Quaker Testimonies

Truth for Friends was known both through the revelation of scripture, which they insisted was interpreted through the aid of the Spirit that gave it forth, and the direct experience of God’s continuing revelation in the individual and the faith community. They did not adopt the creeds of past generations. Rather, Quakers testified to the truths discerned through their own individual and corporate experience of God’s leading. These “testimonies” grew and changed over the centuries as Friends wrestled with their own leadings into truth, the changing culture around them and fresh insights into scripture.

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As the testimonies developed, they were compiled in books of faith and practice that were used by Friends for guidance. Advice was offered about what others had found helpful in their spiritual journey; questions (also known as “queries”) based on the testimonies were asked of Friends as a means of enabling deeper reflection on one’s growth in faith.

We have given a brief explanation of each of the five normative testimonies. Each section begins with a query related to that particular testimony from the Quaker Faith & Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting, the Religious Society of Friends in Britain. A sampling of ways that each testimony is expressed in campus culture is also provided.

Testimonies

Direct and Immediate Access to God/Truth

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

– Advices & Queries #1, Quaker Faith & Practice

Primary to Quaker faith is a conviction that God continues to communicate with all that God has created. Quaker faith assumes that God is and that God chooses to be in dialogue with His creation. The experience of Friends, confirmed both in scripture and the experience of others throughout time, is that we are in relationship with a spirit and power greater than ourselves. Most Friends describe God’s nature as consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ. Some Friends are more comfortable saying what God is not, rather than saying what God is.

However God is described or experienced, Friends are clear that we have direct and immediate access to that power. This means there is no need for an ordained priest; no need for a book; no incantations, rites or rituals to summon the Deity. As helpful and comforting as these may be, Friends have found that God is always present and chooses to communicate if we simply listen. Quakers use such terms as “that of God within” and “the inward Light” to describe the presence of this inherent capacity to be in contact with the Creator of the universe. Other common expressions are “the inward Christ,” “the inward Teacher” or “the Holy Spirit.”

If this reality is taken seriously, it has implications for religious practice. For Friends, worship is based on “waiting” on God, attending to God’s voice and direction in the silence of the body, soul and mind—making space for God to communicate through “the still, small voice.” The truth of what is communicated is discerned both through the experience of the individual worshiper and that of those in the worshiping community, as well as the written record of God’s dealings with humanity throughout history: the scriptures. The experience of “authorities” is not assumed to take precedence over one’s own experience of the divine; the scriptures are seen as declarations of the Source, not the Source itself. Outward forms are seen as secondary to a direct and inward experience.

An expression of these convictions may be seen in traditional Quaker meetinghouse architecture. The building is plain, unmarked by anything that would declare it “sacred,” as God may be met anywhere. Inside, there is no stained glass, nor are there icons, statues or pictures—nothing to distract one from looking inward. There is no pulpit from which the Word is preached by an ordained authority. Friends understand that Christ is the Word and is present to lead, instruct and direct each worshiper inwardly. Ministry arises out of the silence, as individuals are obedient to the promptings of the Spirit, rise and share. There is no altar where Holy Communion is offered. God is the Real Presence in the midst of the worshipers, communing directly in the silence.

Expressions of this Testimony at Guilford College

Moments of silence before gatherings. Most meetings, committees and many classes at the College begin with a moment of silence. Along with providing a beneficial space to catch one’s breath, focus and prepare for the work ahead, these moments reflect the Quaker commitment of Guilford to the immediate presence of a spirit greater than ourselves that may gather us together in a common search for truth.

Decision-making by consensus (“sense of the meeting”). If each person has direct access to God’s truth, then it becomes imperative that each person be given the opportunity to express the truth they may be given; the one person out of many may be the one voicing what the group needs to hear. It is then the duty of the group to discern the validity of expressions in light of members’ experience, the group’s history and other sources of truth. Decision-making at Guilford is modeled after this process.

Informal worship and worship space. Consistent with Quaker tradition, College-sponsored worship is typically marked by the use of silent meditation, absence of written liturgy and inclusion of a variety of expressions of God’s movement in people’s lives. Worship spaces are likewise informal and reflective of Quaker simplicity and plainness. Friends avoid the use of outward symbols, focusing rather on an experience of the reality that symbols attempt to embody.

Openness to different ways of expressing revealed truth. While Quakerism is an expression of Christian faith, Guilford encourages and supports the practice and expression of a wide variety of faith traditions on campus. This is not the result of an unthinking relativism but is rather a commitment to experiencing the many ways in which God speaks to and through His creation.

Small seminar and “circle” classes. Student input and discussion is valued in the classroom at Guilford, not only because it is good pedagogy, but also because there is a profound belief that everyone in the classroom has access to truth that may benefit the group.

Equality

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it.

