Iowa History Project
The Conservative Friends in Iowa: The Separation of 1877
The Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends, now numbering in all about four hundred members,(224) meets alternately in its annual gatherings at Earlham, Madison County, and at West Branch, Cedar County, Iowa, and at West Branch, Cedar County, Iowa, usually during the second and third weeks on September. This independent body of Friends is, as has been elsewhere indicated, the result of the separation which took place in 1877 between the conservative and the more progressive members of the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, principally upon the grounds of the introduction of evangelistic methods and upon the departure of the majority from the primitive precepts of the Society. This separation had its counterpart in other Yearly Meetings and marks the last of the important schisms among the Friends in America.
The troubles which culminated in the separation of 1877 were years in developing. With the rise of a new generation of Quakers in Iowa, together with the gradual loosening of the rigid bonds of custom in many of the Quaker homes in this State, condition developed which soon became intolerable to those who stood for the old order of things. In the year 1867, at the Bear Creek Meeting in Madison County, there occurred the first serious contest, so far as had been discovered, between these two growing factions.
In that year, two Friends, Stacy Bevan and John S. Bond, both ministers with minutes for religious service form the Honey Creek and Bangor Monthly Meetings, respectively, stopped at Bear Creek on their way to visit among the Friends in Kansas, and there held a meeting. Of this occasion Stacy Bevan writes:
We made a brief stay at Bear Creek and held one public meeting at least, where the power of the Lord was wonderfully manifested. Many hearts were reached and all broken up, which was followed by sighs and sobs and prayers, confessions and great joy for sins pardoned and burdens rolled off, and pressious fellowship of the redeemed. But alas, some of the dear old Friends mistook this outbreak of the power of God for excitement and wild fire and tried to close the meeting, but we kept cool and held the strings, and closed the meeting orderly.(225)
During the ten years following this incident “general” or revival meetings became more and more prevalent in various parts of the Iowa Yearly Meeting. For a time no attempt was made to control these meetings; but by 1872, because of irregularities and occasional disturbances which had occurred here and there, a conviction had come upon the Yearly Meeting that “the time has come for this meeting to engage in such a work, by setting apart a committee to arrange for, and have the oversight of, General Meetings for worship, and the dissemination of the principles of the Christian religion, in conjunction with similar committees of the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings.” This official recognition of the new system, so sweeping in its extent, aroused a storm of opposition and marks the beginning of the end of unity in the Yearly Meeting.
The four succeeding annual gatherings of the Yearly Meeting which assembled at Oskaloosa seemed peaceful enough; but beneath the surface there was a growing discontent which but awaited a favorable opportunity to give vent to its pent up force. The break came in one of the most conservative centers in the Iowa field, namely, the Bear Creek Quarterly Meeting.
Immediately upon the close of the sessions of the Bear Creek Quarterly Meeting in February, 1877, a revival was opened in the meeting-house by Benjamin B. Hiatt and Isom P. Wooten, both ministers of great power. The meetings began on a Sunday evening, continuing with an ever deepening interest through the morning, afternoon, and evening sessions of Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday morning to a crowded house the call was made “for all those who wished to forsake sin and lead a different life to come to the he front seats.” Despite the fact that of all things repugnant to the Quaker mind mourner’s benches and religious excitement were the worst, when the call was made “about twenty arose at once and came. Others followed, some not waiting to reach the isles be stepped over the seats. Great confusion followed. Some who did not come forward were visited at their seats where prayer groups were formed. Some were praying, others weaping aloud, some pleading, and occasionally a stanza of a hymn would be sung.”
To those who all along had been displeased with the revival methods, such a scene in their quiet meeting-house was simply intolerable; and in utter astonishment and consternation they arose and abruptly left the meeting. “One elderly woman, before departing, standing in front of the ‘mourners bench,’ declared that the Society of Friends was now dead, that this action had killed it.” On the following day the revival came to a close, with a session which “continued over five hours without intermission” in which the “feeling was intense”. When the meeting broke up with the shaking of hands “some wept [while] others laughed”; and in the midst of it all a deep consciousness prevailed that a breach had been made which would inevitably result in a separation.
Three months passed by as the offended Friends cautiously thought their way through the painful difficulties which now confronted them. On the 29th day of May they reassembled at Bear Creek to solemnly consider the “present and sorrowful condition of our beloved and once favored society”. Under what they believed to be the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with an eye to the future in justification of the course which they were about to take, the assembly drew up the following statement relative to the conditions then existing in their midst:
The prevalent practice of endeavoring to induce dependence upon outward means, thereby drawing away from the spirituality of the gospel, and to settle down at ease in a literal knowledge and belief of the truths of the Holy Scriptures.
