Friends never set out to start to their own religion; what became seen as the more “peculiar” Quaker practices were simply their interpretation of the proper mode of christian living. At some point some of these practices became forms, things done because that’s what Quakers are supposed to do. The emptiness of this rationale led some of those in later generations to abandon them altogether. Neither path is very satisfactory. Those of us inspired by the Quaker tradition and have to sift through the half-remembered ancient forms to understand their rationale and continued relevancy.
When reading through Thomas Clarkson’s account of Friends circa 1800, I was struck by the differing lengths of explanation needed for two customs. read earlier installments of my series you’ll know that Thomas Clarkson was a British Anglican who spent a lot of time with Friends around the turn of the 19th Century and published an invaluable multi-volumn apology in 1806. “A Portraiture of Quakerism” explains contemporary Friends practices and defends them as legitimate ways to lead a “christian” life.
The two practices that struck me were 1: the Quaker custom of using “thee” in speech and, 2: of using numbers for the names of days of the week and months of the year. Clarkson makes a good defense of the reasons behind the practices:
Many of the expressions, then in use, appeared to him to contain gross flattery, others to be idolatrous, others to be false representatives of the ideas they were intended to convey… Now he considered that christianity required truth, and he believed therefore that he and his followers, who prefessed to be christians in word and deed, and to follow the christian pattern in all things, as far as it could be found, were called upon to depart from all the censurable modes of seech, as much as they were from any of the customs of the world, which christianity had deemed objetionable. (p. 275 – 6, my edition, p. 199 in this edition in Google Books).
Clarkson takes the next four pages to explain some grammatical history. In Fox’s time, “thee” was still at the tail end of being replaced by the grammatically-incorrect “you” for the second person singular, a cultural change that was a “trickle down” of the courtier’s desire to flatter so-called superiors in church and state. To a band of religious reformers largely drawn from rural North England, the reappropriation of “thee” was a bold cultural statement. It spoke to both a grammatical integrity and a desire to flatten social classes in a radically idealistic religious society.
Following the history lesson, Clarkson turns to names of the days of the week and months of the years. Most are pagan names. Good christians seeking to honor the one true God and deny any false gods shouldn’t spend their days invoking the Norse gods Tyr and Woden or the Roman gods Janus, Mars. Replacing them by Third Day, Fourth Day, First Month and Third Month strips them of their roots in non-christian cultures.
As Clarkson well knew, the question 150 years later (and now 350 years later) is whether these old peculiar customs carry any weight beyond a kind of 17th Century Quaker nostalgia. As he writes:
There is great absurdity, it is said, in supposing, that persons pay any respect to heathen idols, who retain the use of the ancient names of the divisions of time. How many thousands are there, who know nothing of their origin? The common people of the country know none of the reasons.
When I look at old customs I ask two questions:
- The Elevator rule: could I explain to my peculiarity to a non-Quaker “average Joe” in under two minutes?
- The Christian rule: could I make the argument that this practice is not just a Quaker oddity but something that every faithful and earnest Christian should consider adopting?
In these cases, thee fails and numbered days passes.
Let me explain: I can’t really explain why I would use thee without going into a explanation of pre-17th Century grammar, talking about different forms of second person singular in the history of the English language and the retention of the second person singular in most romance languages. By the time I’d be done I’d come off as an over-educated bore.
In contrast I can say “Wednesday is named after the Norse god Woden, Thursday after Thor, January after the Roman Janus, etc., and as a one-God Christian I don’t want to spend my days invoking their names constantly.” A one-sentence explanation works even in modern America. I’ll still be seen as an odd duck (nothing wrong with that) but at least people will leave the conversation knowing there’s someone who thinks we really should be serious about only worshipping one God: mission accomplished, really.
I know faithful Friends who do use thee. I’m glad they do and don’t want to double-guess their leadings. But for me the test of keeping it real (which I think is a ancient Quaker principle) means holding onto oddities that still point to their origins.