display | more...

Quakers (a.k.a. the Religious Society of Friends) are non-creedal: there are no doctrines that one must hold to be a Quaker (or Friend). Instead, Quakers place a high value on individual conscience and have a history of working out their practice through consensus decision-making. The earliest Friends were followers of George Fox who taught that there was an Inner Light or "that of God" in everyone. Since God is living and working in every soul, there can never be a definitive statement of belief or practice which applies to all Friends. (For that matter, there were historically no clergy amongst Quakers, so no one could enforce dogma anyway.) These first Quakers were from England and published several documents relating to church governance and practice which resulted in the 19th-century Quaker Faith and Practice. This is occasionally updated and the present fifth edition can be found on the Web. Individual Quakers are encouraged to reflect upon and explain their understanding of individual testimonies but this is not required as there is no equivalent to a catechism or confirmation class. The 1967 edition of Quaker Faith and Practice includes the following passage:

Membership, therefore, we see primarily in terms of disciple­ship, and so impose no clear-cut tests of doctrine or outward observance… Nevertheless those wishing to join the Society should recognise its Christian basis. Words often seem in­adequate to convey our deepest experiences, yet words – however imperfect – are necessary if we are to share with one another what we have learned. In Christian faith and practice and in the Advices and queries we have tried to express those broad principles of belief and conduct on which unity is essential. These find expression in our testimonies, which reflect the Society’s corporate insights, and a loyal recognition of this is to be expected, even though precise agreement on every point is not required. We are aware of continual failures in our discipleship, and no one should hesitate, from a sense of unworthiness, to apply for membership.

Instead, tradition has resulted in a few common testimonies and some broad consensus on what they mean for Quaker life. Since many of the earliest settlers in the United States were Friends, they developed somewhat different traditions (e.g. their statements of belief and practice are commonly called a Book of Discipline—referring to Christian discipleship rather than punishment). In the UK, it's common for Quaker testimonies to be referred to by the acronym STEP: Simplicity, Truth, Equality, Peace. In the States, Friends usually speak of SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. (Integrity and Truth are interchangeable.) How do these Testimonies work in Quaker ethics?

