Categorically Not the Testimonies

BoxesLargeTestimonies are something Quakers do, not something we talk about. But lately Friends have been doing a lot of talking about testimonies, usually in categorical boxes: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. By contrast, early Friends used the word “testimony” to mean a number of different things:

  • the overall message and witness of Quakers
  • a vocal ministry
  • inward evidence, as in Barclay’s Proposition 4: “this inward testimony or seed of God”
  • a Friend’s sense of being led to recurring ministry
  • a Friend’s career in ministry, taken as a whole

By the 1700s, “testimonies of denial” meant minutes of disownment that would be read out in meeting for business when a “disorderly walker” could not see clear to offer a “testimony of acknowledgement” of his waywardness. And British Friends to this day use “testimonies” to mean memorial minutes: for example, “A Testimony to the Grace of God in the Life of Simon Pure.”

In the larger society of the seventeenth century, “testimony” (in addition to its common forensic meaning in courtrooms) was a synonym for the Scriptures as a whole, and the royal committee for King James I’s Authorized Version Bible also used the word “testimony” to denote stone tablets Moses brought down off Mount Sinai, later stored in the tabernacle’s ark of the testimony.

About the only meaning early Friends didn’t have for “testimony” was that of modern Friends, i.e., one of four, five, or six categories into which God’s work through Friends can be sorted.

This idea, that God’s work might arrive in pre-wrapped packages, seems to have originated largely with a twentieth-century Friend, Howard Haines Brinton. With a post-war, ecumenical perspective, Brinton attempted to simplify the disorganized wealth of three centuries of Quaker witness for non-Quakers, not-yet-Quakers, and new Quakers. And his categories (he used community, harmony, equality, and simplicity) were—that phrase you sometimes see in film credits—based on a true story. But in a 1949 pamphlet called “Friends Education in Theory and Practice,” he provided an important caveat, usually ignored since:

For the sake of a clearness which is obtained at the price of over-simplification, four social doctrines are here singled out for consideration. Let us list them as community, harmony, equality, and simplicity. Obviously in such a classification there is much overlapping.

Over-simplified and overlapping: in the 60 years since the pamphlet’s publication, they’ve been overused as an explanation of Quakerism, and simplified even further into an acronym, SPICE (for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality). From an historian’s point of view, this impulse to explain by splitting and boxing up messy history into abstract categories (“a clearness obtained at the price of over-simplification,” as Brinton says) is particularly ironic. For it was in kicking out such boxes and walls, breaking down the linguistic and cultural categories and boundaries, that seventeenth-century Friends found their mission. The binding energy released in such de-boxing fueled their mighty movement.

In his early versions, Brinton was clear that such categories (broad social principles, he called them) were only his chapter heads, not the testimonies themselves, which numbered in the dozens. But this over-simplified classification attracted an enthusiastic following (myself included), and we were well on our way toward bumper sticker theology. Friends schools, and now our American Friends Service Committee, offer attractive prospectuses with their own versions of these over-simplified Quaker values.

Brinton’s other characterization, “overlapping,” intrigues me, too. When I think about Quaker history, it is this quality of overlapping that seems more fertile. How does equality feel like peace? How does simplicity partake of integrity? Is not their oneness more meaningful than their five-ness? When I think about the work of God, through Quakers and elsewhere, an image of five pigeonholes is not what comes to mind. Instead, I imagine creatures like Pando and Armillaria. Do you know them?

Pando (Latin for “I spread”) is the name biologists gave to a 6,000-ton quaking aspen in southern Utah. Forty-seven thousand aspen trunks over an area of a 100 acres were discovered through DNA testing to be the same, single (male) organism, suckered out from its massive underground root system. A similar subterranean giant in the fungi kingdom, Armillaria, was first surveyed in Michigan, later in the Malheur wilderness of Oregon and elsewhere. When you’re picking out your six ounces of dried, or half-pound of fresh, mushrooms at your farmers’ market, wrap your mind around this: a creature covering three square miles and thousands of years old. What we buy as mushrooms are only its seasonal fruiting bodies (the apples from this apple tree) sprouting up from tons of tender mycelia beneath the forest surface. (Need I even ask it: on a more evolved planet, wouldn’t Pando and Armillaria—these ancient, silent immensities—be worshipped as gods?)

But what if we had to impose categories onto such unities?  By the same token, how can the categories of SPICEs be imposed upon Quaker faith and history? Brinton’s simplification fails as history for a number of reasons. Four occur to me, and real historians can suggest others.

