Henry Watson Wilbur.

The life and labors of Elias Hicks; by Henry W. Wilbur online

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Henry W. Wilbur

Introduction by



Published by Friends' General Conference Advancement Committee







CHAPTER I, Ancestry and Boyhood 17

CHAPTER II, His Young Manhood 22

CHAPTER III, First Appearance in the Ministry 28

CHAPTER IV, Early Labors in the Ministry 32

CHAPTER V, Later Ministerial Labors 38

CHAPTER VI, Religious Journeys in 1828 46

CHAPTER VII, Ideas About the Ministry 57

CHAPTER VIII, The Home at Jericho 66

CHAPTER IX, The Hicks Family 71

CHAPTER X, Letters to His Wife 76

CHAPTER XI, The Slavery Question 84

CHAPTER XII, Various Opinions 95

CHAPTER XIII, Some Points of Doctrine 107

CHAPTER XIV, Before the Division 121

CHAPTER XV, First Trouble in Philadelphia 126

CHAPTER XVI, The Time of Unsettlement 139

CHAPTER XVII, Three Sermons Reviewed 152

CHAPTER XVIII, The Braithwaite Controversy 161

CHAPTER XIX, Ann Jones in Dutchess County 171

CHAPTER XX, The Experience with T. Shillitoe 181

CHAPTER XXI, Disownment and Doctrine 188

CHAPTER XXII, After the "Separation" 195

CHAPTER XXIII, Friendly and Unfriendly Critics 202

CHAPTER XXIV, Recollections, Reminiscences and Testimonies 211

CHAPTER XXV, Putting off the Harness 218




ELIAS HICKS (from bust, by Partridge) Frontispiece




ELIAS HICKS (from painting, by Ketcham), facing 121




Elias Hicks was a much misunderstood man in his own time, and the
lapse of eighty years since his death has done but little to make him
known to the passing generations. His warm personal friends, and of
them there were many, considered him little less than a saint; his
enemies, some of whom were intensely bitter in their personal feeling,
whatever may have been the basis of their judgment, believed him to be
a man whose influence was malevolent and mischievous. It is no part
of the purpose of this book to attempt to reconcile the conflicting
estimates touching the life and character of this remarkable man.
On the contrary, our hope is to present him as he was, in his own
environment, and not at all as he might have been had he lived in our
time, or as his admirers would have him, to make him conform to their
own estimate. In this biographical task, Elias Hicks becomes largely
his own interpreter. As he measured himself in private correspondence
and in public utterance, so this book will endeavor to measure him.

We believe that it is not too much to say that he carried the
fundamental idea of the Society of Friends, as delivered by George Fox,
to its logical conclusion, as applied to thought and life, more clearly
and forcibly than any of his predecessors or contemporaries. Not a few
of those who violently opposed him, discounted the position of Fox
and Barclay touching the Inner Light, and gave exaggerated importance
to the claims of evangelical theology. Whatever others may have
thought, Elias Hicks believed that he preached Christianity of the pure
apostolic type, and Quakerism as it was delivered by the founders. It
should be remembered that the conformist and non-conformist disputants
of the seventeenth century talked as savagely about Fox as the early
nineteenth century critics did about Hicks. In fact, to accept the
theory of Fox about the nature and office of the indwelling spirit,
necessarily develops either indifference or opposition to the plans and
theories of what was in the time of Elias Hicks, if it is not now, the
popularly accepted theology.

No attempt has been made to write a comprehensive and detailed history
of the so-called "separation." So far, however, as the trouble related
to Elias Hicks, it has been considered, and as much light as possible
has been thrown on the case. Necessarily this does not admit of very
much reference to the setting up of separate meetings, which followed
the open rupture of 1827-28, or the contests over property which
occurred after the death of Elias Hicks. Even the causes of the trouble
in the Society only appear as they seem necessary to make plain the
feeling of Elias Hicks in the case, and the attitude of his opponents
toward him.

In dealing with the doctrines of Elias Hicks, or his views about
various subjects, we have endeavored to avoid the one-sided policy,
and to discriminate between the matters which would be accepted by the
majority of those Friends to-day who are erroneously made to bear the
name of Elias Hicks, and the theories which they now repudiate. On the
other hand, his most conservative and peculiar ideas are given equal
prominence with those which more nearly conform to present-day thought.

In stating cases of antagonism, especially where it appeared in public
meetings, we have endeavored rather to give samples, than to repeat and
amplify occurrences where the same purpose and spirit were exhibited.
The citations in the book should, therefore, be taken as types, and not
as mere isolated or extraordinary occurrences.

References to the descendants of Elias Hicks, and other matters
relating to his life, which do not seem to naturally belong in the
coherent and detailed story, will be found in the appendix. This is
also true of the usual acknowledgment of assistance, and the reference
to the published sources of information consulted by the author in
writing the book.


