Iowa History Project
The Wilbur-Gurney controversy had its origin in the attacks made by John Wilbur(210) of New England against Joseph John Gurney,(211) a prominent minister of the London Yearly Meeting then traveling in America, for unsoundness in doctrine and for making a religious visit under credentials not properly authorized. The contention first resulted in a separation in the New England Yearly Meeting in 1845. The disaffection then spread to the Ohio Yearly Meeting; and from there it was carried westward to individual centers, such as Red Cedar, Iowa. Concerning the essentials of the controversy it may briefly be said that Gurney undertook to emphasize the authority of the scriptures and the necessity of a thorough knowledge of the same;(212) while Wilbur magnified the direct promptings and revelation of the Holy Spirit, an din addition, held that an absolute knowledge of personal salvation was impossible.(213)
In 1851 two brothers named Hampton, both Friends, settled near the present site of Springville in Linn County, Iowa. Soon afterwards Joseph Edgerton, Francis Williams, Jesse North, William P. Deweese, and William P. Bedell, with their families, also settled in the same neighborhood; and at once they organized a meeting among themselves, under the direction of the Red Cedar Monthly Meeting.(214) These Friends, nearly all form the counties of Belmont, Monroe, Jefferson, Columbiana, Morgan and Washington in eastern Ohio,(215) had been intimately connected with the contentions then disrupting the Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends, and they were generally in sympathy with the Wilbur element.
In the spring of 1853, Caleb Gregg, a recognized minister of some force, likewise moved with his family from the same locality in Ohio to Iowa, intending to make his home among his former neighbors. Some of the Friends at Red Cedar had taken an interest in this new community; and soon a certain member called informally on Caleb Gregg, and in the course of conversation inquired “what he [Gregg] would do, in case a separation should occur in Ohio Yearly Meeting, on the ground of the New England difficulty.” To this inquiry Gregg candidly replied that “he should maintain the position he had taken, even if he should stand alone”.(216)
By some channel this information reached the ears of the overseers of the Red Cedar Monthly Meeting, who, feeling that the undercurrent of discontent must be checked, planned to take action at once. A formal complaint was drawn up against Gregg and forced upon the attention of the Lynn Preparative Meeting, of which he was a member. Somewhat astonished by this extraordinary procedure, the meeting proceeded to consider the case, but finally ordered placed upon its records the following minute:
We have given close attention to the subject, have heard the Overseers in all they alleged against him [Gregg], and after conferring together were united in judgment, that there is no just cause for such complaint, or ground on which such charge can be sustained. We find that he is firmly attached to the principles, the doctrines, and testimonies of our Society, as upheld by Fox, Penn, Barclay, and others of our standard writers, and closely united to all our members in the different Yearly Meetings who are concerned to support them. We therefore think it best and right to dismiss the subject.(217)
Disappointed in their first attempt, the overseers now appealed directly to the Monthly Meeting; and through three of their number, on August 9, 1854, they presented to that body a statement which reads:
Caleb Gregg has manifested in one of our monthly meetings and at sundry times elsewhere disunity with the body of Friends and has endeavored to alienate the minds of our members from unity with proceedings and decisions of our Yearly Meeting--, Also in the same meeting and at divers times in other places he has manifested himself to be in unity with the separatists in New England called Wilburites. And at one time in the presence of several Friends he explicitly avowed himself to be in unity with the aforesaid body called Wilburites, for which he has been visited by some of the overseers.
