Quaker Yearly Meeting

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

Great yearly court or meeting—constitution of this meeting—one place only of meeting fixed upon for the whole kingdom—this the metropolis—deputies appointed to it from the quarterly meetings—business transacted at this meeting—matters decided, not by the influence of numbers, but by the weight of religious character—no head or chairman of this meeting—character of this discipline or government of the Quakers—the laws, relating to it better obeyed than those under any other discipline or government—reasons of this obedience.

In the order, in which I have hitherto mentioned the meetings for the discipline of the Quakers, we have seen them rising by regular ascent, both in importance and power. We have seen each in due progression comprising the actions of a greater population than the foregoing, and for a greater period of time. I come now to the yearly meeting, which is possessed of a higher and wider jurisdiction than any that have been yet described. This meeting does not take cognizance of the conduct of particular or of monthly meetings, but, at one general view, of the state and conduct of the members of each quarterly meeting, in order to form a judgment of the general state of the society for the whole kingdom.

We have seen, on a former occasion, the Quakers with their several deputies repairing to different places in a county; and we have seen them lately with their deputies again repairing to one great town in the different counties at large. We are now to see them repairing to the metropolis of the kingdom.

As deputies were chosen by each monthly meeting to represent it in the quarterly meeting, so the quarterly meetings choose deputies to represent them in the yearly meeting. These deputies are commissioned to be the bearers of certain documents to London, which contain answers in writing to a number of the queries mentioned in the last chapter.  These answers are made up from the answers received by the several quarterly meetings from their respective monthly meetings. Besides these they are to carry with them other documents, among which are accounts of sufferings in consequence of a refusal of military service, and of the payment of the demands of the church.

The deputies who are now generally four in number for each quarterly meeting, that is, four of each sex (except for the quarterly meetings of York and London, the former of which generally sends eight men and the latter twelve, and each of them the like number of females) having received their different documents, set forward on their journey.  Besides these many members of the society repair to the metropolis. The distance of three or four hundred miles forms no impediment to the journey. A man cannot travel at this time, but he sees the Quakers in motion from all parts, shaping their course to London, there to exercise, as will appear shortly, the power of deputies, judges, and legislators in turn, and to investigate and settle the affairs of the society for the preceding year.

It may not be amiss to mention a circumstance, which has not infrequently occurred upon these occasions. A Quaker in low circumstances, but of unblemished life, has been occasionally chosen as one of the deputies to the metropolis even for a county, where the Quaker-population has been considered to be rich. This deputy has scarcely been able, on account of the low state of his finances, to accomplish his journey, and has been known to travel on foot from distant parts. I mention this circumstance to show that the society in its choice of representatives, shows no respect to persons, but that it pays, even in the persons of the poor, the respect that is due to virtue.

The day of the yearly meeting at length arrives. Whole days are now devoted to business, for which various committees are obliged to be appointed. The men, as before, retire to a meeting-house allotted to them, to settle the business for the men and the society at large, and the women retire to another, to settle that, which belongs to their own sex. There are nevertheless, at intervals, meetings for worship at the several meeting houses in the metropolis.

One great part of the business of the yearly meeting is to know the state of the society in all its branches of discipline for the preceding year. This is known by hearing the answers brought to the queries from the several quarterly meetings, which are audibly read by the clerk or his assistant, and are taken in rotation alphabetically. If any deficiency in the discipline should appear by means of these documents, in any of the quarterly meetings, remarks follow on the part of the auditory, and written advices are ordered to be sent, if it should appear necessary, which are either of a general nature, or particularly directed to those where the deficiency has been observed.

Another part of the business of the yearly meeting is to ascertain the amount of the money, called “FRIENDS SUFFERINGS,” that is of the money, or the value of the goods, that have been taken from the Quakers for tithes and church dues; for the society are principled against the maintenance of any religious ministry, and of course cannot conscientiously pay toward the support of the established church. In consequence of their refusal of payment in the latter case, their goods are seized by a law-process, and sold to the best bidder. Those, who have the charge of these executions, behave differently. Some wantonly take such goods, as will not sell for a quarter of their value, and others much more than is necessary, and others again kindly select those, which in the sale will be attended with the least loss. This amount, arising from this confiscation of their property, is easily ascertained from the written answers of the deputies. The sum for each county is observed, and noted down. The different sums are then added together, and the amount for the whole kingdom within the year is discovered.

