By Thomas Hamm
The roots of Friends United Meeting lie in the controversies and divisions that American Friends experienced in the nineteenth century. Most Friends saw the splits into Orthodox, Gurneyite, Hicksite, Wilburite and other groups as a sign of weakness and sought a way to prevent future divisions. This was especially true of Gurneyite Friends, the largest group to emerge from the nineteenth-century controversies and the group recognized by Friends in the British Isles as the legitimate body of Friends in North America.
In the 1880s, Gurneyite Friends found themselves facing another controversy. Some Friends, especially in Ohio Yearly Meeting, had become advocates of toleration of outward sacraments of water baptism and communion. Many feared that yet another split was imminent. The response of others was to call a conference of yearly meetings in Richmond, Indiana, in the fall of 1887. This meeting produced the Richmond Declaration of Faith, considered by many to be the classic statement of evangelical Quakerism. But it also produced a proposal from William Nicholson, the former clerk of Kansas (now Mid America) Yearly Meeting, which would be the foundation of Friends United Meeting.
Nicholson argued that since the 1820s, Quakerism had experienced “disruption, disintegration and dissolution.” The solution, he concluded, lay in organizing a central authority for the Gurneyite yearly meetings. This would bring, “unification, compactness, strength, solidity, power of resistance and an effective wielding of our forces.” He proposed the writing of a uniform discipline and the formation of a conference of yearly meetings with ultimate authority over its constituent bodies and delegates appointed in proportion to membership.
This was a radical departure from historic Quaker practice in which the yearly meeting was the ultimate authority and unity among yearly meetings was maintained through correspondence. But the trend of American society in the 1890s was toward consolidation. Gurneyite conferences followed in Indianapolis in 1892 and 1897, and the latter reached the conclusion that, “much benefit would result to our branch of the church of Christ from such a union of our yearly meetings as would tend to protect them from common dangers, and to strengthen their joint participation in Christian work.” By 1902 all of the Gurneyite yearly meetings except Ohio had approved a draft of a Uniform Discipline, and in the fall of 1902 the first sessions of the Five Years Meeting of Friends in America were held.