Now and again a human life is lived in such obedience to the "heavenly
vision" that it becomes an authority in other lives. The unswerving
rectitude; whence is its divine directness? the world has to ask. Its
clear-sightedness; how comes it that the eye is single to the true
course? Its strength to endure; from what fountain flows unfailing
strength? Its quickening sympathy; what is the sweet secret?

The thought of the world fixes itself into stereotyped and imprisoning
forms from which only the white heat of the impassioned seer and
prophet can slowly liberate it. At last the world ceases to persecute
or to crucify its liberator, and lo! an acknowledged revelation of God!
This came to pass in the seventeenth century, when it was given George
Fox to see and to proclaim that "there was an anointing within man to
teach him, and that the Lord would teach him, himself."

The eighteenth century developed another teacher in the religious
society of Friends, whose message has been a distinctly leavening
influence in the thought of the world. It is not easy to account for
Elias Hicks. He was not the "son of a prophet." Nor was he a gift from
the _schools_ of the time in which he lived. In the "Journal of His
Life and Religious Labours," published in 1832 by Isaac T. Hopper,
there is no reference to school days.

There is one clue to this man that may explain much to us. Of his
ancestry he says in the restrained language characteristic of his
writings, "My parents were descended from reputable families, and
sustained a good character among their friends and those who knew
them." Here, then, is the rock-foundation upon which he builded, the
factor which could not be spared from the life which he lived - that in
his veins was the blood of those who had "sustained a good character
among those who knew them." Some of the leisure of his youth had been
given to fishing and fowling, which he looked back to as wholesome
recreation, since he mostly preferred going alone. While he waited
in stillness for the coming of the fowl, 'his mind was at times so
taken up in divine meditations, that the opportunities were seasons
of instruction and comfort to him.' Out of these meditations grew
the conviction in his tendered soul that it was wanton diversion for
himself and his companions to destroy the small birds that could be of
no use to them.

Recalling his youth, he writes: "Some of my leisure hours were occupied
in reading the Scriptures, in which I took considerable delight, and
it tended to my real profit and religious improvement." It may be that
this great classic in English, as well as library of ancient history,
and book of spiritual revelation, was not only the food that stimulated
his spiritual growth, but also took the place to him, in some measure,
of the schools as a means of culture. It is plain to see that he had
what is the first requisite for a student - a hungering mind. The
alphabet opened to him the ways and means, which he used as far as he
could, for the satisfying of this divine hunger. A new book possessed
for him such charm, it is said, that his friends who invited him for
a social visit, knowing this, were careful to put the new books out
of sight, lest he should become absorbed in them, and they lose his
ever-welcome and very entertaining conversation. He even had experience
as a teacher; and the testimony is given by an aged Friend, once
his pupil: "The manners of Elias Hicks were so mild, his deportment
so dignified, and his conversation so instructive, that it left an
impression for good on many of his pupils' minds that time never

That he had not the teaching of the schools narrowed his own resources,
and, doubtless, restricted his field of vision. But such a life as
his, that garnered wisdom more than knowledge of books, is a great
encouragement to those who have not had the opportunities of the
schools. We might not know without being told that he had missed from
his equipment a college degree; but we do know that his endowment of
sound mind was supplemented with incorruptible character; we do know
that his life was founded upon belief in everlasting truth and an
unchanging integrity. The record of his unfolding spiritual life shows

"So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, 'Thou must,'
The youth replies, 'I can.'"

There is evidence that Elias Hicks had not only a hungering mind, but
that he had in marked degree the open mind, and that he accorded to
others liberty of opinion. It is said that he was unwilling that his
discourses be printed, lest they become a bondage to other minds. He
wrote to his friend, William Poole: "Therefore every generation must
have more light than the preceding one; otherwise, they must sit down
in ease in the labour and works of their predecessors." And he left a
word of caution to approaching age, when he said in a meeting in New
York: "The old folks think they have got far enough, they are settling
on the lees, they are blocking up the way." It does not disturb my
thought of him that my own mother remembered a mild rebuke from him
for the modest flower-bed that brightened the door-yard of her country
home. For I discover in him rudiments of the love for beauty. A
minister among Friends was once his guest during the harvest season
on Long Island, and recalled long after that, when the hour arrived
for the mid-week meeting, he came in from the harvest field, and not
only exchanged his working for his meeting garments, but added his
gloves, although it was hot, midsummer weather. There was certainly
the rudimentary love for beauty in this scrupulous regard for the
proprieties; but it was kept in such severe check that he could not
justify the spending of time upon a flower-border. The poet had not
then expressed for us the sweet garden prayer that might have brought
to his sensitive mind a new view of the purpose and value of the

"That we were earthlings and of earth must live,
Thou knowest, Allah, and did'st give us bread;
Yea, and remembering of our souls, didst give
Us food of flowers; thy name be hallowed!"

