Quaker Testimonies

One of the more rev­o­lu­tion­ary trans­for­ma­tions of Amer­i­can Quak­erism in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry has been our under­stand­ing of the tes­ti­monies. In online dis­cus­sions I find that many Friends think the “SPICE” tes­ti­monies date back from time immemo­r­i­al. Not only are they rel­a­tive­ly new, they’re a dif­fer­ent sort of crea­ture from their predecessors.

In the last fifty years it’s become dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate Quak­er tes­ti­monies from ques­tions of mem­ber­ship. Both were dra­mat­i­cal­ly rein­vent­ed by a newly-minted class of lib­er­al Friends in the ear­ly part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and then cod­i­fied by Howard Brinton’s land­mark Friends for 300 Years, pub­lished in the ear­ly 1950s.

Comfort and the Test of Membership

Brin­ton comes right out and says that the test for mem­ber­ship shouldn’t involve issues of faith or of prac­tice but should be based on whether one feels com­fort­able with the oth­er mem­bers of the Meet­ing. This con­cep­tion of mem­ber­ship has grad­u­al­ly become dom­i­nant among lib­er­al Friends in the half cen­tu­ry since this book was pub­lished. The trou­ble with it is twofold. The first is that “com­fort” is not nec­es­sar­i­ly what God has in mind for us. If the frequently-jailed first gen­er­a­tion of Friends had used Brinton’s mod­el there would be no Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends to talk about (we’d be lost in the his­tor­i­cal foot­notes with the Mug­gle­to­ni­ans, Grindle­to­ni­ans and the like). One of the clas­sic tests for dis­cern­ment is whether an pro­posed action is con­trary to self-will. Com­fort is not our Society’s calling.

The sec­ond prob­lem is that com­fort­a­bil­i­ty comes from fit­ting in with a cer­tain kind of style, class, col­or and atti­tude. It’s fine to want com­fort in our Meet­ings but when we make it the pri­ma­ry test for mem­ber­ship, it becomes a cloak for eth­nic and cul­tur­al big­otries that keep us from reach­ing out. If you have advanced edu­ca­tion, mild man­ners and lib­er­al pol­i­tics, you’ll fit it at most East Coast Quak­er meet­ings. If you’re too loud or too eth­nic or speak with a work­ing class accent you’ll like­ly feel out of place. Samuel Cald­well gave a great talk about the dif­fer­ence between Quak­er cul­ture and Quak­er faith and I’ve pro­posed a tongue-in-cheek tes­ti­mo­ny against com­mu­ni­ty as way of open­ing up discussion.

The Feel Good Testimonies

Friends for 300 Years also rein­vent­ed the Tes­ti­monies. They had been spe­cif­ic and often pro­scrip­tive: against gam­bling, against par­tic­i­pa­tion in war. But the new tes­ti­monies became vague feel-good char­ac­ter traits – the now-famous SPICE tes­ti­monies of sim­plic­i­ty, peace, integri­ty, com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty. Who isn’t in favor of all those val­ues? A pres­i­dent tak­ing us to war will tell us it’s the right thing to do (integri­ty) to con­truct last­ing peace (peace) so we can bring free­dom to an oppressed coun­try (equal­i­ty) and cre­ate a stronger sense of nation­al pride (com­mu­ni­ty) here at home.

We mod­ern Friends (lib­er­al ones at least) were real­ly trans­formed by the redefin­tions of mem­ber­ship and the tes­ti­monies that took place mid-century. I find it sad that a lot of Friends think our cur­rent tes­ti­monies are the ancient ones. I think an aware­ness of how Friends han­dled these issues in the 300 years before Brin­ton would help us nav­i­gate a way out of the “eth­i­cal soci­ety” we have become by default.

The Source of our Testimonies

A quest for uni­ty was behind the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the tes­ti­monies. The main accom­plish­ment of East Coast Quak­erism in the mid-twentieth cen­tu­ry was the reunit­ing of many of the year­ly meet­ings that had been torn apart by schisms start­ing in 1827. By end of that cen­tu­ry Friends were divid­ed across a half dozen major the­o­log­i­cal strains man­i­fest­ed in a patch­work of insti­tu­tion­al divi­sions. One way out of this morass was to present the tes­ti­monies as our core uni­fy­ing prici­ples. But you can only do that if you divorce them from their source.

As Chris­tians (even as post-Christians), our core com­mand­ment is sim­ple: to love God with all our heart and to love our neigh­bor as ourselves:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great com­mand­ment. And the sec­ond is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neigh­bour as thy­self. On these two com­mand­ments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37 – 40 and Mark 12:30 – 31, Luke 10:27.

