Greeting and leave-taking

6th of 9th mo., 2015

An interesting but often forgotten feature of traditional Quaker plain speech is its avoidance of certain greetings and leave-takings, such as good day and good night. Practically all Friends, even if they do not use plain speech, are at least aware that it involves using pronouns like thee and thy, numerical names for the days and months, and a direct style free of flattery and euphemism; but in my experience most Friends seem completely unaware that through much of the history of Quakerism, it was considered un-Quakerly to greet people by saying “Good morning!” or take leave of them by saying “Good night.”

A prominent passage near the beginning of Fox’s Journal seems to imply that such greetings are of a piece with bowing, doffing the hat, and using honorific pronouns:

…when the Lord sent me into the world, he forbade me ‘to put off my hat’ to any, high or low; and I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small. And as I travelled up and down, I was not to bid people ‘good morrow,’ or ‘good evening,’ neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one. This made the sects and professions rage.

Vol. 1, p. 91 of the edition in Fox’s collected works (1831)

But this is just a brief mention, without much explanation. Fox goes into more detail in his 1657 tract Concerning Good-Morrow and Good Even, &c. Here, he gives two main reasons for avoiding such expressions: First, to use certain of them (especially Godspeed) in conversation with people engaged in immoral activity is to partake of that activity oneself:


The first page of Fox’s tract has a surprisingly elaborate decorative heading.

…to say God speed to that which is going in the power of evil, all may see whether this be right or wrong, to say to a company of men and women that are at pleasures, and sporting themselves, and eats, and drinks, and riseth up to play, and lives wantonly upon the earth, against whom Gods anger is; to bid such God speed, how can we say so but be partakers of their evil deeds? And likewise when a company are mocking, men or women, reproaching, scoffing, scolding; passing by them bidding them God speed, to bid them God speed, how can we do it but be partakers of their evil deeds? …and to come among a company of men and women that are drinking, swearing, Musick, Shovel boards, Cards, Dice, to come into the house, how can he say to them God speed, but to be a partaker of their evil deeds… Or to come into a Market where people are at their Merchandise, these being selling their Merchandise, or meeting them going to Market with their Merchandise, where there is deceit, cheating, cozening, oppressing grinding, defrauding one the other, and more than yea and nay in their communications, which is evil; how can we say to these God speed, but we must be partakers of their evil deeds?

p. 3

Second, people engaged in immoral conduct are “in the evil day,” so to use good day, good night, etc, to such people is to speak falsely:

…while the evil rules, and the works of darkness rules, and adultery rules, drunkenness rules, swearers rules, cozeners, cheaters, persecutors, brawlers, lyars, swearers, drunkards rules, murderers, thieves, adulterers, whoremongers, idolaters, fornicators, proud and lofty ones, whiles these rules, its the evil day; this is the day of evil, the evil hath his day now here; and to say the evil day is a good day is to speak a lye… To come into company, or to see a company, or to meet a company of men or women that are given to drunkenness, or cursing, or sports, or pleasures, or cozening, or cheating, or lying, or dissembling, or back biting, or scolding, to tell them they have a good day, and a good morning; is not this the evil day? to tell them they be in the evil day, is not that more proper, or the evil day is to them; but to tell them good day is to them, it pleaseth them, and so it pleaseth the lyar to tell a lye…

pp. 2–4

From my standpoint, this second argument is less than convincing; to bid someone good day or good night is not to claim that their day or night is good, but to wish a good day or night for them — which hardly seems objectionable. But perhaps it is fair to worry that one’s addressees might interpret such greetings as encouragement or approval of what they are doing.

William Penn explains the motivation for avoiding conventional greetings rather differently: While Fox’s motivation depends on the assumption that the day is not good for the person being addressed, Penn objects on the grounds that the day is good, so that wishing it to be so is superfluous. Additionally, conventional greetings have devolved into mere formalities offered as a matter of course, not meant seriously:

Nor could they humour the Custom of Good Night, Good Morrow, Good Speed; for they knew the Night was Good, and the Day was Good, without wishing of either; and that in the other Expression, the Holy Name of God was too lightly and unthankfully used, and therefore taken in vain. Besides, they were Words and Wishes of Course, and are usually as little meant, as are Love and Service in the Custom of Cap and Knee; and Superfluity
in those, as well as in other Things, was burdensome to them; and therefore they did not only decline to use them, but found themselves often press’d to reprove the Practice.

‘Brief Account Of The Rise And Progress Of The People Called Quakers’,  In Collection of the Works of William Penn, vol. 1, p. 869

Penn was writing more than 30 years later than Fox. I wonder whether Penn’s explanation reflects an evolution in Friends’ views more generally, rather than a personal difference in understanding with Fox.

