One day, a person was traveling by train through the countryside. Hoping to initiate some conversation, the traveler pointed through the window. Outside the train, a flock of sheep was grazing on the hillside. “Look at that,” the person observed out loud. “Those sheep are freshly shorn.” An old Quaker was seated nearby. For a moment, he studied the sheep. Then he concluded, “Well, they are freshly shorn on this side, anyway.” As a Quaker, he wouldn’t commit himself to the side he could not see!

We Quakers have a well-earned reputation for being careful with our language. Maybe its absurd to “split hairs” over wool. But maybe there is wisdom in cultivating a habit of distinguishing between what you see and what you assume.

Over the years, Quaker attention to the nuance of language has produced a peculiar vocabulary of words and phrases. For example, Friends famously addressed one another as “thee” and “thou” rather than using the more familiar “you.” To our ears, the words “thee” and “thou” sound stiff – I think we associate these words with Shakespeare and the King James Bible (neither of which is considered casual reading!). Actually, “thee” and “thou” were informal ways of referring to someone in the second person. In bygone days, English speakers would have said “thee” and “thou” to their friends and social equals. The word “You” was considered plural. It would have been used to address a group or someone of a higher social status. Because they held that all people were equal, Quakers called everyone “thee” and “thou.”

Early Friends also had a distinctive calendar. In the popular culture, days and months are named for pagan gods. “Thursday” is named for the Norse god, Thor. “March” is named for the Greco-roman god of war. The early Friends had no interest in honoring these personifications of violence and war. Instead, Quakers enumerated the days of the week and the months of the year. What others called, “Sunday,” Friends called “First Day.” What others called “January,” Friends called “First Month.”

Compared to their neighbors, Friends had a peculiar way of speaking. Quakers used unique words and phrases precisely because they had a unique perspective. Because they saw things differently, early Friends needed a different vocabulary to put their ideas into words.

As a final introductory example, Quakers were careful to distinguish between the people of God and the building where those people met for worship. Only the people can rightly be called, “the church.” And so Friends were careful to call the building, “the meeting house.” Our peculiar way of speaking reflects a Quaker way of seeing.

This particular Quaker lexicon is far from exhaustive. The eight topics in this booklet will do very little to expand your Quaker vocabulary. However, I hope spending time with these words and phrases will give you a deeper sense of what is unique about the Friends perspective. More generally, I hope this discussion will help you think about the necessary connection between the values we hold and the words we use.




George Fox left home at the age of 19 in search of something that might answer his deep spiritual longings. Young George wandered across the English countryside, talking to every manner of “religious expert” his society had to offer. George heard all sorts of advice (including my favorite: “Smoke tobacco and sing psalms”). However, nothing he heard “spoke to his condition.” Finally, Fox heard the Spirit of Christ speak directly into his heart. In a flash of insight, Fox understood that God had been at work all along – preventing him from taking satisfaction in the advice of others. Instead of knowing about God through the wisdom of someone else, Fox was meant to know God directly. Rather than assume he had received some unique privilege, Fox concluded that everyone could seek and know the voice of God within.

Listening to that still, small voice within is at the very heart of Quaker spirituality. Friends must learn to distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices that clamor inside of us. For example, the voice of our culture can speak forcefully within us (telling us what is “normal” or even “good”). Early Friends identified a creaturely voice within us (demanding comfort, status and other “worldly” objectives) . We have impulses to do what is noble and impulses to do what is selfish. We must learn to distinguish between all these inward motivators and the true voice of Christ.

Margaret Fell remembers Fox asking, “You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” Early Friends were expected to speak their Spirit-born insights. These Quakers spoke their “Truth” (with a capital “T”) or their “leading” from God or their “opening” from the Lord. All of these phrases point to God as the source of what is being proclaimed. As modern Friends, we probably feel more cautious about speaking on God’s behalf. Even so, it is our task to listen for the voice of God within – and to speak as we are led.


“That of God in everyone”

“That of God in Everyone”

God has a reputation for being everywhere. We can imagine that God is present in very exotic places (like the rings of Saturn or in a subatomic cloud of orbiting electrons). Somehow, it is more controversial to say that God resides in other people. The early Quakers shocked their more conventional neighbors by proclaiming that God’s Spirit resides in everyone. To this day, many of our neighbors assume that God is compelled to avoid those who have not yet said the right words or participated in the right ceremonies. Many of our neighbors are inclined to emphasize the unworthiness of humanity. Quakers, on the other hand, place our emphasis on God’s relentless activity: No matter who we are, God is in us. Even if we are estranged from God, God’s Spirit is actively nudging us toward wholeness and drawing us ever more deeply into relationship.

Quakers have something fairly unique to say about the human condition: Although the Spirit of God is not a human faculty (like ‘abstract reasoning’ or ‘moral conscience’), part of what it means to be human is to have access to God’s voice within.

In a letter from Launceston Jail, George Fox admonished Friends in the ministry to “walk cheerfully on the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” This phrase invites us to address ourselves to the work God is already doing in the lives of others. When we minister to someone, our task is not to focus attention on what is wrong with them(naming their sins, condemning them, and/or perhaps beating the devil out of them).

Rather, our task is to understand the unique way God is already moving in each person. Once we discern how God is working in someone’s life, then we are able to support that work. We are to name God’s work for what it is (“Here is where I see God at work in you”).

This model of ministry means we cannot simply nag people into conforming themselves to some outward standard of piety. We cannot mass market “10 Easy Steps to a More Spiritual You.” Instead, we must listen for the unique way God is moving in each heart and add our voices to the voice of God.


Sense of the meeting

Sense of the Meeting

Listening to that still, small voice within is at the very heart of Quaker spirituality. The work of listening for God’s inward guidance is inherently subjective. Fortunately, Quaker practice does not leave us isolated in separate one-on-one conversations with God. Friends believe that the same God is at work in all people. The voice you hear speaking to your heart should harmonize with the voice I hear speaking to my heart. If we are all listening to the same God, then we should all be hearing the same message.

Imagine a group of people in the same room: each person is wearing a separate set of headphones. If these people are listening to their individual iPods, then it is unlikely that any two of them are hearing the same thing. However, if it is a room full of diplomats – each one hearing the speaker translated into his or her own language –then everyone is still part of the same conversation. As Friends, we believe that a group of people listening together for the voice of God is more like the second example than the first.

Friends have such confidence in group discernment that it is a regular part of our life together. Individual Friends contemplating a marriage or some other major decision can convene a “meeting for clearness,” inviting others to listen with them. Collectively, we use group discernment to know God’s guidance on those matters of business that we face as a meeting. Because we are listening together for the voice of God, we call this exercise in group discernment a meeting for worship for the conduct of business.

When Friends gather for group discernment, we aren’t trying to agree with one another about what we prefer. Rather, we work to set aside our preferences (biases, fears,etc.). We listen until we find a sense of unity in what God is saying. When we find this unity, we call it the “sense of the meeting.” Every time we find the sense of the meeting, we bear testimony to the oneness of God. This is especially true when we can remember the divisions that separated us when we started!

These three phrases are just a few examples from a discussion guide created in the fall of 2005. To read more from this guide click the button below!