A complaint against him for his deviations was presented to Lynn Preparative Meeting by some of the overseers in 6 mo. last—but said meeting declined to enter the complaint on their minutes; and nominated some of their members to investigate the case; whereupon one of the overseers requested the preparative meeting to direct those nominated to assist the overseers in perfecting the complaint if they should find it necessary; but the meeting declined acceding to the request—And in their last preparative meeting they refused to enter any charge on minute against him.(218)
The Monthly Meeting listened attentively to the reading of these charges and then relapsed into a period of meditative silence. Then followed the appointment of two committees, one to treat personally with Caleb Gregg “for the aforesaid deviations”, and one to visit the Lynn Preparative Meeting, there to labor “as ability may be afforded & way opens”.(219)
When the Monthly Meeting again convened in regular session in September the reports of both committees were ready; but Caleb Gregg being present and “refusing to withdraw”, the presiding clerk called upon the meeting to adjourn. Numerous of Gregg’s friends were present and confusion ensued. On elderly woman proclaimed aloud: “Mark Friends—if you proceed in the course you are now taking, you will be scattered as sheep without a shepherd”.(220)
Amid great commotion an adjournment was carried and the clerk, gathering up his books and papers stalked from the building, followed by the main body of the membership. The Gregg party, however, remained in their seats until their brethren had departed; and when all was again quiet they appointed a new clerk of their own and at once proceeded with business under the name of the Red Cedar monthly Meeting of Friends, as though nothing serious had happened.
On the following day, September 7th, the main body assembled again without disturbance. The committee appointed to deal with Caleb Gregg reported him “not in a disposition of mind to make Friends any satisfaction” while the second committee reported that “further care” would be advisable in the case of the Lynn Preparative Meeting. A month later Gregg was summarily disowned and judgment was reached that because of its insubordination the Lynn Preparative Meeting should “be laid down and the members thereof attached to Red Cedar preparative.”(221)
A few years after this disruption (about 1860) a number of Wilburites from Ohio, among whom were Jeremiah Stanley, Benjamin Bates, and Evan Smith, and their families, settled along Coal Creek in the northwestern part of Keokuk County, Iowa, and there built up a prosperous Quaker community. This meeting, together with the meetings at Red Cedar (now Hickory Grove) and Whittier, near Springville, soon united to form what is now known as the Hickory Grove Quarterly Meeting, by authority of the Ohio Yearly Meeting of (Wilbur) Friends, which meets at Barnesville, Ohio.
If either the Hicksite Friends in Iowa, or that body which separated from the Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1877 may to-day be called conservative, the Wilbur Friends here represented may well be classed as ultra-conservative. In almost every particular and to the minutest detail they have succeeded in preserving the peculiarities, not to say the eccentricities, of Quakerism as it appeared three-quarters of a century ago. Now numbering some seven hundred in all, in spite of the changes which have taken place about them on every side, they have been able to maintain the integrity of their organization to a remarkable degree. While scarcely any members have been added from the outside for more than a generation, and while death and resignation have removed women, still through births within the organization their membership has remained about stationary.
Although almost identical in religious and disciplinary beliefs with their Conservative brethren of the Iowa Yearly Meeting, and although repeatedly encouraged to unite with that body, still the Wilbur Friends have refused to do so officially.(222) They attend the Conservative Yearly Meeting, serve on its committees, and take part in its deliberations, but in reality they do not belong to it. On Sunday morning members of the Conservative body drive from the vicinity of Hickory Grove to their little meeting in West Branch, and in turn numbers of the Wilburites drive some two miles from West Branch over the same road to their small meeting at Hickory Grove, greeting each other kindly as they pass, but holding aloof from union.
The true spirit of this interesting and conscientious religious sect has been well shown in their management of “Scattergood Boarding School”, owned and controlled by the Hickory Grove Quarterly Meeting. The school, discontinued in 1913, was situated in the open country about two and one-half miles southeast of West Branch, and was under the care of a committee appointed by the Quarterly Meeting. It was declared to be “intended for the education and especial benefit of members of that religious society”—this statement being strictly construed. The management of the institution was turned over more specifically to a Superintendent and a Matron, who, together with from two to three teachers, provided for all of the needs of the students, numbering in late years from twenty to thirty-five. The following quotations from the catalogue of the school for the year 1909-1910 will show something of the rules and regulations which governed the institution:
The pupils are expected to attend meetings at the Meeting House nearby, and collections on First Days for reading the Holy Scriptures and other religious works.