In any case, Fox’s discussion in Concerning Good-Morrow and Good Even, & explicit that Godspeed, at least, is appropriately used by and to those who are living in the Light, and not engaged in immoral conduct:

Now we which be in the Light, and know the Day, who witness the Father and the Son, and to such as are here we can say God speed, and not be partakers of their evil deeds; and the children of the Day which witness the darkness past, and the night over, and to the light turned from darkness, and the works of it, good Day to them is here, and good Morning is here…

p. 1

If the speaker and addressee are both “children of the Day,” then neither is in the evil day, so presumably the use of greetings like good day would be acceptable in this case, not just Godspeed — though Fox does not explicitly say so.

Despite apparently regarding the appropriate use of good day, etc. as limited to “the children of the Day,” and claiming that others are “in the evil day,” Fox also condemns those who complain that a day is bad, simply because of the weather:

…they that be in darkness and the evil day, and out of the Light not turned to it; these that be here, when foul weather comes, that crosseth them; rainy weather, say they, What an ill day is this, what a bad day is this, when such a day comes cross to their wills. And when fair Weather come, that is hot Weather, very hot, say they, What a bad day is this. …And here they call good evil; when the Weather is cold and frost, this is good; and Snow and Rain is good, and all praiseth God, and is good; and this they call ill, an ill day, or ill night, this is their custom, shewing they are in the evil, who call the good evil;…but such as are turned to the Light which comes from him who is the Heir of all things, which upholds all things by his word and power; these come to see how all the works of the Lord praise him; his works praise him, day and night praise him; Summer and Winter praise him;  Ice and Cold, and Snow praise him; and that is the bad and evil that calls them evil, and for rebuke, & reproof, & judgement.

pp. 11–12

Although Fox’s presentation seems to permit the use of good day, Godspeed, etc. when the speaker and addressee are in the Light, it appears that Friends generally abstained from using conventional greetings and leave-takings even when speaking to one another, and not just when speaking to “the world” or to people directly engaged in immoral conduct.

By the 19th century, the explanations offered for Quaker disuse of conventional greetings shifted a little more. Thomas Clarkson writes:

Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson

The Quakers, on meeting a person, never say “good morrow,” because all days are equally good. Nor in parting with a person at night, do they say “good evening,” for a similar reason, but they make use of the expression of “farewell.”

Portraiture of Quakerism, vol. 1, p. 295 (1806)

(Clarkson was not a Friend, but was very familiar with and sympathetic to Friends’ practices and perspectives, so there is not much reason to doubt the accuracy of his description.) I think the phrasing here that “all days are equally good” will strike most modern Friends as more familiar and congruous with contemporary Quakerism than Fox’s original statements in terms of people being in the “evil day.”

It is interesting that Friends regarded farewell as an acceptable expression of leave-taking (at least by the early 19th century). It is easy to imagine Fox condemning this word — if the addressee is committing evil, isn’t telling him or her to fare well as much an encouragement as Godspeed?

In present-day English, probably the most commonly used expression of leave-taking is goodbye. Seventeenth century Friends, as far as I know, did not raise explicit objections to this word; but perhaps this is because it was not in as frequent use at that time. (There are, however, attestations of this word as early as 1575.) Later Friends do seem to have regarded it as incompatible with plain speech. Hannah Whitall Smith, describing her childhood in the mid-19th century writes:


Hannah Whitall Smith

“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.

The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It, pp. 125–126 (1903)

As a linguist, I would point out that goodbye does derive etymologically from “God be with you,” though the term “corruption” is not really used in modern linguistics, and the etymology of a word is not a reliable indication of what it “really means” in modern English.

The most common greeting in present-day English is undoubtedly hello. But this word did not come into use as a greeting until well into the 19th century, and I am unaware of any Friends objecting to it. It raises no concerns etymologically, deriving from a verb meaning “to shout” (which also yields the modern verb holler). Perhaps, those who object to any speech offered as a “mere formality” might consider it objectionable for that reason, but I think such Friends are now very few and far between.


Minutes of exercise

25th of 8th mo., 2013

I’ve been neglecting this blog for quite some time, but I recently was involved in committee work for my yearly meeting which required me to do some historical investigation of Quaker uses of the term exercise, as in “minutes of exercise” or “report of the exercises of the meeting,” and it seems appropriate to present what I found here.

