increasingly refer to phrases such as “the Blood of Jesus” or “the foot of the Cross.” Barclay’s proclamation, “Properly speaking, of course, God cannot be pressed down, and Christ, as God, cannot be crucified,” must have been incomprehensible to those for whom Christ was primarily or even exclusively Jesus, a historical person rather than a continuing Spirit or presence. Barclay’s explanation, which seems so logical from the Seed of Christ perspective, must have similarly baffled them: “We direct all men to that of Christ in them so that they may look upon him whom they have pierced, who lies crucified in them by their sins and iniquities, and that they may be led to repent and be saved. Then he who lies now, as it were, slain and buried in them may rise and have dominion over all in their hearts. This is what the apostle Paul preached to the Corinthians and Galatians – Christ crucified in them.”

For those who believed that salvation is made possible only through Jesus’ death and Resurrection, this would not do. But for those open to the ongoing mysteries of faith, a journey to Christ Within allows for self-examination and fruitfulness, without wandering off unguided into an unmapped desert – that is, a renewed manifestation of Ranterism.

It wasn’t just a difference in language. It was a difference in the way they used language to both shape and express their religious life. It becomes apparent that even if Hicks, in continuing an Inward Light doctrine fairly consistent with the one voiced by Barclay a century-and-a-half earlier, had been the most diplomatic speaker, he could not have reconciled the disparities between the traditionalists he represented and the progressives led by the English evangelists. The disparities appear not just in language but more vitally in experience, which shapes essential precepts. Hicks spoke of a Christ he knew in his encounters with the Light; the evangelicals, of a Christ they read in the life of Jesus. “Central to his life was an awareness of that of God within which he describes in a number of ways without using a consistent terminology,” Punshon comments. Consistent terminology, however, is not the issue – nor is it the way of thinking in metaphor. What becomes clear is that from this point onward, Quaker practice more and more asserts the authority either of an Inward Light disembodied from its Biblical locators or of Scripture disconnected from a Spirit of Christ, rather than the previously interwoven matrix. As a consequence, both sides have then reinterpreted the Quaker legacy, emphasizing what they found comfortable and ignoring or rewriting the rest. Again, from the Evangelical Friends’ Handbook: “The fullest and most complete statement of the doctrines of Friends is to be found in the writings of Robert Barclay, who was one of the most able theologians among early Friends. Yet, even Barclay, able as he was, did not perfectly succeed in stating the beliefs of Friends.” That is, he possibly expounded far more than they’ve wished to embrace or comprehend. Or possibly, he failed to sufficiently anticipate some of their objections. Or possibly, both.

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Getting a clear presentation of Hicks’ message in his own words has been complicated by additional factors. One source is several volumes of “Quaker sermons” published in the 1820s, mostly from the pen of stenographer Marcus T.C. Gould, an Episcopalian “who may not have been attuned to the subtleties of an intramural theological contest among Friends,” as Paul Buckley notes. Since these volumes are drawn from extemporaneous speaking in public worship, and without Hicks’ approval or revision, readers need to allow for some imprecision in the thought and language. The other major source is the journal and selected letters and essays published after his death in 1830. These, however, were heavily edited to remove any potentially controversial material – something redressed only recently by Buckley.

In 2009, Inner Light Books of San Francisco published a new version of The Journal of Elias Hicks, restoring the deleted material, followed in 2011 by Dear Friend: Letters and Essays of Elias Hicks, both edited by Buckley. The latter, especially, while emphatically a selection, strives to present Hicks’ beliefs in their range of applications.