At Yearly Meeting in 2018 Quakers in Britain will be considering whether to revise Quaker faith and practice – the book of discipline. This volume, found in every Quaker meeting and freely available online, is referred to for guidance on both church affairs and personal life, and drawn on as a source of spiritual inspiration.
The earliest antecedent of our current book of discipline is the 300 year old abstract entitled Christian and brotherly advices. This was a 1738 compilation of advices previously issued piecemeal by Yearly Meeting on a wide range of problems raised by monthly and quarterly meetings. Its contents were codified under 51 headings, arranged alphabetically, with space for additions. The book was distributed in manuscript form to meetings around the country – at a cost of 50 shillings each – in folio volumes usually bound in green vellum (causing some irreverent young Friends later to dub it “the Green Dragon of the Ancients”).
In 1782 Yearly Meeting revised and brought up to date the rules and advices, which the following year appeared as our first printed book of discipline, Extracts from the minutes and advices of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, popularly known as “The book of extracts”. A supplement was approved in 1791, a revision in 1801, and a further supplement in 1822. The tradition of revision once every generation had begun.
During the course of the 19th century and early 20th century there were radical changes in the character of the book. After the revision of 1861 it was organised into three distinct parts – “Christian doctrine”, “Christian practice”, and “Church government”. By the early 20th century these parts were considered for revision separately, and issued in individual volumes. A limited number of contributions by individual Friends began to be included, alongside the official Yearly Meeting statements. But it is to the 1921 revision of the Book of doctrine, issued in 1922 under the title Christian life, faith & thought in the Society of Friends, that we owe the introduction of the strongly personal element, now familiar, into our modern book of discipline.
The current book of discipline was first issued in its present form as Quaker faith and practice in 1995 – a decade after Friends had decided on a complete revision, recognising the need to reflect changes in society, language and belief. The new book replaced two earlier parts, Church Government and Christian faith and practice, bringing the subject matter together once again in a single updated volume – one more step in its gradual evolution.
Quaker faith and practice is now in its 5th edition. Recent amendments not yet included in the print edition are incorporated in the online version – for instance, changes to chapter 16 on Quaker marriage procedure approved by Yearly Meeting in 2015, reflecting legislation permitting same-sex marriage.
If you are attending Yearly Meeting this year, as Friends come together to discern whether a revision of Quaker faith and practice is due, you may already have been involved in the programme of reading and spiritual preparation outlined by Rhiannon Grant on the British Quakers blog. Over the Yearly Meeting weekend the Library will mount a display illustrating the origins and development of Quaker faith and practice, including some of the books described here. Our collection of disciplines from other Yearly Meetings around the world has also been brought up to date, as has the collection at Woodbrooke library, so British Friends can access the full range of contemporary books of discipline in use elsewhere. We will be launching a resource list* of these (with links to texts available online).
*Update: you can download the full list of contemporary books of discipline, with details of holdings here and at Woodbrooke library, from our webpages – https://bit.ly/2IapoRF.
As both the home of Yearly Meeting archives and one of the world’s largest repositories of published Quaker writings, the Library will be an important resource for Friends considering, and perhaps soon undertaking, a renewed approach to our Quaker book of discipline.
 Memoir of William Cookworthy (1854) p. 39
Further reading on the history of the book of discipline of Quakers in Britain:
David J Hall, Christian and brotherly advices. In Friends’ quarterly, vol. 22 no. 7 (July 1981), p. 506-515
David J Hall, How we got our book of discipline: the story to 1863. In Friends’ quarterly, vol. 25 no. 1 (January 1988), p. 32-39
Edward H Milligan, How we got our book of discipline: the revision of 1921 – from doctrine to experience. In Friends’ quarterly, vol. 25 no. 3 (July 1988), p. 110-117
David Olver, The history of Quaker Faith & Practice. In Friends’ quarterly, vol. 42 no. 3 (August 2014), p. 12-22