As background, Illinois Yearly Meeting has, for many, many years, appointed a committee each year to compose a report called “the Exercises,” which summarizes the major activities and business conducted during the annual sessions of the yearly meeting. This report was traditionally sent to Friends Journal for publication, but it was noticed in the last few years that the Exercises were not being published. When representatives from the meeting inquired about this, they were informed that the editorial staff of Friends Journal did not consider the Exercises to be of sufficient interest to warrant publication — in fact, they seemed confused why they had even been sent, since they seemed more like meeting-internal documents than something to be shared with the wider Quaker world.

When the yearly meeting body learned of the decision by Friends Journal no longer to publish the Exercises, the issue was raised whether to continue writing them. In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that many Friends desired a more detailed understanding of the original function of the Exercises, and of how they were conceived in other meetings, both historically and in recent times. A committee of which I am a member was given the task of investigating these matters, and the decision whether to discontinue the Exercises was deferred until we could report.

As with a lot of terminology, there does not seem to be any explicit discussion in Friends literature prior to the 20th century of what, precisely, was meant by “exercises” or why this term was chosen for reports of the kind in question. Modern meetings seem to have widely divergent understandings. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, in the glossary of its Faith and Practice, writes:

Minute of Exercise: An expression of a clerk’s insights and concerns at the close of a meeting for business. Historically, a closing summary of vocal ministry and spiritual concerns expressed during yearly meeting sessions.

Essentially this conception of minutes of exercise is elucidated in the following quote from an actual minute of exercise by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting clerk Thomas Swain in 2007:

A Minute of Exercise is an allowed expression of liberty given to the clerk to speak from his heart to the body on what he wishes to lift up from these sessions.

A very different conception of minutes of exercise is presented in New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice glossary:

EXERCISE – The exploration of a deep concern that has been brought to a meeting.  The meeting may record this exploration as a “minute of exercise.”

Something similar appears in the glossary of North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, and no doubt in other places as well.

None of these descriptions corresponds very well to the reports composed annually at Illinois Yearly Meeting, though the “historical” part of Philadelphia’s definition comes closest.

I made some attempt to discover when the practice of writing reports of meeting exercises began, without much success. I have found plenty of examples online back to the mid-19th century, but few if any yearly meeting minutes are available on the internet from before that time, so the practice could date back considerably further. It is at any rate clear that in that era, reports of exercises were a more-or-less standard practice in yearly meetings from all branches of Friends.

It is also clear from 19th century examples that reports of meeting exercises were typically composed by a committee appointed for that purpose, not by the clerk, and that they reported on major concerns and business of the meeting generally, not just just one issue that was deeply explored.

The original implications of the word exercise for this sort of report are not completely clear. Modern Friends have generally understood this choice of terminology as implying that minutes of exercise are to be about concerns or issues which “have Friends exercised” — that is, which provoke significant spiritual labor or excitement. It is abundantly clear that earlier generations of Friends used the word exercise for laborious spiritual trial and for deeply animating concerns; but it is also clear that they sometimes used it simply as a neutral term for the proceedings or general course of activity in a meeting for business or worship, as in  the following quote from the 1854 minutes of Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends:

Having arrived at the close of the business exercises of our meeting, and been favored with great unanimity of purpose in considering all the matters which more especially called us together, we can truly say that great consolation is ours…

I cannot say with any certainty whether minutes of exercise were originally so called with the former concept in mind, or merely the latter (as seems more likely to me).

Returning to the matter of Friends Journal no longer publishing Illinois Yearly Meeting’s annual report of exercises: I don’t have strong feelings one way or another whether this was a good decision, but it is worth noting that there has been a long trend away from reporting on the details of specific meetings in Friends Journal and its predecessors. In the 19th century, Friends Intelligencer published the complete minutes of all the Hicksite yearly meetings every year. By the early 20th century this was no longer done, but newsy reports on happenings at the annual sessions of the various yearly meetings — and even at quarterly meetings — were regularly published. It appears that Illinois Yearly Meeting began sending its exercises as self-reports of this kind. Such articles in the pages of Friends Journal are now rare, and usually appear only when the events of a meeting are affected by some much larger issue, which is the real matter of concern being reported on. Simple reports on what it was like to attend a particular meeting — which one suspects might have a unifying effect — seem to be a thing of the past.

Lifespans of Famous Quakers

25th of 11th mo., 2011

This doesn’t have much to do directly with Quaker language, but I made the following chart showing the lifespans of various well-known Friends, and thought readers of this blog might be interested. To see the graph full-sized, click on it. This should open the image file; then you may need to click on it again to enlarge.

Individuals are arranged chronologically by birth year. I think it is interesting how the slope changes at various points in history. You can also see very graphically how many Quakers did not make it through the 1660s.

