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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Realignment Among
North American Friends?

by Bill Samuel
Originally published August 1, 2000 at

The Realignment Debate and FUM's Direction

The 1990-93 Triennium of Friends United Meeting (FUM) was marked by an energetic debate over a possible "realignment" among Friends and the fallout from that debate. Stephen Main, FUM General Secretary, early in the Triennium began speaking out calling for such a realignment. Main saw a real problem in the lack of true unity in FUM on the centrality of Jesus Christ because of the many Friends in the united yearly meetings who didn't share this understanding of the Quaker faith.

Main saw Friends as being basically in two camps. One camp was strongly centered in Jesus Christ and committed to spreading the Christian gospel. The other camp was "universalist" in approach, and accepting of other spiritual paths as being equally valid as the Christian path. Main felt that each camp could be most effective if it was united in working from its perspective, and not trying to bridge the gap between the two perspectives. He saw the presence of universalist Friends from the united yearly meetings in the basically Christ-centered FUM as being divisive and eroding FUM's effectiveness.

Structurally, the realignment position suggested the joining together of Evangelical Friends International (EFI) and Christ-centered FUM Friends into one association. Universalist Friends would not fit into this association, potentially resulting in splits within some of the yearly meetings affiliated with FUM. Only one FUM yearly meeting minuted support for realignment, and a number of yearly meetings expressed strong opposition. Main wound up resigning before the end of his three-year term.

Although the idea of realignment did not obtain widespread support within FUM at that time, the issue did prompt major attention to examining the purpose of FUM. The resulting discernment process led to FUM adopting the following purpose statement in 1993:

Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.

The Picture Since FUM's 1993 Purpose Statement

The FUM General Secretary appointed after Main's resignation, Johan Maurer, resigned that position this year to join the pastoral team at an EFI church. In a closing message to the FUM community, Maurer noted, "Eventually it will make sense for Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International to merge..." (Quaker Life, July/August 2000, page 4) While he did not use the term realignment and did not address the broader issues raised by such a possible merger, it seems to me his assessment brings back to the public arena the concerns raised by his predecessor.

The approach taken by FUM was to be unambiguously Christ-centered and evangelical, while allowing room for the united yearly meetings which don't themselves take that stance to remain active in FUM. Those yearly meetings have remained in FUM, and do not appear to have done anything overtly to challenge the stance of FUM. But beyond that, how successful has FUM been with this approach?

In its World Ministries work, the work outside North America, this approach has had some success. FUM has greatly increased the number of field staff abroad, whose support largely comes from earmarked contributions. After many years of fairly steady-state operations, this is noteworthy. But FUM still is not opening up new areas for planting churches like Evangelical Friends Mission (the missions arm of EFI) has done.

In its work in North America, the picture has been somewhat grim. FUM has had serious problems raising money for its regular budget, out of which most of this work is funded. It has faced a series of budget and staff reductions. Directly related to the newly declared purpose, FUM tried to start a program to help people plant new meetings/churches. But that fell victim to resource problems. Now FUM tells people that they must look to local or yearly meetings for this support. But the united yearly meetings generally aren't involved, and are unlikely to become involved, in starting the kinds of meetings/churches described in FUM's purpose statement. FUM now takes an approach focused on networking among constituent yearly meetings rather than FUM programs themselves in its North American work. This means that the extent to which FUM's purpose statement actually translates to activity varies enormously in areas where FUM-affiliated yearly meetings operate.

The Future of North American Friends

There are real obstacles to organizational realignment that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet come up with good ways to overcome. Most notably, we have the issue of the united yearly meetings which generally lean more to the universalist end of the spectrum, but which contain individuals and sometimes meetings which are oriented towards FUM's purpose. How do we avoid leaving those Christ-centered Friends hanging out there, without solid ties to a larger grouping that shares their vision? I agree with the implication in Maurer's statement that organizational realignment will not come quickly. But I think leaders among Friends need to keep this question in their minds so that some way forward may emerge. And I also think that the movement, while not very visible as well as being tender and small, towards independent worship groups and meetings centered on Christ within the geographical confines of the united yearly meetings may wind up playing a significant role in how this all works out in the next couple of decades.


This section is intended as background to the body of the article itself for those without a lot of familiarity with the schisms of North American Friends (Quakers) in the last 200 years and how different tendencies among Friends reflected themselves in larger Friends organizations. You may skip it if you have that familiarity.

In 1827-28, most of the yearly meetings (regional associations) of Friends (Quakers) in North America split into Orthodox and Hicksite bodies. There were several causes for this schism, but today the differences are often cast in theological terms even though the splits were not neatly along theological lines. The Orthodox were more conventional in their Christology, and more comfortable in working with other Christian churches. The Hicksites were less inclined to insist that Christ be equated with the physical Jesus who walked the earth two millenia ago. They emphasized more the differences between Quakers and other Christian churches.

During the nineteenth century, Orthodox Friends continued to evolve and were significantly affected by currents in the larger Christian community. By the end of the century, many Orthodox meetings had adopted the pastoral system. They also became actively involved in foreign missions work. At different times during the century, groups known as Conservative or Wilburite Friends withdrew from Orthodox yearly meetings and formed their own bodies seeking, as they saw it, to preserve the distinctive characteristics of Friends which they felt much of the Orthodox branch was losing. At the end of the century, there was a separate withdrawal in the West taking a more liberal theological approach minimizing the items of faith all Friends were expected to hold in common. These Friends are sometimes known as Beanites, and now compose three yearly meetings.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, increasing joint activities among yearly meetings associated with each of the major branches coalesced into formal organizations. The Hicksites formed the Friends General Conference (FGC). The Orthodox formed the Five Years Meeting of Friends, later renamed Friends United Meeting (FUM). Conservative Friends had joint activities, but never had a formal association. Beanite Friends have a joint publication and other joint activities, but also have never created a formal association.

There were two major developments in the larger organizational structures of North American Quakers in the twentieth century. The first one was that several yearly meetings, or parts of yearly meetings, separated from the mainstream Orthodox at different times to pursue a more strongly evangelical Protestant course. These yearly meetings, with the addition of a yearly meeting that had been independent of the associations, coalesced into what is now Evangelical Friends International (EFI).

The second major development was the coming back together of some of the yearly meetings that had split. There were variations in what were the affiliations of the uniting bodies, but four of these re-united yearly meetings have come to be jointly affiliated with FGC and FUM. These four yearly meetings, plus a new yearly meeting that jointly affiliated when it formed, are often referred to as the united yearly meetings. Probably a large majority of the local meetings (congregations) in these yearly meetings are similar to FGC-only meetings in character, a much smaller number are similar to FUM-only meetings, and some are in-between.

Those interested in this concern may also be interested in my 1996 article, Towards Renewal Within the Religious Society of Friends.

© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.

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