Chapter 1 » 1.04
When Yearly Meeting in 1682 decided to ask the representatives from each quarterly meeting to reply to three questions orally, Yearly Meeting itself had only been meeting consecutively for the previous few years and the systematic organisation of quarterly and monthly meetings had been recently completed. These questions were intended to produce factual information from Friends with local knowledge, so that the progress of the Society throughout the country could be seen and help given in the areas where it was most needed.
What Friends in the ministry, in their respective counties, departed this life since the last yearly meeting?
What Friends imprisoned for their testimony have died in prison since the last yearly meeting?
How the Truth has prospered amongst them since the last yearly meeting, and how Friends are in peace and unity?
These three questions were expanded into six in 1694 and further amended in the early 1700s but their purpose was still mainly to elicit factual information. The practice of requiring oral replies to the questions soon became too cumbersome and was replaced, following Yearly Meeting decisions in 1700 and 1706, by written replies from the quarterly meetings. The system of replying to the questions took root in the Society and the term ‘query’ was increasingly used, in Yearly Meeting minutes from 1723 onwards, instead of ‘question’.
As the practice of replying to the queries became more formal their purpose also began to change. In the early eighteenth century Friends generally ceased to believe that the whole nation would accept the truth that they had been preaching and became more concerned in preserving the Society as ‘a precious remnant’ devoted to the truth. The queries were increasingly used to ensure consistency of conduct among Friends and to obtain information as to the state of the Society. In 1721, for example, a query was added as to the receipt and payment of tithes, and in 1723 as to defrauding the king of his customs and excise, and many other subjects were included in additional queries.
The Society declined in numbers in the eighteenth century. Yearly Meeting in 1760, troubled that standards in the Society were falling, set up a committee ‘for the promotion and revival of wholesome discipline’, which visited meetings all over the country. One of its principal instruments was to insist on a more systematic reading and answering of the queries by monthly and quarterly meetings. The purpose of the queries after 1760 became principally disciplinary, and monthly and quarterly meetings and their elders and overseers regarded the queries as a touchstone on which they could rely in administering the discipline.
There were periodic revisions of the queries during the next hundred years, although the number of substantial changes was few. When the queries were revised in 1791 Yearly Meeting adopted the first ‘general advices’ for consideration by monthly and quarterly meetings. They were short, and mainly concerned with the domestic life of the Society and its members. They were regarded as being of subsidiary importance to the queries, and were treated as an additional aid to the discipline. During the early nineteenth century Friends were much influenced by the evangelical movement and this was illustrated in the revision of the general advices in 1833. They were completely re-written and much expanded. They became of much greater importance than before, and their purpose was no longer mainly disciplinary but instead they were used to emphasise the importance of evangelical principles and to encourage Friends to consider whether they should not adopt them personally.
As Friends in the early nineteenth century entered more into the public and social life of the times, many of them began to question traditional practices of the Society including the very large amount of time spent at business meetings in reading and drawing up answers to the queries, which were often formal in nature. The value of the queries for self-examination had been commended by Yearly Meeting from 1787 onwards; increasingly Friends came to regard this aspect as more important than their disciplinary use and this change in emphasis resulted in the revision of the queries in 1860 and 1875. The requirement of preparing written answers was virtually abolished, and while the regulations continued to provide for a corporate consideration of the queries by monthly and preparative meetings, this in turn became in many places a formality. The general advices were revised over the same period. They were lengthened and extended in scope, and provision was made for them to be read at the close of meeting for worship.
No major revision of the general advices and queries took place until 1928. By this time many Friends considered that they were too negative in approach, had become uneasy at the evangelical language then in use, and wished for greater emphasis on the social responsibilities of Quakerism. These views were reflected in the revised general advices and queries; the general advices were again increased in length, and divided for convenience into three parts, while the queries, covering much of the same ground as the general advices, were also increased in number. The requirement of corporate deliberation on the queries by Friends’ business meetings remained but this became of much less significance. The use of the queries became increasingly devotional – ‘a collection of exhortations on the right management of one’s own affairs both inward and outward, and a collection of questions, or groups of questions, in pondering which a whole meeting can achieve a corporate examination of conscience’. The practice was established in many meetings of reading the queries in meetings for worship in addition to the general advices, which under the regulations adopted in 1931 were required to be read there.
In 1928 the advices on ministry were for the first time brought before members of the yearly meeting as a whole. Twenty years later, in response to a plea that they should be rewritten in modern language and should encourage those who had not yet taken part in vocal ministry, additional advice on ministry was adopted in 1949.
A revision of Advices and queries, adopted in 1964, contained a number of alterations to the previous edition and included references to social problems not apparent in 1928. The principal change was that the advices on ministry and additional advice were no longer separate documents, although much of the material in them was again included.
By 1984 some monthly meetings were expressing unease with the 1964 edition of Advices and queries. Hesitations had been aroused by the use of masculine nouns and pronouns no longer seen as justifiable, by some of the theological language used, by the difficulty of reading aloud some of the longer paragraphs and by the absence of reference to some more recently evolved concerns. In 1986 Meeting for Sufferings appointed a Book of Discipline Revision Committee, and among the earliest tasks which this committee took up was a revision of the advices and queries.
As part of a major programme of consultation with the yearly meeting, the committee drafted a provisional document with the title Questions and counsel. Meeting for Sufferings agreed to publish the draft in 1988 and invited meetings to use it for two or three years and to join in the process of revision by telling of their experience. In the light of these responses and after several more years of work on the revision of the whole book, the committee submitted a text to Yearly Meeting 1994, which, after making a number of changes and additions, approved a final text.