The Quak­er tes­ti­monies also hang on these com­mand­ments: they are our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. While they are in con­tant flux, they refer back to 350 years of expe­ri­ence. These are the truths we can tes­ti­fy to as a peo­ple, ways of liv­ing that we have learned from our direct expe­ri­ence of the Holy Spir­it. They are intri­cate­ly tied up with our faith and with how we see our­selves fol­low­ing through on our charge, our covenant with God.

I’m sure that Howard Brin­ton didn’t intend to sep­a­rate the tes­ti­monies from faith, but he chose his new catagories in such a way that they would appeal to a mod­ern lib­er­al audi­ence. By pop­u­lar­iz­ing them he made them so acces­si­ble that we think we know them already.

A Tale of Two Testimonies

Take the twin tes­ti­monies of plain­ness and sim­plic­i­ty. First the ancient tes­ti­mo­ny of plain­ness. Here’s the descrip­tion from 1682:

Advised, that all Friends, both old and young, keep out of the world’s cor­rupt lan­guage, man­ners, vain and need­less things and fash­ions, in appar­el, build­ings, and fur­ni­ture of hous­es, some of which are immod­est, inde­cent, and unbe­com­ing. And that they avoid immod­er­a­tion in the use of law­ful things, which though inno­cent in them­selves, may there­by become hurt­ful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are cal­cu­lat­ed more to please a vain and wan­ton mind, than for real use­ful­ness; and let trades­men and oth­ers, mem­bers of our reli­gious soci­ety, be admon­ished, that they be not acces­sary to these evils; for we ought to take up our dai­ly cross, mind­ing the grace of God which brings sal­va­tion, and teach­es to deny all ungod­li­ness and world­ly lusts, and to live sober­ly, right­eous­ly and god­ly, in this present world, that we may adorn the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things; so may we feel his bless­ing, and be instru­men­tal in his hand for the good of others.

Note that there’s noth­ing in there about the length of one’s hem. The key phrase for me is the warn­ing about doing things “cal­cu­lat­ed to please a vain and wan­ton mind.” Friends were being told that pride makes it hard­er to love God and our neigh­bors; immod­er­a­tion makes it hard to hear God’s still small voice; self-sacrifice is nec­es­sary to be an instru­ment of God’s love. This tes­ti­mo­ny is all about our rela­tion­ships with God and with each other.

Most mod­ern Friends have dis­pensed with “plain­ness” and recast the tes­ti­mo­ny as “sim­plic­i­ty.” Ask most Friends about this tes­ti­mo­ny and they’ll start telling you about their clut­tered desks and their annoy­ance with cell­phones. Ask for a reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram on sim­plic­i­ty and you’ll almost cer­tain­ly be assigned a book from the mod­ern vol­un­tary sim­plic­i­ty move­ment, one of those self-help man­u­als that promise inner peace if you plant a gar­den or buy a fuel-efficient car, with “God” absent from the index. While it’s true that most Amer­i­cans (and Friends) would have more time for spir­i­tu­al refresh­ment if they unclut­tered their lives, the sec­u­lar notions of sim­plic­i­ty do not emanate out of a con­cern for “gospel order” or for a “right order­ing” of our lives with God. Vol­un­tary sim­plic­i­ty is great: I’ve pub­lished books on it and I live car-free, use cloth dia­pers, etc. But plain­ness is some­thing dif­fer­ent and it’s that dif­fer­ence that we need to explore again.

Pick just about any of the so-called “SPICE” tes­ti­monies (sim­plic­i­ty, peace, integri­ty, com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty) and you’ll find the mod­ern notions are sec­u­lar­l­ized over-simplications of the Quak­er under­stand­ings. In our quest for uni­ty, we’ve over-stated their importance.

Ear­li­er I men­tioned that many of the ear­li­er tes­ti­monies were pro­scrip­tive – they said cer­tain actions were not in accord with our prin­ci­ples. Take a big one: after many years of dif­fi­cult min­is­ter­ing and soul search­ing Friends were able to say that slav­ery was a sin and that Friends who held slaves were kept from a deep com­mu­nion with God; this is dif­fer­ent than say­ing we believe in equal­i­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, say­ing we’re against all out­ward war is dif­fer­ent than say­ing we’re in favor of peace. While I know some Friends are proud of cast­ing every­thing in pos­ti­tive terms, some­times we need to come out and say a par­tic­u­lar prac­tice is just plain wrong, that it inter­feres with and goes against our rela­tion­ship with God and with our neighbors.