From the days in which he preferred his hours of solitude in fishing
as opportunities for "divine meditations" we can trace his steady
spiritual growth. While his business life was henceforth subordinated
to his labors among men to promote the life of the spirit, he was never
indifferent to the exact discharge of his own financial obligations;
nor was he indifferent to the needs of others. One incident surely
marks him as belonging to the School of Christ: "Once when harvests
were light and provisions scarce and high, his own wheat fields yielded
abundantly. Foreseeing the scarcity and consequent rise in prices,
speculators sought early to buy his wheat. He declined to sell.
They offered him large prices, and renewed their visits repeatedly,
increasing the price each time. Still he refused to sell, even for the
unprecedented sum of three dollars a bushel. But by and by, when his
poorer neighbors, whose crops were light, began to need, he invited
them to come and get as much wheat as they required for use, at the
usual price of one dollar a bushel."

He entered into the life of his community and of his times,
anticipating by nearly a century the work of Friends' Philanthropic
Committees of the present day. It is related that he was much opposed
to an attempt to establish a liquor-selling tavern in the Jericho
neighborhood - that when he saw strangers approaching he would invite
them to accept his own hospitality, thus making unnecessary the
tavern-keeping business in the sparsely settled country town.

We would expect that, with his sense of justice and his appreciation of
values, Elias Hicks would place men and women side by side, not only
in the home, but also in the larger household of faith, and in the
affairs of the world. It is remembered that his face was set in this
direction - that, strict Society-disciplinarian as he was, he advocated
a change in the Discipline to allow women a consulting voice in making
and amending the Discipline.

It must be borne in mind that he lived through the Revolutionary period
of 1776, and through the War of 1812. So true was he to his convictions
against war that he would not allow himself to benefit by the advanced
prices in foodstuffs; and we are told that the records of his monthly
meeting show that he sacrificed much of his property by adherence to
his peace principles.

Neither can we forget the testing that came to him in the institution
of slavery. For, according to the custom of the times, his own father
was the owner of slaves. His open mind responded to the labors of a
committee of the New York Yearly Meeting; and upon the freeing of his
father's slaves, he ever after considered their welfare, making such
restitution as he could for past injustice.

To his daughter, Martha Hicks, he wrote: "My dear love to thee, to thy
dear mother, who next to the Divine Blesser has been the joy of my
youth, and who, I trust and hope, will be the comfort of my declining
years. O dear child, cherish and help her, for she hath done abundance
for thee."

These fruits of the religious faith of Elias Hicks are offered as the
test given us by the Great Teacher himself, by which to know the life
of a man. They mark a life rooted in the life of God. Imperishable
as the root whence they grew, may they feed the souls of men from
generation to generation, satisfying the hungry, strengthening the
weak, and making all glad in the joy of each! Thus it is permitted to
be "still praising Him."



Ancestry and Boyhood.

The Hicks family is English in its origin, authentic history tracing
it clearly back to the fourteenth century. By a sort of genealogical
paradox, a far-away ancestor of the apostle of peace in the eighteenth
century was a man of war, for we are told that Sir Ellis Hicks was
knighted on the battlefield of Poitiers in 1356, nearly four hundred
years before the birth of his distinguished descendant on Long Island,
in America.

From the best available data, it is believed that the progenitor of
the Hicks family on Long Island arrived in America in 1638, and came
over from the New England mainland about 1645, settling in the town
of Hempstead. A relative, Robert by name, came over with the body of
Pilgrims arriving in Massachusetts in 1621.

John Hicks, the pioneer, was undoubtedly a man of affairs, with that
strong character which qualifies men for leadership. In the concerns of
the new community he was often drafted for important public service. In
Seventh month, 1647, it became necessary to reach a final settlement
with the Indians for land purchased from them by the colonists the
year before. The adjustment of this transaction was committed to John
Hicks by his neighbors. When, in 1663, the English towns on the island
and the New York mainland created a council whose aim it was to secure
aid from the General Court at Hartford against the Dutch, John Hicks
was made a delegate from Long Island. In 1665 Governor Nicoll, of New
York, called a convention to be composed of two delegates from each
town in Westchester County and on Long Island, "to make additions and
alterations to existing laws." John Hicks was chosen delegate from the
town of Hempstead.

