“Orthodox” Friends

7th of 11th mo., 2010

A reader of this blog suggested that I investigate the origins of the term Orthodox, for those Friends who took the anti-Hicks side in the schism of 1827–8 and their successors.  There are some interesting questions connected with this term: Was it first applied by Hicksites to their opponents, with pejorative connotations — or was it something that Orthodox Friends chose for themselves?  Was it intended as implying that the Orthodox Friends held close to traditional Quaker doctrine — or rather that they were orthodox by mainstream Protestant standards? I am sorry to report that I have not been very successful in finding definite answers to these questions, but I thought it might at least be worth reporting what I did find.  If any readers know more, I hope they will fill in the gaps by commenting on this post.

The earliest occurrence of the word orthodox for opponents of Elias Hicks that I have come across is in the anonymous 1824 pro-Hicks pamphlet ‘The Misrepresentations of Anna Braithwait’ [sic]:

Among these for some time stood conspicuous ____ ____, who in a letter to a friend in this city, denounces Elias Hicks as preaching doctrines that tend to destroy the Christian Religion, merely on account of the testimony he bore, in common with many of his Brethren against Bible Societies, and some other similar associations, and to so great a height did he carry his malice that by the cry of heresy, he raised the standard of dissention for all the disaffected; accused Elias Hicks of preaching unsound doctrines and inculcating pernicious principles. Many of the weak members of his Society have been deceived, and the cry of ignorance and infidelity extended across the Atlantic. The sympathy of their wise and orthodox Brethren was excited into lively existence, and the poor, the savage, the unlearned society of Friends beyond the water has claimed their tender commiseration. Hence puffed up with high notions of superior understanding and cultivated mind, raised still higher by ideas of grovelling America, A. Braithwait left the soil of her native England, armed with full documentary evidence of her unity with the society at home, gifted by nature with unbounded assurance of mind and a countenance undaunted in what she considered the service of the Lord. She it was before whom the monster of infidelity was to wither and to die, who was to bring the American people into all the glorious consistency of the Mother Church.

This very early Hicksite application of orthodox comes across as contemptuous and sarcastic — but is really too early, I think, to be functioning as the name of a definite party in the controversy.  Rather, it seems merely to be an ironic description of the perceived self-righteousness and condescending attitude of British Friends. A clearer use of the term Orthodox to refer to an identifiable side in the impending schism appears in the New York religious newspaper The Telescope, April 1, 1826 (almost exactly a year before the actual separation took place in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting):

There is now a general commotion and overturning among the once peaceful people called Quakers.— Within a short period two rival parties have arisen in the society. The division seems mostly to have originated in a difference of sentiment, maintained and strenuously enforced by two noted preachers of that order, viz.: Elias Hicks, and Anna Braithwaite. The old party adhere to the tenets of the latter, and are denominated “Orthodox,” while the new party adhere to the sentiments of the former and are denominated “Reformers,” or “Hicksites.” The Orthodox side maintain that they themselves hold the principles of the founders of the society, and that the other party are rank Socinians, and no better than deists. On the other hand the Reformers accuse them of intolerance, bigotry, and desire “to lord it over God’s heritage;” and thus a constant warfare is maintained; each trying to gain the ascendancy.

Here, the word Orthodox appears to be an expression of the anti-Hicks party’s claim to represent traditional Quakerism, with no hint that it may have been interpreted as pejorative or sarcastic.

(A brief digression: It is interesting to note that this very early description of the controversy portrays the Orthodox side as conservative and the Hicksites as “Reformers.”  Many Friends today look back to Elias Hicks as the father of liberal Quakerism, a perspective that is reinforced in works like Bliss Forbush’s biography Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal.  But it has been more popular among recent historians to paint Hicks as a conservative, attempting to maintain traditional Quietism against a rising trend of innovative Evangelicalism — see Larry Ingle’s Quakers in Conflict, for example.  It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Friends on both sides of the schism took their positions for a variety of different reasons, and Hicks’ personal motivations may not have been representative of Hicksite Friends’ more generally.)

The only explicit explanation of the origin of the term Orthodox that I know of by a Friend of this era is offered by Hicksite James Cockburn, who in 1829 wrote:

The application of the term orthodox to a party in the society of Friends, appears to have arisen from the similarity of their assumptions and measures with those of the various sects who, at different periods of the church, have laid claim to this distinction, and on this ground have proscribed and persecuted others who have differed from them in opinion.

A Review of the General and Particular Causes which have Produced the Late Disorders and Divisions in the Yearly Meeting of Friends held in Philadelphia, p. vi

But Cockburn is highly partisan and his explanation should be considered in that light.


A noticeable bit of peculiarly Quaker vocabulary is our use of the phrase lay down as a term for officially discontinuing a meeting, committee, or similar organization, or sometimes more generally for discontinuing any sort of project, practice, or custom.

In non-Quaker speech, the use of lay down to mean “discontinue” is much less regular, and largely confined to fixed phrases and semi-metaphorical expressions, such as to lay down one’s life, or to lay down one’s arms.  But in the Society of Friends, this is the standard phrase to use in indicating that an organization is being discontinued, and is used even in the formal style of meeting minutes, as in “The work of the ad hoc committee now being complete, accordingly it is laid down.”

