Two reference books that prove helpful in investigating the spiritual roots of Friends testimonies and concerns are Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, especially the chapter titled “Integrity: Vain and Empty Customs,” and its index that leads quickly through many detailed theological arguments, and a good concordance of the Bible, to trace references to various topics as they surface in scripture.

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Of time and tongues

I distinguish between two types of translation: across time and across languages. Geography is another matter altogether.

Any living language is in a degree of flux, gaining new meanings and new uses; over time, words may lose important distinctions (“enormity,” for instance, means “great evil,” rather than “immensity”) or may be appropriated and reshaped for purposes of advertising, trade jargon, or propaganda (“stellar,” legalese, and “gay,” for example). Try reading Shakespeare without footnotes or understanding rapidly changing slang and you’ll see what I mean. Another example: Ancient Greek is unintelligible to the modern Athenian; we know that it was sung, but have no clear idea of what the pitches where or how its meanings were nuanced – and the heroic attempt to revive that practice in classic Greek drama instead wound up creating an art form we know as opera! The Hebrew language itself was lost in the Middle Ages and only later rediscovered.

Across time we also face the danger of projecting conditions from our own era and culture backward into those of the past, a practice that has wreaked its own havoc in our engagement in Bible texts, as feminist scholars have been exposing.

How could this happen? And how might we redress it? There’s too much powerful material here we’d lose at our own peril and impoverishment.

In face of tribulation

Early Friends suffered greatly, oppressed from all sides. Persecution of the just, after all, has occurred throughout history – and today’s headlines continue that tale. For perspective on their courage, just listen to Elizabeth Bathurst (1655?-1685):

  • Wherefore faint not in your Minds, nor be discouraged in your Spirits, at the Tidings you hear abroad, but dwell within your Tent, and serve the Lord with Fear, every one in your Sphere.
  • For the righteous God will establish the Just, when bloody and deceitful Men shall not live out half their Days.
  • Therefore stand you still, and wait for God’s Arising, so shall all his Enemies be scattered before him.
  • And he will surely rise against our spiritual Adversaries, and bring them down in us, that they may not insult over us.
  • Renowned be the Lord of Hosts, the Captain of my Salvation, which caused me to march through valiantly, and also given me the Victory.
  • For, Friends, let me tell you, here lieth our Strength in these Times of Trial, herein is our Safety in this Day of Danger, in this you’ll be sure and quiet, when Peoples Hands shall be upon their Loins, because of Fear in the Night.
  • So that though I speak not boastingly, yet I can say, The Revilings of the Ungodly, do not at all dis-spirit me, for now I can take their Reproaches for Christ’s Sake, and bind them as an Ornament unto me.