In speaking of tithes and church-dues I must correct an error, that is prevalent. It is usually understood, when Quakers suffer on these accounts, that their losses are made up by the society at large. Nothing can be more false than this idea. Were their losses made up on such occasions, there would be no suffering. The fact is, that whatever a person loses in this way is his own total loss; nor is it ever refunded, though, in consequence of expensive prosecutions at law, it has amounted to the whole of the property of those, who have refused the payment of these demands. If a man were to come to poverty on this account, he would undoubtedly be supported, but he would only be supported as belonging to the poor of the society.

Among the subjects, introduced at this meeting, may be that of any new regulations for the government of the society. The Quakers are not so blindly attached to antiquity, as to keep to customs, merely because they are of an ancient date. But they are ready, on conviction, to change, alter, and improve. When, however, such regulations or alterations are proposed, they must come not through the medium of an individual, but through the medium of one of the quarterly meetings.

There is also a variety of other business at the yearly meeting. Reports are received and considered on the subject of Ackworth school, which was mentioned in a former part of the work as a public seminary of the society.

Letters are also read from the branches of the society in foreign parts, and answers prepared to them.

Appeals also are heard in various instances, and determined in this court.

I may mention here two circumstances, that are worthy of notice on these occasions.

It may be observed that whether such business as that, which I have just detailed or any of any other sort comes before the yearly meeting at large, it is decided, not by the influence of numbers, but by the weight of religious character. As most subjects afford cause for a difference of opinion, so the Quakers at this meeting are found taking their different sides of the argument, as they believe it right. Those however, who are in opposition to any measure, if they perceive by the turn the debate takes, either that they are going against the general will, or that they are opposing the sentiments of members of high moral reputation in the society, give way. And so far do the Quakers carry their condescension on these occasions, that if a few ancient and respectable individuals seem to be dissatisfied with any measure that may have been proposed, though otherwise respectably supported, the measure is frequently postponed, out of tenderness to the feelings of such members, and from a desire of gaining them in time by forbearance.  But, in whatever way the question before them is settled, no division is ever called for. No counting of numbers is allowed. No protest is suffered to be entered. In such a case there can be no ostensible leader of any party; no ostensible minority or majority. The Quakers are of opinion that such things, if allowed, would be inconsistent with their profession. They would lead also to broils and divisions, and ultimately to the detriment of the society. Every measure therefore is settled by the Quakers at this meeting in the way I have mentioned, in brotherly love, and as the name of the society signifies, as Friends.

The other remarkable circumstance is, that there is no ostensible president or head of this great assembly, nor any ostensible president or head of any one of its committees; and yet the business of the society is conducted in as orderly a manner, as it is possible to be among any body of men, where the number is so great, and where every individual has a right to speak.

The state of the society having, by this time been ascertained, both in the meetings of the women and of the men, from the written answers of the different deputies, and from the reports of different committees, and the other business of the meeting having been nearly finished, a committee, which had been previously chosen, meet to draw up a public letter.

This letter usually comprehends three subjects: first, the state of the society, in which the sufferings for tithes and other demands of the church are included. This state, in all its different branches, the committee ascertain by inspecting the answers, as brought by the deputies before mentioned.

A second subject, comprehended in the letter, is advice to the society for the regulation of their moral and civil conduct. This advice is suggested partly from the same written answers, and partly by the circumstances of the times. Are there, for instance, any vicious customs creeping into the society, or any new dispositions among its members contrary to the Quaker principles? The answers brought by the deputies show it, and advice is contained in the letter adapted to the case. Are the times, seasons of difficulty and embarrassment in the commercial world? Is the aspect of the political horizon gloomy, and does it appear big with convulsions? New admonition and, advices follow.

A third subject, comprehended in the letter, and which I believe since the year 1787 has frequently formed a standing article in it, is the slave-trade. The Quakers consider this trade as so extensively big with misery to their fellow creatures, that their members ought to have a deep and awful feeling, and a religious care and concern about it. This and occasionally other subjects having been duly weighed by the committee, they begin to compose the letter.