I’ll leave it up to you to start chew­ing over what spe­cif­ic actions we might take a stand against. But know this: if our min­is­ters and meet­ings found that a par­tic­u­lar prac­tice was against our tes­ti­monies, we could be sure that there would be some Friends engaged in it. We would have a long process of min­is­ter­ing with them and labor­ing with them. It would be hard. Feel­ings would be hurt. Peo­ple would go away angry.

After a half-century of lib­er­al indi­vid­u­al­ism, it would be hard to once more affirm that there is some­thing to Quak­erism, that it does have norms and bound­aries. We would need all the love, char­i­ty and patience we could muster. This work would is not easy, espe­cial­ly because it’s work with mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ty, peo­ple we love and hon­or. We would have to fol­low John Woolman’s exam­ple: our first audi­ence would not be Wash­ing­ton pol­i­cy mak­ers instead Friends in our own Society.

Testimonies as Affirmation of the Power

In a world beset by war, greed, pover­ty and hatred, we do need to be able to talk about our val­ues in sec­u­lar terms. An abil­i­ty to talk about paci­fism with our non-Quaker neigh­bors in a smart, informed way is essen­tial (thus my Non​vi​o​lence​.org min­istry [since laid down], cur­rent­ly receiv­ing two mil­lions vis­i­tors a year). When we affirm com­mu­ni­ty and equal­i­ty we are wit­ness­ing to our faith. Friends should be proud of what we’ve con­tributed to the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sions on these topics.

But for all of their con­tem­po­rary cen­tral­i­ty to Quak­erism, the tes­ti­monies are only second-hand out­ward forms. They are not to be wor­shipped in and of them­selves. Mod­ern Friends come dan­ger­ous­ly close to lift­ing up the peace tes­ti­mo­ny as a false idol – the prin­ci­ple we wor­ship over every­thing else. When we get so good at argu­ing the prac­ti­cal­i­ty of paci­fism, we for­get that our tes­ti­mo­ny is first and fore­most our procla­ma­tion that we live in the pow­er that takes away occas­sion for war. When high school math teach­ers start argu­ing over arcane points of nuclear pol­i­cy, play­ing arm­chair diplo­mat with year­ly meet­ing press releas­es to the State Depart­ment, we loose cred­i­bil­i­ty and become some­thing of a joke. But when we min­is­ter to the Pow­er is the Good News we speak with an author­i­ty that can thun­der over pet­ty gov­ern­ments with it’s com­mand to Quake before God.

When we remem­ber the spir­i­tu­al source of our faith, our under­stand­ings of the tes­ti­monies deep­en immea­sur­ably. When we let our actions flow from uncom­pli­cat­ed faith we gain a pow­er and endurance that strength­ens our wit­ness. When we speak of our expe­ri­ence of the Holy Spir­it, our words gain the author­i­ty as oth­ers rec­og­nize the echo of that “still small voice” speak­ing to their hearts. Our love and our wit­ness are sim­ple and uni­ver­sal, as is the good news we share: that to be ful­ly human is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neigh­bors as we do ourselves.

Hal­leluiah: praise be to God!

Reading elsewhere:

  • I just knew I had read this some­where before. 🙂
    I checked your pre­vi­ous arti­cle on “A Tes­ti­mo­ny against Com­mu­ni­ty”. I appre­ci­at­ed your cri­tique of Brinton’s ideas, as allud­ed to in this post. I’d like to read more about this whole issue of the SPICE (girls) tes­ti­monies, since I’m unfa­mil­iar with this issue, in future posts.
    Yours “in the Light” (sor­ry, I couldn’t resist).

