Quakers have always identified themselves as being a prophetic community, asserting that their faith is ‘not a notion, but a way’. Typically, Friends see action as being the primary response to their deepest spiritual experiences. In this blog post, Martin Layton explores the significance of this aspect of Quaker witness.
Truth is our guide
Prophets are sometimes misrepresented as fortune-tellers, but it is more accurate to think of them as truth-tellers. As Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann explains,
The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.
In the seventeenth century, Friends proclaimed themselves as the ‘Publishers of the Truth’. ‘The Lord opened my mouth,’ wrote George Fox, ‘and the everlasting truth was declared amongst them, and the power of the Lord was over them all.‘
As Robert Lawrence Smith reminds us, from their beginnings Quakers have held that truth ‘restores our souls and empowers our actions. Truth is our guide and truth is our liberator.’
This links back to the idea of ‘testimony’, the name we give to Friends’ shared behaviours, located in the sphere of everyday life, which are usually seen to be a challenge to conventional ways of behaving or are reflective of their experience of personal transformation. Individually and collectively, Friends’ testimony asks them to seek out the truth in their lives and to uncover destructive falsehoods. Crucially, they have always recognised that although this can be a cause of discomfort, it often leads to a more meaningful life or deeper sense of inner peace.
To be made tender
Once a truth had been exposed to them. some Early Friends wrote of having been made ‘tender‘. For them this word had a double meaning. It meant both ’sensitivity to pain’ but also ‘kindness’. Indeed, it was their experience that one consequence of accepting an uncomfortable truth was a corresponding growth in their compassion. Often they would equate a ‘tender heart‘ with an openness to the hearing God’s word. In the Victorian era, Friend John William Graham would speak of the need to see God’s ‘tenderness in tender human hearts’.
John Woolman’s vision
Recounting a dream wherein he saw a vision of oppressed miners, eighteenth century Friend John Woolman declares,
I was then carried in spirit to the mines where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved for His Name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said amongst themselves, ‘If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.
Here Woolman enters into the plight of the oppressed and forces his readers to consider both their complicity in this suffering and their response. Like other prophets before him, his tactic is to make those who considered themselves to be righteous confront the discrepancies between their professed faith and their actions in the world.
The empowering work of the Spirit
George Fox understood how the Spirit, in whose presence Quakers wait in worship, can empower people to work for this more just and compassionate world. In his Journal, he wrote:
The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles around.
This also speaks to Friends’ tradition of ‘speaking truth to power‘. This is a phrase coined by American Friend, Bayard Rustin in the 1940s, although the sentiment is much older. Quakers are not merely prompted into uncovering difficult truths for themselves, but are called to be truth-tellers on behalf of the powerless; even if this is inconvenient, socially embarrassing, or dangerous to do so.
We might find an echo of these sentiments in Margaret Mead’s advice from more modern times that we,
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.