The sing-song

21st of 7st mo., 2011

An interesting historical Quaker linguistic practice is the “sing-song,” also sometimes called “intoning”: a chanted style of vocal ministry which was formerly very common, but is now virtually extinct. I am told that there are still one or two Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting who occasionally preach in the sing-song style; but in all other regions I think it has been many decades since the sing-song was used, and it has not been common for more than a hundred years.

Like most Friends nowadays, I have never heard the sing-song in person, so I can’t speak about it from personal experience. The only recording of it I have ever heard is in a sound file on the Haverford College Library website.  Unfortunately, the recording consists of two Friends reading or reciting historical Quaker sermons in sing-song style for demonstration purposes, not of authentic examples of sing-song occurring spontaneously in worship. The text accompanying the sound file states that “this practice has now died out, though a few examples have been recorded in sound,” which would seem to imply that other recordings exist — do readers know of any?

To my ear, the Haverford recordings sound surprisingly “high church,” reminiscent of the chanted prayer I’ve heard delivered by Catholic and Orthodox priests (though the performers do not have very polished singing voices, in contrast to some of the priests I have heard). In fact, 19th century author James Rush suspected that the Quaker sing-song actually derived historically from Catholic chant:

The use of the minor third … seems to be a vocal tradition, still kept up among the English. The Quakers, particularly their women, in public preaching, employ it to an extravagant degree; and, from the incorrigible character of all sectarianism, probably had it in the time of Fox; whose followers may have derived it through the earlier Protestants, from some awkward imitation of chanting, in the Catholic service.

The Philosophy of the Human Voice, p. 539 (1867)

Whether there is any likelihood this account of the origins of the sing-song might be correct, I do not know. It seems at least as likely that chanting while modulating the voice by minor thirds has some sort of innate or natural basis. This was, in fact, suggested by Robert de Valcourt, a contemporary of Rush:

The Quakers, Methodists, &c., in their religious exercises, run into a sing-song monotony, changing the pitch by minor thirds. This is, probably, the simplest and rudest form of chanting; and seems to be the spontaneous expression of certain kinds of excitement or fervor of feeling.

The Illustrated Manners Book, p. 177 (1855)

The actual word sing-song as a name for Quaker intoned preaching does not appear in writing, as far as I have been able to discover, until well into the 19th century. Most early uses of this term are by former Quakers or non-Quakers, and often seem to carry a disrespectful or even derogatory tone:

Samuel Hanson Cox

 Some of the most ignorant simpletons in civilized society get inspired to preach among them; and “shear [sic] nonsense” indeed do they deliver : while tremulous gesticulation, groaning, drawling, whining, grimace, and most unearthly tunes of vocal sing-song, are the relief, and the accompaniment, and the compensation.

Samuel Hanson Cox, Quakerism not Christianity,  p. 604 (1833)

Cox was a former Quaker who became a Presbyterian minister. He was well-known as an orator, and was a leading abolitionist.

I did listen with surprise to a short, but energetic exhortation, in good language and devoid of the ordinary whine and sing-song accompaniments; though still characterised by the intermittent and passionate style of delivery common to all the Quaker-preachers male and female, whom I had heard before.

The Quakers’ Carnival in Dublin, The Metropolitan vol. 1, p. 167 (1831)

The author of this last article goes on to describe how the preacher he was describing was held in low regard by her meeting, since her unintoned ministry seemed too well thought-out to be authentically inspired!

Even when Quakers themselves begin to use the term sing-song in print, in the second half of the 19th century, it is used mainly in a critical or even mocking fashion:

At present, we are not, at our school, initiated into the mysteries of do, re me, &c.; so I cannot in the text give any idea of this (to me) most revolting sing-song. It is astonishing that persons of fair intellectual attainments, who everywhere else, and at all times beside, speak with a natural tone, and in a simple and unaffected manner, should, the moment they open their lips on the rising-seat ignore all the laws of elocution and common sense.

James Bunker Congdon, Quaker Quiddities, or Friends in Council, p. 41 (1860)

Congdon’s book, consisting of a satirical poem with explanatory notes, was published when he was an undergraduate. He notes in the introduction that he was acting contrary to discipline by not first gaining the approval of the Meeting for Sufferings, but says he is too young to be subject to disownment.

