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Ask Tom: When did the idea of clearness committees come into practice? And — how does one come to unity through a clearness committee?

To be “clear” is a concept that recurs with some regularity in the writings of Friends from the 1650s down to the present day. It usually conveyed one of three meanings. One was guiltlessness. Consider, for example, Samuel Fisher’s exhortation to nonbelievers in 1662, “It shall please me enough that in this work I have pleased God, and am clear of the Blood of your Souls, and ye at last shall remember at least (yet not without Repentance, though too late) that ye were warned from God.” Another was certainty that one was following the Lord’s will in a particular situation. A good example is that of Irish Friend Mary Peisley Neale, who said while traveling in the ministry in 1753, “On more deeply centering to the root of life, in humble resignation to the divine will, I found it my duty to continue some weeks at London, and not being clear of that city was, I believe, the cause of my not seeing my way clear to Charlestown, I therefore concluded to stay the Lord’s time, and when I found my spirit clear, took my passage.” The last was freedom. For example, when Friends married in meeting, a committee would be appointed to be sure that both parties were “clear of marriage obligations to others.”

The concept of a “clearness committee” appears to be a twentieth-century application of this ancient Quaker conception. Except in relation to marriage, one does not find it in books of faith and practice before the 1970s. Today, unprogrammed Friends appear to be more likely to make use of clearness committees. My sense is that many pastoral Friends are not familiar with the idea. Mentions of it in Indiana Yearly Meeting, for example, have sometimes produced puzzlement.

Today, Friends use clearness committees as a way to test leadings and help discern the Lord’s will in a particular situation. Typically, a Friend feeling such a concern will request the monthly meeting to appoint Friends to aid in those tasks, although sometimes a Friend may directly ask other Friends for aid in a more private way. The process is, at its best, simply applying Friends methods of discernment in a meeting for business on a smaller scale.

Thomas Hamm is Professor of History; Archivist/Curator, Friends Collection at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana

Do you have a Quaker history question to “Ask Tom”? Send questions to annieg@fum.org.

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