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:

Visit with Christian Friends Conference & New Foundation Fellowship

In late Jan­u­ary 2004, I went to a gath­er­ing on “Quak­er Faith and Prac­tice: The Wit­ness of Our Lives and Words,” co-sponsored by the Chris­t­ian Friends Con­fer­ence and the New Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship. Here are some thoughts about the meeting.

Con­tin­ue read­ing

What makes a Quaker meeting house?

An Atlantic County Methodist Episcopal Meetinghouse. Picture from NJChurschape
An Atlantic Coun­ty Methodist Epis­co­pal Meet­ing­house. Pic­ture from NJChurschape

One of my favorite sites is the amaz­ing NJChurch​scape​.com—that’s New Jer­sey Church­scapes, put togeth­er large­ly through the efforts of Frank L. Greenagel. It’s a true labor of love, a cat­a­loging of church and meet­ing archi­tec­ture in New Jer­sey. It has beau­ti­ful pho­tos, great sto­ries, read­able essays on archi­tec­ture. In a state where every­thing below Cher­ry Hill often gets ignored, South Jer­sey gets good cov­er­age and there’s a lot from the old Quak­er colony of West Jer­sey. This month’s fea­ture is on the meet­ing­house, a build­ing of endear­ing sim­plic­i­ty and it rais­es a lot of ques­tions for me of how we relate to our church buildings.

We modern-day Friends tend to think of the term meet­ing­house as unique­ly ours, but go back in his­to­ry and you’ll find just about every­one using the term to describe the non-showy build­ings they erect­ed for reli­gious ser­vices and town life. Dri­ve around South Jer­sey and you’ll see old Methodist church­es that start­ed out life as meet­ing­hous­es and look sur­pris­ing­ly Quak­er. Greenagel looks at the style and then asks:

At what point does a struc­ture cease being a meet­ing­house and become a church?.. With the ris­ing afflu­ence and increased mobil­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion came a demand for more spe­cial­ized places to meet, as well as more of the basic com­forts and style which hereto­fore were dis­missed as too world­ly, so many church­es added small­er lec­ture rooms, class­rooms for Sun­day school, and oth­er assem­bly rooms dis­tinct from the main auditorium.

By this mea­sure, how many of our beloved East Coast Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es should real­ly just be called “church­es?” In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the Protes­tant “Sun­day School Move­ment” was picked up by Gur­neyite and Pro­gres­sive Hick­site Friends, with the class­es sim­ply renamed “First Day School” in def­er­ence to Quak­er sen­si­bil­i­ties (I’ve always won­dered if the name switch actu­al­ly fooled any­one, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry). By the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the new mod­ern lib­er­al Friends had picked up the lec­ture for­mat, which like the First Day School move­ment had been adopt­ed from edu­ca­tion­al mod­els via oth­er reli­gious groups. Many of our larg­er month­ly meet­ings have fel­low­ship halls, class­rooms, kitchens, etc. These build­ings have become spe­cial­ized reli­gious wor­ship build­ings and many of them sit emp­ty for most of the week. But not all.

Nowa­days many Quak­er meet­ings with build­ings open them mid-week for use by com­mu­ni­ty groups. Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es host peace groups, bat­tered women hot­lines, yoga class­es, reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions in need of a tem­po­rary home and sim­i­lar caus­es. There’s often an ele­ment of good works in the group’s charter.

Per­haps this will­ing­ness to open our build­ings up earns us the right to con­tin­ue using the meet­ing­house name. If so, we should be care­ful to resist the pres­sure of the insur­ance indus­try to close our­selves up in the name of lia­bil­i­ty. One unique­ness to our wor­ship spaces is that they are not con­se­crat­ed and there should be no spe­cial rules for their use. They are over­sized barns and we should cher­ish that. We should remem­ber not to get fetishis­tic about their his­to­ry and we shouldn’t tie up our busi­ness meet­ings in end­less dis­cus­sions over the col­or of the new seat cush­ions. When we turn our build­ings over for oth­ers’ use, we shouldn’t wor­ry over­ly much if a chair or clock gets damanged or stolen. Friends know that our reli­gion is not our build­ings and that the mea­sure of our spir­it is sim­ply how far we’ll fol­low God, togeth­er as a people.

