“PLAINNESS OF SPEECH”
THE “plainness of speech” referred to in the Third Query meant primarily the use of “thee” and “thou” to a single person instead of the customary “you”; and it was this “testimony” that, in conjunction with the testimony about “plainness of apparel,” especially marked us off as a peculiar people. To say “you” to a single person, whether to a Friend or to an outsider, was felt to be the extreme of insincerity and worldliness, and never once, until I was married, did I dare to transgress in this respect. Of course it made it very difficult for us to mingle much with the outside world, since they would be likely to stare and laugh at our quaint language.
The reason for this testimony was no doubt to be found in the absolute sincerity of the early Quakers, who felt it to be dishonest to use a plural pronoun to a single individual; and also in the fact that, when they started, it was the custom of the world to say “you” to a superior, and to say “thee” and “thou” only to inferiors, and the Quakers, who believed all men to be free and equal, and who believed this in a very practical way, could not brook such distinctions, and felt it right to address all classes alike.
Those “early Friends” were democrats in every fibre of their beings. And this was because of their profound conviction that of one blood God had made all the nations of the earth, and that all were equally His children. It was a grand foundation upon which to build their superstructure of morals, and it accounts for many things which might otherwise seem to have been foolish fads and fancies.
In Thomas Ellwood’s autobiography he gives an account of the various things he felt called upon to give up when he was convinced of Quaker views, and among them we find the following reference to this matter of the plain language.“Again the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person, you to one person instead of thou to one, which last manner of speech has always been used by God to men, and by men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest records of time, till corrupt men for corrupt ends, in later and corrupt times, to flatter, fawn and work upon the corrupt nature in men, brought in that false and senseless way of speaking you to one, which has since corrupted the modern languages, and hath greatly debased the spirits and depraved the manners of men;—this evil custom I had been as forward in as others, and this I was now called out of and required to cease from.
“These and many more evil customs which had sprung up in the night of darkness and general apostasy from the truth and true religion, were now, by the inshining of this pure ray of divine light in my conscience, gradually discovered to me to be what I ought to cease from, shun, and stand a witness against.”
So strongly was this testimony as to the plain language pressed upon us, that during all my childhood I felt it would have been the height of insincerity and worldliness to say “you” to a single person; it seemed to me one of the “gayest” things I could have done. And even when I became a woman, and began to go more into the world, and found that there were good and true Christians who did not hesitate to use the forbidden word in their intercourse with one another, I still found it very difficult to frame my Quaker lips to utter it. Gradually however this difficulty vanished; and now, after seventy years, the “thee” and “thou” have become to me only the language of intimate friendship, and come to me instinctively and almost unconsciously the moment a friend really finds the way to my heart. In fact I judge of the state of my feelings towards a person by this test, and when I find myself addressing them as “thee” and “thou” I know I have begun to love them. And many of my friends, who have had no connection with the Quakers, have caught the habit from me, and have themselves adopted the same dear words in our intercourse. My beloved Frances Willard was one of these, and she and I always thee’d and thou’d each other for many years before her death.
The same writer from whom I quoted before, tells in “A Boy’s Religion” how he felt as a boy in regard to this “plainness of speech.” He says:—“I said ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ to everybody, and I would fully as soon have used profane words as have said ‘you’ or ‘yours’ to any one. I thought only ‘Friends’ went to Heaven, and so I supposed that the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ was one of the main things which determined whether one would be let in or not. Nobody ever told me anything like this, and if I had asked any one at home about it, I should have had my views corrected. But for a number of years this was my settled faith.
“I pitied the poor neighbours who would never be let in, and I wondered why everybody did not ‘join the meeting’ and learn to say ‘thee’ and ‘thy.’ I had one little Gentile friend whom I could not bear to have ‘lost,’ and I went faithfully to work and taught him ‘the plain language,’ which he always used with me until he was ten or twelve years old, when the strain of the world got too heavy upon the little fellow!”
Another “testimony” connected with “plainness of speech,” which was similarly the outcome of the Quaker democracy, was against the use of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” in speaking to or of a person. These titles were considered to be a disobedience to the command of our Lord in Matt. 23:10, “Neither be ye called masters, for one is your master, even Christ.” Moreover no genuine Quaker could consent to give a title to a rich man that was refused to a poor man; consequently they used their Christian names, without any prefix, to all alike; and always spoke of one another as Thomas, or Samuel, or Abigail, or Elizabeth, as the case might be. (We had no Reginalds, or Bertrands, or Ethels, or Evelyns, among us in those days!) Where a difference in age would seem to demand a little less familiarity, young people were expected to use the whole name, as Thomas Wistar, Abigail Evans, Samuel Bettle, Elizabeth Pitfield, and so on. This especial testimony was often very inconvenient when dealing with the “world’s people,” and it caused many awkward dilemmas. Our dear father was very strict in regard to this matter, and could never be induced, no matter how inconvenient it might be, to use the gay “Mr.” or “Mrs.” I remember well the fun we sometimes had, after we were grown up, over his ingenious methods of extricating himself from difficulty when he did not know the first name of any one. He used to substitute for Mr. or Mrs. the word “Cummishilamus,” and would say for instance “Cummishilamus Coleman” said or did so and so. When however he had to write the address on a letter, he could not of course use this word, and then he would turn to one of us and say, with a merry twinkle of his dear eyes,—“Come, Han, thee has no scruples, so thee may write the Mr. or Mrs. on this letter.”
“Plainness of speech” also forbade our greeting our friends with good-morning or good-evening, or saying good-bye when parting from them. Good-bye was believed to be a corruption of God be with you, and, since God was always with you, it was a sort of unbelief to express a wish that He might be. And to say good-morning or good-evening, which was a form of wishing you might have a good morning or a good evening, was to express a doubt of the fact, known to every Quaker, that your mornings and your evenings must, in the order of Divine Providence, always be good. I grew up with a distinct feeling that it was very gay and worldly to use these expressions, and that the right, or in other words the “plain” thing to do was to greet my friends with, “How art thou?” or “How does thee do?” and to part from them with the simple word “Farewell.” Though why “Farewell” was any more truthful than good-bye, even if good-bye did mean God be with you, I have never been able to understand.
In perfect consistence with the Quaker idea of the absolute equality of all human beings in the sight of God, “plainness of speech” forbade us to give the title of Saint to any of our departed fellow-Christians, and we were never allowed to use it, even as a prefix. We never for instance spoke of the Gospels as the Gospel according to St. Matthew, or St. Mark, or St. Luke, or St. John, but always said, “The Gospel according to Matthew,” or Mark, or Luke, or John. I saw lately in an old diary kept by a Friend in the seventeenth century an account of one very conscientious Friend who felt a stop against using the prefix saint even in the names of places or streets, and who had great difficulty at one time in finding St. Mary Axe, because she dropped the Saint, and asked for it only as “Mary Axe Street,” which no one understood. (Note: Friends' Examiner, ninth month, 1902.)
As a testimony against idol worship we were forbidden to call the months of the year and the days of the week by their heathen names, but were taught to keep to the “simplicity of truth” by calling them by numbers, as for instance, first month, second month, or first day, second day, etc. This was so universally observed in my circle that I do not think it ever entered my head to use the heathen names, and I remember I was greatly shocked when I came to England in 1873 to find that English Friends had given up the practice of using the numbers, and had gone back to the “heathen” names, and for a while I could hardly bring myself to feel they were really Friends at all. And even now, when I date my letters with these “heathen” names, I always feel somehow as though I were making a sort of forbidden excursion into the “gay world.”
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