The Friends of Truth: A Case for Reclaiming Our Earlier Name

Though most Friends have forgotten it (or never heard it in the first place), the Friends of Truth was our name before it got to be the Religious Society of Friends. In fact, the latter name was not used by Quakers until 1793. I would like to make an argument for going back to the earlier name. My experience of Friends worship has led me to believe that Truth is a concept we need to keep at the center of Friends practice.

This name sounds pompous or prideful to many Quakers but I believe it is needed to remind us of what Friends are after in the practice of our faith. With our unprogrammed forms and non-authoritarian structures, Friends are always at risk of losing a strong focus for our religious practice. Being the Friends of Truth can provide that focus. I believe we can be clear and certain in what we are about without becoming arrogant or filled with a sense of our superiority. Being convinced of the Truth doesn’t mean we have to fall into the sin of pride.

If we know anything about early Friends, we know that pride had little place when it came to assessing their condition. The Light isn’t a clever tool of insight and didn’t start off by making people have fuzzy, warm feelings. Let me quote Francis Howgill in 1652, "I became a perfect fool, and knew nothing, as a man distracted; all was overturned, and I suffered loss of all. . . . My mouth was stopped, I dared not make mention of his name, I knew not God." These are not words uttered by a man in the pride of his ego. If we read Fox’s epistles, we see over and over again his counsel to stay humble: "All Friends be low, and in the Life of God dwell, to keep you low." Whatever it was that animated early Friends, it was certainly not presumption or pride. If that had been the case we would have had a different name for ourselves. We would have smugly called ourselves The Religious Society of the Possessors of Truth.

A smug attitude is something that is always a danger for those who take spiritual matters seriously. We get a little insight and right away we want to go out and flaunt it before somebody who we assume hasn’t gotten our little bit of wisdom yet. This self-confident certainty of "having" the truth has come to be the identifying marker of a "religious" attitude. Usually in the form of a rigid creed, these "truths" have alienated many from spiritual seeking altogether. Some of these seekers have sought relief among the creedless form of Friends. They are not out of danger, however, for in joining Friends, they may sometimes be exchanging one kind of smugness for another—taking pride that they are not what they have escaped from. This often takes the form of pity for those poor deluded souls that aren’t smart enough to give up those dumb creeds. I know this form of pride because I have been there and done that. But the Truth is never a balm for the ego’s pride and just avoiding the religious creeds of others won’t satisfy Truth.

So what were founding Friends about in using this name: Friends of Truth? It helps to begin by clarifying the presuppositions we commonly use when talking about truth because these are handed to us by our culture and we don’t often bring them into conscious consideration. Once we have done that we can contrast it with the approach of early Friends. In our culture and times we tend to think of truth as a product and thus something we can have as a result of our efforts. We obtain this product through a process we organize and see through to something we call truth. We use a variety of these processes. Examples of these processes may be the gathering of data to test a scientific theory, it may be the assembling of the testimony of witnesses to prove a point in court, or it may be a conclusion that is deduced from premises in a logic class. We do one of these processes and at the end have a product we are prepared to call "the truth."

It is vital that we understand that the Truth Friends were talking about was not what is arrived at by any of the above processes. Early Friends wanted a Truth that could serve as an authority for their lives and give their lives meaning. They wanted a direct experience of Divine Reality, not second-hand notions. There were a lot of ideas at the time about how Truth might be found and what it would look like, but early Friends had tested many of these and found them unconvincing. Fox called those notions of truth that men had constructed "carnal knowledge" to show that spiritual experience wasn’t a part of those notions. Never at a loss for a potent phrase, Fox cautioned Friends to "mind that which keeps you all meek and low . . . that none of you may be puddling in your own carnal wisdom." What Friends insisted upon was the assurance that comes only from a personal experience of Truth.

The Truth that was important to Friends was what came to be theirs when they stopped all processes they controlled and waited humbly and contritely and submissively for what might come. There is a reason that Friends worship is not doing something. We seek to have something done to us. We know that the only genuine spiritual experience available to humans is when something is done to us. What Friends knew by experience was that the Truth that blessed them was something to which they belonged rather than something that belonged to them. Truth had them rather than the other way about. And when it had them, it shook them and they became "Quakers." Early Friends obviously continued to seek truth with a small "t" to get through the work of the day. They did not surrender their intellects. But they did not place their hope for finding the meaning of their lives in the exercise of the intellect. Nor should we. If we are going to call ourselves Friends we also need to actively avoid the notion that we can get to Truth by seeking it through processes we control and are used to following.

When Friends spoke about Truth, they were referring to the Truth of their condition and the Truth of their relationship to Divine Reality. This is another way of saying they wanted their lives to mean something by being a part of that Reality. They were not satisfied with any of the answers provided by the churches of their day and they could see for themselves that the practice of those churches fell short of what was preached as truth. It was for this reason that George Fox used the derogatory term "professor" to describe those who were Christian by their professed belief but whose lives manifested none of the lowliness of one with spiritual experience. It was revealed to Friends that their relationship to Truth had to be a real part of their experience and not some understanding they learned by listening to others and then adopting it as their own belief.

Meaning depends on context, context depends on relationships, and relationships depend on experience. If a spiritual experience is to have authority, it must have the right author and that author cannot be the self. A person cannot simultaneously be himself and a context for himself. This was known to early Friends and, hence, they knew that Truth was not something that was grasped by the exercise of their own powers. (I know that too. The experiences I obtain from my doing are always infected with the flavor of me. There is no place where I can stand and control my observations and not have that view shaped by my personal perspective.) So Friends had to stop doing. Fox counseled Friends to "famish the busie Minds and high Conceits." Thus Friends sat and waited in silence just as we do today. And when they stopped and waited they came to an experience not made by them. This experience showed them their relationship to their Author and this connection gave new meaning to their lives. They came to see themselves as "in the Life" and no longer in the lives they had before.

My experience is that the Truth that seeks us is one thing and not many. By being one thing it brings us to Unity. If our spirituality does not bind us together in Love then it does not come from Truth. Truth is not made up of parts though our understanding may be less than perfect. Our understanding may improve if we stand under Truth, but it is we that change, not Truth.

The experience Friends have in the silence changes everything and most of all it changes our relationship to others. Jesus commanded that we love one another, but to follow that command we must experience the Truth we find in silence. Early Friends came out of their meetings in wonder and described themselves as being made "tender." This term may sound a bit odd to us but it was a sign to them that the barriers built by their egos had fallen away. They saw each other with great compassion and tenderness. They saw that the enthrallment of self-centeredness was what had trapped them all. Once out of the trap (Fox called the trap "deceit" to show that we are deceived), they no longer had to live the life of fear their egos handed them. They were free to become real Friends; to love each other in new and profound depths of love. The context that Truth brought to their lives also brought them a new relationship with others. Their fellowship was that of friends and so they became Friends of Truth.

Quakers are not some sort of voluntary religious association as our current name suggests. Having Truth as a part of our name can remind us that we have a very special and demanding discipline that we require of ourselves. Truth is what Quakers are about in the world and nothing less. Let’s start using our proper name again. It could serve to remind us to wait and be still and love and be the Friends of Truth.

Robert Griswold

Robert Griswold is a member and clerk of Mountain View Meeting in Denver, Colo. Now retired, he was director of Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa. His most recent publication is the Pendle Hill Pamphlet Creeds and Quakers: What's Belief Got to Do with It?