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Ask Tom: When did standing committees become so pervasive?

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

Occasionally Tom, who lives for books and still takes all his research notes on 4 by 6 cards, concedes that digital collections can be useful. He often uses the Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection, which makes available on-line dozens of Quaker works published before 1923 and is keyword searchable. A search there for the word “committee” is revealing. In Quaker works published between 1650 and 1800, “committee” appears 22 times. Between 1801 and 1900, it appears 78 times. A post-1900 compilation, were it possible, would doubtless show an explosion.

Why did this happen? Obviously, it reflects institutionalization and bureaucratization of a sort. Friends moved in this direction as the functions and focus of Quaker organizations changed in the 19th century, because Friends felt called to a variety of new tasks as expressions of their faith. Reading the minutes of 19th-century monthly meetings, one finds typically standing committees on education (overseeing the monthly meeting school), the poor (relieving Friends in need), and facilities (usually looking after the meetinghouse and burying ground). The select meeting, or meeting of ministers and elders, functioned like the current ministry and oversight or ministry and counsel committee.

By the mid-19th century, however, Friends felt called to do more. Sometimes they copied other denominations, in setting up First Day schools, which needed a committee. Then came the Civil War, when Friends took up as a particular concern the needs of freed people. So there were “Freedmen’s” committees. After the Civil War, Friends formally assumed responsibility for certain groups of Native Americans, so there were Indian committees. Many Friends saw a need for formal work against the dire effects of alcohol, so there were Temperance committees. As Gurneyite Friends developed a strong missionary impulse after 1860, Missionary committees became common. The number of examples could be multiplied by the concerns.

The changes in worship adopted by most American Friends in the late nineteenth century also contributed to the growth of committees. Finance committees became important as pastoral salaries had to be raised. Music committees took responsibility for that aspect of congregational life. In back of all of this was a feeling that the most efficient church work required clear organization and s specialization, which would have been a given among Protestants at the time. And so God graced, or afflicted, Friends with committees.

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