Related Reading:

  • There’s a very hand­some book about the HABS work on Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es in the greater Philadel­phia area called Silent Wit­ness: Quak­er Meet­ing Hous­es In The Delaware Val­ley, 1695 To The Present. (only $10!).
  • My friend Bob Bar­nett has been putting a lot of great work into a new West Jer­sey website.

My Experiments with Plainness

[See also: Resources on Quak­er Plain­ness]

This was a post I sent to the “Pearl” email list, which con­sists of mem­bers of the 2002 FGC Gath­er­ing work­shop led by Lloyd Lee Wil­son of North Car­oli­na Year­ly Meet­ing (Con­ser­v­a­tive). Eighth Month 20, 2002

 

I thought I’d share some of my jour­ney in plain-ness since Gath­er­ing. There’s two parts to plain dress: sim­plic­i­ty and plain-ness.

The most impor­tant part of the sim­plic­i­ty work has been sim­pli­fy­ing my wardrobe. It’s incred­i­ble how many clothes I have. I sus­pect I have a lot few­er than most Amer­i­cans but there’s still tons, and nev­er enough room in the clos­ets & dressers (I do have small clos­ets but still!). I’d like to get all my clothes into one or two dress­er draw­ers and donate the rest to char­i­ty. Two pairs of pants, a cou­ple of shirts, a few days worth of socks and under­gar­ments. This requires that I wash every­thing fre­quent­ly which means I hand-wash things but that’s okay. The point is to not wor­ry or think about what I’m going to wear every morn­ing. I’ve been to a wed­ding and a funer­al since I start­ed going plain and it was nice not hav­ing to fret about what to wear.

I also appre­ci­ate using less resources up by hav­ing few­er clothes. It’s hard to get away from prod­ucts that don’t have some neg­a­tive side effects (sup­port of oil indus­try, spilling of chem­i­cal wastes into streams, killing of ani­mals for hide, exploita­tion of peo­ple con­struct­ing the clothes at hor­ri­ble wages & con­di­tions). I try my best to bal­ance these con­cerns but the best way is to reduce the use.

These moti­va­tions are simple-ness rather than plain-ness. But I am try­ing to be plain too. For men it’s pret­ty easy. My most com­mon cloth­ing since Gath­er­ing has been black pants, shoes and sus­penders, and the com­bo seems to look pret­ty plain. There’s no his­toric authen­tic­i­ty. The pants are Levi-Dockers which I already own, the shoes non-leather ones from Pay­less, also already owned. The only pur­chase was sus­penders from Sears. I bought black over­alls too. My Dock­ers were vic­tims of a minor bike acci­dent last week (my scraped knee & elbow are heal­ing well, thank you, and my bike is fine) and I’m replac­ing them with thick­er pants that will hold up bet­ter to repeat­ed wash­ing & use. There’s irony in this, cer­tain­ly. If I were being just sim­ple, I’d wear out all the pants I have – despite their col­or – rather than buy new ones. I’d be wear­ing some bright & wacky pants, that’s for sure! But irony is part of any wit­ness, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning when there’s some lifestyle shift­ing that needs to hap­pen. As a per­son liv­ing in the world I’m bound to have con­tra­dic­tions: they help me to not take myself too seri­ous­ly and I try to accept them with grace and good humor.

But prac­ti­cal­i­ty in dress more impor­tant to me than his­tor­i­cal authen­tic­i­ty. I don’t want to wear a hat since I bike every day and want to keep my head free for the hel­met; it also feels like my doing it would go beyond the line into quaint­ness. The only type of cloth­ing that’s new to my wardrobe is the sus­penders and real­ly they are as prac­ti­cal as a belt, just less com­mon today. A few Civ­il War re-enactment buffs have smil­ing­ly observed that clip-on sus­penders aren’t his­tor­i­cal­ly authen­tic but that’s per­fect­ly okay with me. I also wear col­lars, that’s per­fect­ly okay with me too.

