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Eldering in the Pages of Friends Journal

It’s no secret that Friends have issues with authority. From the beginning, Friends have turned to the “Inward Guide” in our deliberations. Other denominations can appeal to ecclesiastical structure or biblical literalism to enforce a united party line, but that’s not been our way. As the early Quaker movement institutionalized from its free-for-all beginnings, the structures of monthly meetings, ministers, and elders came to regulate Quaker life and address conflict among Friends. Whatever balance Friends had ended with the nineteenth-century schisms that rocked American Quakerism. While there were many contributing factors, the most commonly retold stories revolve around eldering: a small elite was narrowing the boundaries of Friends and disowning ever-greater numbers of Friends for ever-more-petty infractions. Eldering has been something of a dirty word ever since then, and only in recent years has it been reclaimed—and even then, often cautiously and tentatively. Now that the Friends Journal archives have been digitized, we decided to see how “eldering” has evolved in the last half-century. At the beginning of the 1960s, it was treated with caution: “Before the listener thinks of eldering the speaker, he should first examine himself to see whether his impatience does not grow out of his own limitations,” wrote Carl F. Wise. Five years later, a guest editorial by Thomas S. Brown bemoaned, “Prophetic ministry is nearly extinct, eldering has fallen upon hard times, the business meeting is no longer the framework within which deeply significant decisions can be made.” The tone changed as the decade wore on. A 1968 editorial began “Nobody likes being told to shut up. Yet according to the old Quaker custom of ‘eldering’ that is exactly what he is told.” Later that year a yearly meeting advised to “leave the eldering to God and realize that Love is the transforming power.” The following excerpts show how the term has evolved in the pages of Friends Journal since the late 1960s. Read more: