Reviving our Testimonies

RevivingIn preparation for our Strawberry Festival last summer, a Friend taped a poster to the front door of our meetinghouse.  In English and Spanish the poster asked, “What do Quakers believe?” and then listed simplicity, peace, truthfulness, community, equality, and sustainability. The message on this poster was a canonical declaration of core principles. It was, unmistakably, a creed.

Other examples of the Testimonies (with a capital “T”) being treated as established doctrine are easy to find: “[T]he Testimony of Equality led Friends to free their slaves,” states a page on the website of the Earlham School of Religion. “There is no Testimony of Inclusion,” says a Friend while editing a minute. “That is contrary to the Testimony of Simplicity,” murmurs another Friend during business meeting.

So what is wrong with a declaration of core principles? Do we not believe in peace and integrity and community and the rest? Are these not good values? Should we not be trumpeting them proudly to ourselves and to others?

To my mind, what is pernicious about all the above examples is that they set up a false authority. They elevate an essentially intellectual construct over direct experience of the Divine. Our faith is founded upon George Fox’s epiphany, “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” For Friends, revelation is personal, unmediated, and ongoing.

Creeds get in the way of revelation. A creed can enable spiritual laziness. Instead of doing the hard work of listening expectantly and struggling to understand the still small voice, we have the option of falling back upon a checklist. A creed can close our hearts and our minds. If we know in advance what we should be listening for, that is what we are most likely to hear. And a creed can distort what we are able to understand. If our belief has been systematized, then it becomes temptingly easy to slot a message into an established category whether the message fits well or not. Creeds thus act as a screen, a filter, a dark glass between us and the Spirit.

The Earlham webpage quoted above is not only an anachronism (there was no concept known as “the testimony of equality” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), but, more importantly, it gets the facts backwards. It was the Spirit, understood through decades of agonizing threshing, who led Friends to free their slaves. Many years later, abolition (along with many other examples of Friends witnessing against the unjust treatment of others) was classified as falling under the testimony of equality.

In a Pendle Hill pamphlet, Robert Griswold states that creeds “usually represent the hardening of beliefs into a systematic ideology.” My Quaker faith is a joy and a challenge to me, as its power lies precisely in the unpredictable nature of sudden flashes of brilliant illumination. A normative ideology channels belief and makes it safe, but though I may long for safety, I do not believe spiritual complacency is God’s will.

Testimonies did not always occupy the central space in Quaker theology that they seem to occupy at present. For the first 300 years of our history, the word “testimony” was most often used by Friends in its conventional meaning, that is, as formal speech (verbal or written) regarding a topic of importance—especially of legal or religious significance. George Fox, Robert Barclay, and John Woolman use the word exclusively in this sense.

Friends did occasionally extend “testimony” to include actions or behaviors that characterized members of the Religious Society of Friends. As early as 1696, William Penn listed nine “testimonies peculiar to us,” among which are Friends refusal to pay tithes, swear oaths, or observe holy days; their opposition to “war among Christians”; and their adoption of plainness of speech and apparel.

In subsequent Quaker writing, it is often unclear whether “testimony” refers to speech or to behavior, but it is rarely, if ever, used to designate belief or first principles. Thus, in his 1871 preface to The Journal of John Woolman, John Greenleaf Whittier speaks of Woolman’s “lifelong testimony against slavery,” but goes on to say “[Woolman] wrote, as he believed, from an inward spiritual prompting; and with all his unaffected humility he evidently felt that his work was done in the clear radiance of ‘The light which never was on land or sea.’” In other words, Whittier describes Woolman opposing slavery in speech and action (his testimony), driven by his experience of the Spirit (his belief).

William Penn’s “testimonies peculiar to us” eventually turned into prescriptive advices and queries. Thus, up until the middle of the twentieth century, issues of the Book of Discipline of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (both Hicksite and Orthodox) admonish members against swearing oaths and the “superstitious observance of days,” and direct them to adhere to plainness, simplicity, and “our ancient testimony against all war.”

