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Timeless Equality

By Leigh Eason

In today’s world, most members of the Religious Society of Friends support the testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity and integrity. They believe these testi­monies are important principles by which to live. Have you ever thought how these testimonies represented not only a benchmark by which one can live, but how they also brought forth a radical change in life?

Can you imagine the kind of world these testimonies impacted back then? Consider how these principles changed society around them. These concepts were not only a witness then, but continue to be a guideline to help us be better witnesses today. Let’s just focus on one testimony, equality, to make this point.

In Colonial America inequality was an accepted way of life, regarded as a way to maintain order in society. To most, inequality was a God-ordained way of living.

Imagine being fortunate enough to travel to the New World at this time. Individu­ als traveling on board ships to the colonies were classified by social-economic criteria. A primary determining factor included speech patterns as well as forms of address. How one spoke and titles by which one may have been addressed were considered clear indicators of social status. For instance, if a person was called “Your Grace,” one immediately was assured the person addressed by such a title was of a dignified class.

Manner of dress was another indicator. Upper class people dressed in clothes made of bright or bold colored expensive material adorned with many fancy buttons or lace.

Lower class people were dressed in dull, cheaper material, lacking any form of decoration. They would be addressed by the simple terms “thee” and “thou”. “Thee” and “thou” literally indicated that this group was insignificant to the upper class.

Gender played an important part of status. Women were expected not to share their religious, societal or political views with others. Only women of nobility were allowed to express their viewpoint and only if asked. Of utmost importance for an upper class woman was the demonstration of lady like behaviors: minding manners and obeying those who were in authority, namely the men in their lives. In matters of choice a woman was most likely to submit to the guidance of a hus­ band or father. Women rarely owned property, were rarely educated and never spoke in church.

In the mid-17th century the Religious Society of Friends took exception to inequalities and class distinction that were considered the norm. William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” began to institute changes in the manner by which others were treated. He and others of this holy experiment significantly impacted the lifestyle of the colonialists and ultimately, the world.

Those who settled in the new colony named Pennsylvania dressed in gray, very simple, very plain attire. Class distinction was irrelevant within this community. Pennsylvania Friends held a deep respect for the leading of the Holy Spirit. They did not believe one should follow a list of rules made by humans, but rather the guidance of the Spirit. Therefore, mode of conduct came from a deep inner connection with the Spirit, dictated kindness and respect for every person. Individuals were judged in this community by merit — a radical departure from the norm. Everyone was treated with deference.

William Penn built his experiment on the precepts of his Quaker faith in which all members were ministers. Women were encouraged to be educated, to express their views and to become leaders. In marriage, husband and wife were con­ sidered equals.

In Pennsylvania, everyone was addressed as “thee” and “thou.” to the needs of others, even the needs of Native Americans, were considered to be important. The community began to consider the ill-treatment of Native Americans and began to work toward changing society’s view of this group. Most Friends who were acquainted with Native Americans listened to their testimony of religious beliefs and imagined God speaking to the world through their voices.

The testimony of equality has not changed. It is a principle enlightening society now as it did then. No matter what one’s creed, race or status of wealth, equality means each individual is of value and worth. Male or female, slave or free, all are important to God.

Today we sail in another boat, its destination undetermined. Like the travelers in the late 1600’s, we are determined to make a new life. How can the testimony of equality make a difference? As members of the Religious Society of Friends, how do we demonstrated equality? Are all people treated with kindness and respect? Sometimes the practice of the testimony of equality is dangerous, causing the comfortable to be uncomfortable. Will this sense of danger be a deterrent to reaching our destination?

The early settlers did not use danger as an excuse to avoid change. They bravely went to new worlds, met with all kinds of people, spreading the idea of light and hospitality. These explorers looked for needs that were to be met and met them cheerfully.

Meetings of today’s society can be places of light and hospitality. Equality in every aspect revitalizes meetings, lives and towns. The United States America is in need of light and hospitality as much now as then. The early settlers put great emphasis on listening to that of God within all people. Their example should be emulated.

It is this author’s belief that current members of the Religious Society of Friends have fallen short of this noble testimony of equality. Membership in most monthly meetings and yearly meetings is not racially integrated. Women in some yearly meetings are less likely to have positions of leadership. Today, rules of society are followed with blind obedience, without regard to how these rules, no matter how tiny or insignificant they may be, impact the world.

As voices for Christ, our current generation of Friends must adopt the testimony of equality fully, so that it will be better reflected in the lives of our meetings, our corporate structures and in our society.

It might do us well to consider the following queries:

• How is the “Holy Experiment” working today? Is equality practiced within meetings?
• Does the personal life of each member reflect that all people are the same in God’s eyes?
• What kind of ways are women treated differently than men in personal lives? In meetings?
• How are people addressed? What barriers do we hide behind?
• Are there other inequalities in our meetings or lives?

Leigh Eason is currently a student at Earlham School of Religion and is serving as pastor at West Elkton Friends Meeting in Ohio. She and her son love to spend time with their dog, Molly.