A radical vision of equality, rooted in the recognition of “that of God in everyone,” is in many ways the core of Quaker spirituality—and, in a way, it’s also responsible for two of the most enduring stereotypes about Friends.
First there’s the “thee” and “thou” thing. 17th-century English had two second-person pronouns, much as French and other languages still do today. “Thee/thou” was used to address one person, while you’d say “you” while speaking to a group of people—or someone of greater social standing, such as an aristocrat. Quakers, however, didn’t believe in such distinctions, and called everyone “thee,” which nobles took as a sign of disrespect, leading to serious tensions in the early years of the Religious Society of Friends.
The same principle was behind male Friends’ refusal to take their hats off in the presence of “social superiors,” and it met with the same consequences—and worse. Such acts of nonconformity were often met with violence, and even imprisonment.
A more significant legacy of the Quaker vision of equality is that from the beginning, women and men were both accepted as capable of receiving and sharing the continued revelation of Spirit. Through the centuries, women have often played prominent roles in Friends’ meetings and in activist movements, including the fight against slavery in Britain and its North American colonies—later, after the formation of the United States, Quaker women such as Lucretia Mott became among the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement.
That said, we should not be too quick to celebrate Quaker abolitionism uncritically—after all, before they decided not to enslave other human beings, many Friends were active participants in the slave trade, including William Penn, the founder of the colony that became the state of Pennsylvania. (And, too, even after acknowledging that it was wrong for one human being to force another into servitude, many Quaker meetings still came up short when it came to recognizing people of color as truly equal—even today, there is still much we can do, as individuals and as meetings, both to repent for that history and to confront the structural inequities of contemporary society.)
Penn also plays a prominent early role in Quakers’ relationship with the indigenous peoples of North America. While Friends were at times more respectful of the Native communities they encountered than other colonists, they were still capable of participating in the cultural supremacy that drove the settlement of what would become the United States. This complicity included forcing 19th-century Native youth into Quaker-run boarding schools where they were compelled to abandon their languages and traditions and embrace Christianity. It is another painful legacy with which modern Friends continue to grapple.
Next (coming soon): Stewardship and Sustainability
“Hierarchy is built on the idea that there are people who are more valuable and there are people who are less valuable. And what we as Friends say is all people, no matter what, are equally valuable.”