First Day Program Adds Flavor to Quaker History

First Day Program Adds Flavor to Quaker History

This year, our Religious Education Committee has chosen Friends’ Testimonies as the theme for our First Day School programs for both children and adults. To help get things started on the adult side, the Worship and Ministry Committee presented a program entitled “Friends’ Testimonies – A Historical Perspective” led by Bob Brookes on October 2.

Bob’s presentation focused on the evolution of the testimonies over the three and a half centuries of Quaker history. The testimonies began as bold, public and frequently confrontational demonstrations of divinely revealed truth (such as refusal take oaths or doff one’s hat to one’s “superior”), later became established and often rigid rules of conformity (codified in Books of Discipline) and more recently were transformed into broad guiding principles, often summed up with a mnemonic: SPICES which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Equality and Stewardship.

Early Quakers might not have approved of “SPICES” if they’d heard it, but the testimonies started out as anything but bland.    George Fox and other early Quakers who sparked controversy by disrupting church services and refusing to obey social conventions in 17th century England referred to these public actions and declarations as testimonies. They included insistence on addressing all people with the familiar “thou” and “thee” instead of the formal “you” expected by those of higher social rank. Many of the first generation of Friends were imprisoned, had their property forfeited and suffered greatly for following their interpretation of God’s will in their every word and act.

Gradually, the intensity of Friends’ early evangelism softened as Quaker leaders became more focused on organization and discipline, with greater emphasis on avoiding suppression by church/state authorities and maintaining order among Friends as a religious society. The first articulation of a corporate “peace testimony” was a letter to King Charles II distancing Quakers from dissident groups that advocated violence. The advisory writings of Quaker elders during this period described testimonies with phrases like “keeping ancient principles of truth,” and refusing to collaborate with “the worldes fashion.” Eventually, expressions and interpretations of the testimonies in the minutes, epistles and advices circulated among Meetings were collected in Books of Discipline, which in turn evolved into our modern Faith and Practice texts.

Through the centuries, even in our “Quietist” periods predominated by inward reflection and rigid codification of proper Quakerly conduct, the historical testimonies inspired Friends who were led to activism, such as John Woolman, to pursue bold and difficult ministries in the world.

In the 20th century, organizations like the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation have offered a roadmap for turning away from “negative” testimonies such as opposing war and toward positive testimonies such as working for peace. In addition, Howard Brinton, through his classic book Friends for 300 Years, was influential in creating the modern perception of the testimonies as asset of positive guiding principles.

Today, most Friends seem to see value in describing the testimonies in positive rather than proscriptive terms. However, some commentators point to an unintended consequence of reducing our deeply rooted beliefs to catch-phrases that are general, subjective and hard to distinguish from secular concepts such as “voluntary simplicity”.  Bob cited Quaker scholar and blogger Martin Kelley’s description of SPICES as “feel good testimonies” with which few people would disagree but which inspire scant action, prompting a concern that, for modern day Quakers, the testimonies may have lost the close association they once had with their scriptural sources – notably the great commandments of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.

Bob Brookes

October 2011

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