The Quaker Testimonies
The Inner Light or the ‘Christ Within’ leads us to an understanding of the Truth and the way we are called to live every day. From this understanding come the Testimonies. A Testimony is more like a guiding principle than an abstract belief. It is an imperative to live life according to God’s guidance. The Peace Testimony is the best known, but there are and have been other Quaker Testimonies, for example, those to Integrity, Equality, and Simplicity. All are linked and arise from revealed truth as we see it.
How Quakers follow each testimony depends on their own understanding of God’s will for them. John Punhson wrote in 1990:
‘(The Testimonies)…are religious, ethical, collective, demanding, developing – and vague. In fact, the area of imprecision with which they are surrounded is the greatest strength of the testimonies. It enables them to be flexible as circumstances in the world change, and provides individual Friends with a constant challenge to work out for themselves what God is asking of them. They have a strong corporate dimension and theologically reflect the freedom of the gospel against the literalism of the law’.
The Peace Testimony
The origins of the Peace Testimony are in the Biblical imperative to ‘Love your neighbour’ Mark 12, 28-31 and also on the central Quaker belief that there is ‘that of God’ within each person. A public statement, made in 1661 by early Friends in response to the re-establishment of the Monarchy of Charles II in England includes these words:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
Throughout history, many Quakers have responded to wars by refusing to take up arms for any cause. However, this is not seen as a merely negative response, but we try to look for other methods of solving problems, rather than resorting to military action. Quaker NGOs at United Nations and the European Union are a present day example of this effort, following on from relief work and reconstruction in Europe after the first and second World Wars. More recent efforts include conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.
The Testimony to Simplicity led to early Friends wearing ‘plain dress’, an outcome of their dedication to a higher life rather than a ‘worldly’ one. A statement made in 1691 reads:
It is our tender and Christian advice that Friends take care to keep to truth and simplicity in language, habit and behaviour and to avoid pride and immodesty in apparel and all vain and superfluous Fashions of the world.
Many contemporary Quakers try to maintain a modest way of life which uses technology for the advancement of humanity and responds to modern day issues of poverty, development and environment in a fairer way. This is not easy in a western society and we strive, individually and as a group to find God’s purpose for us in a world where our own society uses so much of the world’s resources.
A late 19th century statement put it this way:
Let nothing and no one induce you to swerve from strict integrity, wise economy and honest diligence
We try to maintain one standard of truth and honesty in all that we do. Quakers do not swear on the Bible in court, as this implies a higher standard in court than in everyday life. Instead we usually ‘affirm’ in legal situations. We are advised to maintain a high standard of integrity in business and in relationships and to be careful to keep our business affairs in good order.
Our central belief that the light of Christ is in every person, led to the ‘ministry of all believers’, as truth may be revealed to and through any person who seeks God’s bidding. Controversially, this included women, who are centrally involved in both the ministry and the organisation of the Society of Friends and have been since its inception in the 17thcentury. An outward sign of this was the refusal to ‘doff the hat’ or bow to ‘superiors’ for which early Quakers were often imprisoned.
This testimony also affects how we approach conflict resolution and charitable work, as we do not see barriers to talking to and mixing with people who may be rejected by society. This is the example Jesus left us. The involvement of Quakers in the abolition of slavery, the tradition of prison work and dialogue with all sides in a conflict situation (armies, leaders, paramilitaries, minority groups, the poor) are some of the manifestations of this.
Concerns also arise from Truth revealed
When an individual or small group of Quakers have a concern to do something, they may bring it to an appropriate formal meeting and together seek God’s will for a way forward. The meeting may decide to support the concern corporately, for example by raising funds or setting up an organising committee, or they may wish the Friends well and support them in prayer or other ways. Or the meeting may believe that the concern is not well developed or even misguided, and ask the Friends who brought it to consider it further.
Where the first course is taken, the local meeting and Ireland Yearly Meeting as a whole may support the activity by its members working under concern. Present examples of this in Ireland are the Eco Quakers, Quaker Service, based in Belfast and various peace committees and Irish Quaker Faith in Action.