It is the 19th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1748.
We arrive in the American Colonies today, telling a story about a Quaker, A schism, and poet Walt Whitman. We will do this by looking at a curious early American Quaker. It was on this, the 19th of March in 1748, that Elias Hicks was born. He would live for 81 years on Long Island through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the election of America's first 6 Presidents.
Elias would spend most of his life as a traveling Quaker minister, author, and sometimes carpenter (he helped build the church in which he was ordained). But his fame would come with his last name, Hicks, and the Hicksites that became one of the first schismatic Quaker churches. This would foreshadow what would become one of the hallmarks of American Christianity: the deeply embedded individualism that has led to denominations splitting like cells. But of course, sometimes breaks are necessary. Let's check it out.
You might remember the Quakers, or the Friends of Truth, or the Society of Friends (as they are officially called) started with George Fox in 17th Century England. You only need to go as far as your cupboard to see your "Quaker Oats" and tie them to William Penn and his colony famous for its religious tolerance. And the Quakers needed tolerance as their brand of Christianity with its pacifism, egalitarianism, and the doctrine of the Inner Light. The doctrine of the Inner Light is crucial for understanding both Quaker theology and the Hicksite schism.
All Quakers hold that there is, in each of us, a bit of divinity (or divine reflection) which is called the "Inner Light." Also called the "seed of Christ" or "seed of light," this doctrine stressed the immediate revelation of God to the individual believer. And it was "immediate revelation" in that there were no formal or material means by which you needed to receive this gift. Claims of theological anarchy were calmed by the so-called Evangelical Quakers who sought to ground their experience in scripture. Elias Hicks was no "Evangelical Quaker." From the early 19th century, there had been concern that Hicks' theology subordinated the place of the Bible in making internal revelation the primary rule of faith. He further condemned the luxuriousness of those well-to-do Quakers. It is worth noting that the Hicksite movement was overwhelmingly rural and poor. This may help us make sense of the vitriol between the groups.
It is also important to see Elias Hicks and the Hicksites as a "Second Great Awakening" movement. The Second Great awakening stressed the internal, the personal, and the supposed "empty forms" of traditional Christianity. The Hicksites would be the first significant division amongst American Quakers. It is worth noting that there would be at least six major Quaker denominations within just a few years. This was parallel to the Congregationalists breaking into factions and the growth of American Unitarianism. A story for another time.
Hicks wrote, "The fullness of the godhead dwelt in every blade of grass," words that are almost pan or panentheistic. We know that shortly before his death, he gave a lecture attended by another man who wrote something about blades of grass, a young Walt Whitman. While Whitman would not be a Christian by most any definitions, he saw Hicks (who happened to be friends with his grandfather) as a kindred spirit. In 1888 Whitman wrote an essay on Hicks in his "November Boughs." That was 58 years after he saw the aging minister who died in 1830. Born on the 19th of March in 1748, he was 81 years old.
The reading for today comes from Pat Schneider. This is her "Welcoming Angels"
Between the last war
and the next one,
waiting for the northbound train
that travels by the river,
I sit alone in the middle of the night
and welcome angels.
Welcome back old hymns, old songs,
all the music, the rhyme and rhythm,
welcome angels, archangels,
welcome early guesses,
at the names of things,
I have grown tired of disbelief.
What once was brave is boring.
Welcome back to my embrace stranger,
visitor beside the Jabbok.
Welcome wrestling until dawn,
until it is my hip thrown out of joint,
my pillow stone, my ladder
of antique assumptions.
Welcome what is not my own:
glory on top rung, coming down.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who can only think of ET when he hears about the Inner Light. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who has only seen ET once. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.