This usage goes back to the early days of the Quaker movement.  The earliest example I can find of lay down being used in connection with the discontinuation of a meeting or other organization is in Truth exalted in the writings of that eminent and faithful servant of Christ John Burnyeat (1691).  Burnyeat uses it in his account of the Wilkinson-Story separation of the 1670s:

Amongst many things of Concern, relating to the Truth, and the Churches of Christ, that Division in Westmorland was laid before the Meeting, and how they were hardened, and had set up a Separate Meeting, and so had withdrawn themselves from the rest of their Brethren, and broken the Christian Fellowship: which thing, when understood by the Brethren there assembled, was a grief unto them. And therefore under the sence thereof, and in that Brotherly Love, with which their Hearts were filled towards them, were there Two Epistles writ from the Meeting, one to J. S. and J. W. warning and advising them, as Heads and Leaders in that Sedition and Schism, to endeavour to break up that Separate Meeting, and to be Reconciled unto their Brethren, before they did go abroad to offer their Gift. And the other was writ to the Meeting, as Advice unto them to Return to their former Fellowship with Friends, and lay that Separate Meeting down, and joyn with their Brethren in the Unity of the Truth, &c.

p. 96

As venerable as this phrase is, it would be a mistake to think of it as required by Quaker tradition.  An examination of older sources shows that Friends used a variety of other phrases for the disestablishment of meetings.  The 1809 Discipline of New England Yearly Meeting (apparently citing a minute from 1760) writes simply

Agreed that no quarterly-meeting be set up, divided in two, or discontinued, but by the yearly-meeting; no monthly meeting but by the quarterly; no preparative, or meeting for worship, but by the monthly-meeting…

The Old Discipline: Nineteenth-Century Friends’ Disciplines in America, p.  161

The 1810 Discipline of New York Yearly Meeting likewise uses discontinue rather than lay down.  The 1823 Discipline of North Carolina Yearly Meeting interestingly uses put down rather than lay down:

It is agreed that no quarterly meeting be set up, or put down, without consent of the yearly meeting; no monthly meeting, without consent of the quarterly meeting; nor any preparative, or other meeting for business or worship, till application to the monthly meeting first is made, and when there approved, the consent of the quarterly meeting be had also.

The Old Discipline, p. 416

But other older disciplines, including those of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (1806), Baltimore Yearly Meeting (1806), and Virginia Yearly Meeting (1814), use lay down.

In the period around the Hicksite separation, when the official discontinuation of Hicksite meetings by their Orthodox opponents became newsworthy enough to be reported in the popular press, the Quaker use of the term lay down was sometimes noted, as in the following quote from The Niles Weekly Register for July 5, 1828:

It is well known to many of our readers that unfortunate differences have for sometime existed amongst the members of this hitherto peaceable and retired society, originating in certain points of doctrine, and that one part has attempted to exclude the other from a participation in the use of the property hitherto common to the society, as well to “lay down,” as it is called, many of the meetings, and to disown the members.

vol. 35, no. 87, p. 303

It is clear from this wording that lay down was understood as a peculiarly Quaker expression, and was not part of the ordinary English of the period.

It is worth asking whether Quakers have always used lay down as a term for discontinuing other sorts of practices, and not just for the disestablishment of meetings; or if instead the use of this term with respect to meetings is historically prior to other uses.  In investigating this question, I came across the following passage from George Fox — the earliest Quaker attestation of lay down of which I am aware:

Let all Judges, Lawyers, Attorneys and Clerkes, lay down their fees, and gifts, and all Priests or Ministers lay down their tithes, stipends, gleab-lands, Easter reckonings, Midsummer dues, offerings, the Popes wages, let them all go out free, Judges, Priests, Ministers, Lawyers, Attorneys, and none to judge for money, nor preach for money, tithes, nor land, nor offerings, and then it will be seen who loves his neighbour as himself, who will come to the Law from that which blinds him, and then it shall be seen who will preach the Gospel freely, that they may live of it, and who will thresh, and plant vineyards, and get flocks, and this will be the way to restore Judges, as they were at first, out of that which blinded them, and to restore Ministers as they were in the dayes of the Apostles, into that they were in…

An Instruction to Judges and Lawyers (1658), p. 29

I found this passage interesting not just for its early use of lay down — and in connection with something other than the discontinuation of a meeting — but also because it calls on judges and lawyers to work without pay.  Friends’ opposition to paid ministers is well-known, but I think it is largely forgotten now that early Quakers (or at least Fox) also opposed paid judges and lawyers.

In fact, just three years earlier,  Fox condemned judges and lawyers entirely:Newes Coming up out of the North

The Lord Jesus Christ who bears the Government upon his shoulders, and he is coming to rule all Nations with a rod of Iron. All you Hills which have been sheltring-places, shall be beaten to pieces: you Rocks that have been hiding places, shall be cloven asunder, you Mountains shall be laid low, you green trees where much adultery hath been committed, must be cut down, and you adulterers judged, the Lord hath spoken it, who will bear the government himself, and rule all Nations with his own mighty power, and women shall not rule the people, there shall be one Judge and one Law-giver, one King, Glory and Honour for ever. Sing all ye Saints and rejoyce, clap your hands and be glad, for the Lord Jehovah will reign, and the government shall be taken from you pretended Rulers. Judges and Justices, Lawyers and Constables, all this tree must be cut down, and Jesus Christ will rule alone: Glory and honour for ever be unto him.

Newes coming up out of the north, sounding towards the south (1655) pp. 19-20

In light of passages like this, it is perhaps not surprising that many people did not clearly distinguish between Quakers and other groups such as the Fifth Monarchy Men, who also anticipated the immanent overthrow of the government and legal system, and its replacement with direct rule by Christ.