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  The Separation of 1827
    The Issue of Clocks and Pianos
by Francis Brown

Today, we view the Separation of 1827 with regret. But it happened, and it was to divide Quakerism in this country for many years. It took place in the East Room of the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The immediate issue was the appointment of a Clerk of the Yearly Meeting. What became the Orthodox group favored Jonathan Evans; the other, the Hicksites, wanted John Comly. The situation got nasty and the Comly advocates walked out and formed their own Yearly Meeting with headquarters at Fifteenth and Race Streets. The Orthodox Yearly Meeting continued to function at Fourth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia.

For many years prior, some basic theological issues were afloat throughout the Society of Friends and had been intensifying. The lightning rod became centered in the person of Elias Hicks, a New York Friend who traveled widely throughout Quakerdom. The issues included the place of Scripture as against the Spirit as authoritative; and an interpretation of Christianity involving the role of Jesus as Christ. But there were many mundane issues. To a large extent it was, "Town mice vs country mice"—issues of power and control. There being more rural than city Friends, the composition of water became a convenient reference: "H20"—twice as many Hicksite as Orthodox!

It would seem that these issues were blurred, even from the beginning. While the Orthodox placed greater emphasis on the Bible as guide, they also relied heavily on the spirit. In reverse, similarly with the Hicksites. The Orthodox held more to Jesus's Divinity; the Hicksites to his humanity. Yet, scripturally, Jesus was both human and divine.

The redemptive aspect of the split—if there was one—is that neither manner of worship nor social testimonies were at issue. It was these commonalities—accompanied with lessening concern for matters of theology as the years and decades passed—that would bring reunion.

From our perspective today we hold that the rift could have been resolved amicably. But it was not and the split spread widely across the country. Here in Philadelphia the cleavage continued until 1955 when the two Yearly Meetings came back together—happily. Largely it was due to common participation in the American Friends Service Committee, which had been formed during World War I to provide service opportunities for Quaker pacifists, followed by relief work in the War's aftermath.

Fortunately, there are few remnants of the split in our Yearly Meeting. Hopefully, we are more sophisticated today, recognizing that both Christian and universal viewpoints have a basis in Quaker history and practice and that in variety there is benefit. About the only way I can tell whether a particular Meeting was Orthodox or Hicksite has to do with clocks and pianos. If these—particularly a clock—are present, that Meeting was Hicksite. If not, it was Orthodox. Remaining Orthodox, you will see neither clock nor piano in our Meeting House! So much for the great separation of 1827.

NOTE: The above is an excerpt from Downingtown Friends Meeting: An Early History of Quakers in the Great Valley by Francis G. Brown.

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