Elizabeth Coale

Elizabeth Coale was an elder in Benjaminville Monthly Meeting, near Bloomington, Illinois

The local meeting has six or seven preachers. Some of these were gifted (?) in a remarkable degree with the old-time sing-song of the Quaker ministry, and so intensified that the words were often drowned in the music (?) so that their sound and meaning were obscured to a great extent; but a deep solemnity and earnestness pervaded the assembly…

Elizabeth Coale, ‘A Conservative Yearly Meeting in Iowa’, Friends Intelligencer vol. 63, no. 47, pp. 711–712 (1906)

Coale’s parenthesized question marks make  her opinion of the sing-song clear.

But as the sing-song began to wane, the term also began to be used without apparent negative connotations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it often appears as a sentimental  term expressing nostalgia for disappearing Quaker ways:

Where is gone the dignity that marked the “Friends’ Meetings” of other days? The thoughtful silence, the long patience, the gentleness, the solemnity, the pauses? …No matter what was said or done, there was refreshment in what was left undone and unsaid; the speeches might be dull, but the silence worked conviction. The Spirit might not seem effectual when it moved, but it was heavenly when it restrained. Does it restrain now?  Not a bit of it… In the older speakers, together with some of the Quaker sing-song, there linger something of the old Quaker simplicity.  …More often [younger speakers] stand up, eager and unabashed, to “testify,” without an apparent struggle.

T.W.H., ‘Quaker Revivals’, The Index, vol. 4, no. 185, p. 272 (1873)

Nowadays, it seems to me, Friends mostly take “sing-song” as a completely neutral name for this bygone practice, devoid of any derogatory overtones.

If the specific word sing-song did not come into use among Friends until the 19th century, when did the actual practice of intoned preaching begin? Certainly much earlier, but the few statements I can find by historians are rather vague: “In the 18th century” (B.P. Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction),  “By the nineteenth century” (Thomas Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism).

The earliest explicit reference to Quaker chanting I have found is in a 1736 French book surveying religions of the world:

But the spirit does not always dictate sermons, or exhortations: sometimes it inspires prayers to the Quakers, other times it inspires them to chant. During the discourse, the prayer, or the exhortation of the faithful one whom the spirit has seized, the other faithful pray silently, examine themselves, sighing, apply to themselves what they hear, also become restless in interior combat of the spirit against the passions, & the efforts that Satan, they say, makes only too often to remain in them. It is during these agitations, and these combats, that a trembling takes the faithful one: and it has even happened, Croesius tells us (a) that the trembling was so universal in the assembly that one would have said there was an earthquake in the place, where they were assembled. It still happens, & even (b) more than one time, that the assembly disperses without anyone there having preached or exhorted, but then they do not pray inwardly any less. I have spoken of the singing of these Quakers, but one must not imagine that it resembles ours. It is a kind of buzzing, worthy of the spiritual slumber of the sect.

Bernard Picard, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde vol. 4, p. 132 (my translation)

One cannot say with certainty, of course, that the chanting described here was the same as the sing-song of the 19th century, but it seems quite likely that chanted ministry was in continuous use in the interval, and that 19th century sing-song developed by stages from the kind of chanting described by Picard.

New blog

30th of 12th mo., 2010

I’d like to let readers know about a new blog I have started, Some Interesting Word and Phrase Frequency Graphs, also hosted here at WordPress. The title pretty much says all there is to know about the content: I’m just posting word and phrase frequency graphs that I found interesting, generated by Google Books N-gram Viewer, with very brief commentary. No particular connection to Quakerism, but perhaps those with a more general interest in linguistic, literary and cultural trends will find them entertaining.

Frequency of Light, Part 2

18th of 12th mo., 2010

In my last post, I charted the relative frequency of various Quaker terms for God’s inward presence (inner lightthat of God in everyone, etc.) decade by decade for the period 1650–1940, using the Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection as a corpus.  I found some interesting patterns, but the results were still unsatisfying in several respects. Although the DQC appears to be the largest Quaker-themed linguistic corpus available in electronic form, it is still so small that it cannot be considered as providing a reliable sample of Quaker literature for each of the decades in this period — indeed, for some decades it contains no works at all. In addition, it stops well short of the present time, and therefore does not allow us to chart recent trends.

For the present post I decided to try to address these concerns by checking the same set of terms against a larger corpus, namely Google Books.

Google Books presents its own set of challenges and drawbacks for this kind of work. Perhaps most importantly, it provides no practical way to limit one’s search to “Quaker literature” — texts by Quaker authors dealing with Quaker topics. Since I was trying to uncover historical trends in Quaker religious terminology, it was important to me not to chart the relative frequency of my search terms in Google Books as a whole, but against something approximating the body of Quaker literature for each decade.

