Quakers are known for their commitment to peace, but in the early eighteenth century a bitter internal conflict tore apart the North American branch of the Religious Society of Friends. The dispute led to the Great Separation, which split the Society into two groups: Orthodox Quakers and Hicksite Quakers. Those names are no longer used, but some Hicksite beliefs and practices can still be found in the Religious Society of Friends of the twenty-first century.
Beliefs of Early Quakers
The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are informally known as Friends or Quakers, originated in the seventeenth century in England. Key beliefs of the early Quakers were that God is present within every person in the form of the Inner Light, and that every person is capable of experiencing God's presence first-hand through attention to this Inner Light.
The split between Hicksite and Orthodox Friends began after a wave of Protestant evangelism swept the United States during the early nineteenth century. Some Quakers wanted to mix the new ideas they'd encountered -- such as the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ -- with existing Quaker beliefs and practices. These proponents of change became known as Orthodox Quakers. The Quakers who objected to the changes were called Hicksites after Elias Hicks, one of the most vocal critics of the changes. The websites 21st Century Quaker and As Light Is Sown note that the conflict between the two factions concerned beliefs about the importance of the Bible, the role of the Inner Light and the nature of salvation. Hicksites believed that the Inner Light must be the primary source of truth and that the Bible was only a secondary source, while Orthodox Quakers believed that the Bible must be the primary authority on the truth. And while Hicksites believed that sin comes from turning away from God's will, and that salvation comes from repenting inwardly and surrendering to the will of God, Orthodox Quakers believed that man is sinful by nature and that salvation can come only through intercession by Jesus Christ.
The Great Separation
The final split came in 1827 when Orthodox Quakers tried to impose a formal doctrine of faith, or creed, on the regional organization known as the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Because the Hicksite Quakers believed that adhering to a creed would interfere with freedom to follow the Inner Light, the separation eventually spread throughout the Society in the United States. It was, notes As Light Is Sown, a painful experience that sometimes split families and congregations.
Quaker Beliefs Today
After more rifts and then reunions, the Religious Society of Friends in North America now includes a number of branches that represent a range of beliefs and practices -- from liberal to fundamentalist -- none of which are specifically identified as Hicksite. However, according to the Charleston Friends Meeting website, many Quakers today agree with some Hicksite beliefs, including the rejection of formal creeds and the authority of the Inner Light over that of the Bible.
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