What do Quakers mean by integrity?

“Integrity” should be easy to define, right? Always tell the truth. Don’t say one thing and then do another. Be consistent in your moral behavior.

At one level, integrity really is that simple—but it can also play out in our daily lives in all sorts of complex and fascinating ways. 18th-century American Quaker John Woolman, for example, was famous for the consistency with which he lived out his opposition to the slave trade. In addition to personally advocating for the release of many enslaved people, he refused any silver tableware, even as a guest in other people’s homes, in solidarity with those forced to work in silver mines. Beyond that, though, Woolman also rejected any dyed clothing, expressing his disapproval of unsafe working conditions in the dye industry. He even avoided riding in stagecoaches because he was appalled to see horses being mistreated.

But how do Quakers show their integrity today?

You may have heard that Quakers refuse to take oaths; they won’t even “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God” when appearing as witnesses in court. This goes all the way back to the beginning of the Religious Society of Friends, and their embracing of Jesus’s command: “I say unto you, swear not at all… let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:34,37) Plus, if you swear an oath to tell the truth in one circumstance, it implies that you think it would be acceptable to not tell the truth in other circumstances.

But early Friends also extended their notion of integrity to their business practices—and, in a way, established a commercial standard. Centuries ago, it was more common for merchants and their customers to haggle over the prices of goods until they could find a mutually agreeable price. Friends who ran businesses decided that they would simply calculate reasonable rates for their goods and services and set a fixed value that their customers could recognize as fair, because they could trust a Quaker merchant not to gouge them with exorbitant prices. This became such a popular practice that other businesses were forced to take it up as well.

There are other ways to practice integrity with in your financial transactions. Many Friends strive to observe social responsibility in their purchases, with a preference for “free trade” goods or items that have not been produced through exploitative labor practices. Some may take things even further by minimizing their use of credit cards, or rejecting them entirely, believing it dishonest to spend money you don’t actually have.

At a more fundamental level, living in integrity means accepting accountability for one’s actions, and repenting when one has done harm to others. It means honoring “that of God” in other people, which includes treating everyone with dignity—and with an open mind. You may not always agree with someone, but you can disagree, no matter how firmly, with respect.

NEXT: Community

Learn more at Friends Journal

Integrity, a Noun,” Emme LeFebvre

Witnessing to Integrity in an Untruthful World,” Shelley E. Cochran

The Costs of the Quaker Faith,” Glenn L. Reinhart