Iowa History Project
The Rise of Evangelism in Iowa
In Iowa to-day few are the places where one can sit down in an old-fashioned Quaker meeting. So great have been the changes among the Orthodox Friends that in manner of worship—not to say in worship itself—little real difference longer exists between them and the other evangelical denominations, aside from the religious rites which the latter in some cases observe. The stranger finds little that is distinctive or peculiar and nothing t embarrass him in the modern Friends meetings. So completely have the ancient Quaker characteristics been obliterated, that those few members of the ancient or conservative body who still live in Iowa insist that their Orthodox brethren should no longer call themselves “Friends”, but that they should adopt some name more consistent with their modernized tendencies. It is of interest therefore to trace the conditions which have produced this new form of Quakerism.
The changes in western Quakerism are due to forces which have been brought to bear upon it both from within and from without. The introduction of the Sunday or “First-Day scripture Schools”, the common patronage of the public schools, the adoption of evangelical methods of church activity, and the transition from the isolation of rural communities to modern social conditions and town life, have been powerful factors in the breaking down of that conservatism which in the early days hedged the Friends about on every side. It would be incorrect to single out any one of these forces as being the important factor in producing present-day conditions, for all of them have acted and interacted one upon the other. The one factor, however, which stands out most prominently and which best lends itself to investigation is the rise and development of evangelism. The presence of so large a number of young people in the Orthodox body to-day is the result of this force. Evangelism was the one solution to the great problem of filling up the yawning gaps in the membership of the Society due to the westward migrations, and in it may be found the origin of these forces which to-day dominate and control the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Orthodox Friends.
To imagine that the rise of the spirit of modern Quakerism as expressed in its evangelistic tendencies was spontaneous and the product of a single event at some given place would be a grave mistake. As is the case with all great movements, its origin is to be found in deep-seated and widespread causes.
For many years there had been a growing apathy on the part of the Friends toward a careful and regular study of the scriptures. The belief had become prevalent that people would involuntarily be led into such religious exercises as were in accord with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and that to have a set time for such acts of devotion was strongly tinctured with an unwholesome formalism, always extremely obnoxious to the Friends. The first step in the modification of this belief, as it prevailed in Iowa, was the appointment of a committee by the Salem Monthly Meeting in January, 1841, to visit each family of the membership and find out how many were “Destitute of the scriptures”.(139) The nine families not possessing a copy of the Bible were early supplied, and then committees were appointed to continue the visitations in order that “parents and heads of families may be encouraged to the daily practice of calling their families together, and after a solemn pause, let a portion of the Holy Scriptures be read.”(140)
This breach having been made in the old order of things, the next step was the setting apart of a special time and place for a group study of the scriptures by both children and adults. Herein is to be found the origin of the “First-Day Scripture Schools” (Sunday schools). Until this time the religious instruction of Quaker children had been almost entirely ignored. This new departure, therefore, was of great importance, for the first Sunday school established at Pleasant Plain in June, 1844,(141) was the basis upon which a very large part of the superstructure of modern Quakerism rests.
The next evidence of internal awakening was the appearance of a spirit of revival in the Quaker schools, not only in Iowa, but throughout the whole field of Quakerism west of the Allegheny Mountains.(142) In the spring of 1865 “The Christian Vigilance Band” was organized among the students of Center Grove Academy, about two miles north of Oskaloosa, with remarkable results;(143) and in 1869 a similar student organization was formed at Whittier College(144) at Salem. Here and there in various parts of the Iowa Yearly Meeting similar manifestations of evangelistic tendencies appeared, only to be speedily frowned down by those in authority. Then, almost before the Society at large could realize what had happened, there came an upheaval which all but overturned the ancient order. Such men as John Henry Douglas, Jeremiah A. Grinnell, Dr. Ely Jessup, Benjamin B. Hiatt, and John Y. Hoover stepped forward to champion the new movement. In some places rash and unseemly scenes occurred. But the lost regrettable attending result was the splitting off of the conservative element into a separate and distinct organization in 1877.
The Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends was thus brought face to face with its internal condition in 1877, when the older and more conservative members refused longer to submit to breaches which were being made in the ancient faith. Then, freed from their restraining influence, the Yearly Meeting responded vigorously to the new movement of evangelism. At the annual gathering in 1883 a committee of forty-two of the strongest members from all parts of the Iowa field was appointed to take into its care the evangelistic work of the Society.(145) The committee organized before the close of the Yearly Meeting by the appointment of a president, secretary, and treasurer. The whole field was divided into four districts as follows, with an evangelistic superintendent in each district; 2nd, Winneshiek, Minneapolis, and Springdale Quarters; 3rd, Bangor, Honey Creek, Greenville, and Mt. Vernon Quarters; 4th, Ackworth, Bear Creek, and Lynn Grove Quarters. Information relative to needs and opportunities was gathered from every meeting. Arrangements were made for financing the work, and the entire strength of the Yearly Meeting was enlisted with an enthusiasm which gave promise of success.(146)
For many years the disconnected local and itinerant ministry had labored in the field of Iowa Quakerism with results that were all but imperceptible. The first report of the above committee indicates the effectiveness of the new movement. It reads in part as follows:
In a large number of our meetings there have been revival meetings held, varying from a few days to four weeks in length, in which about 2,200 persons have been converted, renewed, or sanctified…Of the number converted or otherwise blessed, many were our birth-right members; but in some instances our revival meetings have been largely made up of people from outside our church membership, a number of whom were members of other churches and many unconverted.
Such a report was very pleasing to the Yearly Meeting. It recalled the days of George Fox and the ingatherings of his time. With redoubled energy the committee again set to work. In the reports which came up to the Yearly Meeting for the two successive year of 1885 and 1886 the results were again gratifying—1310 and 1888 conversions, renewals, and sanctifications, respectively.(147) These reports mark the end of the first stage of the new era, and indicate the beginnings of that new life and vitality which were to gain for the Society of Friends a place among the more progressive religious denominations of the present time.
The second stage of this evangelistic development not only brought into play the personal supervision of one of the most interesting and powerful ministers that American Quakerism has ever produced, but it is also marked by the adoption of that form of organization under which the Yearly Meeting still conducts its evangelistic and church extension work, and which has served as the pattern for nearly all of its other activities. At the Yearly Meeting held in 1886 the unit of evangelistic activity was transferred from the district to the Quarterly Meeting, each Quarter being requested to appoint an evangelistic superintendent for itself, while a “General Superintendent” was placed over the whole field.(148) Fortunate indeed was the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends in having at this time such a man as John Henry Douglas for so responsible a position. Some idea of the field thus brought under the direction of one man may be gained from the General Superintendent’s report in 1887, which reads as follows:
We have churches in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Dakota Territory, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington Territory, California, and Texas, and individual members scattered in all the great Northwest…We have about one hundred churches, with an average membership of one hundred. We have about one hundred and forty ministers; some fifty of these in the active work.(149)
That John Henry Douglas entered upon his task with vigor is evinced by the fact that immediately upon his appointment as General Superintendent he opened up correspondence with the ministers and Christian workers in every part of the field, at the rate of “a hundred letters per month”. During this the first year of his superintendency he says: “I have received invitations to hold union meetings from a large number of cities and towns, not more than one-tenth of which I was able to respond to.” Under his own preaching he saw during that year the “conversion of over six hundred souls”, some people coming form “fifty to sixty miles” across the plains in covered wagons with four-horse teams to attend his meetings. During the four years which he devoted to the supervision of this work in Iowa there were 7430 recorded conversions and 2595 persons added in membership by this means to the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Orthodox Friends.
Since the incumbency of John Henry Douglas there have been four successors to the office of General Superintendent, namely: Isom P. Wooten, Z. L. Martin, W. Jasper Hadley, and Harry R. Keates. During the twenty-three years that have since passed away the ardent vigor of the earlier evangelical movement has gradually subsided, and the problems confronting these men have been increasingly those of the organization of the fields already occupied and of promoting a more healthy and permanent church extension in those communities where already a sufficient number of Friends have settled to constitute new Quaker congregations. The evangelistic meetings still play an important part in the growth of the Orthodox Yearly Meeting, but this factor has given place to that much more powerful institution which grew directly out of it, the pastoral system.
The two main contributions, then, which the evangelistic movement made to the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends are: first, a new vision of both the nature and the purpose of the Quaker message; and second, that thorough organization which characterizes the work of the Yearly Meeting to-day.
Notes and References