  • Simplicity: Quakers live a simple life. They do not own many possessions and the ones they own are not flashy. Friends are probably best known in the popular imagination from the Quaker Oats packaging: a Caucasian man with no facial hair wear a wide-brimmed black hat and a black suit. Quakers were distinguished amongst most other Christians by being plain people. This has lead to some confusion with the Amish: although there are definitely some similarities, there are also big differences and the two traditions developed independently. This extends beyond possessions; Quakers are also encouraged to not have excessive social obligations or demanding hobbies and careers that could interfere with the ability to be charitable to their neighbors. It's not required that you become a renunciant or monk (in fact, there is no history of monasticism in the Friends) but individuals should consider how important their social media accounts really are or if their fantasy football leagues are taking up too much time. Leisure and self-expression are important but if some activity is keeping you from living a good life, then you should discard it.
  • Peace: If you know anything about Quakers, it is probably that they are pacifists. Hence jokes about Quaker guns (military equipment which is defunct) or "Fighting Quakers" as mascots. (Some Friends are such pacifists that they probably don't like the "-fist" part of the word "pacifist.) Like Gandhi, Friends would emphasize that pacifism is not just the absence of conflict but active attempts to reconcile and live in harmony: amongst peoples and nations and tribes and religions. Quakers have refused to fight in war as conscientious objectors and have refused to do business with exploitative firms. They were at the forefront of the abolition movement to end slavery in Europe and North America. Pacifism can extend as far as vegetarianism and environmentalism as attempts to extend compassion to non-humans. The peace testimony is not just about what you refuse to do but how you help to reduce conflict and strife worldwide.
  • Integrity (a.k.a Truth): Quakers understood truth-telling as not only avoiding outright lying but refusing all deception and insisting upon a personal standard of trustworthiness. This is perhaps best seen in Quaker business practices. Friends refused to haggle (if the price is an honest one in the first place, then there is no need to change it) and were known to have transparency in their dealings. Quakers also followed the general free church/Anabaptist practice of avoiding oath-taking. If someone is willing to lie in his testimony at court, he is willing to lie about lying as well. (Note that this also follows from James 5:12 and Matthew 5:33, which exhort Christians' "yes to be yes and no to be no".) Quakers were explicit about their faith, even when hiding or lying about it would keep them from being persecuted. For a Friend, having integrity means that how you live your life is consistent from time to time and setting to setting: you aren't one person to your co-workers and another to your old football buddies. You're someone who is reliable and dependable in word and deed. As Wilmer Cooper puts it in A Living Faith, the other testimonies won't work without this one.
  • Community: All this austerity and peculiarity may lead you to believe that Quakers withdraw from the world to live their separate lifestyle. One of the key differences between Quakers and some radical Christians is that Friends have a religious impulse to be involved in the world and not separate themselves from it. Friends do not see the world in black-and-white terms where everyone is an enemy or a potential convert. Since there is that of God within everyone, it's not necessary to convert everyone. What is necessary is making a more humane and just world which respects every person's dignity and human rights. Living a simple life, peacefully and truthfully on an island or a self-sustaining farm isn't enough for Friends: there is much work to be done in the world. The Quaker social Gospel didn't end with the 19th-century struggle over abolition but continued through women's suffrage to nuclear disarmament to combating environmental degradation and improving the lives of prisoners. As long as someone is being oppressed in the world, there is a place for Quaker witness.
  • Equality: The corollary to the above emphasis on community is a belief that all individuals are equal. Since the Inner Light in everyone is the same, then all of us have the same moral value and standing. Quakers have worked to reach out to the most reviled or discarded humans, including the aforementioned slaves and prisoners as well as children, women, the poor, refugees, and anyone else whose life and liberty are threatened. The tradition of having no clergy has largely been replaced with local congregations that have pastors but which make decisions democratically and retain broad local autonomy: there is nothing like the hierarchical approach of the Catholic Church amongst Friends nor could there be. So strong was the impulse to view all as equal that Quakers would refuse to use titles—Quakers wrote letters to world leaders such as popes and warlords urging them to adopt the Quaker faith and addressed them by their first names. Friends also refused to use "you" when addressing someone as that was considered the formal version of "thou" and "thee" (note that we assume the opposite is true because those words are archaic).
  • Stewardship (rarely called "Earthcare"): Generally, this is the most recent Testimony but still has strong roots in Quaker practice. Friends consider themselves to belong to an interdependent web of being: we co-exist on the same planet with others and we have to share that slice of it wisely. Additionally, we share a tradition through time. We are inheritors of a legacy that we should live up to and remember but we are also a link in a chain that connects future generations and we should leave the world in a better state than we found it for them. The stewardship model stands in opposition to Dominionism which emphasizes how humans are to reign over the world. Instead, Friends focus on our responsibilities to others and the world at large rather than our rights and privileges.

As you can see, these are not discrete categories but overlapping sets of priorities and moral affections. As a final aside, Liberal Quakers sometimes add Justice as an additional testimony, cf. with the originally Catholic teachings on social justice. Liberals are not the only group of Quakers, though: Conservatives and Evangelicals have different understandings of these testimonies and may not emphasize them at all. The evolving nature of Quaker life also means that some testimonies can become de-emphasized or archaic over time. Early Friends commonly believed in a "testimony against seasons and times" which practically meant not celebrating Christian holidays such as Christmas or Easter because that implied that the other days of the year were somehow less holy or didn't warrant devotion to God. Today, most Quakers celebrate these times as religious and secular festivals.

These values guide Quakers in their individual and corporate lives. Quakers are notorious for making committees, councils, and non-profits to further these principles. Some of the more famous are the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), which works with governments to create more humane public policy and the British Friends Service Council and American Friends Service Committee which won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize. Additionally, Quaker meetings (i.e. churches) have "queries" which are concerns that are raised by individual Friends in their congregations and then passed along to yearly conventions where larger bodies of Quakers discuss them and sit in silence looking for guidance from the Holy Spirit. The spirit of the Meeting will be published and these responses frequently cite the testimonies and how they relate to whatever concern has been raised. (See Advices and Queries.)

Read more about Quaker testimonies from the AFSC, Quakers in the World, and the multiple Books of Church Discipline. Another readable introduction is Philip Gulley's Living the Quaker Way: Timeless Wisdom for a Better Life Today (ISBN 0307955796). More academic treatments include Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics by Rachel Muers (ISBN 978 0334046684) and the many works by (Ben) Pink Dandelion on Quakerism starting with An Introduction to Quakerism (ISBN 052160088X). Note that many historical texts don't reference the "testimonies" as such because their development didn't really become explicit until the 20th century.


A note on this node: I will possibly update this write-up in the future. If I have substantial edits, I will probably add them as additional write-ups attached to this node. For smaller edits, I will likely edit the main text directly. Please let me know if you have anything to add or if I've gotten it wrong.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.