I dealt with this problem in an admittedly crude way: I limited my searches to works containing at least one occurrence of the word Quaker in addition to whatever my main search term was. To gauge frequency, I divided the totals by the number of results for the single word Quaker without any other search terms.

Of course searching on the single word “Quaker” returns not just Quaker literature in the usual sense, but also anti-Quaker literature, literature on the Quaker Oats Company, on Quaker parakeets, etc. — but as long as the proportion of irrelevant literature does not vary drastically from decade to decade, this should not affect our results too badly.

To give a sense of our sample size, here is a graph showing the number of results for the single word Quaker, decade by decade for the period 1650–2009:

Works containing 'Quaker' in Google Books

Works containing ‘Quaker’ in Google Books (Click to enlarge)

As in my earlier searches of the DQC, the figures here represent the number of works in each decade that contain at least one occurrence of the search term — not actual word frequencies.

As you can see, there is enormous growth in our sample size over the period covered. For the 1650s, Google Books contains just 111 works containing the word  Quaker; for the 2000s, it contains some 237,000.

Now, how many of these works contain “Light”-based terminology for God’s inward presence? As in my earlier post using the DQC, I ran searches on the phrases inward lightinner lightlight within, and light of Christ, as well as the single word light. Here are the results:

Frequency of 'Light' metaphors

Frequency of ‘Light’ metaphors (Click to enlarge)

The main surprise here was the big spike in the 1710s. I have no idea what caused this, and am not even sure that it isn’t just a glitch caused by Google’s algorithm for estimating result totals rather than a real increase in frequency. Another slight surprise is that the totals for the single word light are significantly lower than in the DQC. There, 100% of the works for several decades contained at least one occurrence of this word, and no decade showed less than 60%. But in Google Books, none of the totals even reach 40%, and few even exceed 15%.

In other respects, the results here replicate those we found earlier. In the early decades, light of Christ and light within are much more frequent than inward light or inner light. Far from being the most standard of these terms in the early decades, inward light doesn’t reach its peak frequency of just 2% until the 1840s — the same decade in which inner light first breaks 1%. Inner light has shown steady growth ever since, disconfirming my initial impression that its popularity had peaked in the early 20th century.

A popular metaphor in early Quakerism was the “Seed.” As I reported in my earlier post using the DQC, I found it problematic to automate a way of distinguishing this use of the word seed from other uses; but for the sake of comparison across the two corpora, here are the results from Google Books:

Frequency of

Frequency of “Seed” metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Don’t look for the “seed of Christ” curve on this graph — this phrase never reached 1% during the entire period, so the curve is a flat line at zero. The single word seed also turned out to be much less frequent here than in the DQC, never returning to its peak of just 7% in the 1650s. (In the DQC, it reached 100% for several decades, and never dropped below 50%.)

Next I looked at “Spirit”-based terms:

Frequency of

Frequency of “Spirit”-based metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Here again the percentages are quite a bit lower than in the DQC. As with “Light” there is an odd spike in the 1710s, but otherwise few real surprises. It is interesting to note the upturn in all these terms over the last decade or so.

My last set of terms includes that of God, that of God in everyone, and that of God in every man:

Frequency of

Frequency of “that of God” metaphors (Click to enlarge)

The surprise for me was how infrequent all of these terms are — none of them ever even breaking 3%! The general pattern is similar to that in the DQC, however: popularity in the early decades and again in recent decades, with a lull in the middle. That of God in every man peaked in the 1950s but has been on the decline ever since, no doubt as Friends have become more sensitive to the sexism this wording implies.

Addendum, 12/19/2010: By coincidence, I posted all this just days after the release of Google Books’ N-gram Viewer, which allows one to graph word and phrase frequency against time in Google Books. There has been a great deal of publicity and Internet chatter surrounding this release and the simultaneous publication in Science of Michel et al.’s article ‘Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books‘, which promotes the use of N-gram Viewer to analyze linguistic, literary and cultural trends — so I should perhaps make clear that I was not using N-gram Viewer, but just the ordinary search function in Google Books.

But as an afterthought, here is an actual frequency graph for our “Light”-based terms generated by N-gram Viewer:

Another addendum (2015): WordPress seems to have disabled the display of Google N-Gram Viewer charts on its pages. I will try to find a way to make them display properly, but please bear with me.
N-gram frequency for

N-gram frequency for “Light”-based metaphors


Unlike our earlier graphs, this one represents actual frequency of these phrases, rather than the percentage of works that contain at least one occurrence of a given phrase.  Frequency is relative to Google Books as a whole by year. As before, we see that in the early years of Quakerism, light within and light of Christ were by far more frequent than inward light or inner light.

