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Ask Tom: How did early Friends develop and grow as ministers?

By Thomas Hamm – Professor of History; Archivist/Curator, Friends Collection
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana

The first generation of Friends, and indeed, all Friends until the mid-19th century, was intensely suspicious of what they called “creaturely activity,” the idea that human efforts could provide anyone with a gift in the ministry. The language that Friends traditionally used — that of “gift,” something freely bestowed by God, and “recording,” recognizing, or making a record of a gift in the ministry, rather than even implying that some legitimacy came from human action like ordination — shows that. Since Friends believed that all Christians were called to be ministers in some way, they distinguished those with a gift for public speaking and debate by referring to them as “Public Friends.” Friends were particularly suspicious of the normal way to develop
ministers in 17th-century England: university training. One of George Fox’s early “openings” from God in 1646 was “that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers of Christ.”

Instead, early Friends looked to develop as ministers in two ways. The first way was through obedience. Believing that all legitimate ministry came through the direct inspiration of God, the dominant note in their writings is passivity, being open to direction from God and following it without question. Again and again one finds George Fox saying: “That which I was moved to declare was this,” or “I was made to cry out” or “I was required” or “the Lord showed me.”

While ascribing all authority in ministry to God, Friends also looked to the nurturing care of other Friends. By the mid-1650s, in addition to general meetings for business by Friends, Friends in the ministry were meeting separately. Since no minutes were kept, we have only fragmentary evidence of what they did and said. But what we do have suggests their conversations were devoted to encouraging each other to obedience growth in the Holy Spirit.

By the mid-19th century, many Friends had become comfortable with education as a supplement to, although not the basis of, Quaker ministry. The development of the pastoral system encouraged such discussion. But at the heart of true Quaker ministry still lies obedience to God and the encouragement of Friends.

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