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 the 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 Nonviolence.org ministry, 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!
- James Healton has a great piece on the testimonies over on Quakerinfo.com. The One Testimony That Binds Them All Together talks about Christ’s role in the testimonies. (Be sure to check out Quakerinfo’s list of testimony resources.