  • Liz Oppen­heimer

    I am new­ly returned from trav­el­ing to a Friends Meet­ing in west­ern Wis­con­sin, where I spoke with Friends about Quak­er iden­ti­ty. One Friend men­tioned some­thing about his process in becom­ing a mem­ber, and I was grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to respond to his com­ment. My response was this:
    Orig­i­nal­ly, when there was no process for becom­ing a mem­ber of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, a Quak­er was rec­og­nized by her or his out­ward behav­ior that was an exten­sion of her or his *inward* trans­for­ma­tion. As I under­stand it, evi­dence of such inward trans­for­ma­tion – along the lines of expe­ri­enc­ing the Liv­ing Pres­ence inward­ly and direct­ly, such as in Fox’s his­toric excla­ma­tion – was all that was need­ed to be rec­og­nized as a Friend. (Hat hon­or and plain speech are read­i­ly point­ed to as such con­se­quen­tial out­ward behav­iors – and David Fer­ris makes men­tion of this in his journal/memoir, “Resis­tance & Obe­di­ence to God”:http://​www​.quaker​books​.org/​g​e​t/1 – 888305-66 – 5, edit­ed by Mar­ty Grundy. )
    Among my con­cerns these days is that there is dan­ger of dilut­ing our faith tra­di­tion when our clear­ness com­mit­tees for mem­ber­ship focus on out­ward behav­ior and adher­ence to the tes­ti­monies with­out an explo­ration of inward trans­for­ma­tion and an expe­ri­en­tial seeking/knowing of the Divine. Sim­i­lar­ly, I can no longer expect a liv­ing, rich Quak­erism to be passed on when it appears that more fre­quent­ly than not, we share of our faith, prin­ci­ples, and his­to­ry pri­mar­i­ly dur­ing the clear­ness process – too late for high school­ers and young adults who are exposed to many oth­er excit­ing things…
    One expect­ed plea­sure I have encoun­tered, though, has been in pre­sid­ing over com­mit­tee meet­ings as a clerk. Dur­ing com­mit­tee meet­ings, I find teach­able moments when I can explain con­cepts and prac­tices such as “spir­i­tu­al dis­cern­ment,” “test­ing,” “sea­son­ing,” and “good (Gospel) order.” I expe­ri­ence more Friends being more open to ask­ing ques­tions about our cor­po­rate Quak­erism, which gives me some hope.
    Thanks again for shar­ing your thoughts so open­ly, Martin.

  • Hi Liz,
    Yes­ter­day was the gospel order/authority/membership/structure ses­sion for the “Quak­erism 101”:http://​www​.non​vi​o​lence​.org/​m​a​r​t​i​n​k​/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​0​0​0​4​1​8​.​php course at Med­ford MM (five ses­sions down, one to go!). I divid­ed the par­tic­i­pants into four groups, each of which explored an assigned page or two from Mar­ty Grundy’s “Quak­er Trea­sure”:http://​www​.quaker​books​.org/​g​e​t​/11 – 99-01006 – 5 or Paul Lacey’s “The Author­i­ty of Our Meet­ings”:http://​www​.quaker​books​.org/​g​e​t​/11 – 99-01066 – 9. One of the groups picked up on a line from page 24 of Quak­er Trea­sure: “Friends seem to have devel­oped a some­what casu­al con­cept of their rela­tion­ship to the meet­ing.” One (noto­ri­ous­ly vocal) Friend said he thought all the Quak­er rules on behav­ior and mem­ber­ship seemed arbi­trary and were jus­ti­fied only by his­to­ry. I don’t agree but I can cer­tain­ly con­cede his point: we’re often so ner­vous about talk­ing about our the­ol­o­gy that we do end up try­ing to jus­ti­fy our prac­tices by the pas­sage of time.
    Clear­ness process­es can be great but you’re right that they’re so incom­plete. When I was still active­ly involved in my meet­ing I felt led to start home vis­i­ta­tions. I only did one, and it was a restau­rant lunch vis­i­ta­tion, but it was a time where I con­scious­ly asked an active atten­der to share a meal where we could talk about spir­i­tu­al jour­neys. It was real­ly nice and not long after­ward he applied for membership.
    You’re right that it would also be great if those high school­ers and young adults were exposed to “some­thing excit­ing that was also Quak­er”:http://​www​.non​vi​o​lence​.org/​q​u​a​k​e​r​/​s​t​r​a​n​g​ers.

  • Har­ri­et

    I won­der what would hap­pen if Quak­ers, for instance, refused to address any­one by a title like “Pro­fes­sor So-and-so” or “Doc­tor” at least in the case of non-medical doc­tors. The hier­ar­chy in acad­e­mia, where peo­ple build up egos based on intel­lec­tu­al knowl­edge and then expect every­one else to slather but­ter on the egos they’ve cre­at­ed, is quite ugly. It is as arti­fi­cial as wealth or noble birth (and gen­er­al­ly the result of both), and the hon­or of a diplo­ma or degree is cer­tain­ly bestowed by man, not God.

  • K D Roberts

    nev­er read this until today, bud.

    i agree.


    • Thanks KD, always nice to be affirmed. I’m actu­al­ly pon­der­ing a piece on integri­ty as a foun­da­tion­al val­ue to the tes­ti­monies. We’ll see if I write it.