My yearly meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, split in the 1800s. I wasn’t there, of course. Officially, we split for reasons to do with theology, but it’s hard to get the story straight. There are lots of historical records, and the only thing that seems totally clear to me is that many people on both (or all) sides of the issue behaved pretty badly. I suspect there were elements of cultural difference and family ties and interpersonal difficulties tangled up in the split. And really, isn’t that always the case, that there’s more than one issue influencing these things?
We were separated, then, from the early 1800s until 1955. Six generations, at least. No one alive on the day we split was also present for the reunification. I wonder those who were present for the split could have even imagined reunification. The relationship between the groups was so venomous that, for decades, many were disowned from their meetings for “marrying among those others called Friends” or even just “worshipping with those others called Friends.”
They were thrown out of their covenant communities for worshipping with Quakers from the other side of the split. That any community would do this feels like a reflection of extraordinary pain, and of course, the action itself only caused additional trauma.
But somehow, over time, something changed. Hearts were softened. There’s not a lot, as far as I can tell, of historical records that tell the story of how we went from vehement animosity to mutual openness. I suspect that’s because it happened slowly, amongst many people, and a lot of it was forgetting some things, over the generations.
And then, in 1955, we reunified.
That was sixty-five years ago. We’re getting awfully close to the point when no living person remembers the reunification. We’re not there yet, but those who are still living were mostly children in 1955. Many are no longer Friends, or no longer in our geographic area. As our ancestors lost the collective memory of the split, we are soon to lose the collective memory of reunification.
So I like to go back to the letter we wrote. It’s an “epistle to Friends everywhere,” and I’d like to think that includes everywhen. I’d like to think my ancestors were writing to me. They had some wise things to say to me. I don’t want to lose the feeling of reunification, the deep spiritual knowing we had. I want to hold onto what we learned as a people.
Maybe what my ancestors said will also be useful to others today. After all, they were writing to “Friends everywhere,” so this is also a message for you.
This is the message of our love.
We have been united with you this week in closer fellowship which transcended our diversity, as New York Yearly Meeting became again one body of Friends.
We wish to share with you our joy that the way to unity has been found.
We shall continue to share our differences, which serve a useful purpose. God does not ask us for conformity, but calls us to unity, in obedience to the leadings of the spirit.
We seek to recapture the radiance of simple, uncomplicated love … such love as will resist evil without violence, without hatred of the wrongdoer, and without compromise.
To the false standards of our time we would offer the greatest opposition, combined with the greatest love. To the lonely seekers in this hurried and soul-hiding world, we would say, “Dear Friends, we are walking beside you … seekers, too.”
Have loving kindness toward one another. Have faith in the Lord, and he will help you.
– signed on behalf of New York Yearly Meeting,
Horace R. Stubbs, Alfred J. Henderson, clerks, August 4, 1955