By Tom Hamm
Professor of History; Archivist/Curator, Friends Collection
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana
The first generation of Friends had no doubt that they had leaders. Historians argue about whether George Fox was THE leader of early Quakerism; some assert that he came to be perceived as “first among Friends” because he outlived almost all of his contemporaries and was able to shape writing about and the memory of the beginnings of the Quaker movement. But no one questioned that some had gifts for speaking or conducting the business of the Society, and so Friends were willing to defer to them. Indeed, they felt it their duty.
Friends of all persuasions have always been clear that God calls and makes leaders. No human education or training could qualify a man or woman if that divine gift was absent. For much of Quaker history, Friends tended to equate wisdom and leadership ability — weight — with age. Most Friends adopted the pastoral system in the late nineteenth century because they were convinced that changing circumstances required new practices and institutions. Congregations that often included large numbers of new converts needed regular preaching and pastoral care. Opposition to the development of the pastoral system among Friends who remained committed to unprogrammed worship was based in large part on the fear that appointing one person as the leader of worship would crowd out other potential leaders — those who also had the ability to speak and preach. (Interesting note on some forgotten Quaker history — in the 1880s even Hicksite Friends debated developing a paid ministry.)
In the twentieth century, the greatest change was the embrace by most Friends of the idea that education and training could help Friends develop their gifts, especially gifts of leadership. The Quaker colleges increasingly focused on this. Pastoral Friends opened Bible colleges and training institutes. Woodbrooke in England and Pendle Hill were founded to help shape leadership among unprogrammed Friends. Perhaps the final step was the founding of the first accredited Quaker theological seminary, the Earlham School of Religion in 1960.
The nature of Quaker leadership today is a matter of lively debate. Some Friends believe in a Quakerism so egalitarian that they regard any assertion of leadership skeptically. Others still regard it as vital to the Quaker future. The discussion continues.
Do you have a Quaker history question to “Ask Tom”? Send questions to Annie Glen.