A Quaker Glossary

"Speak truth to power" -- one of those well-polished phrases that is (among politically liberal Friends in the United States) a common response to the question, "What is the central belief of Quakers?" It's often used to support an insistence that one of the primary functions of a Quaker meeting is telling the U.S. government our opinions on a whole range of national and international issues.

As far as I can tell, this is a non-native invasive species. The earliest sighting I or anyone I know has come up with is as the title of a 1955 pamphlet from the American Friends Service Committee. (Please e-mail me if you have any earlier Quaker use of this phrase!) I suspect that it may have come from the Gandhian nonviolence movement, though I haven't found a specific source.

UPDATE 1/17/07: Chuck Fager writes,
I'm unable to agree with this characterization. Yes, the best students of the phrase's provenance trace it back to "Speak Truth to Power." Furthermore, the two candidates for originating it are Milton Mayer and Bayard Rustin, both certified Friends who were central to the study's production. Moreover, it seems clear they coined it, as a summary of the project's ambitions. "Thus, . . .It was produced by 'certified' Friends, working with an organization which, at the time, was still recognizably Quaker, as part of their collective work of Quaker discernment. I've seen no evidence of it being imported from some alien external source.

It is true that early Friends often appealed to their governments, but this seems to have been almost entirely (before 1775) to get relief for themselves from various laws and practices such as required tithes or taxes to support Anglican or Puritan clergy, compulsory militia service, and getting hanged for being a Quaker. William Penn is quoted as advising Friends not to meddle with government or even discuss it. (Whether he followed his own advice is another matter.) Benjamin Rush also advised his children "to take no public or active part in the disputes of their country beyond a vote at an election."

UPDATE: As I read more about the abolition movement, it may be that the abolition of slavery saw a major shift to Quaker lobbying on behalf of someone other than themselves. Adam Hochschild's book Bury the Chains gives a good account of the English experience, and my work so far on New England lends support to this theory as well.

© Elizabeth Cazden, 2007

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