Through most of this graph, the curves are all so low that it is hard to see what is really going on, so let’s focus in on some shorter periods. Here is the period 1750–1765:

N-gram frequency for

N-gram frequency for “Light” metaphors, 1750–1765

What I found interesting here is the sudden spike for inward light in 1754, followed by a sudden spike for light within in 1761. It would be interesting to investigate the reasons for these spikes — was the second one in any sense a reaction to the first?

Now here is a chart for 1820–1950:

N-gram frequency of

N-gram frequency of “Light” metaphors, 1820–1950


This shows a huge spike for light within and light of Christ around 1830, presumably as part of the heated debate following the Hicksite separation. What is more interesting to me is that inner light reaches detectable frequency about the same time, and rises more-or-less steadily throughout the period, overtaking inward light about 1885.

Google’s N-gram Viewer is a great tool — not without its problems and limitations, as many people have emphasized, but still extremely useful for doing the kind of work this blog is all about.

Frequency of Light, Part 1

22nd of 11nd mo., 2010

Probably no religious concept is more closely associated with Quakerism than that of the “Light” — a manifestation of God within all people, which shows us our true spiritual condition and guides our path into doing what is right.

Friends have used a variety of phrases based on this metaphor of a spiritual Light: the Inward Light, the Inner Light, the Light Within, the Light of Christ, the Light of Christ Within, and others, including simply the Light — this last probably being the most common.

But it should also be noted that a wide variety of phrases have been in common use for this Divine inward presence which do not appeal to the metaphor of Light: the Seed, that of God in everyone, the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, and simply Christ, among many others.

It is natural to wonder to what extent these terms have waxed and waned in popularity — whether Light metaphors have been more popular at certain times in Quaker history, for example. My guess, based on nothing more than impressions and intuitions from reading Quaker literature from different periods, was that Light metaphors were extremely common in early Quakerism, but became somewhat scarcer in the 18th and early 19th centuries, before being revived again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More recently, it seemed to me, Light  metaphors have again gone into decline, with modern Friends much more likely to use phrases like the Spirit or that of God than the Light or anything similar.

But personal impressions can be wrong, so I thought I would try to take a closer look and see how well my guesses might stand up to scrutiny. To test this, I decided to take some actual counts of how frequently Friends at various times used these terms.

The largest Quaker-focused linguistic corpus available in electronic format seems to be the Digital Quaker Collection at the Earlham School of Religion, so I took my counts from that. The DQC includes approximately 500 works from the period 1650–1940, though rather unevenly distributed over that time span.

Unfortunately, the DQC’s search capabilities are not as powerful as one might hope in doing this kind of work, and it is not possible to obtain individual word frequencies without doing a lot of tedious hand-counting and arithmetic. However, the DQC does make it quite easy to count the number of works published during a given period which contain at least one occurrence of a given search term, so that is what I did.

The blue region in the following graph shows the total number of works in the DQC for each decade in the period covered. The high peaks in the 1720s, 1780s and 1830s correspond to the publication of the collected works of William Penn, Isaac Penington, and George Fox, respectively. Since these were anthologies of previously published material, the original publication dates were obviously earlier than what is shown on the graph. The DQC includes several additional anthologies and republications which do not produce such noticeable peaks in the graph, but which complicate the interpretation of the dates in the same way.

The purple region shows the number of works that contain at least one occurrence of the word light. Obviously, the vast majority of all works at all time periods contain at least one occurrence of this word — which does not support my initial intuition that “Light” -based metaphors declined and then were revived.

"Light"vs. totals

Works with "Light"vs. totals (Click to enlarge)

It should be remembered that this graph shows all occurrences of the word light, including occurrences as a noun in its ordinary secular sense, as an adjective meaning “not heavy,” etc. Since light is a pretty common word, it is not very surprising that a large number of texts contain it, no matter how frequently it may have occurred in religious metaphors.

Perhaps we could find better evidence of historical change if we counted specific phrases like Inward Light, Inner Light, Light Within, Light of Christ, etc. Here is a graph comparing how many works contain each of these terms, again decade-by-decade:

graph comparing use of "Light" phrases across time

Works containing "Light" phrases (Click to enlarge)

And here is one showing the same data, but presented in terms of what percentage of works from each decade contained at least one occurrence of each of the phrases under consideration:

Percentage of works with "Light" metaphors

Percentage of works with "Light" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

These graphs show a few surprises, at least for me. Contrary to what I expected, there seems to have been a pretty steady use of Light metaphors all through this period, with no noticeable decline during the middle period.

