In the late 1700s Friends from the Philadelphia and New York yearly meetings had settled in Ontario. They set up monthly meetings that became affiliated with the New York Yearly Meeting, underwent three separations, and eventually became the Canadian Yearly Meeting. New York Yearly Meeting Friends also settled and set up meetings in Michigan. During the nineteenth century many Friends moved into newly-opened western territories and established yearly meetings. Because Friends could worship without pastors, their meetings were often the first religious gatherings in new communities and became the centers of religious life, often with many attenders who had no background in Quakerism. The roots of programmed worship and evangelical Quakerism go back to this time, as the demand arose among Quakers for trained leadership, and as other vigorous Protestant movements, especially Wesleyan Methodism, spread across the United States. Quaker revivalism, which started in 1860 among young Orthodox Friends in Richmond, Indiana, added many new members and further increased the desire for schooled leaders. In the twentieth century some strongly evangelical meetings, dissatisfied with what they considered to be too liberal tendencies in other Orthodox meetings, drew away from the latter to form their own yearly meetings and an international association of them.
In the eastern United States the mid-1800s was a time of precipitous decline in the number of Friends’ meetings and in their vigor. Outside of Philadelphia the Orthodox countered this trend by instituting revivalistic methods and by adopting the pastoral system. The Hicksites were slower to respond to the challenge but did begin to foster First-Day Schools, to found new schools and a college, to expand philanthropic activities, and, in the closing years of the century, to institute biennial national educational conferences.
The hiring of full-time pastors was initiated in Glens Falls, New York, in 1875. This practice was later followed by most Orthodox meetings outside of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. There are several pastoral meetings in the New York Yearly Meeting. Most meetings adopting pastoral or programmed patterns of worship and ministry did not use liturgies, formulated prayers, or litanies and creeds and refrained from observing sacraments. These meetings added music, spoken prayers, Bible readings, offerings, and prepared messages, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In recent years, some pastoral or programmed meetings have included more silence in worship and invited active participation of worshippers in vocal ministry and prayer. Meetings or churches of Evangelical Friends International, most of the meetings of Friends United Meeting, and some of those affiliated with both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference have this kind of programmed worship. Conservative Friends, most of those who affiliate with Friends General Conference, and many of the unaffiliated groups have unprogrammed worship, during which the worshippers gather in silent waiting out of which may arise vocal messages or prayer from any of the participants as they feel led.
After the First World War, many people who had not grown up in the Society began to come to meetings for worship. Some had attended Friends’ schools, others knew about the newly-tested peace testimony and Friends’ ambulance and social work during and after the war, and others sought non-liturgical worship and non-hierarchical religion. This attraction to the Society continued and grew after the Second World War and during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. New groups of Friends gathered in long-disused meeting houses. Independent groups, often in college or university towns, worshipped without the sponsorship of any existing meetings. As the Society changed, some unprogrammed meetings became programmed and vice versa. Others changed their yearly meeting affiliation. New Friends often instigated reunions of meetings, or new meetings joined both the Friends General Conference and the Friends United Meeting. All gradually began to welcome convinced Friends, members who had come into the Society as adults, as had the first generation of Friends. In spite of this, through the century, the number of recorded members of meetings in this area has steadily declined.
A transformation came with these new attenders, who did not feel bound by history or family ties to the Society’s traditions and who often thought some of Friends’ traditional ways confined the life of the spirit unnecessarily. They felt attracted to Friends’ commitment to go into the world to mend it, and they wanted to live the other testimonies, which they had found anew. But some of these new attenders were antipathetic to the religious traditions of their youth and to some of the commonly-held Christian ideas, language, and assumptions of many Friends. Further, increased mobility changed the nature of the closeness of meetings as Friends moved more frequently and transferred their membership to other meetings.
The newcomers’ concerns for peace, education, equal and civil rights, and for people who are poor brought still more people to Friends. The anti-war and civil rights movements in this country beginning in the 1940s grew from the inspiration of people who found war, segregation, and poverty evil and incomprehensible, many of them new Friends, and many of these former soldiers or sailors or people who had lived or worked in multi-ethnic communities. The later feminist and gay-rights movements also drew many Friends determined to reflect their convictions in meeting life as well.
In recent years, this yearly meeting has become more diverse in ethnic background and schooling. Many came into the Society divorced or remarried or became so as members. Some came seeking the inward power and religious authority they missed elsewhere. Many new attenders came to meetings that offered child-care and children’s classes. A number of gay men and lesbians joined; others found their orientation as members. As with many faith groups, this yearly meeting has struggled in recent years to discern God’s will with respect to changing sexual mores, attitudes towards marriage, and family patterns. In particular, many have challenged Friends to affirm committed gay and lesbian relationships and the possibility of same-sex marriages. Up to this point, the yearly meeting has not united on this issue, and Friends have dedicated ourselves to continue the search for unity in faith and hope that God will eventually answer our prayers if we are faithful to an honest and open search for divine guidance. As a result of these various developments, the Religious Society of Friends, particularly in the United States, includes individuals, monthly meetings, and yearly meetings that differ significantly in theological beliefs and in method of worship. But we remain united in the belief George Fox expressed, that there is that of God in everyone, and that our intimate communion with the Living Christ or Inward Light can change and revitalize our individual and corporate lives.