Posted on 15 January 2021
With over 350 years of witness, the Quaker Testimonies have evolved and changed over time.
One definition of history is that it is to society what remembered experience is to the individual.
When the first Quakers formed as an organised movement in 1952, there was no creed or manifesto as there had been with other contemporary movements such as the Levellers, Diggers and Fifth Monarchists. Therefore, the Quakers testimonies began simply as a collective memory of Friends’ witness to living their lives through Quakerism.
It would be in the written word that the Quaker Testimonies, as we know them today, would emerge.
Words written down as Friends harnessed the power of the 17th printing press and became Publishers of the Truth. Because Quakers placed such high value on being truthful (as they saw it), every word the Quakers printed was published with the ‘truth’. Because of this, there’s no singular defining point in print, from which the Truth Testimony evolves.
Therefore, the Smudgy Guide would argue that the first ever Quaker pamphlet published would be the origin of the Truth Testimony. It’s known that Quaker pamphlets appeared between late 1652 to early 1653, but unfortunately none of these survive – so the first Quaker pamphlet is lost in the midst of time.
Quakers were soon publishing a pamphlet a week, paid for through a collectively managed fund. From around 1656, these pamphlets and distributed by a network of itinerant preachers known as the Valiant Sixty.
Consumers of these publications included converts across England who had been visited at one time or another by members of the Valiant Sixty. In the absence of stable leaders and places of worship, converts were taught to form weekly Meetings to keep up the faith.
The pamphlets were issued at regular intervals to encourage Meetings, and to update them about experiences of the traveling Sixty.
By imagining its future in the written word, Quakerism took on a social life of its own as the words of Friends appeared in print for the first time. From these early pamphlets, the seeds were sown for the different Quaker Testimonies to sprout up.
In 1660, The Publishers of the Truth printed A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God Called Quakers Against all Plotters and Fighters in the World. More simply known as the 1660 Peace Declaration, it would be this pamphlet from which the Peace Testimony would evolve.
No Cross, No Crown, by William Penn was written during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and subsequently published in 1669. Penn’s view of Christianity is intensely spiritual rather than formal, and in passing he defends several Quaker practices.
These include clothing which was not fashionable and speech which addressed royal and commoner alike in the second person singular “thee” and “thou.” It would be Penn’s passionate defence of keeping things simple from which the Simplicity Testimony would evolve.
Seventeen years later, in 1677, the Quaker Robert Barclay published Treatise on Universal Love. Being the concept that God loves all his people equally, regardless of what the Church of England said, was a both a radical and dangerous message for time. This belief in religious equality through Universal Love is from which the Equality Testimony would evolve.
Two years later, in 1679, the Quaker Robert Barclay published An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. This was the culmination of several earlier pamphlets and works of his being edited into a large single volume. Barclay’s Apology was the first detailed account of the Quakers’ burgeoning theology and can be seen, in itself, as a unified testimony of the Quaker testimonies.
The Social Testimonies
Fast forward to the 20th century and in 1943, A Guide to Quaker Practice is published by Howard Brinton. In this small booklet of 22 pages is a section called Social Testimonies.
Here, Brinton describes a process by which Friends have over time have come to realize the social implications of our religious positions and acted on those insights.
“At the price of oversimplification let us outline the Quaker social doctrines under four heads – community, harmony, equality, and simplicity.”
It’s from these ‘four heads’ that the modern Quaker Testimonies known as SPICES evolve. Harmony changes to Peace and Integrity is used to express the Truth Testimony (which is embedded in all the testimonies). Stewardship gets added and more recently becomes Stewardship/Sustainability.
No doubt over the next few decades the Quaker Testimonies will continue to evolve. However they evolve, the testimonies will always flows from, and be a declaration of, love.