- “The Blessed Community”: The Mutual Influences of Friends General Conference and the New Meetings Movement, 1915–1945
In 1939 Thomas Kelly envisioned “the blessed community,” a community of people gathered by God who combined a mystical, non-dogmatic religion that could potentially transform both individuals and society. While this community certainly transcended Quakerism, Kelly hoped that it would inspire and transform his own religious society.1 This paper uses the phrase as a way to describe the appeal of Quakerism to newly convinced North American Friends who began to form new unprogrammed meetings in the period between the two world wars. These new Meetings significantly expanded and transformed Quakerism, and Friends General Conference, the primary umbrella organization for unprogrammed North American Quakerism, in particular.
Thomas Kelly grew up among and worked primarily with “Orthodox” Friends, one of the two major branches resulting from the Hicksite-Orthodox schism begun in 1827. Yet Kelly’s vision of a blessed community attracted Friends who often professed an ecumenical desire to move beyond the old division of Friends. The same holds true for the vision of Rufus Jones, another Orthodox Friend who enthusiastically envisioned a Quakerism that drew many adherents to Friends’ Meetings. Some joined established Meetings, while others formed new Meetings. Many of these new Meetings eventually affiliated with Friends General Conference, the organizational outgrowth of the Hicksite branch. Yet this inspirational description of what Quakers might become, which was articulated by Kelly and Jones, remains a common heritage of both of these major branches of Quakerism.
The new Meetings that began forming in the period between 1915 and 1945 came to organizational maturation and wider Quaker affiliation primarily after World War II. This paper focuses on the rise of these new Meetings and, in particular, the role of Friends General Conference in nurturing them. It is part of a larger project tracing the transformation of FGC and liberal Quakerism in the twentieth century.
Friends General Conference Between the Wars
Quakerism at the beginning of World War I, in both its Hicksite and Orthodox branches, had been grappling with theological modernism for several [End Page 41] decades.2 This development was especially divisive for the Orthodox of Five Years’ Meeting. While modernism made strong inroads among them, especially in Orthodox yearly meetings on the eastern seaboard and colleges such as Earlham and Guilford, it also led to a reaction entailing charges of heresy at Quaker colleges and the splitting off of Oregon and Kansas Yearly Meetings to form another more uniformly Evangelical branch of Friends.
Meanwhile the Hicksites of Friends General Conference marked a milestone in 1914 with the sudden untimely death of Henry Wilbur, its General Secretary, who had a passion for outreach and whose initial work with FGC was with the Committee for the Advancement of Friends’ Principles.3 In his place stepped J. Barnard Walton, a birthright Friend trained as a social worker in the settlement house movement, who was also committed to the work of Quaker adult education at Woolman House, established in 1915, and its successor, Pendle Hill, created in 1930.4
A biographical sketch about Walton described his approach to outreach as “at least as much the advancement of Friends’ principles as an increase in membership,” believing that membership would “grow through association in the hearts of those who came, heard, and participated.” In his ecumenical work he “never tried to get religious groups together formally, but he always worked for a quiet infusion of understanding and gave a message which everybody could take, regardless of the group with which he was associated.”5 His subdued approach was valuable for this kind of work.
Walton came to his position at a significant time in the history of both FGC and the United States, shortly after the beginning of the First World War in Europe. The Advancement Committee of FGC in 1917 maintained that it was “perhaps the most critical period the Society of Friends had experienced since its formation,” that “not only is there a questioning of the peace principles in a more searching way than during any previous war, but the whole issue is at stake whether the Society of Friends stands for...