In their efforts to reclaim what they saw as the lost spiritual vitality of Christianity, early Quakers/Friends sought to ensure that their actions in life matched the gospel message they preached and shared – that their words and actions matched, essentially. To that end, they began to adopt “testimonies” – core beliefs that they tried to match with their actions which they believed were at the center of Christ’s teachings. The specific number of testimonies, let alone the ways to live them out, have varied over the centuries, but SPICE is a convenient way to remember five of the most common and enduring – Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.
The particular ways to live these out will vary from time to time and person to person, let alone meeting to meeting, but adhering to the testimonies is not seen as optional or for a specially dedicated group of people – rather, they are integral to a life in Christ. Not all of the ways Friends have tried to live these out have been successful or worth emulating (banning music and theater from their use for example), while others (women’s suffrage, abolitionism) have become universally praiseworthy. These testimonies are detailed below.
Even 400 years ago, the Quakers tried to convince people to give up some of the more frivolous and ostentatious aspects of their lives and return to a simpler, more egalitarian way of living. This applied in all areas of life, from dress, often going with un-dyed or plain black fabric, to religious worship, forgoing all the ostentatious decorations, rituals, musical instruments, and even planned services that they saw in the churches around them in order to go with a more primitive, “pure” worship. Even their manner of speech was “simplified,” and Friends insisted on using the informal “thee” and “thou” for everybody regardless of their social class, instead of the formal “you” for people of a higher social class, which they also intended as a statement of equality. Like the Puritans, Quakers railed against what they saw as the excessive pleasures of theater and dance and forbid their membership from taking part.
Over time, the focus on simplicity became a code of uniformity and set the Friends apart as anachronistic. Today, many Quakers live out the simplicity testimony by trying to focus on not becoming caught up in the materialism and the relentless commercial pursuit that our culture is driving us to. The idea is to emphasize that our worth doesn’t come from what we own or what we look like on the outside, but from our being children of God, and that the work of God should have a central place in our time and money. In addition to this, some see living simply as a way to use less of the world’s limited resources, others see it as a matter of spiritual discipline, and some people simply like not having a lot of clutter. There’s also been a realization that becoming too focused on ensuring everything and everybody is being simple can be just as damaging to a spiritual community as trying to ensure everything and everybody is looking fancy, so a relaxed attitude towards dress and physical worship spaces is prevalent. Certainly music and theater (and other media) are no longer frowned upon, but welcomed.
The Peace Testimony is perhaps the most famous and most controversial of the Quaker testimonies. Along with the various flavors of Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, the various Brethren), Friends are one of the “historic peace churches” for their long and famous opposition to warfare and violent conflict as acceptable methods of solving world issues. For virtually every major world conflict since the mid-1600s, Quakers have worked to prevent it and to find a peaceful solution – tragically, of course, rarely with success. Many Quakers through the centuries have been pacifists, refusing to take part in warfare even when it meant arrest and imprisonment; many Friends have been conscientious objectors since that became an option.
Of course, while opposition to war has been the traditional viewpoint of the organization, there have always been Quakers who have felt compelled by their own beliefs to take up arms and join the military, sometimes in large numbers (the US Civil War and World War II being two of the greatest examples). Friends recognize that this is the case and appreciate the sacrifice of those who feel compelled to follow their conscience in such a way, and are always happy to welcome into fellowship anyone who has been or continues to be a serviceman or woman. In the work of promoting peace, Quakers have long taken an active role, not simply disconnecting from the world and being passive, but working to actively find alternate methods to solve conflicts, often through negotiation, education, and service projects.