I was also surprised to find a couple of very early uses of the phrase Inner Light. A few years ago, on the old Quaker-L email discussion list, some participants claimed repeatedly that early Friends never used this phrase, but only Inward Light — this choice was supposed to have some theological significance, so that the “modern” phrase Inner Light should be considered a distortion of the original idea. At the time, I argued against this view based on historical changes in the meaning of the word inward, but took for granted that they were correct in claiming the phrase Inner Light was modern. In fact, it turns out that this phrase dates back almost to the beginning of the Quaker movement. The earliest attestation I have found is in Samuel Fisher’s Rusticus ad Academicos, first published in 1660. (It shows in the graph as published in the 1670’s because the version in the DQC is from Fisher’s collected works, Testimony of Truth Exalted by the Collected Labours of that Worthy Man, Good Scribe, and Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, Samuel Fisher, published in 1679.) Here is one of several occurrences of Inner Light in Fisher’s book:

And seeing God is the Sole immediate Author of the Light and Spirit within, which is not alterable, flexible, &c. at the wills of Criticks, as thou confessest the Hebrew Text is, and as he is not of the Letter, which is both Copied Canonized and Authorized (as ye have it) by men only as the Rule, if it follow (as secundum Te it doth, not Me ) ab Authore remoto from the remote Author of it God, from whom nothing imperfect can come, that the Letter is the only perfect Rule and Revelation of Gods will, will it not much more forcibly follow from Gods being the only and immediate Author of the Inner Light and Spirit, that they are the only sufficient Rule, and make a perfect Revelation of his will to the ends and purposes aforesaid?

p. 475

Of course it should be recognized that even if this term occurs very early, it did not become commonplace until much later. But — and this was another surprise for me — neither did the term Inward Light. Both these terms occur much less frequently than either Light Within or Light of Christ until well into the 19th century.

What about terms for God’s inward presence which do not appeal to metaphors of light?

The first of these I looked at was Seed, shown in the following two graphs:

Works with "Seed" metaphors

Works with "Seed" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Percentage of works with "Seed" metaphors

Percentage of works with "Seed" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Seed turned out to be quite a  common word in the DQC, with percentages reaching 100% in several decades; but on closer inspection, this included a large number of examples in which this word was used for something other than God’s inward presence in the spirit — mostly other religious usages (e.g. “seed of Abraham,” etc.), but with a few occurrences in the ordinary secular sense as well.

I thought I might better isolate the kinds of examples I was looking for by searching under “seed of Christ,” but as you can see in the graphs, this barely produced a blip — and even some of these turned out to mean something different, as in “I am clothed with a little strength, both to visit the seed of Christ , and to minister to it” (Memoirs of the life and gospel labors of Stephen Grellet, vol. 1, p. 173). It seems pretty clear that simple word searches will not give an accurate picture of the frequency of the “Seed” metaphor for God’s inward presence; perhaps someone with more patience or cleverness than I will come up with a more informative count.

Next, I looked at “Spirit” terms: Spirit of Christ, Holy Spirit, and Holy Ghost. All three of these turned out to be very frequent throughout the whole period, as the following two graphs show:

Works with "Spirit" metaphors

Works with "Spirit" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Percentage of works with "Spirit" metaphors

Percentage of works with "Spirit" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Finally, I looked at the phrases that of God, that of God in everyone (including examples where everyone was spelled as two words, as was common in the 17th century), and that of God in every man:

Works with "That of God" metaphors

Works with "That of God" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

Percentage of works with "That of God" metaphors

Percentage of works with "That of God" metaphors (Click to enlarge)

It is worth paying attention to the difference in these graphs between that of God and that of God in everyone/every man. It is easy to get the impression from the graphs that that of God was in continuous use as a term for God’s inward presence throughout the period shown (albeit less frequently in the middle period). However, a closer inspection showed that many of these examples were spurious for our present purposes, as in “There is no saving power but that of God” (Memoirs of Samuel M. Janney, p. 145). If we focus on the longer phrases that of God in everyone/every man, it appears that this kind of terminology was popular in the early years of the Quaker movement, then became extremely rare until the early 20th century (aside from the publication of Fox’s collected works).

I wouldn’t draw very firm conclusions about frequency from any of the data I’ve presented in this post. As I mentioned at the beginning, works in the DQC are very unevenly distributed in time. The small sample size for some decades produces big swings in the percentage graphs that probably do not represent real trends. There are several decades, including the 1730s, 1740s and 1920s, for which the DQC does not contain any works at all.

In a future post, I hope to examine whether clearer patterns emerge from in a larger corpus, such as Google Books.