Elias Hicks

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Hicks, Elias (19 March 1748 - 27 February 1830)

Hicks was an itinerant Quaker preacher from Long Island, New York. Although his parents were not members of the Society of Friends, at the age of 20 he found their beliefs credible. At the age of 27, he was recognized as a leader of the Friends, one with a striking voice, poise, and flair.

One of the first abolitionists among the Friends, he spoke against slavery and wrote "Observations on Slavery of the Africans" (1811, arguing that Friends should boycott all slavery-produced products. New York State, partly because of his and others' activism, abolished slavery on 4 July 1827.

Hicksite Quakers

The Religious Society of Friends has a guiding principle, "obedience to the light within," and Elias Hicks is said to have taught that this principle was more authoritative than the Bible itself. Further, he denied that Jesus had an allegedly virgin birth, saying Jesus was entirely human, thereby agreeing with the Unitarians of his time. By denying the Virgin Birth of Jesus that Christians believe in, he was denounced as being a heretic. However, his view was consistent with Freethought, such as that of Thomas Paine, himself a Deist of Quaker heritage.

Hicks said that sexual passions were not connected with badness or the Devil but that they were good and were God-given. In 1858 Walt Whitman, whose father was a friend of Hicks, described Hicks as "a wonderful compound of the mystic with the logical reasoner," and predicted that he was "destined to make a radical revolution in a numerous and devout Society, and his influence to be largely felt outside that Society."

Many Friends disputed Hicks's views and were sometimes referred to as Orthodox Friends. Those who agreed were often called Hicksite Friends or Hicksite Quakers.

At the 1827 proceedings of the Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia, five elders tried to prevent Hicks from speaking. This developed into a division that led, in 1828, to two independent groups calling theirs the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Not entirely doctrinal, the split represented a growing move by those in the cities who were more worldly. As Larry Kuenning has pointed out, many city Friends were wealthy businessmen whereas many country Friends were different in their views about "plain speech" and "plain dress."

Walt Whitman's Friend

In 1888, Walt Whitman wrote the following:

AS MYSELF A LITTLE BOY hearing so much of Elias Hicks, at that time—and more than once personally seeing the old man--and my dear, dear father and mother faithful listeners to him at the meetings--
Though it is sixty years ago since--and I a little boy at the time in Brooklyn, New York--I can remember my father coming home toward sunset from his day’s work as carpenter and saying briefly, as he throws down his armful of kindling blocks with a bounce on the kitchen floor, "Come, mother, Elias preaches tonight," Then my mother, hastening the supper and the table-cleaning afterward, gets a neighboring woman to step in....puts the two little ones to bed, and as I had been behaving well that day, as a special reward I was allow’d to go also.
We start for the meeting. Though as I said, the stretch of more than half a century has passed over me since then, with its war and peace, and all its joys and sins and deaths (and what a half century! I can recall that meeting yet. It is a strange place for religious devotions. Elias preaches anywhere--no respect of buildings--private or public houses, school-rooms, barns, even theatres-- anything that will accommodate. This time is in a handsome ball-room, on Brooklyn Heights, overlooking New York....the second story of "Morrison’s Hotel," used for the most genteel concerts, balls, and assemblies--a large cheerful, gay-color’d room, with glass chandeliers bearing myriads of sparkling pendants, plenty of settees and chairs....all the principal dignitaries of the town.....On a slightly elevated platform at the head of the room, facing the audience, sit a dozen or more Friends, most of them elderly, grim, and with their broad-brimmed hats on their heads. Three or four women, too, in their characteristic Quaker costumes and bonnets. All still as the grave.
AT LENGTH AFTER a pause and stillness becoming painful, Elias Hicks rises and stands for a moment or two without a word. A tall, straight figure, neither stout nor very thin, dressed in drab cloth, clean-shaved face, forehead of great expanse, and large and clear black eyes, long or middling long white hair; he was at this time between 80 and 81 years of age, his head still wearing the broad-brim. A moment looking around the audience with those piercing eyes, amid the perfect stillness. (I can almost see him and the whole scene now.) Then the words come from his lips, very emphatically and slowly pronounced, in a resonant, grave, melodious voice. "What is the chief end of Man?"... (I cannot follow the discourse.) Most of his discourses….they were extempore. Of one, however, delivered in Chester, Pa.. .there is a careful transcript; and from it….we give the following extract:
"I don't want to express a great many words; but I want you to be called home to the substance. For the Scriptures, and all the books in the world, can do no more: Jesus could do no more than to recommend to the Comforter, which was the light in him. 'God is light, and in him is no darkness at all; and if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another.' Because the light is one in all, and therefore it binds us together in the bonds of love; for it is not only light, but love--that love which casts out all fear. So that they who dwell in God dwell in love, and they are constrained to walk in it; and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."
"But what blood, my friends? Did Jesus Christ, the Saviour, ever have any material blood? Not a drop of it, my friends--not a drop of it. That blood which cleanseth from the life of all sin, was the life of the soul of Jesus. The soul of man has no material blood; but as the outward material blood, created form the dust of the earth, is the life of these bodies of flesh, so with respect to the soul, the immortal and invisible spirit, its blood is that life which God breathed into it…."
THERE IS A SORT of nature of persons I have compared to little rills of water, fresh, from perennial springs--(and the comparison is indeed an appropriate one)--persons not so very plenty, yet some few certainly of them running over the surface and area of humanity, all times, all lands. It is a specimen of this class I would now present. I would sum up in Elias Hicks, and make his case stand for the class, the sort, in all ages, all lands, sparse, not numerous yet enough to irrigate the soil--enough to prove the inherent moral stock and irrepressible devotional aspirations growing indigenously of themselves, always advancing, and never utterly gone under or lost.
Always Elias Hicks gives the service of pointing to the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship, all the truth to which you are possibly eligible--namely yourself and your inherent relations. Others talk of Bibles, saints, churches, exhortations, vicarious atonements—the canons outside of yourself and apart from man--Elias Hicks to the religion inside of man’s very own nature. This he incessantly labors to kindle, nourish, educate, bring forward and strengthen. He is the most democratic of the religionists--the prophets...
Of course what Elias promulg’d spread a great commotion among the Friends. Sometimes when he resented himself to speak in the meeting, there would be opposition--this led to angry words, gestures, unseemly noises, recriminations. Elias, at such times, was deeply affected--the tears rolled in streams down his cheeks--he silently waited the close of the dispute. "Let the Friend speak: let the Friend speak!" he would say when his supporters in the meeting tried to bluff off some violent orthodox person objecting to the new doctrinaire. But he never recanted.

Later Life

According to Corliss Lamont, the liberal or Hicksite wing of Friends (Quakers) “has made the closest approach to Humanism” of the various Protestant groups. Hicks is credited with ridding the Friends of slavery and encouraging them to boycott products of slave labor.

When he was 80, Hicks made a ministry trip, covering 2,400 miles, during which Orthodox Friends shunned him along the way. He suffered a stroke, became partially paralyzed, and returned to his home in Jericho, New York.

According to some sources, while Hicks was on his deathbed and was covered with a cotton blanket, he attempted to remove it, complaining it was a product of slavery. When the blanket was replaced with a woolen one, Hicks reportedly relaxed and nodded his approval.

(See Quaker Theologies in the 19th Century Separation by Larry Kuenning.)

{CE; CL; ER}