In the first decades of the 19th Century, the Society of Friends was “blessed” with three great theologians; Elias Hicks (1748-1830), Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) and Isaac Crewdson (1780-1844). The differences between the theologies of these three men (and their colleagues and supporters) reflected the growth of the evangelical movements of the time, the differences between rural and urban Meetings and, in the United States, the growing divide between supporters and opponents of slavery.
The outcome of these differences, which even led to violence in at least one Meeting, was an irrevocable and continuing schism in the Society between, in modern terms, programmed and unprogrammed Meetings and (in the case of Crewdson and his followers) secession from the Society as a whole.
Understanding the history of the causes of the schism requires an understanding of the lives and teachings of the theologians at the centre of the disputes. Thus, as we near the 200th anniversary of the events that led to the sundering of our Society, a work drawing attention to, arguably, the greatest of the three is timely.
Elias Hicks was born in rural Long Island (New York) within one hundred years of the formation of the Society of Friends. At the time of his birth a few Friends who had known and heard the first Friends personally (Fox visited the American colonies in 1671-3) were still alive.
When, after a self-confessed “wild youth”, Hicks first started travelling in the Ministry the second generation of such Quaker Ministers were still active; John Woolman had died only a few years before. Thus, it is unsurprising that Hicks had absorbed, and promulgated, the original teachings, such as the importance of the “inner light”.
By the time Hicks died the evangelical movement with its emphasis on the bible, sacraments, Trinitarianism and an ordained ministry, had strongly influenced the theology of the Society. By now Joseph John Gurney, the Braithwaites, Isaac Crewdson, and others, had led the Society of Friends closer to the Protestant mainstream. The schism that occurred in the United States between those who held the to earlier teachings and those who were attracted to the more recent evangelical teachings could not be avoided.
While the Society of Friends spilt into two in the United States, London Yearly Meeting absorbed, then modified, then swung away from the evangelism of Gurney et al. and slowly went back to the earlier traditions and testimonies transmitted by Hicks and his “Hicksite” followers. In that sense we, here in Australia, are the descendants of Hicks. Our testimonies, recorded in Advices and Queries, Quaker Faith and Practice, and This we can say, can be traced through him to the first Friends.
Paul Buckley is the latest author to attempt an intelligible, reasoned, biography of Elias Hicks. A historian, Buckley has spent 15 years seeking to make Elias Hicks known and understandable to modern readers. His earlier editions of Hicks’ letters and journal are also published by Inner Light Books, and he draws heavily on these works to explain and justify his (and our) understanding.
Unlike more literary authors, Buckley seeks to present Hicks in the context of his beliefs and theology – a daunting task.
Following initial explanations of the Society of Friends, then and now, and an equally brief biography, Buckley gets to work explaining Hicks under a loose grouping of concepts, each of which enhances understanding of the man, his life, and his testimony.
Buckley bravely explores Hicks, and his relationships, through the prisms of topics such as the environment of his life, his mysticism, his understanding of scripture, his reliance on the “inner light”, his understanding of the relationship between man and God, and of Jesus and the promise of His sacrifice. Drawing heavily on Hicks’ letters and Journal to do this, Buckley builds up a detailed, complex picture of Hicks the man, Hicks the theologian and Hicks the teacher. In addition Buckley draws a picture of a man who knew well who, and where, he was in the world, and who lived by his convictions.
For example, in 1778 Hicks emancipated the slaves on the farm he inherited from his parents-in-law; he did this a decade before Clarkson and Wilberforce started agitation against slavery in Britain, 30 years before Great Britain outlawed the slave trade and 85 years before the “great emancipation” in the United States.
Also Hicks retained his faith, and did not question God’s design for him, even though all four of his sons, all his daughters’ sons, all his brothers-in-law and his nephews died before the age of 21 – the descriptions of their deaths suggesting a form of muscular dystrophy inherited through his wife and her sisters.
However, this work is not without its flaws. Although I have read widely about Hicks and the circumstances of the schism that separated the traditional and the evangelical groups in our society, I was overwhelmed by the detail and complexity in this work. I found the topics used to group the discussions of attributes of Hicks forced, particularly as some, like the environment, are recent constructs and would have made no sense to Hicks.
Finally, Buckley uses a technique that really grates on my sensibility – the repeated use of Things I know but cannot prove, in which he tries to advance his analysis through calls on secondary sources and intuition. Whether this is a valid technique of looking back in areas with poor documentation I do not know; however, it did not speak to my condition.
In summary, Buckley’s treatment of Hicks is rich, detailed and complex and serious readers of the history and theology of our society will gain from reading it. It is not, however, a good introduction to Elias Hicks – those coming to Hicks for the first time should, in my opinion, start with Samuel Janney’s work ‘The Doctrine of Elias Hicks’ which forms a chapter in volume 4 of the History of the Religious Society of Friends, from its rise to the year 1828, first published in 1867 and now available on the Web.
Nevertheless, my greatest understanding of Hicks came from those who knew him best, for, in their testimony to the grace of God in the life of Elias Hicks, the members of his Monthly Meeting at Jericho on Long Island minuted:
In declaring what he believed to be the counsel of God, he was bold and fearless, and his ministry, though unadorned with the embellishments of human learning, was clear and powerful. In argument he was strong and convincing, and his appeals to the experience and convictions of his hearers were striking and appropriate.
Clearly, his immediate contemporaries valued Elias Hicks.
Herbert Stock, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting
The Essential Elias Hicks, Paul Buckley, published by Inner Light Books, San Francisco, (2013), pp. xxv + 132, ISBN 978-0-9834980.