Sorting Quaker peculiarities in the modern world

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:

  1. The Ele­va­tor rule: could I explain to my pecu­liar­i­ty to a non-Quaker “aver­age Joe” in under two minutes?
  2. 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.

  • Julian Brels­ford

    Honestly,I think presents day use of “thee” by Quak­er indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties is a way to sep­a­rate them­selves from non-Quakers and make them­selves seem or feel, bet­ter than peo­ple who do not fol­low the prac­tice. Quite the oppo­site of the equal­iz­ing intent that was quite real back when use of “you” indi­cat­ed that the per­son being addressed deserved upper class (sep­a­rate, bet­ter) treatment.

    • Per­son­al­ly, I agree. For me, “thee” doesn’t pass the Clark­son Test. I too have known Friends who only seem to drop into “thee’s” when they start a-lecturing. But I’ve also met warm and car­ing Friends who have felt led to adopt plain speech on a more con­sis­tent bases. In gen­er­al, I try not to double-guess oth­er people’s lead­ings. There’s an inher­ent weird­ness to Quak­er prac­tice that I think has stood us well.