I have always enjoyed period literature, and there is a large part of me that is curious about the past. When everything seems crazy, I guess it is comforting to know that I can look back and see how things turn out. When looking back, I know to a degree how everything will turn out.
This year I have watched a church split. Some of the arguments I understood, others I did not. I clearly was not here when people started drawing lines in the sand and taking sides. I was not here when personalities started to clash, and tried to build up their side. I only saw the endgame, not what lead up to it.
When trying to make sense of this, I read A Narrative and exposition of the late proceedings of New England Yearly Meeting by John Wilbur. The late proceedings he was writing about an indecent back in 1843 — when Wilbur was disowned.
Reading Wilbur’s book, I am less sympathetic than I was before. Most of what I knew about the situation was that Wilbur was a Conservative isolationist. He and Gurney had a disagreement, and he and others like him were disowned. I know that his whole meeting was removed in a way which seemed a little dishonest.
Wilbur’s book talks much about right business practices, and how they were not followed. The debate of business practice is very familiar. I personally like to see things done in good order, yet I notice that one point of controversy is whether or not things are being done in good order. Sometimes it seems like the argument “Its not fair” supersedes the main controversy. One might say I stepped into the argument in the “Its not fair” phase (in my own observation), missing what was really the original cause.
However, Wilbur goes on to get into the main controversy. He moves from the argument of fairness to the argument of rightness. Wilbur explains that he was prophetically calling out the heretic John Joseph Gurney, who he ranks as dangerous as Elias Hicks.
Wilbur claims he was doing the same thing as ministers and elders who spoke against the unsoundness of Elias Hicks, and that the relation is the same. Hicks, like Gurney was a recorded minister, traveling under the authority of his Yearly meeting. Hicks, like Gurney was well respected, and both needed their flaws pointed out.
In the case of Hicks, the senior leadership of Philadelphia Yearly meeting (Meeting for sufferings) were deeply concerned with the soundness of his doctrine. Wilbur was not in any sense as prominent as those who opposed Hicks. He was a minister, but had no authority to act as judge. When I read his pronouncements of the heresy of J.J. Gurney, I understand why he was asked to keep this to himself.
The odd thing is that I have enjoyed reading both Gurney and Wilbur’s take on theology and approaching God. I have never seen their differences as something great enough to cause a split — in my mind the differences would come 50 years after the split. They were culturally and economically different, but it baffles me how one could see the other as a heretic.
Wilbur managed to move my sympathy away from him. Before I saw a few irregularities in business that prevented him from getting a fair hearing, but now I see an angry person spreading slander. I see accusations which assign doctrines which Gurney never claimed, and an attempt to show deviation by reaching for any quote he could find. Personal attacks, and guilt by association are the tools used. I read history, and see how little things have changed. I find comfort in the knowledge that we have learned from history, and that the world has seen worse than anything I have observed.