It is requested that all unnecessary noise, such as whistling, singing, or loud, boisterous laughing, or hallooing be avoided by the pupils.
Pupils are not expected to take newspapers or other periodicals while attending school.
Finger rings, class pins and other jewelry should not be brought to the school.
Two or three suits of plain, substantial goods; if of figured or plain goods the figure should be small and inconspicuous. A rolling or falling collar shall not be allowed on either coat or vest; sweaters, if worn, of solid black or brown, or gray, without cape.
Three or more suits to be made of plain worsted or other materials of small figure and not so light as to require frequent washing, and made with plain waists. No ruffles or unnecessary trimming on any garment. Silk not allowed.
The girls are expected to part their hair in the middle and comb it down plain and smooth. If ties are worn, plain colors, black, white or brown. No useless ribbons allowed on any occasion. As head dress, a hood of plain make and color is recommended for ordinary use, and a plaited or plain drawn bonnet for other occasions. Hats are not to be worn.
Pupils are tenderly advised to check the arisings of pride in their hearts, and cherish instead a true regard for the truth, that no desire may be fostered to imitate the ever-changing fashions of the world inconsistent with that simplicity heretofore enjoined.(223)
Such a system and set of rules, when applied to the younger generation seem strangely in contrast with modern ideas relative to the government of boys and girls; and yet, in actual practice in this specific instance, it is safe to say that the Wilbur Friends in Iowa need not be ashamed of the results produced. Though naturally somewhat narrow in general outlook, what with wholesome food, exercise, and rural surroundings, together with their strict application to mental and religious training, it is believed that the young men and women there developed have generally surpassed in stability and strength of character the average product of the neighboring public schools.
Notes and References
210- John Wilbur was born at Hopkinton, Rhode Island, in 1774, of a prominent Quaker family, and was carefully educated in the teachings of the Society. He was early acknowledged a minister but was disowned by the Orthodox body owning to his controversy with Gurney. Later he was recognized as a minister by his followers and retained that position until his death in 1856.
211- Joseph John Gurney, likewise of Quaker ancestry, was born near Norwich, England, in 1788. He was educated at Oxford, became a finished scholar, an extensive writer, and a reformer intimate with Buston and Wilberforce. In 1847 he met a violent death while riding horseback.
212- See Gurney’s Essay on the Evidences, Doctrines and Practical Operation, of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1884)
213- A clear idea of John Wilbur’s tenets may be obtained from the Letters of John Wilbur to George Crosfield, published by the “Meeting of Sufferings of New England Yearly Meeting of (Wilbur) Friends” ) Providence, 1895.
214-D. C. Mott’s article on The Quakers in Iowa in Annals of Iowa, Third Series, Vol. IV, pp. 266, 267.
215- D. C Mott’s article on The Quakers in Iowa in Annals of Iowa, Third Series, Vol. IV, pp. 266, 267.
216- Hodgson’s The Society of Friends in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. II, p. 227.
217- Quoted in Hodgson’s The Society of Friends in the Nineteenth Century, Vo. II, P. 228.
218- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 8 mo., 9th, 1854, pp. 81, 82.
219- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 8 mo., 9th, 1854, p. 82.
220- An aged Friend now living at West Branch, Iowa, who was in attendance at the Red Cedar Monthly Meeting at the time of the difficulties there related this incident to the writer, stating that the words made such an impression on her youthful mind that she had never forgotten them.
221- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 9 mo., 7th, 1854, p. 84; 10 mo., 12th, 1854, pp. 87, 88.
222- See Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, 1866, pp. 2, 3; 1887, p. 5; Minutes of Ohio Yearly Meeting of (Wilbur) Friends, 1912, p. 4.
223- Catalogue of Friends Boarding School, 1909-10, pp. 1-4.