In 1943 Howard Brinton published Guide to Quaker Practice (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 20), in which he groups Friends social testimonies into four categories: community, harmony, equality, and simplicity. This appears to be the origin of the current canon. By the 1970s comparable groupings began to appear in yearly meeting Faith and Practice books.

After Brinton, descriptive historical accounts, typically citing Scripture to cement legitimacy, turned into articulations of broad principles. Essentially concrete observations became abstract concepts.

Why is this important? In my mind, prescriptive advices and queries are clearly ecclesiastical in nature. Their purpose is to define discipline within a communal framework. So while I must approach them with deference, there is always the possibility that a strong spiritual leading might call me to a different path. Likewise, accounts of respected Friends’ traditional behaviors reflect human attempts to understand and act on God’s word. These serve as vital and inspirational models, and I cannot take their example lightly. New insight, however, could lead me to an expanded understanding and thus to different conduct. Statements of canonical belief, by contrast, obligate me by defining the central elements of my faith. A dogma constrains the boundaries within which I can experience revelation, and thus limits my opportunity for continuing and fresh communion with the Divine.

So, if the testimonies have become a creed coming between us and the Spirit, if an established canon of abstract testimonies has no historical basis, then maybe the best a fundamentalist Quaker can do is rise and shout: “Friends, we have gone astray! We have been distracted by something shiny. But it is a golden calf and we must put it behind us!”

Of course, I exaggerate. I have set up a straw man, easy to knock down. Few contemporary Friends appear to view the testimonies in quite the strict doctrinal form I posit. In fact, most enumerations of the testimonies that I have found are prefaced by a fairly standard disclaimer. The 2012 proposed revisions to Baltimore Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice are especially well articulated:

Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceive it. They arise from our way of worship, which evokes within us an affirmation and celebration of Light that illumines the spiritual longing of humanity. . . . To be a Quaker is not to subscribe to doctrines, but to be convinced that one has personally known an ultimate reality from which those beliefs arise. Our lives today can only testify to the truth that we come to know through our own experience. When we give testimony, it is only valid if it comes from our own first-hand experience of continuing revelation, not from anything that we have been told, nor from any standard that we hope to meet.

What’s more, the Religious Society of Friends has no single register of testimonies. I was introduced to the concept as SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. A search of Quaker websites turns up numerous variations on this list, typically some blend of Brinton’s four categories and the SPICES. A formal creed would, by definition, need to be uniform to be authoritative.

Still, I believe the straw man embodies a real and increasingly pervasive set of seductive notions that is drawing us away from authentic worship.

Other Friends before me have commented on the creedal nature of the contemporary testimonies. I stumbled upon this idea several years ago reading a blog by Chuck Fager. Since then I have done my best to ignore or dismiss this uncomfortable discernment, but the unease it engendered stubbornly refuses to go away.

So I started to ask myself: What is it about the testimonies that I find so appealing? Is there some way to preserve the power they exert without falling into a doctrinal trap? I began by listing some of the ways in which the testimonies move me.

First, testimonies, viewed as a collection of principles, serve as a stand-in when I can’t hear the Spirit. Despite my best efforts, I do not always hear the still small voice that I wish would be my guide. So having a canon upon which I can rely gets me through the dry spells.

But this is my spiritual laziness, a coward’s way out. Hard as it is, and fail as I might, at my core I know that only the Spirit can restore my soul and that I must simply give it time.

Second, testimonies, again viewed as a collection of principles, give me something to strive for. They embody values I cherish but too often fail to achieve. Testimonies can serve as guideposts leading me towards a more fulfilling moral life.

Unfortunately, this is also my spiritual laziness. The aspirational nature I ascribe to the testimonies may be their most seductive aspect. Nonetheless, at my core I know it is solely that of God I must answer, and I will only find way opening if I come to the journey with a heart clear of preconceptions.

Third, testimonies, still viewed as a collection of principles, serve as an easy entry into Quakerism. When I was a First-day school teacher, I found it straightforward to design a year-long syllabus around the testimonies, and it made sense to the kids. When I teach our Introduction to the Religious Society of Friends (AKA Quakerism 101) to adult seekers, I find the evening devoted to the testimonies is often cited as students’ favorite.

