The Essential Elias Hicks

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The Essential Elias Hicks
by Paul Buckley
Reviewed by Bill Durland

Many books use the title, “The Essential So-and-So,” and here’s another. This book depicts a Quaker who proved himself essential. However, reading Elias Hicks is not “more essential” than reading, say, Fox, Penn, Mott, Dyer, or Woolman. So at the beginning of this review, I would like to suggest that Inner Light Books and Charles Martin, Publisher, consider producing more of the same, more books of this caliber that are “Essential.”

Elias Hicks was an energetic, deep thinking, emotionally spiritual Quaker Christian. He was caught historically between a rock and a hard place. He was a consistent and conscientious witness to the truth as he saw it and was deeply committed to the propositions in action that today we call testimonies – community, equality, simplicity, integrity, peace, and earth care.  Yet his very consistency put him into deep conflict with other Quakers of his time, who rooted their Quaker faith in Biblical scripture. Hicks believed that reliance on scripture was inconsistent with a direct experience of the inward light.

Hicks appears center stage at a crucial Quaker crossroads in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Due to his vigorous ministry about ways that he saw his contemporaries had strayed away from “true” Quaker faith and practice, he became branded as a destructive influence by his opponents and as a Quaker saint by his admirers.

Although this conflict was largely endured nonviolently, it produced a lasting split in the Religious Society of Friends between the “orthodox” and the “Hicksite” branches. A later split, somewhat related, occurred between the “Wilburites” and “Gurneyites.” Quakers in those days were asking themselves, as we do today: What is true Christianity? Is there a true Quakerism? Both questions are still relevant and necessary for our reflection.

Paul Buckley’s concise summaries of Hicks’ views and experiences – concerning the environment, mysticism, Scripture, simplicity, faith, inner light, God, Jesus, salvation, Christianity, Quakerism, the world, slavery, and the great separations in the Quaker community – are indeed “essential” for every Quaker to read and contemplate. Also worthy of contemplation and admiration are Hick’s actions in the world; for example, his authentic, faith-based actions against slavery; and his rugged persistence in adhering to a practice of judging people not simply by their professions of faith but by their production of fruits. This little book of 130-plus pages readily serves as an accessible guide for Quaker study groups, as we experienced in Colorado Springs Monthly Meeting. Buckley’s queries at the end of each chapter are thoughtful; and his content, although not exhaustive, is comprehensive and a good read. Also, at the end of each chapter, Buckley adds “Things I believe but can’t prove.” These tidbits are delightful additions, which give the reader insight into Buckley’s own take on Hicks.

Many early Quaker writings concerned the rejection of doctrines and dogmas, ceremonies and rituals. Elias Hicks wrote about and practiced these views to a heightened extent. Buckley points out that some particular views held by Hicks – on education, marriage outside Quakerism, and public political participation – were motivated by his desire to protect Quaker identity. As we Quakers today are typically drawn together by the rejection of doctrines and dogmas, we would do well, like Hicks, to consider ways to protect our Quaker identity. Elias Hicks was simply a persistent and consistent man of faith, and as such, he offers us helpful guidance as we walk our own spiritual paths.  ~~~

Bill Durland is a member of Colorado Springs Monthly Meeting (IMYM) and the author of The Apocalyptic Witness, A Radical Calling for Our Own Times (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 279, 1988), “Was George Fox a Prophet?” (Quaker Religious Thought, 1976), William Penn, James Madison and the Historical Crisis in American Federalism (Edwin Mellen Press, 2000) and numerous articles in Western Friend and Friends Journal.