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.

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