Ancient and Comely Order: The Use and Disuse of Arbitration by New York Quakers

F. Peter Phillips

From the late 17′ century, the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers”) observed a method of resolving disputes arising within congregations that was scripturally based, and culminated in final and binding arbitration. The practice of Quaker arbitration gradually disappeared during the late 19th and early 2 0th centuries, and few modern Quakers are even aware of it. This article traces that decline and notes similarities with mercantile arbitration. In both religious and mercantile arbitration, a defined community valued the goal of avoiding group disruption more than the goal of vindicating individual legal rights. In both cases, members of the community applied distinct and particularized standards of conduct, rather than general legal codes, to resolve disputes.

Finally, in both cases arbitration awards were, as a practical matter, self-executing and resort to court enforcement was inapplicable. The study proposes that attributes such as mutual accountability, closed communities, and shared behavioral expectations are distinctive hallmarks ofthe arbitration process, in the absence ofwhich arbitration devolves from a powerful instrument of community cohesion to a mere alternative legal process.

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