By Brian Drayton and William P. Taber Jr. Tract Association of Friends, 2016. 180 pages. $20/hardcover.Buy from Quakerbooks
Late in the fourth century, Saint Jerome set out to make the Bible accessible to Christians in the Western Roman Empire. Writing in the common language of people in that part of the empire, Jerome produced a Latin book that was referred to as the Vulgate or the “common people’s version.” It became the official edition of the Roman Church in place of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. As such, it was copied word-for-word and letter-for-letter over the following centuries. The empire fell and the languages spoken by ordinary people evolved, but the church held fast to the Vulgate. Latin became a technical language that only a few could read or write, but translations into new languages were forbidden. As a result, a book produced to ease accessibility became an impediment to it. One of the great engines of the Protestant Reformation was the desire to again provide ordinary people with editions of scripture in the languages they spoke—to remove a barrier between common people and God’s words.
It has been more than 300 years since the early Quaker classics were published, and, although they were originally written in common, ordinary English, it is a form of English that is no longer easily understood. Our language has evolved. Grammar has changed and new words have been introduced, but more importantly, the meanings of old words have changed. If we hear the word tender today, we are likely to think of something easily bruised—physically, emotionally, or spiritually. That was not the meaning Margaret Fell intended when she wrote, “So now, dear Hearts, as you love and tender your own Souls, hearken and turn your Minds to this Light.” She was calling on her readers to let themselves be open and receptive to spiritual influences. Likewise, the common word try had a very different meaning when Isaac Penington wrote, “For men with fine words and fair speeches may deceive the hearts of the simple; but they cannot deceive those to whom God giveth ability to try spirits.” Penington is saying that those who have the ability to discern good and evil cannot be misled. In the seventeenth century, this was plain speech—written to be as accessible to the ordinary person as Jerome’s original text—but like the Vulgate, it is now hidden by the natural evolution of human speech.
If we hope to recall and retain the wisdom of our spiritual forebears, we need to recognize that they wrote in a very different time and in a form of English only superficially the same as our own. Brian Drayton, a particularly discerning Quaker thinker and writer, has used notes left by the late Bill Taber to produce an invaluable key to the important concepts buried in our foundational texts.
This book comes in two parts. The first half contains eight essays on basic principles that guided early Friends. Many of these words, such as Light or Truth, may seem familiar, but this book reveals layers of meaning that few of us can claim to understand. Other chapters, notably one titled “The Cross of Joy and the Inward Work of Christ,” explore symbols and images that are obscure to—or even unwanted by—many in the Religious Society of Friends, exposing a gap in our awareness of what it has meant to be a Friend.
A final chapter defines several dozen essential words and phrases, each in a few paragraphs or a few pages and illustrated with one or more excerpts from classic Quaker writings. This chapter can serve as an Old English to New English dictionary for those who have discovered the joys of reading the original texts, or would like to begin. Those books and pamphlets deserve to be recast in common, ordinary English and shared among Friends today. In the meantime, Drayton and Taber have provided an indispensable guide to them.