The idea is that, instead of simply trying to ensure pax (the Latin word for peace) which simply refers to a lack of open conflict, Friends work to ensure shalom, the Hebrew word for peace which has the additional connotation of a life free of the various factors which can lead to conflict – hunger, resentment, rampant poverty, sharp class or race divides. When conflicts do break out, Friends often find themselves helping in various non-combatant ways to tend to the suffering and wounded from both sides. During World War One, British Quakers were ambulance drivers on the battlefields of France, and during the US Civil War the Quaker church in Jefferson County, TN briefly served as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Today, Friends often find themselves serving around the world in ministries such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, running a house for the United Nations which has been used for negotiations, and organizing relief efforts in parts of Africa where conflict runs rampant, among other places.
“Let your yes be yes, and let your no be no,” Jesus once said. The Integrity testimony is an attempt to live up to this commandment. What you say and what you do should match – honesty and truthfulness are not simply prized, but expected among Friends, and not just in words but in the actions we take. This has played out in several ways. For example, Friends have taken Jesus words literally, and are not required to swear an oath in court, as that would imply they were being less truthful at other times. Instead, they simply “affirm” to be telling the truth. Quaker merchants were also among the first to use a “fixed price” system for goods, setting a single price based on a fair market assessment of the product’s worth instead of varying it based on bartering or negotiation. If a product was worth something, then it was always worth that amount, regardless of the customer. This method, and the Friends well-known reputation for fairness as merchants, meant that even a child could be sent to the store – and as a bonus for those Quaker merchants, their reputation meant more business, and great earned wealth. Others even began to use this reputation in their favor – thus the Quaker Oats company (not founded by Quakers) which used Friends reputation for both honesty and value as shorthand for “just oats, nothing added.” As another example, many Friends in the antebellum United States refused to buy goods which were made from slave labor – their sense of integrity could not abide making use of products produced by a system they were opposed to. Even today, some Friends are careful about the purchases they make or services they use based on ethical concerns.
In some ways, Quakers are extremely independent in matters of faith – a core belief is that there is no intermediary between the individual and God, but that each person can have a direct, personal relationship rather than through a priest or other minister. Moreover that God calls each person individually to a role and vocation in life. However, there is also a very strong emphasis on the community – both the faith community and the larger community we live in. While each person can have a spiritual life alone, it’s both easier and healthier to have a life of faith in a community of believers. Or in other words, you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, but going to church helps the Christian to be more vital and active and most people shouldn’t do without.
Friends believe that we can understand and hear God’s direction more accurately when we listen and work together than on our own. This community of faith isn’t just the local church, however – it also includes a larger body of Quakers and other Christians – both alive and long past, the “Church universal.” One of the great values of the Scriptures and other Christian writings is we can see how the community of God’s worshipers has been in relationship with God in other times and places. One way this testimony manifests itself is in how we do business – Friends don’t vote, but make decisions based on a model of consensus and gives every single person the opportunity to speak and have a role in decisions that the community makes.
Friends have also for many years tried to be active in the local temporal community as well, serving as teachers, government workers, bus drivers, firefighters, and many other roles – being a good Christian means being involved in matters of the community as well as the church.
The Equality testimony is probably the most basic of the testimonies, and the soil out of which the other four grow. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Quakers arose at the time when the secular philosophical world began to shift towards the Enlightenment and to give greater import to the individual – and would later produce the famous phrase “All men are created equal.” The Friends found this concept, not in the philosophy which was coming to the same conclusion, but in the Bible, and from the beginning the Quakers worked to level the various hierarchies and inequalities that were an ever-present force in the 17th Century.
Perhaps the most basic and original to the Friends was abolishing the clergy – if all people had a direct access to God, and if God could speak through any person, what need was there for an unequal hierarchy where some men were considered more “holy” than other people? In the centuries since, the Friends have found themselves deeply involved in struggles for equality – in the abolition of slavery throughout both the British and American world, which included a pivotal role in the famous Underground Railroad, in the struggle to gain equal rights for women through suffrage and other means, in work with Native Americans and in alliance with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Through all of these, the Friends have maintained their testimony that there is “that of God in everyone” – that is, every person has the potential to relate to God, and no person is greater or lesser in God’s eyes, despite what society may say.