First, the SPICE boxes seriously slight the first generation of Friends. The preponderance of their witness was a fiercely prophetic campaign against the idea and practices of a state church. Thousands of early Friends endured fines, prisons, the confiscation of their estates, not for SPICEs but for what they called “true worship,” i.e., for an authentic religious experience and what came to be called freedom of conscience. They opposed state churches, compulsory parish attendance, tithes, creeds, blasphemy laws, allegiant oaths, and religious tests for voting and/or office holding. It was for speaking out for true worship that William Penn was arrested and tried in a historic court case that established the independence of juries’ verdicts.

Early Friends suffered, and they carefully—nay, religiously—minuted such sufferings, not for SPICEs, but to break forever the corrupt and corrupting union of ecclesiastical authority and political power. Nor did that campaign quickly triumph; Anglican church tithes were not abolished until the twentieth century. And Friends like Fox and Nayler, who first met while doing time in Derby Gaol on blasphemy charges, would be appalled to find 350 years later that there are still countries where blasphemy is a capital crime.

Second, the SPICE box terminology would be almost unrecognizable to that first generation of Friends. In the 1600s, “simplicity” meant radical truthfulness, not agonizing about whether to buy a Prius.

What we generalize into an equality category arose from at least three distinct springs:

  • anti-clericalism and social leveling, pre-dating Friends at least as far back as the Lollards
  • women’s speaking
  • anti-slavery thought and work

Our peace testimony has produced the widest range of creative responses by facing different issues in different eras. For example, to appreciate the Quakers’ Declaration of 1660/61, U.S. Friends will need to read up on the very unquakerly Guy Fawkes. Brinton’s approach offering abstract values apart from their wider historical contexts was and is, as historical depiction, doomed to failure.

Third, the SPICE boxes nowhere mention a testimony for which our Society suffered most: the testimony for endogamy, our preference (typical in many religious traditions) for marrying our own kind. Quakers sacrificed tens of thousands of our members for marrying out. Is a testimony a testimony only if it succeeds? In our time, as Quakers and other religious groups wrestle with the idea of marriages of gay and lesbian partners, is there nothing we could learn from our earlier experiences of trying to enforce endogamy?

Fourth, the SPICE boxes do not lead inquirers to appreciate Quakers’ historic involvement with indigenous peoples, with prisoners, with the mentally ill, with victims of war. Decades before their neighbors, Quakers worked in solidarity with such folks, not by some tepid commitment to equality and peace as abstractions but by sensing that God first loved them, and we were drawn to be—and  blessed in being—part of that greater love.

More importantly, beyond their failure to depict history accurately, the short list of truthy Quaker virtues may be failing us as a means of discipling, i.e., of growing new Quakers and re-energizing old ones. Seeking a trailhead for paths deep into Quaker discipleship, we may get distracted, delayed, or misled.

Classes in dance history are very different from the training required for dancers themselves. Words that may function as paragraph headings in a high school report on Quaker history may serve much less well for Quaker practitioners—we who most need to understand our history.

Among biology undergrads, the story is famously told of the first British explorers in Australia, who shipped platypus specimen skins back to their professors at Oxford and Cambridge. The academic reaction was something like this: “Oh dear, it’s another student prank, someone trying to hoax us. Scholarship dating back to Plato conclusively proves that a mammal is a mammal, a reptile a reptile, and a bird ain’t nothing but a bird.”

Now, what if a leading I have authentically experienced is something of a platypus? Will there be room for me in the ark of your Quaker understanding?

I remember an exercise we undertook as a meeting committee for peace and social concerns. Instead of once more excavating our mailboxes to find out which issues Friends should be worrying about and then nagging ourselves to worry, we decided to start, just this once, at the other end: to survey our members and attenders to find out which Quaker values were already manifesting in their lives, and how.

We were surprised at the narrow stereotypes of Quaker concerns provided by even experienced Friends. I particularly remember one Friend guiltily lamenting that he couldn’t attend protest marches because he was busy all day at a center for teens at risk for dropping out of school, a program he had established and invested his own savings in. I could have wept that this Friend did not see in his leading and sacrifice a perfect instance of Quaker social concern.

Human beings need words to communicate. But when we codify, make creeds, and canonize a few words, we limit our vision, as well as the possibility of God’s work through us. Walking away from such deified virtues, where might we go instead? What if we were to start with fresh, personal experiences and then shared them in a manner that was as mediated as little as possible by advance expectations?

