Friday, October 10, 2014


I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings. 
George Fox, Journal, 1647                                               

These are some of my experiences during and after the "reconfiguration" of Indiana Yearly Meeting. I wrote this article after I attended the 2012 annual sessions of Indiana Yearly Meeting. 

A CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE                                                     July 29, 2012                                                                   

On my way from Northern Michigan to the Indiana Yearly Meeting sessions at Quaker Haven Camp, I took a detour near Michigan’s border with Indiana. In 1832 Pennsylvania Friends arrived in what became Cass County, and called their settlement Penn Township. They were joined by Friends from Indiana, and by 1836 they were worshiping in the home of Stephen Bogue, who had moved there from Wayne County, Indiana. The following year the meeting moved to a log cabin in the corner of the Prairie Grove cemetery at Birch Lake, five miles south of Penn Township. Birch Lake Friends became a monthly meeting in 1841.

These Friends would have worn plain dress, used plain speech, and sought marriage partners for their children within the faith. Their distinctive ways provided a barrier from the world, which they saw as inherently hostile to the growth of godliness. With hearts and minds prepared by regular prayer, Bible study and inspirational reading, it was understood that true baptism and communion took place during the silence of Meeting for Worship, with no outward symbols necessary. While silence was the medium of this deep communion, some Friends might be led to offer a brief message or vocal prayer, but only if they were truly convinced that the words were coming from God.
While Friends were separate from ‘the world’ in the way they led their daily lives, they felt a duty to contribute to what they believed was God’s will for the world, and used their understanding of scripture in carrying this out.

While Friends agreed that it was sinful to own another human being, a major conflict developed in the early 19th century in parts of the USA as to whether it was enough for Friends not to own slaves and to distance themselves from the products of slave labor, or whether they should be more active in terms of shaping public policy and assisting those who had been enslaved to escape. This conflict was at the heart of Quaker identity. Were they to remain a quietist sect, separate from “the world?’ Or were they to join with other like-minded Christians in advocacy and direct action?

Indiana Yearly Meeting split over the issue in 1843, when supporters of Levi Coffin, who had been expelled by the yearly meeting for his activism, met to reorganize Indiana Yearly Meeting on “true principles.” The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends claimed 2,000 of the 25,000 members and many meetings divided on the issue.

Stephen and Hannah Bogue, in whose home Birch Grove Meeting in Michigan had started, were at the heart of the controversy. For a decade their home was a station on the Underground Railroad, as were those of their daughter Sarah and son in law James Bonine, and William Jones. Charles Osborn, who had been read out of meeting in Wayne County for his abolitionist activities, moved there to be near his abolitionist son Josiah.

Not all the Friends were comfortable with the nonviolent direct action, the engagement with non-Friends and the necessity for secrecy that was involved in this form of activism, and it is easy to see how tensions formed in Birch Lake Meeting. In 1843 it divided and the activists formed Young’s Prairie Anti Slavery Friends Meeting, on Quaker Street, Penn Township.

This schism was about many things: What did it mean to be a Friend? What was God calling Friends to do? But a major issue was one of conscience. The Anti-Slavery Friends could do no other than to witness in the way they did. And those who opposed them could not be persuaded of their sense that it was not in right ordering, however tempting it might be. The outcome, the schism, freed the Anti-Slavery Friends to do what they felt called to do. It freed those whose conscience would not permit that activity, but who were still committed to the ending of the system of slavery, to worship, pray, and do as their consciences dictated.

Just nine years after the conference that set off the Anti-Slavery yearly meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting re-united, with no requirement for apology on either side.

The Bonine house, a station on the Underground Railroad; 
Calvin Center Road and Penn Road, Cass County, Michigan

And here we are, in 2012 in a different crisis.  While many issues – the interpretation and role of scripture, organizational polity and authority, the nature of sin, God’s will and so on, have arisen, at the heart of it is an issue – the potential violation of conscience – that, it seems, cannot be accommodated. Some things can be worked through by compromise, by giving up a cherished tradition in order to keep the peace and stay together. But for one group of Friends to take a course of action, or withdraw from a course of action that they, in conscience, after deep prayer, cannot do, is a different matter.

This is what Yearly Meeting Superintendent Doug Shoemaker said yesterday, and I was not the only one in the room who experienced it as true vocal ministry:

"I have a vision of yearly meetings that are united in vision; united in Christ; and are liberated to do the work of the Kingdom as they are led without denominational distractions.

What kind of future do you long for? We are at a crossroad, and I am grateful to be part of a yearly meeting that dares to name our differences and seek ways to foster spiritual unity while respecting the consciences of one another."

Penn Township, Cass County, Michigan

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