Thomas, the great grandfather of Elias, was in 1691 appointed the first
judge of Queens County, by Governor Andross, which office he held for
a number of years, with credit to himself and satisfaction to his

The town of Hempstead is on the north side of Long Island, and borders
on the Sound. There Elias Hicks, the fifth in line of descent from
the pioneer John, was born on the 19th of Third month, 1748. He was
the fourth child of John and Martha Smith Hicks. Of the ancestry of
the mother of Elias little is known. There is no evidence that the
ancestors of Elias on either side were members of the Society of
Friends, still they seem to have had much in common with Friends,
and, at any rate, were willing to assist the peculiar people when the
heavy hand of persecution fell upon them. In this connection we may
quote the words of Elias himself. He says: "My father was a grandson
of Thomas Hicks, of whom our worthy friend Samuel Bownas[1] makes
honorable mention in his Journal, and by whom he was much comforted
and strengthened when imprisoned through the envy of George Keith,[2]
at Jamaica, on Long Island."[3]

[1] Samuel Bownas was a minister among Friends, and was born in
Westmoreland, England, about 1667. He secured a minute to make a
religious visit to America the latter part of 1701. Ninth month 30,
1702, he was bound over to the Queens County Grand Jury, the charge
against him being that in a sermon he had spoken disparagingly of the
Church of England. The jury really failed to indict him, which greatly
exasperated the presiding judge, who threatened to deport him to London
chained to the man-of-war's deck. It was at this point that Thomas
Hicks, whom Bownas erroneously concluded was Chief Justice of the
Province, appeared to comfort and assure him that he could not thus be
deported to England. Bownas continued in jail for about a year, during
which time he learned the shoemaker's trade. He was finally liberated
by proclamation.

[2] George Keith, born near Aberdeen, 1639, became connected with
the Society of Friends about 1662. He came to America in 1684, but
finally separated from Friends, and endeavored to organize a new sect
to be called Christian, or Baptist Quakers. This effort failed, and
about 1700 he entered the Church of England. After this he violently
criticised Friends, and repeatedly sought controversy with them. He had
quite an experience of this sort with Samuel Bownas, and was considered
the real instigator of the complaint on which Bownas was lodged in
jail. Keith looms up large in all that body of history and biography
unfriendly to the Society of Friends.

[3] Journal of Elias Hicks, p. 7.

We are told in the Journal, "Neither of my parents were members in
strict fellowship with any religious society, until some little time
before my birth."[4] It is certain that the father of Elias was a
member among Friends at the time of his birth, and his mother must
also have enjoyed such membership. Elias must have been a birthright
member, as he nowhere mentions having been received into the Society by
convincement. It is evident that his older brothers and sisters were
not connected with Friends.

[4] Journal of Elias Hicks, p. 7.

When Elias was eight years of age his father removed from Hempstead to
the south shore of Long Island, the new home being near the seashore.
Both before and after that time he bewails the fact that his associates
were not Friends, and what he confessed was worse - they were persons
with no religious inclinations or connections whatever.

The new home afforded added opportunities for pleasure. Game was
plentiful in the wild fowl that mated in the marshes and meadows, while
the bays and inlets abounded in fish. Hunting and fishing, therefore,
became his principal diversion. While he severely condemned this form
of amusement in later life, he brought to the whole matter a rational
philosophy. He considered that at the time hunting and fishing were
profitable to him, because in his exposed condition "they had a
tendency to keep me more at and about home, and often prevented my
joining with loose company, which I had frequent opportunities of doing
without my father's knowledge."

Three years after moving to the new home, when Elias was eleven years
of age, his mother was removed by death. The father, thus left with six
children, two younger than Elias, finally found it necessary to divide
the family. Two years after the death of his mother he went to reside
with one of his elder brothers who was married, and lived some distance
from his father's. It is probable that this brother's house was his
home most of the time until he was seventeen. Much regret is expressed
by him that he was thus removed from parental restraint.

The Journal makes possibly unnecessarily sad confession of what he
considered waywardness during this period. He says that he wandered far
from "the salutary path of true religion, learning to sing vain songs,
and to take delight in running horses."[5] Just what the songs were,
and the exact character of the horse racing must be mainly a matter of
conjecture. Manifestly "running horses" did not mean at all the type of
racetrack gambling with which twentieth-century Long Island is familiar.

[5] Journal of Elias Hicks, p. 8.

In the midst of self-accusation, he declares that he did not "give way
to anything which was commonly accounted disreputable, having always a
regard to strict honesty, and to such a line of conduct as comported
with politeness and good breeding."[6] One can scarcely think of Elias
Hicks as a juvenile Chesterfield. From the most unfavorable things
he says about himself, the conclusion is easily reached that he was
really a serious-minded youth, and what has always been considered a
"good boy." It must be remembered, however, that he set for himself a
high standard, which was often violated, as he became what he called
"hardened in vanity." Speaking of his youthful sports, and possible
waywardness, his maturer judgment confessed, that but "for the
providential care of my Heavenly Father, my life would have fallen a
sacrifice to my folly and indiscretion."[7]

[6] Journal, p. 8.

[7] Journal of Elias Hicks, p. 9.

There is practically no reference to the matter of schools or schooling

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Online LibraryHenry Watson WilburThe life and labors of Elias Hicks; by Henry W. Wilbur → online text (page 1 of 19)