“. . . extensively careful to give no offence. . .”

William Penn, Founder and FRIEND

William Penn, Founder and

At important times I have been influenced by members of The Society of Friends (Quakers). The first was Leslie Pratt Spelman. Dr. Spelman was Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands. Another was my dear friend and mentor at the time my life was being pulled together (notice I did not say I was pulling my life together) in the late 1980s.

Members of the Boston Meeting of the American Friends Service Committee—the cook and a couple of the nurses at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where I volunteered in the early 90s—also set for countless others examples of selflessness and charity.

Recently I tried to explain to a friend the Quaker concept of “equality” so he could find a way to address a letter to a famous person whom he greatly admires. I found this explanation online.

The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has . . .  equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. . . Quakers are [historically involved in] reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights . . .  civil rights. This work arises out of a . . . desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. . . [and] the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. . . Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. . . [such as] “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” (1).

The website cites Robert Barclay and John Woolman as two historical leaders of the Friends on whose writings these ideas are based.

When I was in junior high school, our family had great admiration for Dr. Arthur M. Clarke, Executive Secretary of the Nebraska Baptist Convention (2).

Dr. Clarke was as sophisticated and refined as anyone we knew, and we stood in some awe of him. His degree was D.D., an honorary Doctorate of Divinity. But somehow that made it even more important, that a college chose to honor him, not that he had earned the degree by hard work.

One day my mother and I were in our kitchen (she was cooking, I was washing dishes). Dr. Clarke was to visit us soon. I commented to my mother that I’d go to school and someday people would call me “doctor,” too. Mother drew herself up into her most corrective full height and said, “People will call you ‘doctor’ when you deserve to be called ‘doctor.’”

This is not the place to discuss (because my mere mention of it will be enough for those who understand) the effect her comment had on me as it became a tape loop in my memory. (It took me 14 years during which I got sober to finish my PhD.) I will be called “Dr.” when I deserve to be called “Dr.” The humor—or sadness—of this little vignette is that to this day if anyone calls me Dr. Knight, my response is to wonder to whom they are speaking, and then to be embarrassed. I have deserved to be called Dr. Knight since 1988 (because I did the work—jumped through all the hoops—to get the degree; it is not “honorary”).

Will it ever be deserved?

Will it ever be deserved?

John Woolman (1720-1772), described by Wikipedia (don’t tell my students!) as “a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era.” I don’t remember which of my Quaker friends first told me about John Woolman, but when I read about him on the Guilford College website, I knew immediately who he was.

In purity of heart the mind is divinely opened to behold the nature of universal righteousness, or the righteousness of the kingdom of God. “No man hath seen the Father save he that is of God, he hath seen the Father.” The natural mind is active about the things of this life. . . [a]nd so long as this natural will remains unsubjected, so long there remains an obstruction to the clearness of divine light operating in us; but when we love God with all our heart and with all our strength, in this love we love our neighbour as ourselves; and a tenderness of heart is felt towards all people . . . even those who, as to outward circumstances, may be to us as the Jews were to the Samaritans (3).

As long as our will is not subject to universal righteousness, our mind is obstructed from the clearness of divine light. But when we love God with all our heart, we love all people.

It’s disingenuous of me to use a quote about subjecting my will to universal righteousness because I really have no clue what that means. As I have made abundantly clear in previous posts here, I have lost all understanding of “religious” language.

I am, however, intrigued by the biblical question, “Who is my neighbor?” Woolman says that when we follow the famous answer of Jesus to that question, that is

The American Friends Service Committee, "a tenderness of heart  is felt towards all people"

The American Friends Service Committee,
“a tenderness of heart
is felt towards all people”

manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new. . .  the desire of gain is subjected . . . [and] When employment is honestly followed in the light of truth . . . [people] are so separated in spirit from the desire of riches, that in their employments they become extensively careful to give no offence, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ (4).

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be called “doctor.” But more important, I wonder what it means to be “extensively careful to give no offense, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ” in one’s employment.

I end as I will not allow my writing students to do by asking a question. What would happen if the goal of all of our economic life together were to “honestly [follow] in the light of truth. . . [and] give no offence?”
(1) “Equality.” Guilford College, About.  guilford.edu, 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
(2) Mention of Dr. Clarke from the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star  from 26 September 1954 is online at
http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/46058033/ . For my friends in the ELCA, this is interesting because the story about the Nebraska Baptist Convention is mixed with a story about a meeting to discuss the merger of four Lutheran Synods. Hmmmm. 1954.
(3) Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. E-text. Web. (p.122).
(4) Woolman, ibid.