Have you seen those posters called photomosaics? From a distance, they look like fuzzy outlines of a familiar profile (Lincoln, M.L. King Jr., Che Guevara). When you get up close, you see that the pixels of the big, fuzzy figure are themselves each a little photo. That’s what the bumper sticker approach is missing, Friends. If Quakerism is worth doing, it is worth taking time to see and celebrate those little photos and those stories.

Many Friends have read Fox’s Journal recounting his leadings toward a peace testimony, but how many have read Thomas Lurting’s? Drafted at 14 into the Puritan navy, Lurting experienced the peace testimony viscerally years before Fox and others verbalized it theologically.

Starting with categories, a testimony can so quickly become what lawyers term hearsay testimony: something I heard somebody else say sometime but of which I, myself, have no direct experience. Against this tendency, the early Friends cherished not only their many testimonies but a living Witness—“the Witness” being one of those synonyms for the work of God in the human heart, our “that of God in everyone.” When Margaret Fell first heard George Fox speak in her own home parish, she responded to his ministry with these words: “We are thieves, all thieves, for we have taken the saints’ words and know nothing of them in our lives.” Have we, in our time, again lapsed into such thievery, by dressing up in spiritual abstractions?

In a testimonies workshop at a Friends General Conference Gathering, we devised a little opinion survey which we inflicted on other attenders in the meal lines: “What are Quaker testimonies? Which testimony is hardest for you?” And this was my favorite, one of those forced-choice, single-word-answer models: “The testimonies are important because they are ________.” My favorite answer was “unfinished.” A fresh future for Quakerism lies in that state of perpetual unfinishedness.

To learn from our testimonies, to make them our own, we perhaps can meet them again, not quickly via a short list but as John Woolman did: in human faces, on foot, walking. Afoot and with eyes open in such encounters, we might re-awaken our Quakerism from an upscale consumer choice into an incandescent, Spirit-led passion.

What are your stories? What experiences, inward and outward, could you suggest for your meeting testimonies’ open house presentation? When John Woolman, that funny Friend who eschews automobiles and air travel, comes to your town, where will you and he go walking?


Related: Watch the FJ Interview with Eric Moon

Eric Moon

Eric Moon is a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting, currently clerk of College Park Quarterly Meeting, and past clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting. He has worked for over two decades for the West Region of the American Friends Service Committee. He is a new grandparent, ridiculously enamored of Gabriel and Ruby.

23 thoughts on “Categorically Not the Testimonies

  1. Don’t know who stuck in that “II” after King James, but it was the first James, VI of Scotland and then I of England/Wales, whose Royal committee produced the KJV. Let’s hope Moon’s other historical citations are solider…

  2. >>> bumper sticker theology >>>
    This kind of dismissive rhetoric is known as a “cheapshot” and is not in keeping with Friends’ values.

    >>> Early Friends suffered, and they carefully—nay, religiously—minuted such sufferings, not for SPICEs, but to break forever the corrupt and corrupting union of ecclesiastical authority and political power. >>>
    Sets up a false, unjustified dichotomy between the SPICE formulation and resistance to political and social injustice.

    >>> the SPICE box terminology would be almost unrecognizable to that first generation of Friends. >>>
    Abysmally fails the “So What” test. The experiences of the earliest Friends do not speak to my condition. My own Quaker heroes are found in the 19th and 20th centuries: I find SPICE enormously powerful in encapsulating their motives.

    >>> In the 1600s, “simplicity” meant radical truthfulness, not agonizing about whether to buy a Prius.>>>
    I drive a Prius, and so do a lot of Friends. I regard this is little more than a gratuitous insult.

    >>> Fourth, the SPICE boxes do not lead inquirers to appreciate Quakers’ historic involvement with x,y,and z >>>
    The statement is highly presumptuous and no evidence is given to defend it. I see no reason for this to be true.

    CONCLUSION: This isn’t a thoughtful essay, it’s a self-indulgent rant. I don’t think rants are worthy of space in Friends Journal.

  3. Thank you for this clear and cogent essay.

    I fear you will have to suffer for the truth of it, because today liberal Quakers do want short cuts and the message that “If Quakerism is worth doing, it is worth taking time to see and celebrate those” [actual realities] will go down hard.

    I fear too, that like Arlene Kelly’s excellent insight that Friends practice conflict avoidance rather than conflict resolution (in “Conflict in the Life of Our Meeting: Friends Peace Testimony at Work?” (Friends Journal July 2009- your historically grounded insights will be ignored.

    I see the attraction of SPICE is that real are built on a commitment to common values, so that each adult seeks to further those values at the expense of self-interest. SPICE is meant to supply that. (Unfortunately, I think SPICES concedes too much to individualism. In my experience, espousal of SPICES usually precedes dissolution of a meeting-like the “ethical cultural societies” of past times.)

