As a newcomer to Quakerism, one of my most exciting discoveries was the Quaker social testimonies. I had heard of the Peace Testimony, but it was not until I began reading authors such as Howard Brinton and talking with my Pendle Hill colleagues that I learned of other testimonies that spoke in depth to every dimension of life. Here, I realized, is a set of living principles that can ground a personal and corporate way of being in the world.
As I sought to deepen my understanding, I found the state of the dialogue on the social testimonies among Friends to be ambiguous. In North America, at least among people I met at Pendle Hill and within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, there didn’t seem to be much discussion of the testimonies. Even at the recent FGC Gathering, while several events touched on one or another testimony as part of a witness on the environment or economic justice or peace, there were no workshops or interest groups exploring the social testimonies in general. This puzzled me. It is possible, of course, that the testimonies are so deeply ingrained in the Quaker makeup that this sort of discussion is not really needed. Perhaps I, as a newcomer, was simply discovering something that everyone else took for granted.
On the other hand, it is also possible that Friends’ understanding of the testimonies is not as deep as it might be, and that there is a profound need at present for just this sort of dialogue. This is the message I heard repeatedly as I worked on organizing the conference held at Pendle Hill this past May, entitled The Prophetic Voice in Public Life: Reclaiming the Quaker Social Testimonies. Participants were excited by the topic and many expressed hope that avenues for further exploration might be found. Many, in fact, affirmed the idea that these testimonies did indeed need to be reclaimed, as the conference title suggested.
Our dialogue around the social testimonies could be helped enormously by the recent work of British Friends. Following a general concern that Friends were not well informed about the testimonies, Britain Yearly Meeting began a project called "Rediscovering Our Social Testimonies." After four years of discussions involving individuals, monthly meetings, and a committee of the yearly meeting, the process culminated in 1997 with the issuance of a remarkable document entitled "An expression in words of Britain Yearly Meeting’s corporate social testimony, drawn from its experience and understanding at this time." This document has become the basis for ongoing discussion in Britain, and I believe it has much potential to stimulate dialogue on the testimonies among Friends in North America and elsewhere as well.
We tried to initiate just such a dialogue in our Pendle Hill conference in May. This conference was the inaugural event for the newly redesigned Religion and Social Issues Forum at Pendle Hill. In addition to two non-Quaker speakers who addressed the general role of the prophetic voice and the relation between spiritual discernment and social action, two Quaker presenters addressed the testimonies directly. Thomas Jeavons, general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, traced the testimonies to their biblical roots and warned against shallow understandings of the testimonies. He reminded us that "the Peace Testimony is not simply an assertion that peace is better than violence or that war is unacceptable," and that "the Testimony on Simplicity is not simply a statement that it is politically and ethically better to live more simply in economic terms so that the world’s resources can be better preserved and shared." Instead, the testimonies, as they emerged in various statements and actions of early Quakers, were "meant to stand as testimony to the reality and power and love of God." When we understand them this way, the testimonies offer guidance through which our whole lives might become a form of prophetic ministry.
British Friend Jonathan Dale, who was a central figure in the Britain Yearly Meeting process described above, warned that the current tendency (especially among liberal Friends) "to understand the Inner Light as a personal and individual faculty, rather than a divine light illuminating our condition," has made it more difficult to achieve a broader corporate understanding of testimony. Dale noted that "testimony cannot be discerned, let alone expressed, where Friends suggest that each of us can only know what is right for her or himself." This sort of individualism is one of the reasons why the social testimonies "faded from the agenda of liberal Quakerism." Yet, Dale concludes, "it remains true that Quaker testimonies are necessarily corporate and that they cannot be kept alive without corporate exercise."
There are other problems as well. I have noticed that some Friends seem to use the term "testimony" as though it were a synonym for "belief." Indeed, many people in general seem to reduce religion itself to belief. But religion is more than belief, and so is Quaker testimony. The Peace Testimony, for example, certainly reflects a particular set of beliefs (principles may be a better term here). But, as I understand it, it is the actual refusal to take up arms or resort to violence, not simply the belief about it, that is the testimony—the witness to the world.
Another issue is the emergence of new testimonies and new understandings of old ones. I sometimes see a list of testimonies—usually Equality, Community, Simplicity, Integrity (or harmony), and Peace—offered as though they were a fixed set. But of course old testimonies fade from use (we don’t hear much about hat honor these days), and new ones emerge, though without formal process. Some Friends, for example, have begun to speak of a testimony for Earth or creation. Others suggest that a testimony on economic values may be emerging, even while economic issues continue to be addressed through the traditional testimonies of equality and simplicity.
Several questions emerge from these developments, as well as from the Pendle Hill conference. First, what is the state of the dialogue around the social testimonies? Are Friends generally aware of the deep historical and spiritual basis of the testimonies, or are they perceived simply as political statements or "nice ideas"? Are Friends aware of how the testimonies can be lived in daily life?
Second, as living and evolving spiritual principles, do the various articulations of the social testimonies now in existence need to be revisited or updated for the 21st century? Is there a need for a new corporate articulation of the testimonies? If so, at what level? The monthly meeting? The yearly meeting? What role might an institution like Pendle Hill play in such a process? And how might the British experience help?
Third, how do the social testimonies inform the activities of prophetic Friends? How deeply is Quaker activism today grounded in the Spirit, and where do the testimonies enter the picture?
It is our hope that the Pendle Hill Religion and Social Issues Forum can provide at least one context for addressing these sorts of questions. We would be interested in hearing Friends’ views of the state of, or need for, on-going dialogue around the social testimonies.