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The North Carolina Society of Friends

Many scholars and researchers over the years have noted the difficulty in defining, both dogmatically and sociologically, what it means to belong to the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers). Common associations with the Society of Friends in the United States are generally limited and often center around the religion's rejections of slavery before the Civil War and its focus on peaceful existence. This month, Documenting the American South briefly looks at Quakerism in North Carolina by reviewing the documents that issued from two of the group's annual meetings, one in 1822 and one in 1866.

Peter Collins writes in his 2009 article "The Problem of Quaker Identity" that "Quakerism is a subtle and complex process, one that cannot be determined either by individual or social agency" (p. 205). It is the "heterogeneity of Quaker belief" along with its lack of an "overt, unifying ideology" that makes simple characterization of the religion difficult (p. 206). And yet, this branch of Christianity "has sustained its identity for 350 years" (p. 206). As Martha Paxson Grundy notes in her article "Learning to be Quaker," seventeenth-century Quakers described the new denomination as "primitive Christianity revived" and themselves as "disciples of the Living Christ" (p. 151). The founders thought "[i]t was less about right belief than it was about right action, which they understood flowed naturally from their new relationship to God through Christ resurrected in their hearts" (pp. 151-152). While scholars and those outside the group seem perplexed by this undefined, personal relationship to Christ, it is nonetheless the foundation of the religion, one that encourages peace, thoughtfulness in word and action, and respect of oneself and others.

Scholars have frequently turned to the yearly meeting, a formal gathering of local representatives, to discuss the current state of the church and its constituents and to better understand Quakerism and its beliefs. The two documents summarized here both originated at these annual gatherings, which took place in New Garden (Greensboro), North Carolina. Meetings have been held at the New Garden site since 1754 and continue today ("New Garden Friends Meeting"). Although they are dated 44 years apart and focus on different aspects of Quakerism, these documents provide insights into the religion scholars have found so difficult to define.

The Discipline of Friends, Revised and Approved by the Yearly Meeting, Held at New-Garden, in Guilford County, North-Carolina, from the 4th to the 7th of the 11th Month, Inclusive, 1822 outlines, in twenty-eight pages, the basic conduct becoming of a Quaker along with the repercussions for inappropriate conduct. The booklet covers topics in alphabetical order, following its table of contents. Some of the foundational beliefs of the Society are laid out here. When dealing with the loss of a loved one, for instance, Friends are reminded not to affix "superfluous monuments, of any description, to graves" (p. 9). A strong belief in simplicity is encouraged: Friends are to "avoid the custom of wearing or giving mourning habits, and all extravagant expenses, on account of the dead" (p. 9). Members are also urged to be mindful of their conduct and to avoid "lying, swearing, cursing . . . or any other scandalous practice" (p. 11). They are also not allowed to "accept, or act in, the office of member of the federal or state legislature, justice of the peace, clerk of a court, coroner, sheriff, or constable" (p. 11). Holding such positions was seen as inconsistent with the beliefs of the religion.

As Friends believe that "no religious act can be acceptable to God, unless produced by the influence and assistance of his Holy Spirit," members are reminded not to "join with any, in the observance of public fasts, feasts, or what are termed holy days, or such injunctions and forms as are devised by the will of man" (p. 12). Appropriate conduct meant avoiding "the subtle and mischievous spirit of tale-bearing and detraction; the manifest tendency of which is, to lay waste the unity of the body, by sowing the seeds of disesteem, strife, and discord, among brethren and neighbors" (p. 13). Other proscribed activities included "going to stage plays, taverns, horse-races, music and dancing, or any such sports and pastimes; or being concerned in lotteries, wagering, or any species of gaming" (p. 14). Friends were encouraged to help each other avoid these temptations.

The document also unequivocally declares "the repugnancy of slavery to the christian religion" and prohibited members from owning slaves or taking part in any activity that contributed to the enslavement of another person (p. 22). For Friends, adherence to religious principles also included "moderation and plainness, in gesture, speech, apparel, and furniture of houses," along with a complete refusal to participate in war (p. 24). They are "exhorted faithfully to adhere to our testimony against wars and fightings, and in no way to unite with any in warlike measures, either offensive or defensive, or in carrying guns for defending their ships or persons" (p. 28).

The yearly meeting was not the only gathering that guided and supported the Friends: "preparative meetings are accountable to monthly; monthly to quarterly; and quarterly to the yearly meeting" (p. 13). Not every member attended each meeting: "Each monthly meeting should appoint a suitable number of Friends to attend the service of the quarterly meeting . . . Also, a suitable number of Friends should be appointed by each quarterly meeting, to attend the service of the yearly meeting." (p. 14). All attendees were expected to be "punctual in their attendance thereto" and to send "information thereof" if unable to attend due to "sickness, or any other unavoidable occurrence" (p. 14).

Readers can gain some insight into the workings of an actual yearly meeting in the Minutes of North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held at New Garden on Second-Day, the Fifth of Eleventh Month, 1866, which is dated 44 years after the Discipline of Friends. The 1866 meeting begins with reports from each of the local quarterly meetings. Those not present are noted as either having "rendered a reason for their absence" (p. 3) or are "expected to render reasons to next meeting for their absence" (p. 3). The minutes include notations of readings from visiting Friends of different areas, reports of adherence (or lack thereof) to the principles of the religion by the believers, and recognition of "Deceased Ministers and Elders" (p. 6). Also included in the Minutes is a "Report on Spirituous Liquors"—a chart lists the numbers of "Clear members," those "Who use spirituous liquors" and those "Not inquired of" (p. 7).

The document urges members to "love the Lord thy God with all thy might, mind, soul and strength" while also loving "thy neighbor as thyself" (p. 7). To these ends, Friends are reminded to attend meetings (and to encourage the wayward to do the same), to avoid "tale-bearing or detraction" and to train children properly in the faith (p. 8). Friends are also reminded to read the Holy Scriptures daily, to "collect their families and work-hands around them, to read a portion of the Holy Scriptures, to wait upon God, and as way opens, to offer to those gathered a word of counsel or encouragement, or to bend the knee in supplication to our Heavenly Father" (p. 9).

The financial and enrollment records of the New Garden Boarding School are included here, along with the report from the Treasurer, fundraising goals for the following year, a list of men appointed to the "Committee for the benefit of Freedmen" in the area, and the notation of a need for additional delegates to attend the upcoming "Peace Conference at Baltimore" (pp. 14, 15). Finally, the Clerk of the meeting, Nereus Mendenhall, closes the notes in a way that reflects the intrinsic faith and hope that unites both these documents: "The Meeting having been favored to bring its deliberations to a close in harmony and brotherly love, under a sense of humble thankfulness to our Father in Heaven, solemnly concludes to meet at the usual time and place next year, if the Lord permit" (p. 16).

Works Consulted: Collins, Peter, "The Problem of Quaker Identity," Quaker Studies 13.2 (2009): 205-219; Grundy, Martha Paxson, "Learning to be Quaker: Spiritual Formation and Religious Education Among Early Friends," Quaker Studies 11.2 (2007): 151-165; "New Garden Friends Meeting," accessed 23 Jan 2010.

Meredith Malburne-Wade