Prophecy is God speaking truth into the hearts of God’s people. God’s people are called to both speak this truth and to live it out in their lives and in their community.
The first name that early Friends referred to themselves as was “Publishers of Truth”. They also often referred to themselves as “Friends of Truth”. Speaking and living truthfully was at the core of First Friends’ “testimony to the world”—and remains at the core of our witness to the world today. These Friends also frequently wrote about those who acted on their beliefs in a way that put them at great risk as being “valiant for the truth”, e.g. as Fox wrote in a 1663 epistle : “And so be of good faith and valiant for the truth; for the truth can live in the jails.”
The Quaker Bayard Rustin is credited with having originated the expression “Speak truth to power” in a 1942 letter in which he wrote that the primary social purpose of a religious community is to speak truth to power – and that that truth is that war is wrong. The phrase was used as the title to a 1955 book published by the American Friends Service Committee Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. Ironically, Rustin’s own name was removed as an author of the book after his arrest for engaging in gay sexual behavior.
Friends still use this phrase today:
- Speaking Truth to Power during a Pandemic: A Quaker Scientist’s Reflections was a Quaker Conversation held by FWCC in 2020.
- Speaking Truth to Power Out of Quaker Grounding is a 2022 article describing a Quaker’s experience of growing up as a Palestinian on the West Bank.
Living the truth as we understand it
If we are living in Truth then we make certain that our actions fully reflect what we believe. “Let your lives speak.”
First Friends often accused their religious opponents of hypocrisy. They tried to make sure their actions were consistent with what they believed. For example, they believed it was wrong to pay tithes (a kind of religious tax) to support parish priests.
Living consistently with one’s beliefs has been referred to as a “testimony of integrity”. A good Pendle Hill Pamphlet on this subject is “The Testimony of Integrity in the Religious Society of Friends” by Wilmer Cooper.
Integrity is certainly a way to describe living consistent with one’s beliefs. The word “truth” echoes through the Bible and the writings of early Friends. “Integrity” is a more modern word for an old idea.
More early Friends were probably sent to prison for refusing to take oaths than any other reason. They were often asked to take loyalty oaths – either for Parliament and against the king prior to 1660, or for the king after the restoration in 1660. They took seriously Jesus’ and James’ admonitions to simply speak the truth and not reinforce their words with oaths.
Many teachers and other public servants lost jobs for refusing to take loyalty oaths (to defend the Constitution or swearing that they were not Communists) in the 1950’s. A number of states today are asking people to sign oaths affirming that they will not support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction Movement as a method of nonviolent resistance to violence and disenfranchisement of Palestinians by the State of Israel. Oaths are also beginning to be used against teaching about racial injustice in schools.
Friends were known for their scrupulous honesty.
The “plain speech” used by Friends for 250 years involved using the singular “thou” and “thee” to address an individual rather than the plural form of “you” or “ye”. For many years English kings had expected to be addressed in the plural rather than singular (e.g. “Thou mayst approach us.” or “We are not amused.”) In the 17th century English-speaking people were beginning to use the second person plural (“you”) to refer to superiors in general while continuing to use the first person singular (“thee”) to address inferiors like servants or children. Judges, the wealthy, and kings did not take kindly to being addressed with what they considered demeaning language!
Friends considered it dishonest to address one person in the plural. Friends also considered addressing someone in the plural as a form of idolatry, similar to taking off one’s hat off or rising when a judge or ruler entered the room.
Some ways that early Friends used to speak honestly seem odd or stiff to us today. For example, Friends resisted the use of social conventions such as greeting strangers in public with “Good day” or asking “How do you do?” when what was really meant was a simple greeting and not a real question.
Truth seems more and more under assault in our world today. Autocrats rail against any questioning of their behavior or words as “fake news” or lies. They make up complex falsehoods to avoid responsibility for things they are doing that are wrong.
People often assume that it is normal and right to lie in filling out one’s income tax forms. People are also ridiculed for their unwillingness to steal from corporations.
Do you think Friends are known for consistent or scrupulous honesty and truth speaking today?
In his article The Veracity of Outwardness Kenneth Boulding challenged Friends’ against becoming too trusting of our inward sense of what is right without testing this inward sense of truth against things we learn in the outward world around us, including what we learn from science.
The Conventicle Act of 1664 outlawed religious gatherings of more than five persons other than those of the official Church of England. Many religious groups held their gatherings in secret to avoid persecution. Friends felt it was important to resist these unjust laws openly. They held large worship gatherings in barns, or even in public houses or marketplaces. Sometimes the whole local meeting was arrested and sent to jail.
Their open willingness to resist unjust laws and readiness to be imprisoned for it, as was being done by the Anabaptists on the Continent, even at the price of their lives, is in line with the principles of nonviolent resistance developed by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:19-24). Our Quaker witness to truth is one way we can worship in the Spirit and in truth.
Jesus said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Matthew 8:31)
Here are some of the passages early Friends frequently quoted:
- Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12 – on speaking the simple truth plainly without anything else
- James 3:3-12 – on the dangers of the tongue (what we speak)
- James 1:22-25 – on the importance of not merely listening to the word but doing it
- James 2:14-26 – “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
- James 4:17 – “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
Small wonder that the Letter of James was a favorite of early Friends’!