The oth­er thing that I’m clear about is that the com­mand­ment to plain dress is not nec­es­sar­i­ly eter­nal. It is sit­u­a­tion­al, it is part­ly a response to the world and to Quak­er­dom and it does con­scious­ly refer to cer­tain sym­bols. God is what’s eter­nal, and lis­ten­ing to the call of Christ with­in is the real com­mand­ment. If I were in a Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty that demand­ed plain dress, I expect I would feel led to break out the tie-die and bleach and manic-panic hair col­or­ing. Dress is an out­ward form and like all out­ward forms and prac­tices, it can eas­i­ly become a false sacra­ment. If we embrace the form but for­get the source (which I sus­pect lots of Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry Friends did), then it’s time to cause a ruckus.

Every so often Friends need to look around and take stock of the state of the Soci­ety. At the turn of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, they did that. There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing anti-plain dress book from that time that argues that it’s a musty old tra­di­tion that should be swept away in light of the social­ist ecu­meni­cal world of the future. I sus­pect I would have had much sym­pa­thy for the posi­tion at the time, espe­cial­ly if I were in a group of Friends who didn’t have the fire of the Spir­it and wore their old clothes only because their par­ents had and it was expect­ed of Quakers.

Today the sit­u­a­tion is changed. We have many Friends who have blend­ed in so well with mod­ern sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca that they’re indis­tin­guish­able in spir­it or deed. They don’t want to have com­mit­tee meet­ing on Sat­ur­days or after Meet­ing since that would take up so much time, etc. They’re hap­py being Quak­ers as long as not much is expect­ed and as long as there’s no chal­lenge and no sac­ri­fice required. We also have Friends who think that the peace tes­ti­mo­ny and wit­ness is all there is (con­fus­ing the out­ward form with the source again, in my opin­ion). When a spir­i­tu­al empti­ness sets into a com­mu­ni­ty there are two obvi­ous ways out: 1) bring in the fads of the out­side world (reli­gious revival­ism in the 19 Cen­tu­ry, social­ist ecu­meni­cal­sim in the 20th, Bud­dhism and sweat lodges in the 21st). or 2) re-examine the fire of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions and fig­ure out what babies you threw away with the bath­wa­ter in the last rebel­lion against emp­ty out­ward form.

I think Quak­ers real­ly found some­thing spe­cial 350 years ago, or redis­cov­ered it and that we are con­stant­ly redis­cov­er­ing it. I have felt that power/ I know that there is still one, named Jesus Christ, who can speak to my con­di­tion and that the Spir­it comes to teach the peo­ple direct­ly. I’ll read old jour­nals and put on old clothes to try to under­stand ear­ly Friends’ beliefs. The clothes aren’t impor­tant, I don’t want to give them too much weight. But there is a tra­di­tion of Quak­ers tak­ing on plain dress upon some sort of deep spir­i­tu­al con­vince­ment (it is so much of a cliché of old Quak­er jour­nals that lit­er­ary types clas­si­fy it as part of the essen­tial struc­ture of the jour­nals). I see plain dress as a reminder we give our­selves that we are try­ing to live out­side the world­li­ness of our times and serve the eter­nal. My wit­ness to oth­ers is sim­ply that I think Quak­erism is some­thing to com­mit one­self whol­ly to (yes, I’ll meet on a Sat­ur­day) and that there are some pre­cious gifts in tra­di­tion­al Quak­er faith & prac­tice that could speak to the spir­i­tu­al cri­sis many Friends feel today.

In friend­ship,
Mar­tin Kelley
Atlantic City Area MM, NJ
martink@martinkelley.com

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