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Elias Hicks

Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748February 27, 1830) was an itinerant Quaker preacher from Long Islandmarker, New Yorkmarker. He promoted doctrines that embroiled him in controversy that led to the first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends. Elias Hicks was the older cousin of the painter Edward Hicks, also known then as a Quaker preacher.

Early life

Elias Hicks was born at Rockawaymarker, Long Island, New York. Hicks's parents were not Friends themselves. He came to the Society at about the age of twenty, after being convinced by its beliefs and practices.

Hicks married Jemima Seaman January 2, 1771. They moved to her family farm, which Hicks eventually took over when his parents-in-law died. The Hickses had eleven children: Martha, David, Elias, Phebe, Abigail, Jonothan, John, Elizabeth, Sarah, and one who died at birth. Only four of his children married.


At about the age of twenty-seven, Hicks was recognized as a preacher by the Friends in his meeting. He was regarded as a very gifted speaker, with a strong voice, great poise, and dramatic flair.

Hicks was one of the early abolitionists among the Friends. He spoke about slavery often and worked hard to persuade others to oppose it. His 'Observations on the Slavery of the Africans' (1811), which argued for a boycott of slavery-produced goods, represented one of the earliest social reform boycott efforts in the United States. The state of New York, due in part to Hicks's efforts, abolished slavery within its borders on July 4, 1827.

Hicks's reported views

Hicks considered “obedience to the light within” the primary tenet and the foundational principle of the Religious Society of Friends. He downplayed and reputedly denied the virgin birth of Christ, the complete divinity of Christ and the need for salvation through the death of Christ. He also was reported to have taught that the leading of the Inner light was more authoritative than the text of the Bible. His detractors considered these views heretical because they contradicted the traditional teachings of Christianity. He insisted at times that he believed in Christ's divinity and quoted the Bible from memory in spoken ministry. He may be seen as within the quietist tradition of John Woolman and Job Scott, whereas his followers view the Orthodox as taking on evangelistic notions which were alien to original Quaker faith.

These views were consistent with a Freethought tradition already prevailing in America, particularly among Deists of Quaker heritage such as Thomas Paine. The most original aspect of Hicks's theology was his rejection of Satan as the source of human "passions" or "propensities." Hicks stressed that basic urges, including all sexual passions, were neither implanted by an external Devil nor the product of personal choice, but were aspects of human nature created by God. "He gave us passions—if we may call them passions—in order that we might seek after those things which we need, and which we had a right to experience and know," he claimed in his 1824 sermon, "Let Brotherly Love Continue." Hicks taught that evil and suffering occurred not because human nature harbored these "propensities," but rather resulted from "an excess in the indulgence of propensities."

In 1858, Walt Whitman, one of Hicks's most famous exponents, astutely assessed Hicks as "a wonderful compound of the mystic with the logical reasoner," and explained that Hicks was "destined to make a radical revolution in a numerous and devout Society, and his influence to be largely felt outside of that Society..." The Quaker theology of "God within" (another name for the Inner Light) appeared subsequently in the theory of the Free Love movement, where it was deemed compatible with the religious sociology of Charles Fourier.

Disputes among Friends

Controversy over Hicks's teachings interrupted the normal calm of Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia. For more than five years, elders of Philadelphia Yearly Meetingmarker had tried to prevent Hicks from propounding his views in the city's meeting houses, producing sharp differences within that yearly meeting; these differences came to a head in April 1827 when there was a division. By 1828 there were two independent groups both claiming to be the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Other yearly meetings split along similar lines during subsequent years, including those in New York, Baltimore, Ohio, and Indiana. Those who agreed with Hicks were generally called Hicksites, and his detractors were called Orthodox Friends. Each side considered itself the legitimate heir to the legacy of earlier Friends, such as George Fox, Margaret Fell and Robert Barclay.

The split was not purely doctrinal. It reflected tensions that had been growing between the elders—who were mostly from the cities—and Friends who lived farther away from major communities and Meetings. Hicksite Friends were mostly country Friends who perceived urban Friends as worldly. Many of the Philadelphia Friends were wealthy businessmen, and many of the country Friends kept less peculiar in matters of "plain speech" and "plain dress", which by this point in time had become a sort of jargon and a sort of uniform, respectively.

Many scholars have written about various aspects of these controversies. A good short summary is Larry Kuenning's Quaker Theologies in the 19th Century Separations, but for more depth see H. Larry Ingle, Quakers in Conflict: The Hicksite Reformation (Philadelphia: Pendle Hill, 1998).

Later life

At age 80, Hicks went on his final ministry trip. He covered 2,400 miles and was harassed and shunned by Orthodox Friends along the way. He suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and died soon afterward in his home in Jericho, New York. People say that when he was on his deathbed, someone put a cotton blanket on him. He tried to remove it with his unparalyzed left hand, as it was a product of slavery. When they replaced the cotton blanket with a woolen one, Hicks relaxed and nodded in approval.

Hicks remained a controversial figure long after his death, with his name a pejorative label used by opponents to tarnish his memory. In the final analysis he was one of the last of the 18th century's quietist Quakers, although his combative personality marked him as quite different from most others who bore that title. Despite the fact that he was certainly not a modern "liberal," that title has stuck to him.


  • Gross, David M. American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) pp. 208-210 ISBN 1438260156

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