    May I say a word in favor of endogamous marriage: Early Friends, such as Wilkinson and Story took great exception to women’s meeting having a say in whether two Friends could marry. The power of women’s meetings in this regard probably prevented a lot of spousal abuse, something that was not possible when Friends married “out”. Since earlier generations of Friends counseled women who were Quaker converts to stay with their (non-Quaker) husbands, we have many cases of women who were beaten by their husbands for going to meeting. What did that do to both the couple and their children? Could Friends have maintained a commitment to peace through multiple generations without endogamous marriage?

  4. Friend Eric Moon,

    For me it is the Continuing Revelation, thanks again for pointing to the way.
    There is much to hear in the silence, little of which is carried in the Word.
    Dwell in the Light; knowledge is finite; wisdom is infinite.

  5. Categorization is less useful in the fresh springing of ideas as it is in making sense of a mass of established material. Thus, an author doesn’t need a catalog in the same way a library does. Categories are a tool used by strangers to begin to make sense of a landscape dense with meaning. I’m a cartographer by trade, and when I categorize features on the map, I am not changing the landscape itself. The danger comes when my map is used to make the landscape conform to categorization, when this MUST be a lake because it says so, and so it’s grassy, marshy, wonderfully unique self is dredged and neatened up to look like a proper lake should.

    Brinton’s categorizaion, apologetically introduced, provide a useful set of guideposts to the great variety of things Friends have witnessed, testified, and ministered to. The problem comes when we use them like as forms unto themselves—which we do too often—and fold them back on ourselves as the basis for our own decision-making. I too tear my hair at what you saw in the peace and social action committee. But the solution is not to throw out SPICES, any more than keeping kids from singing “Do, a deer” in elementary school would result in more authentic singing as adults. The solution is to point to the form, and point to the source, and ask ourselves which proceeds from which. the answer should be self-evident.

  6. Being mindful that the SPICE elements are not alive unless they blossom naturally out of our spiritual experiences in the Light, we may humbly say that often it is possible to substitute a word for the lived experience, and deem it sufficient. Share the good news–use words if necessary. William Blake: “language is a barrier to experience.”

  7. Dear Eric Moon —

    Like Joan Broadfield, I’m troubled by the “packaging” … and have re-read/studied Howard Brinton’s careful work of explanation over the past few months.

    When I first came to Friends, it was the way of life — not the intellectual construct — that drew me to meeting week after week (a university meeting in what later became Intermountain Yearly Meeting). When I applied for membership, my committee of clearness questioned more whether I could live into a way of life, into the community of that particular meeting. Friends felt that wrestling with the understanding of the faith tradition was a part of my education. Only after I moved to Philadelphia did I begin hearing of the “parsing” of the faith tradition. It seemed too pat.

    Still, the overlapping categories are still as useful by way of explanation, but it isn’t the whole story.

    As with many matters of faith, for those who possess it, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible. Howard Brinton did his best by way of explanation, but faith-wrestling is a task we all have.

  8. The teaching acronym SPICES is not meant to limit the Quaker concept of testimonies. It is meant as a way to introduce children to some of the fruits of the Inward Experience of Christ. We have only one true testimony and that is to that Inward Light of Christ that speaks to our condition. We need to witness to that experience by the way we live our lives in love to others. It is not what we believe that counts but what we do.

  9. Both this article and some of the comments are helpful to me. I have participated in several different Christian congregations over many years, and have read some Quaker history. I am used to thinking of the testimonies in the modern sense of categories that distinguish the Friends from other faith groups. The Peace Testimony was what initially attracted me to Quaker writings. However, this article clarifies for me why seeking the concept of peace has been a failure – it is only an abstraction, unrelated to how I live.

  10. The problem with Eric’s piece is pretty straightforward: it’s an extended Straw Man argument. As explained at Wikipedia, ” A straw man . . . is a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. The misrepresentation can be intentional or accidental. It is possible to unintentionally misrepresent an opponent’s argument by failing to understand it in the first place and honestly communicating what one (wrongly) thinks is the actual argument. ”

    I would enjoin Friends to go back to Eric’s article and see whether they can identify *anything* in the way of rational, unbiased, objective fact. It’s more like a bundle of raw accusations that go unjustified by actual examples, anecdotes, or literal quotes of anyone’s actual opinion or experience. And it’s all so needless: Eric easily could have avoided this rancor if he actually bothered to *listen* to these people who annoy him so.

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