Meanings “Clerk”

October 19, 2012

I’m at a meeting of the Quaker United Nations Committee (QUNC), the committee that oversees the work of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO).  QUNO is an organization, jointly sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), to advance Quaker hopes and concerns before the United Nations. The committee, in good Quaker ways, doesn’t have a “chairperson” but rather a “clerk.” (Actually, in good Quaker ways, it has co-clerks.)

“Clerk?” There’s an interesting word. It has Greek roots, but also an unusual, complex passage into English. (The entry is below.)  On the one hand, the word is allied with “clergy” and “cleric” — religious vocations — by way of shared origin.  But the source word in Greek means “lot”or “inheritance.”  The connection? Apparently this: that those who take on religious vocations are those inheritance is nothing temporal, but rather the Lord.  The connection, then, to “clerical” arises because of a time when only the clergy could read and write.

So how does the Quaker use of “clerk” arise?  I have no idea. Being a clerk in a Quaker setting goes well beyond the merely clerical, although it does involve formulating and recording the minutes that are state the decisions of meetings.  And the work of a “clerk” does have some of the characteristics of a religious vocation in that the central work of a “clerk” is discerning the will of God as it emerges in in Quaker business meeting held in a spirit of worship where individuals speak only when they feel moved to speak by divine leadings.

clerk (n.) Look up clerk at
O.E. clerc, from L.L. clericus “a priest,” from Gk. klerikos (adj.) in church jargon “of the clergy,” derived from kleros “lot, inheritance” (originally “a shard or wood chip used in casting lots,” related to klan “to break;” see holt), used by early Greek Christians for matters relating to ministry based on Deut. xviii:2 reference to Levites as temple assistants: “Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brethren: the Lord is their inheritance,” kleros being used as a translation of Heb. nahalah “inheritance, lot.” If the word choice was meant to remind clerics of anything, however, the reminder was lost with the knowledge of ancient Greek. Or else it is from the use of the word in Acts i:17. Modern bureaucratic usage is from c.1500, a reminder of the dark ages when clergy alone could read and write. Related: Clerkship.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to Meanings “Clerk”

  1. Tom Smith says:

    It has been my understanding that the derivation of Clerk comes from the English context of a “secretary,” that is one who transcribes the words/actions of an individual or group. In Friends usage this meant transcribing the “leadings of the Spirit” in the words/action of a “Meeting.” However, the Clerk was usually chosen after much experience in “listening” to the individual, group, and Spirit. Thus the “transcribing” rather than just “reporting.”

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