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
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
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
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
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.
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