Quakers as “Publishers of Truth”

Early friends called themselves many things. One of the labels that they gave to themselves was “publishers of truth”. They meant that in the most basic form of making truth public.

It could mean being what was called in the 17th century a “public friends, ” one who was led to preach, to public ministry, to declare the word of the lord anywhere they could find an audience.

I’m am tom hamm. I am a resident of richmond, indiana, a member of west richmond friends meeting in the new association of friends and I am professor of history and director of special collections at earlham college.

The quaker movement arose in the 1640s and the 1650s when controls on the press in england had been abolished so it was fairly easy to get into print.

Many different religious groups, many religious leaders and would-be leaders took advantage of that situation to publish the truth as they perceived it, and so you had hundreds, thousands of pamphlets appearing every year.

Friends knew that they were competing with other religious groups for attention and in order to compete effectively in that religious marketplace, they knew they had to get into print.

And so they did, turning our dozens of pamphlets and books every year beginning in 1653. We are fortunate that one of the rules that early friends set for themselves was that they would collect two copies of every quaker publication that was issued and one copy of every anti-quaker publication that was issued and bring them together in london.

That of course was the basis for the world’s largest collection of quaker literature that you would find at the friends library in london now. Those two forms of publishing truth—through the vocal word and through the printed or written word—have continued to be true of friends right down to the present day.

What we’ve seen of course in the last twenty years or so is a revolution in how publication takes place. I think that the line between the vocal word and the written word is becoming increasingly mushy almost every day.

But certainly I think that with the advent of the internet and the world wide web we’ve seen the greatest revolution in the quaker publication of truth in 350 years. Certainly there are traditionalist technophobes like myself who are always going to prefer to have things on paper but we have to accept that if friends are to remain a presence publishing truth in the world, that’s going to have to be done digitally as well..

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