If young George Fox hadn’t been so picky about principles, we might never have enjoyed Quaker Oats. The oats folks, who weren’t Friends, stole the Quaker name because it stood for integrity. (And we all want honest mush.) But it was Fox who made it possible by insisting that Christians should “possess what they profess.” It drove his own spiritual search, and it shaped Friends as people of integrity, people of principle. Following Jesus, they intended their yes to mean yes, their no to mean no, and their lives to match their words.
They did well, even though, then as now, there were plenty of chances and reasons to fudge integrity. Principled living is a sturdy, daily choice that brings congruence between inner conviction and outward witness. Knowing this, Friends began to call the lived pattern of their principles “testimonies.” People can see whether you possess what you profess.
Principled living can be pretty ordinary or, sometimes, very dramatic. For example, people were surprised at first when Quaker merchants charged everyone the same price, an honest price for honest goods. Eventually they trusted the Quakers so much they made them their bankers – so, in England, the banks of the Barclays and Lloyds. John Woolman as a successful shopkeeper tells us that, with the poor in mind, he didn’t stock frivolous goods or offer easy credit so that he wouldn’t sucker the poor into hopeless debt. His caring, honest choice was routine for him, but clearly out of step with common practice, then and now.
Simple and dramatic at once was the day young Woolman told his boss that he could no longer write bills of sale for slaves. For him the courage of that day’s integrity opened a lifetime of service opposing slavery, for which we remember him more than two hundred years later.
Similarly, before there ever was a “peace testimony,” young George Fox was offered release from prison if he would accept a leadership role in Parliament’s army. He refused this temptation, he said, because it was inconsistent with his life in Christ that “took away the occasion of war.” Over the years, and even now, many Friends have joined in this choice though they have risked and suffered imprisonment, beatings, economic reprisal, even death.
Because they know God cherishes and pursues every person with love, Friends have acted in practical ways to hold everyone in high regard. William Penn made just agreements with native Americans, unusual then and now. Two hundred years ago, William Tuke founded The Retreat in York, England, to care for the mentally ill rather than accept the custom of sending them to prison. The Retreat, an innovation then, is still operating. Elizabeth Fry boldly began to teach and care for the women imprisoned with their children in London’s awful Newgate Prison, and her efforts led to great prison reforms. Friends in many times and places have offered education to those others shut out of learning – women, slaves, and freed slaves, for example. During and after wars they have acted in compassion toward victims, providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
All of these examples show principled and practical ways of living our convictions, of possessing what we profess. Most of them come from people who responded with integrity to what was right under their noses in their ordinary lives. And they remind us that for our sake and for the sake of Christ’s kingdom, it’s still worth being picky.
Questions to discuss:
- From what you know about the principles and testimonies of Early Friends, what stands out to you? What questions or comments do you have about their testimonies, actions, attitudes, or words?
- In your own experience, how have you seen Friends responding to issues in today’s world from a principled standpoint?
- Are there Godly principles that you personally feel Friends can express powerfully to today’s world? Try to be specific and give us some examples.