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Institutionalization in the 20th Century

If the 19th century was an era of schism for American Friends, the 20th century may well be characterized as a time of institutionalization.  Previously, Friends had tended to rely on more informal patterns of organization to channel authority within their Society.  At the close of the 19th century, Quakers didn’t have many formal institutional structures outside of their Monthly and Yearly Meetings.  A notable exception to this general absence of larger institutions was in the field of education; a reflection, perhaps, of Fox’s dictum to build schools to provide instruction in “whatsoever things were civil and useful in the creation" (Fox, The Journal, 1688, pg. 379).  Many Quaker schools and colleges were founded in the 19th century, a number of which—such as Swarthmore, Haverford and Earlham—have gone on to win national acclaim for educational excellence in the following century.  At the dawn of the 20th century, though, many Yearly Meetings came to feel the need to affiliate with one another through national associations that reflected their broad theological outlooks.  As well, a number of special interest organizations were formed to advance specific Friends causes and values in the world at large.

One of the first national affiliations of Yearly Meetings, as well as the largest, was the Five Year Meeting, which convened its first session in 1902.  Drawing together the pastoral Yearly Meetings influenced by Gurney, it largely based its theological position on the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith.  Further refinements to this theological stance were later provided by prominent leaders, such as Rufus Jones, who incorporated many aspects of the modernist movement then gaining credence in Protestant circles.  Among the more prominent beliefs of the modernists were: that religious ideas had to adapt to changing circumstances; that God is immanent, and to be understood through human cultural development; and that the world is moving, albeit fitfully, toward the realization of God’s Kingdom (Hamm, The Quakers In America, pg. 58).  Along with the formation of the Five Years Meeting came a significant expansion of Friends’ missionary work abroad, the most successful efforts of which manifested in Kenya.  By mid-century, the number of Friends in Kenya alone had grown to 28,000.  As of 2001, there were 21 Yearly Meetings in east Africa as a whole, with a total membership of 156,162 —more than in all of North America.

Paralleling the establishment of the Five Years Meeting was the establishment of the Friends General Conference (FGC) in 1904.  FGC brought together several Yearly Meetings, mostly located along the east coast, that identified with the liberal, Hicksite branch of Friends.  At the same time, not all Friends accepted the need to affiliate through national organizations with administrative staff.  Conservative Friends contented their need for affiliation with likeminded meetings by issuing a common statement of doctrine in 1913, and by maintaining common ties to various educational institutions.  Some other Yearly Meetings chose to remain entirely independent.  Nor was the establishment of national affiliate organizations a guarantee of doctrinal unity.  Protesting what they saw as excessive concessions to modernism, more evangelically minded Friends within the Five Years Meeting began to separate from the group. Oregon Yearly Meeting departed in 1925; Kansas Yearly Meeting followed in 1937. Some Evangelical Friends held the first of a series of national conferences starting in 1947 that eventually led to the founding of the Evangelical Friends Alliance (later rechristened Evangelical Friends International [EFI]) in 1963 (Hamm, The Quakers In America, pg. 60).  The Five Years Meeting (which changed its name to Friends United Meeting [FUM] in the 1960s) eventually lost a quarter of its membership to this new, evangelical branch of Friends.  On the other hand, signs of reconciliation were also manifested during this time, with several Yearly Meetings, primarily located along the east coast, jointly affiliating themselves with both FUM and FGC.

In terms of Quaker organizations formed for special purposes, probably the best known to the general public is the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).  Originally established in 1917 to provide ways for Quaker conscientious objectors to render alternative forms of service during the First World War, it significantly expanded its vision after the war, applying Quaker methods of humanitarianism and peace-making to trouble spots, both within the United States and abroad.  Its relief work in Europe and Asia before, during and after World War II culminated in the AFSC and its British equivalent—the Friends Service Council—earning the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1943, the AFSC also gave birth to another well known Quaker organization: the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).  Established to communicate Quaker political concerns in Washington, the FCNL was one of the first religious lobbying organizations in the United States.  Focusing primarily on issues of war and peace, the FCNL has gone on to win accolades from legislators for presenting objective information in support of its cause, as opposed to the relatively distorted data often presented by lobby groups.

Other examples of special purpose Quaker organizations founded in the 20th century abound.  The Friends Council on Education, for example, was established in 1933 to provide a way for Hicksite and Orthodox Friends schools to work together.  Greater coherence has also been given to affiliations between Friends organizations, both nationally and world-wide, by the formation of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) in 1937.  Without a doubt, though, one of the more significant Quaker institutions to be founded in the 20th century was the Earlham School of Religion.  Founded in 1960, ESR was the first graduate level seminary in the world dedicated to educating leaders and training ministers in the manner of Friends.  To this day, it remains the only accredited seminary in North America primarily serving the leadership needs of the Religious Society of Friends.