Esther & The Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance - Part Three
III: Not Within The Walls of This Meetinghouse
“I don’t think we need to waste any more time on formalities,” Reuben Starbuck declared in a deep gravelly bass. “Our canvass of the members shows that at least two-thirds are among those that have been called ‘Hicksites,’ although that name is not one we choose. The fairest settlement, in our view, would be to sell the Meetinghouse and the surrounding property, except the burial ground, and divide the proceeds according to the numbers in each party. The burial ground could be transferred to a separate corporation, which interested people would join and maintain through their own contributions. What say you to that?”
Thomas Macy stood to answer. The proposal did not seem new to him, and his reply also seemed prepared. “Thee is right, Reuben Starbuck,” he said coolly, “we should not waste time. So I will say plainly that among the world’s people such proposals might make some sense. But among Friends, who are charged with preaching and preserving the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world of darkness, they carry little weight. The Meeting’s property is in the charge of the elders. And it is our duty to see that it is kept for use in Christian worship and service. We have no intention of selling it to anyone for any other purpose.” Beside him the wide hats of the other elders were now nodding; and under their brims, their faces were set and stern.
Esther’s father got to his feet, anger showing in his cheeks and in the way his hands gripped the bench in front of him. “Do the beliefs and feelings of more than half the members of this Meeting carry no weight, either?” he demanded. “Who appointed thee pope over us, Thomas Macy?”
Obed Gifford, an aged elder, answered him curtly. “There are no popes here, Micah Swain. Thomas Macy speaks for the body of elders, according to the practice that has long been used among us. This Meetinghouse will not be sold. Nor will it be made over into a platform for the unsound and unbiblical doctrines of freethinkers like Elias Hicks and others so misguided as to be taken in by him.”
A Hicksite woman, Mary White, was now standing. “By that last remark, I assume thee is referring to us?” she fumed.
“‘Thou hast said it,’” Gifford answered sourly, quoting the Scriptural text with satisfaction.
“If you are not willing to sell the Meetinghouse,” asked Reuben Starbuck, “then what do you propose to do with it? Share it with us, as a few divided Meetings are doing?”
Obed Gifford smirked. “We will be more than happy to welcome into the Meetings of Friends convinced and faithful Christians. We will also unite with any Hicksites who admit the error of his obnoxious notions and are ready to accept the blood of Christ. But we will have neither unity nor fellowship with any others.”
Reuben Starbuck had flushed red as Gifford spoke, and his voice in retort was even deeper.
“The Society of Friends never had a creed, or any ruler besides the Light of Christ within its members,” he said loudly. “George Fox could see that Light in everyone, Catholics, Jews and Mohammedans, as well as other sorts of Christians. I daresay he could even see it in us so-called Hicksites, Obed Gifford, which is more than thee is able to do. And anyway, who set thee up to decide what and who is worthy of sharing fellowship with thee in this Meetinghouse?”
He pointed at the shuttered window. “I have been a member here since birth, and my parents and grandparents before me. They are all buried in our cemetery, without even a stone to mark their graves. I have contributed to the Meeting’s stock as I have been able, and borne its Testimonies as faithfully as I could.”
He thumped the top of the bench with a big, gnarled hand. “Am I now simply to give up my Christian liberty to a group which uses the cross of my Saviour as a cover for nothing more than their own pride and love of power?” He raised a shaking finger at Gifford. “I say no, I will not!”
Micah Swain was now up again, and Esther could see his lips pulled thin and tight. The fury in his expression was greater than she had ever seen, and it frightened her. “I have sat here silently long enough,” he shouted, “in meeting after meeting for many years now, listening to such as thee condemning innocent faithful Friends as infidels and freethinkers.”
He shook a fist. “It is not Elias Hicks who is changing the ancient doctrines of this Society. It is thee, Obed Gifford, and the rest of you who have yielded to the spirit of domination and division. If you have your way, there will no longer be a Friends Meeting here, but a church with creed and bishops and an inquisition to enforce it. Fox and Penn would not even be welcome, because they preached and suffered against just such powers.”
Gifford was shaking a fist now. “George Fox and William Penn and all the First Publishers of Truth affirmed the blood of Christ as the purchase of salvation,” he cried. “It is you Hicksites, with your rationalistic and freethinking notions who would deny Christ and the Scriptures any value for Friends.”
In his agitation his raised arm knocked the broadbrim hat from his hear. There was sweat gleaming on his temples. “ If these corruptions are not stopped now,” he said, “there will be nothing left of our religious profession but an empty shell, open to all the atheist and heathen doctrines that are now undermining our Christian civilization.”
He stooped to retrieve his hat. “And stop them we are determined to do,” he said more quietly, “at least within the walls of this Meetinghouse.”
Next: Where Such Damnable Trash Belongs