Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill. In this column, we consider the influence of evangelicalism on 19th Century Quakers.
At the dawn of the 19th Century, America was in the throes of the "Second Great Awakening," a revival movement that lasted into the 1840's. This movement saw conversion as the decisive moment of the Christian life.
With conversion as the goal, evangelists in the 19th Century employed a new set of tactics, called "new measures." According to these tactics, revival meetings were often held outdoors. They were intentionally long and went late into the night. Those in need of conversion were mentioned by name in spoken prayers and sermons. To further goad these wayward souls towards a conversion, they were sometimes seated on the "anxious bench" where everyone's attention could fall on them.
Charles Finney, an evangelist from New York state, placed a great emphasis on the power of these methods. Earlier revivalists had universally seen revival as the inscrutable activity of God. From their perspective, only God could "awaken" the slumbering and ineffective church. For Finney, however, revival was simply a matter of proper technique. Revival could be enkindled by the sort of technology described in the preceding paragraph.
Sheer numerical success made it difficult to argue with the "success" of Finney's technique. Where he spoke, conversions were often numbered in the hundreds.
It is interesting to note this connection between statistics and spiritual success. For perhaps the first time in church history, contemporary observers used numbers to tell the story of God's intervention into human affairs.
On some level, the themes of the Second Great Awakening mirror those of society at large. The idea of progress was very important in 19th Century America. New technologies (like the railroad) created a sense of forward momentum. By thinking of "camp meetings" as a new technology, the parallel becomes clear. During the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals could see progress in the spiritual realm. The statistical evidence of conversion could be taken as proof of Christian progress. On the home front, Christian influence spread to the frontier. Missionary societies were organized to spread the message of Christ around the globe. During the first half of the 19th Century, evangelical Christianity was on a roll.
Friends were mostly oblivious to the rising evangelical tide. A Quaker born in Indiana in 1842 would later recall that he was a teenager before he ever even heard of being "converted." During this period in history, Quakers were a "peculiar" people. Their distinctive style of dress and speech set them apart from their neighbors and kept them largely isolated.
Furthermore, Friends had a much more process-oriented view of their faith. For Quakers, the Christian life was a matter of obedience to the present Christ. Being a Quaker meant "Walking in the Light." The emphasis on a one-time conversion experience was a foreign concept among Friends.
In the 1820's, however, the seeds of dissent were sown within the Quaker movement. One faction (led by Elias Hicks) downplayed the significance of the Bible and the historical Jesus. Most Friends were vehement in their opposition to this faction. Hoping to distinguish themselves from the "Hicksites," the majority of Friends called themselves "Orthodox" Friends.
Over the course of the 19th Century, Orthodox Friends were more and more likely to associate themselves with the evangelical mainstream. Friends were more and more likely to use "conventional" language to talk about Jesus, the Scripture and the church.
Eventually, some 19th Century Friends were attracted to the "technology" of the Second Great Awakening (including pastoral leadership, Bible societies, camp meetings and foreign missions). These evangelical Friends hoped to employ these techniques as a means to progress within their own society.
Other Orthodox Friends were dismayed by this decision, and for the second time in the century Friends were split into opposing factions.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Can a person be a faithful follower of Christ without having experienced conversion? How should modern Friends view the subject of conversion?
2. Explore the topic of spiritual technology. Whether it is open worship or a camp meeting, how should we decide on the techniques of our worship? What do you think of Finney's belief in the self-sufficient power of technique?
3. Should we expect progress in matters of Spirit? If so, what should progress look like?