When the letter is ready, it is brought into the public meeting, and the whole of it, without interruption, is first read audibly. It is then read over again, and canvassed, sentence by sentence. Every sentence, nay every word, is liable to alteration; for any one may make his remarks, and nothing can stand but by the sense of the meeting. When finally settled and approved, it is printed and dispersed among the members throughout the nation. This letter may be considered as informing the society of certain matters, that occurred in the preceding year, and as conveying to them admonitions on various subjects. This letter is emphatically styled “the General Epistle.” The yearly meeting, having now lasted about ten days, is dissolved after a solemn pause, and the different deputies are at liberty to return home.

This important institution of the yearly meeting brings with it, on every return, its pains and pleasures. To persons of maturer years, who sit at this time on committee after committee, and have various offices to perform, it is certainly an anniversary of care and anxiety, fatigue and trouble. But it affords them, on the other hand, occasions of innocent delight. Some, educated in the same school, and others, united by the ties of blood and youthful friendship, but separated from one another by following in distant situations the various concerns of life, meet together in the intervals of the disciplinary business, and feel, in the warm recognition of their ancient intercourse, a pleasure, which might have been delayed for years, but for the intervention of this occasion. To the youth it affords an opportunity, amidst this concourse of members, of seeing those who are reputed to be of the most exemplary character in the society, and whom they would not have had the same chance of seeing at any other time. They are introduced also at this season to their relations and family friends. They visit about, and form new connections in the society, and are permitted the enjoyment of other reasonable pleasures.

Such is the organization of the discipline or government of the Quakers. Nor may it improperly be called a government, when we consider that, besides all matters relating to the church, it takes cognizance of the actions of Quakers to Quakers, and of these to their fellow-citizens, and of these again to the state; in fact of all actions of Quakers, if immoral in the eye of the society, us soon at they we known. It gives out its prohibitions. It marks its crimes. It imposes offices on its subjects. It culls them to disciplinary duties. This government however, notwithstanding its power, has, as I observed before, no president or head, either permanent or temporary. There is no first man through the whole society. Neither has it any badge of office, or mace, or constables staff or sword. It may be observed also, that it has no office of emolument, by which its hands can be strengthened, neither minister, elder, clerk, overseer, nor deputy, being paid; and yet its administration is firmly conducted, and its laws better obeyed, than laws by persons, under any other denomination or government. The constant assemblage of the Quakers at their places of worship, and their unwearied attendances at the monthly and quarterly meetings, which they must often frequent at a great distance, to their own personal inconvenience, and to the hindrance of their worldly concerns, must be admitted, in part, as proofs of the last remark. But when we consider them as a distinct people, differing in their manner of speech and in their dress and customs from others, rebelling against fashion and the fashionable world, and likely therefore to become rather the objects of ridicule than of praise; when we consider these things, and their steady and rigid perseverance in the peculiar rules and customs of the society, we cannot but consider their obedience to their own discipline, which makes a point of the observance of these singularities, as extraordinary.

This singular obedience, however, to the laws of the society may be accounted for on three principles. In the first place in no society is there so much vigilance over the conduct of its members, as in that of the Quakers, as this history of their discipline must have already manifested. This vigilance of course, cannot miss of its effect. But a second cause is the following. The Quaker-laws and regulations are not made by any one person, nor by any number even of deputies. They are made by themselves, that is by the society in yearly meeting assembled.  If a bad law, or the repeal of a good one, be proposed, every one present, without distinction, has a right to speak against the motion.  The proposition cannot pass against the sense of the meeting. If persons are not present, it is their own fault. Thus it happens that every law, passed at the yearly meeting, may be considered, in some measure, as the law of every Quaker’s own will, and people are much more likely to follow regulations made by their own consent, than those which are made against it. This therefore has unquestionably an operation as a second cause. A third may be traced in the peculiar sentiments, which the Quakers hold as a religious body. They believe that many of their members, when they deliver themselves publicly on any subject at the yearly meeting, are influenced by the dictates of the pure principle, or by the spirit of truth. Hence the laws of the society, which are considered to be the result of such influences, have with them the sanction of spiritual authority. They pay them therefore a greater deference on this account, than they would to laws, which they conceive to have been the production of the mere imagination, or will, of man.





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