But if we teach our children and newcomers a creed, they will naturally end up believing that Quakerism is founded upon that creed. For centuries Friends raised their children, and attracted convinced adults, without relying on the SPICES. We can resume conducting inspired religious education without falling into dogma.

Finally, testimonies, viewed as a body of common practice, connect me to other Friends. Testimonies are behaviors that bind my community together. They help me understand that I am part of an ongoing chronicle of human experience with the Divine.

At last, I may have found the opening that resonates for me. Testimonies are not abstractions and not theology; testimonies are stories about people. They are stories about my people, and therefore they are my stories. Testimonies illustrate how Friends in the past heard and understood the Spirit. Testimonies are leadings from bygone days, many of which may still be relevant to the challenges I face today. Brian Drayton puts it well in On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry:

To the best of my ability, I am writing out of a modern, lived experience, both of myself and of many other Friends that I know. However, our experience builds on the lives and testimony of many lives before us which have shaped the Quaker path, and they still offer important lessons for current living. They are our contemporaries and companions in the Spirit, and the continuity of fellowship is both a source of strength and of challenge to us.

I am challenged to enter into these testimonies and to live them out. In other words, testimonies are compelling, beckoning stories through which the Spirit calls me to witness for my faith.

The 1927 Book of Discipline of Baltimore Yearly Meeting states:

The fundamental faith of the Religious Society of Friends leads to a way of life. In the application of the principles of truth to daily life, we acknowledge as supreme the authority of the Divine Spirit in the individual soul. No outward authority can replace it. Each individual must be true to his own understanding of his duty.

Each individual ought, however, to test his conception of truth by comparison with the individual and collective experience of his fellow men. Such experiences are found in rich abundance in the Bible and in the lives of spiritual men and women of all ages.

It is exactly this conception of testing my discernment against prior witnesses that, I have come to believe, encapsulates the essential value of Friends testimonies.

So perhaps one way to retain the vigor of Friends testimonies without giving them a false spiritual authority is to recognize that testimonies are history, and that history is an unfinished narrative in which our own personal stories play a part.

I have been thinking that it might be instructive to refrain—for some period of time, maybe a year—from saying “the testimonies,” and instead to speak only of “our testimonies.” This might reduce the commanding weightiness of the concept and cut it down to human size. Paradoxically, for me, human size means I can better recognize that of God.

One immediate question comes to mind: in this context, who is the “we” that owns the testimonies? My answer is that a meaningful “we” would be the body to whom I look for spiritual authority, the body that is bigger than me as an individual but still small enough that I connect with it directly and personally. For me, that body is my monthly meeting, the people with whom I worship, with whom I thresh the contentious questions, the people in whose presence I have felt covered by the Spirit.

As a thought experiment, I did ask myself, what are my testimonies? I found that I simply could not answer, in large part because it felt so utterly presumptuous to even contemplate that I might have “testimonies.” But when I reframed the question and asked, how do I testify? I found that I could begin formulating a personal response. What strikes me as particularly significant is that, when I think about testifying, I simultaneously think about both the actions I have taken and the Spirit that motivated those actions.

So I have come around to thinking that the instructive exercise would be to ask, “How do we testify?” and, “To what are we testifying?” The answers, I imagine, might take a form such as the following:

  1. Based upon our understanding of God’s unconditional love, we testify to the inherent worth of every person by extending our loving care equally to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual Friends.
  2. The meeting testifies to our concern for the least among us (Matthew 25:40) by donating labor, money, and staples to the local food pantry.

Quakers worship in community. I suggest that these questions about testifying also be addressed in community. This could be done as discussion or worship sharing. Maybe best of all, it could be in the form of storytelling. By doing so, we might return to our spiritual origins, and resume answering the question George Fox posed in 1652:

You will say, “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this”; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?

Michael D. Levi

Michael D. Levi is a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting, where he serves as clerk of the Ministry and Worship committee and assistant clerk of the meeting. At work he tries to make economic data accessible and intelligible. At home Michael likes to cook, play bridge, and hang out with his family.

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