Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, are perhaps best known for their commitment to peace. Yet in the early 1800s, Quaker families and congregations were torn apart by a conflict within the faith.
Long Islander Elias Hicks (1748-1830) worked as a carpenter and farmer before becoming a Quaker minister around 1775. Soon thereafter, Hicks set out as an itinerant preacher, visiting congregations from Vermont to Maryland, including several in and around Philadelphia.
Though largely unschooled, Hicks proved to be a charismatic preacher of the gospel. "His ministry, though unadorned with the embellishments of human learning, was clear and powerful," remarked his hometown Jericho Monthly Meeting of Friends.
His beliefs, however, were at odds with those of many fellow Friends. An early abolitionist, Hicks served on a committee that visited Friends' homes to urge the manumission of any slaves they owned. Against orthodoxy, Hicks resisted the primacy of the Bible and formal creeds.
Considered liberal by some and radical by others, Hicks argued that Friends should live apart from the world. He opposed public education and public works and called attention to the wealth of many Friends, especially those in Philadelphia.
Hicks' popularity and controversial beliefs increased existing political, economic, or regional differences within the Society of Friends.
The pervasiveness of Hicks' teachings among members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, based at Fourth and Arch Streets, led to the so-called Hicksite-Orthodox Separation of 1827. Orthodox Quakers continued to meet at the Arch Street Meeting House, while the Hicksite Friends built their own meetinghouse at 15th and Race Streets.
The division continued for decades, but the two sides had largely reunited by the 1950s. The Arch Street building, constructed by Owen Biddle in the early 1800s, is among the city's oldest houses of worship still in use. The building at 15th and Race is also still active, and the site is home to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Friends Service Committee, founded in 1917.