Meeting Organization of the
Society of Friends (Quakers)
The organization of the Friends Society was pyramidal.
The Local Meeting
At the base was the local meeting with
its worshipping congregation. The popular picture of a plain-garbed
group sitting silently in an unornamented room is correct. Such
mundane affairs as seeing that the meeting house was cleaned,
firewood provided, and broken glass replaced were entrusted to
preparative meetings. Most large local meetings were preceded
by preparatory meetings, which could settle minor offenses and
appoint overseers to report any violations of the discipline to
the monthly meeting.
The Monthly Meeting
The level at which most of the work of the church was conducted was the monthly meeting, which was composed of all the local meetings in a township or small geographical area; men and women met in separate monthly meetings normally held at the same time. Any Friend in good standing could attend and speak at these business meetings, but the opinions of "weighty" members -- ministers, elders, overseers -- carried the most influence in arriving at a "sense of the meeting." All decisions were made by the entire body, with the clerk ascertaining the will of the group; such procedures as voting and majority rule were never used. Many activities of the meeting were entrusted to small committees, again consisting primarily of weighty Friends. The monthly meeting regulated marriages, controlled funds, gave charity, supervised the schools, disciplined or disowned anyone guilty of a moral offense, and sent reports to the quarterly meeting.
The Quarterly Meetings
The quarterly meetings, normally composed of all the monthly meetings in a particular county or geographical area, were attended by delegates from each monthly meeting. Quarterly meetings were a half-way point between the monthly and yearly meetings. Any problem too large for a local meeting to solve was referred to the quarterly meeting, which could settle the matter or place it on the agenda of the yearly meeting.
The epistles from the yearly meeting were read and questions answered
about the state of local meetings. In England the quarterly meetings
sent written reports on the doings of the monthly meetings to
the yearly meeting, but in America oral reports were often used,
and the practice of giving written answers to specific queries
was not general until 1755. There were special quarterly meetings
for ministers and elders designed to aid them in overseeing the
congregation. Both types of quarterly meetings usually began with
a period of silence and worship after which business was conducted.
The Yearly Meetings
Delegations from the quarterly meeting attended the yearly meetings. In the colonies there were six yearly meetings: Pennsylvania and New Jersey (usually termed Philadelphia), New York, Maryland (or Baltimore), Virginia, North Carolina, and New England. In Great Britain there were yearly meetings in London and Ireland. (At various times there were special yearly meetings and half-year's meetings held in America and England; these were generally occasions for worship and no administrative business took place.) The yearly meetings occupied several days; several thousand people attended the largest, such as those at Philadelphia or Newport. In theory, any decision reached by the yearly meeting on any matter was binding upon all quarterly and monthly meetings within its jurisdiction. A controversial matter was apt to be appealed from the monthly or quarterly meetings to the yearly meeting, and if a consensus could not be reached, the problem would be postponed until the next session. During the year, Friends might write to London Yearly Meeting for its counsel. All yearly meetings were autonomous, but the two most powerful meetings were London and Philadelphia, and London was first among equals. Philadelphia attempted to exercise similar influence in America but enjoyed only sporadic success.
The yearly meetings were in close contact with each other. London Yearly Meeting distributed epistles every year to all quarterly and monthly meetings in England and to every yearly and many quarterly and monthly meetings in America. Most yearly meetings received a second letter which might contain answers to specific problems faced by that meeting. The yearly meetings in America sent out epistles to London and to their own monthly meetings, but did not always send letters to each other. In 1714, when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting wished to consult with other American yearly meetings on the subject of slavery, it sent a message to London Friends requesting them to ask the questions since it was easier for London to communicate with North Carolina and Virginia meetings than for Philadelphia to attempt to correspond directly. Friends attempted to make their organization and their religious beliefs as harmonious as possible.
Since they thought that Christian revelation was the same the world over they made a deliberate effort to make certain that their recommendations were agreed upon by most Friends. Frederick Tolles believed that "Quaker thinking on most subjects varied relatively little from place to place, so that the ideas of English and American Friends down at least to the Revolution can be regarded as practically interchangeable." One can examine the epistles, or discipline, or minutes of a meeting in England, in New England, or in North Carolina and fail to determine from the contents any difference in geographical location.