Quaker Elders

By Thomas Clarkson (1806)

Elders—Their appointment—One part of their office to watch over the doctrines and conduct of ministers—Another part of their office to meet the ministers of the church, and to confer and exhort for religious good—None to meddle at these conferences with the government of the church.

To every particular meeting four elders, two men and two women, but sometimes more and sometimes less, according as persons can be found qualified, are appointed. These are nominated by a committee appointed by the monthly meeting, in conjunction with a committee appointed by the quarterly meeting. And as the office annexed to the name of elder is considered peculiarly important by the Quakers, particular care is taken, that persons of clear discernment, and such as excel in the spiritual ear, and such as are blameless in their lives, are appointed to it. It is recommended that neither wealth nor age be allowed to operate as inducements in the choice of them. Indeed, so much care is required to be taken with respect to the filling up this office, that if persons perfectly suitable are not to be found, the meetings are to be left without them.

It is one part of the duty of the elders, when appointed, to watch over the doctrine of young ministers, and also to watch over the doctrine and conduct of ministers generally, and tenderly to advise with such as appear to them to be deficient in any of the qualifications which belong to their high calling.

When we consider that every religious society attaches a more than common respectability to the person who performs the sacerdotal office, there will be no difficulty in supposing, whenever a minister may be thought to err, that many of those who are aware of his error, will want the courage to point it out to him, and that others will excuse themselves from doing it, by saying that interference on this occasion does not belong more immediately to them than to others. This institution therefore of elders fixes the offices on individuals. It makes it their duty to watch and advise—It makes them responsible for the unsound doctrine, or the bad conduct of their ministers. And this responsibility is considered as likely to give persons that courage in watching over the ministry, which they might otherwise want. Hence, if a minister in the Quaker church were to preach unsoundly, or to act inconsistently with his calling, he would be generally sure of being privately spoken to by one or another elder.

This office of elders, as far as it is concerned in advising ministers of the Gospel, had its foundation laid by George Fox. Many persons, who engaged in the ministry in his time, are described by him as “having run into imaginations,” or as “having gone beyond their measure;” and in these cases, whenever they should happen, he recommended that one or two friends, if they saw fit, should advise with them in love and wisdom. In process of time, however, this evil seems to have increased; for as the society spread, numbers pressed forward to become Gospel ministers; many supposed they had a call from the spirit, and rose up, and preached, and in the heat of their imaginations, delivered themselves unprofitably. Two or three persons also, in the frenzy of their enthusiasm, frequently rose up, and spoke at the same time. Now this was easily to be done in a religious society, where all were allowed to speak, and where the qualifications of ministers were to be judged of in part by the truths delivered, or rather, where ordination was no mark of the ministry, or where an human appointment of it was unknown. For these reasons, that mode of superintendence which had only been suggested by George Fox, and left to the discretion of individuals, was perfected into an establishment, out of imperious necessity, in after times. Men were appointed to determine between the effects of divine inspiration and human imagination; to judge between the cool and the sound; and the enthusiastic and the defective; and to put a bridle as it were upon those who were not likely to become profitable laborers in the harvest of the Gospel. And as this office was rendered necessary on account of the principle that no ordination or human appointment could make a minister of the Gospel; so the same principle continuing among the Quakers, the office has been continued to the present day.

It devolves upon the elders again, as a second branch of their duty, to meet the ministers of the church at stated seasons, generally once in three months, and to spend some time with them in religious retirement.  It is supposed that opportunities may be afforded here, of encouraging and strengthening young ministers, of confirming the old, and of giving religious advice and assistance in various ways: and it must be supposed at any rate, that religious men cannot meet in religious conference, without some edification to each other. At these meetings, queries are proposed relative to the conduct both of ministers and elders, which they answer in writing to the quarterly meetings of ministers and elders to which they belong. Of the ministers and elders thus assembled, it may be observed, that it is their duty to confine themselves wholly to the exhortation of one another for good. They can make no laws, like the ancient synods and other convocations of the clergy, nor dictate any article of faith. Neither can they meddle with the government of the church. The Quakers allow neither ministers nor elders, by virtue of their office, to interfere with their discipline. Every proposition of this sort must be determined upon by the yearly meeting, or by the body at large.





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