To set individuals at work in the will and wisdom of the natural man to comprehend an explain the sacred truth of religion to bring them down to the level of his unassisted reason and make them easy to the flesh.
The running into great activity, in religious and benevolent undertakings showing an untampered zeal by taking up one particular truth and carrying that to an extreme to the exclusion of other important truths.
A tendency to undervalue the writings of ancient Friends, and to promulgate sentiments repugnant to our Christian faith…
The introduction into meetings for worship much formality in the way of reading and singing and in the character of the ministry and prayer.
The manner in which general meetings are conducted, leaders being selected to conduct the exercises who many times point out and dictate services, also the introduction of the mourner’s bench and the manner of consecration the disorder and confusion and exciting scenes attending many of them wherein the young and inexperienced are urged go give expression to their over-wrought feelings in a manner inconsistent with our principles.
In a word, the whole procedure and spirit of the old-time Quaker meeting had been overturned; and in the process those who stood for the old order of things had gradually been displaced form positions of authority. It was to meet this situation, therefore, that those in conference were moved to declare:
We believe that the time is now fully come when it is incumbent upon us to disclaim the appointment of all the offices imposed upon us by the nondescript body now in the seat of church government and replace them by those in unity with the doctrine and in favor of supporting the ancient principles and testimonies of our society.
So clear was this declaration that no one could mistake its meaning. Sympathetic leaders in each of the subordinate meetings of the Bear Creek Quarter were given copies of the statement, with instructions to carry it into effect as best suited the condition in their individual localities. On Saturday, June 16th, the North Branch Monthly Meeting assembled for business, and the project was there first launched. Such confusion attended the attempt of the Conservatives to displace the regular clerk that in dismay they finally withdrew to the yard and in a brief conference decided to reassemble for separate organization on the following Wednesday; while the Friends within continued their meetings within continued their meeting as though nothing had happened. At Bear Creek the Separatists, if they may be spoken of as such, took the precaution to assemble separately form their brethren, and at the schoolhouse on June 30th they organized an independent Monthly Meeting. At Summit Grove a similar plan was followed with no attendant friction.(226)
On August 12th the three Monthly Meetings thus segregating themselves united; and when the Iowa Yearly Meeting convened at Oskaloosa on September 5th there were two sets of reports presented from Bear Creek, each purporting to be form that Quarterly Meeting. The subject was at once referred to the representatives present from all the Quarterly Meetings—Bear Creek excepted—for action; and in their report on the following day they said that parties to each side of the controversy had been present and made their statements, “which we considered to the best of our judgment, and we were entirely united that the reports signed by Jesse W. Kenworthy and Catherine R. Hadley as clerks [representing the progressive sect], are the reports of Bear Creek Quarterly Meeting, to labor within the limits of Bear Creek Quarterly Meeting, with a hope, that through the blessing of our Heavenly Father there may be a restoration of the harmony that appears to be interrupted in that Quarterly Meeting.”(227) This recommendation was approved and the committee was duly appointed.
Those determined upon separation had secured two distinct advantages by this action of the Yearly Meeting. In the first place, they had gained wide-spread publicity for their cause through this treatment of their case by the representatives form all of the Quarterly Meetings; and in the second place, the refusal by the Yearly Meeting to recognize their reports and delegates gave them strong justification, so they considered, for withdrawing from that body. They accordingly issued a general call for all who were in sympathy with them to meet in a building at Oskaloosa which had been secured for the purpose; and on September 7th, under the following minute, the Iowa Yearly Meeting of (Conservative) Friends was organized:
In consideration of the various departures in doctrine and principle and practice brought unto our beloved Society of late years by modern innovators who have so revolutionized our ancient order of the church as to run into views and practices out of which our Early Friends were led, and into a broader and more self pleasing and cross shunning way than that marked out by our Saviour and held by our ancient Friends and who have so approximated to the unregenerate world that we feel it incumbent upon us to bear testimony against all such doctrines principles and practices and sustain the church for the purpose for which it was peculiarly raised up, and in accordance therewith we appoint Zimri Horner clerk for the day.
Thus arose the Separation of 1877 which was soon to complete itself by spreading into two additional Quarterly Meetings in Iowa.
Notes and References
224- The Conservative Friends, unlike the other Quaker sects in Iowa, do not record detailed statistics of their membership, and in consequence it is difficult to determine just how many members of that body there are in this State.
225- For the materials dealing with the separation in the Bear Creek Meeting the writer is indebted to Darius B. Cook of Earlham, Iowa, who compiled the data from official records in the hands of the Conservative Friends. Mr. Cook intends to publish the full results of his researches.
226- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1872, p. 6.
227- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1877, pp. 2, 4. See also the Cook Manuscript.