From the Quaker toolbox: “Yearly meetings” and related

03/18/2018 § 1 Comment

I have felt for a while (and I know I’m not alone) that we Friends these days don’t have all the kinds of meetings we could and perhaps need to have — and therefore the gifts that would be called out and exercised by them are not discovered and cultivated.  In this post, I want to lift up one such variety.

When our yearly meeting recently began to experiment  by holding gatherings between annual sessions, I wondered if maybe this could provide an opening for a further experiment — to develop some modern echo of the old regional “yearly meetings,” one of whose major features was public meetings for worship, intended to reach out to nonFriends.  I have tried to gather some concrete information about how these meetings worked, and how they fit in with other Quaker activities.  What follows is a sketch for a study.  Unlike most of my posts, this one will have references at the end, in someone wants to join in the fun.

Reading in the accounts of the first century or two, I have been puzzled by the frequent references to “yearly meetings,” or “general meetings,” or “circular  meetings.”  Friends mention “yearly meetings” for Wales, at York, at Skipton, at Bristol, Woodbridge, Colchester, Baldock,  and more.  Benjamin Holme, traveling in New England in 1715, mentions a yearly meeting at Dartmouth, and then a few months later “on Rhode Island.”  Catherine Phillips describes how her husband organized a yearly meeting at Truro (Cornwall, not Cape Cod) in 1785.

Now, some of these are clearly embryonic versions of what we think of as Yearly Meeting.  Elizabeth Emmott’s Story of Quakerism reports that

In 1658 a “General Meeting for the whole nation” was held at John Crook’s in Bedfordshire; in 1660 Ihe ” General Meeting “was held at Skipton in Yorkshire, and, as George Fox says in a letter, ” from thence it was removed to London the next year.”

Hugh Doncaster tells us that in some areas, “circular meetings” were settled for groups of counties, by which a meeting for worship and business would be held in each county in turn (thus, Samuel Fothergill and Bejamin Holme attend a “yearly meeting” in Worcester, which is the “circular meeting for the seven counties” in the west country of England).   Some at least of these circular or “general” meetings evolved into later quarterly meetings.  Some, however, seem mostly to have been for worship and fellowship — but also with the specific intent to hold public meetings for worship, by which to reach out to nonFriends.

I traced down many references in my little research project, because I was very interested to see any descriptions I could find of what actually happened at these meetings.  Of course, when I checked Braithwaite’s Second Period, I found that W.C.B. had read everything there was to read, and written an admirable brief summary (pp 546-549).   However, accounts in the journals of Thomas Story (pp. 273, 285 289,307), Catherine Peyton Phillips (pg. 279), and Benjamin Holme (passim) provide interesting additional details.

These meetings often included gatherings of ministers, and of elders (and sometimes the two together), and meetings mostly for Friends.  But the public worship was carefully prepared for — usually more than one session, often over more than one day, with lots of publicity ahead of time.  Temporary meeting places were erected for large crowds (the word “booth” is used, these clearly held hundreds of people — one meeting is recorded to have attracted 4,000 people), and minister’s galleries (as in meetinghouses, to help the preaching be heard by a large gathering). There were lots of logistics (and Catherine Phillips’s account of the Truro meeting gives some welcome glimpses into the behind-the-scenes work).

Ministering Friends were expected to be there in numbers, and it was assumed that in a favored gathering, Truth would be “largely declared.” After the gatherings, the ministering Friends would spread out over the adjacent countryside, holding public meetings, as well as visiting Friends meetings or isolated Friends along the way, as led.  It is reasonable to assume that the publicity attending the big event would make Friends meetings more intriguing for nonFriends, especially if ministers “from away”  were known to be in town after participating in the yearly meeting.  Friends in their journals do sometimes report an uptick in convincements and meeting attendance in the region in the wake of the gathering.

Thomas Story’s account of the gathering in Exeter gives a sense of the “pedagogy” or teaching impact of such events, held over several sessions, “like those in the north, not meddling with matters of business or discipline, but only worship, doctrine, and occasional communication of holy things.”    His account also provides a sensitive description of the ministers’ experience — burdened until they had discharged what was given to them, passing it on to the people for whom the gift was given:

The meeting began on first-day morning, the 9th of the month, and ended the third-day following, and was a good time throughout; but as generally such meetings are observed to be, was brighter and brighter, and brightest in the end.  For as they consist of a mixed multitude of all sorts and notions, the understandings of the uncouth and ignorant are darkest at first coming; but as they begin to be illuminatd by the testimony of Truth, and their senses a little awakened to relish something of the sweetness and virtue of it, Truth then flows more freely to them, with a greater facility in the minister, and reception in the hearer.

The sensible and living, who, in the life of the Son, and as they stand related to him who beareth the infirmities of all from the foundations of the world, in the beginning of such meetings, are often deeply and mysteriously laden, but being eased of their burthen and travail, now laid upon those in the auditory, where it rightly belongs, things then proceed, and conclude to mutual comfort and ease… This meeting ended in peace and gravity.

There are, and must be costs to such exercises, as the old accounts make quite clear– costs and temptations.  The holding of such meetings requires some daring — a confidence, not in our own powers, but in the value of the Truth we have come to experience, as a living, robust, and effective spiritual path, which can render a coherent and inviting account of itself — both as to practice, and to the doctrine, that is, the reasons for what we do, and what it does to us — how it leads to liberation, to wider, richer,  more loving, more fearless and joyful living.  Can we listen openly and expectantly enough?

It requires daring of those who would participate in the ministry at such a meeting — a true reliance on the power of Christ our teacher  to guide, to provide words as needed, and to open, to prepare ears and hearts so that the seed sown in faith and love finds some good ground.  It will challenge us to open ourselves to the differing demands and needs of worshippers who are not used to our ways, for whom Quaker worship will hardly seem like worship at all, and who may need support, guidance, and invitation so that they can see and feel what is possible — what is in fact happening to them in the depths.

It will challenge us accept the experiences of poverty of spirit, of disorientation, of rejection, and of struggle to stay faithful and pure — all as part of the fulness of the path of light we seek to walk, to advocate, and to embody in our measure.


Braithwaite, W.C. (1919, repr. 1961) The second period of Quakerism.  London: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, and Wm. Sessions.

Brown, Alfred W (1885) Eavesham Friends in the olden time.  London: West, Newman & Co., Printers

Doncaster, L. Hugh (1958) Quaker organization and business meetings. London: Friends Home Service Committee.

Holme, Benjamin  (1754) A collection of the epistles and works of Benjamin Holme, to which is prefix’d an account of his life and travels in the work of the ministry, through several parts of Europe and America: written by HIMSELF. London: Luke Hinde.

Phillips, Catherine.  Memoirs of the life of Catherine Phillips.  in Friends Library vol. XI.pp 188-287.

Story, Thomas.  Life, in Friends Library, vol. X.pp. 1-372

Tanner, William (1858) Three lectures on the early history of the Society of Friends in Bristol and Somersetshire. London: Alfred Bennett.


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