– Advices and Queries #17, Quaker Faith & Practice

The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has the capacity to know and respond to the will of God. All have equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. Early Friends found it in themselves when they despaired of any outward authority to lead them into right relationship with God. They found it in others as they shared the experience of God’s working in their lives.

Robert Barclay, the 17th century Quaker theologian, expressed in Proposition 6 of his Apology, “There is an evangelical and saving light and grace in everyone, and the love and mercy of God toward mankind were universal, both in the death of his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the light in the heart.” He goes on to say that this saving light is universal, and that “…if they allow his seed and light to enlighten their hearts, they may become partakers of the mystery of [Christ's] death, even though they have not heard of it.”

John Woolman, an 18th century Friend, stated, “There is a principle placed in the human mind which is pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no religion, nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” As lived out, this testimony meant that early Friends recognized the equality of men and women in spiritual terms. Women’s speaking as public ministers was justified by their possession of God’s spirit. Women were encouraged to take an active role in the decision-making of the Quaker movement with the establishment of separate men’s and women’s business meetings. Culturally shy about speaking in front of men, women were thus enabled to develop their own voice and comfort with exercising authority.

From recognizing the Light in women, it wasn’t a leap to seeing it in others who were different from the predominantly European first Friends: the Native Americans who befriended Quakers in the Americas and the native and enslaved Africans who witnessed to a deep and abiding spirit of God in their lives. Friends built the first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, England, to provide a setting for the humane treatment of those formerly locked away as demon-possessed. Friends contributed to a new style of prison, the penitentiary, with the “Quaker model” emphasizing the possibility of redemption and restitution.

Where Quakers are mentioned in social histories of the United States, it is often in the context of reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights, Indian affairs, prison reform, civil rights. This work arises out of a deep response to “that of God” in the other, and a desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. It is also informed by the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Expressions of this Testimony at Guilford College

First-name basis of all relationships on campus. Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. Historically, Quakers have used a person’s full name in formal address rather than “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” In informal address at Guilford, all are on a first-name basis.

Absence of a Greek system. Quakers have long opposed secret societies or other organizations that exclude and include based on perceived worth and place in society.

A welcoming and affirming attitude about different races, nationalities, faiths and sexual orientations. Guilford has committed itself to be an anti-racist, multicultural institution, welcoming of a wide variety of people and opinions, including those hired for College positions. There are strong policies in place regarding harassment, and clubs and organizations on campus are required to be open to all. Consensual decision-making encourages participation. Fair labor practices are openly discussed.

Programs and academic offerings. The Native American program, Africana program, international program, Guilford Council on Religious Organizations, multicultural education, community learning, women’s studies and courses in queer studies, religious studies and African-American studies, to name but a few, all flow out of a commitment to human equality.

Integrity

Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? Do you maintain strict integrity in business transactions and in your dealings with individuals and organizations? Do you use money and information entrusted to you with discretion and responsibility? Taking oaths implies a double standard of truth; in choosing to affirm instead, be aware of the claim to integrity that you are making.

-Advices and Queries #37, Quaker Faith & Practice

Typically, the concern for integrity is articulated in terms of honesty and truthfulness. Quakers are known for their history of refusing to swear an oath, in recognition both of Jesus’ clear statement on the subject (“Let your ‘yea’ be ‘yea’ and your ‘nay’ be ‘nay’,” Matthew 5:33–37) and of Friends’ opposition to two standards of truth-telling.

Indeed, Friends’ concern for integrity has been reflected in a reputation for honesty. Quaker merchants flourished, in large part because of their innovation of a single price system for products. Customers knew they could trust the quality of the Quakers’ merchandise and that it would be fairly priced. Similarly, Quakers became involved in the banking, accounting and insurance industries as people entrusted their funds to these honest brokers. Barclays, Lloyds, PriceWaterhouse and Friends Provident are results of these financial endeavors.

More than honesty and truthfulness, though, the testimony of integrity points to a fundamental Quaker impulse to “let your life preach,” to be authentic enough that others might see what one’s beliefs and commitments are by the way life is lived. John Woolman, the 18th century “poster child” for Quaker integrity, writes in his Journal, “The substance of true religion is to harmonize practice with principle.” For him, that meant using nothing connected with the slave system he deplored—even wearing undyed clothing to avoid the slave-produced indigos. It meant walking 200 miles of Pennsylvania wilderness at the height of the French and Indian War to meet with Native Americans—because he felt a motion of love toward them.

Thomas Kelly, a 20th century Friend, writes in A Testament of Devotion, “If the Society of Friends has anything to say, it lies in this region primarily: Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center.” The Quaker testimony of integrity might be compared to a circle, the definition of which is “a locus of points, each of which is equidistant from an invisible point—the center.” For Friends, God is that invisible Center. The circle of one’s life is to be organized around the will and nature of that Divine Presence: a will characterized by the desire for a restored harmony in creation; a nature defined by love. Quaker integrity is about integrating those values into one’s life.

Expressions of this Testimony at Guilford College

The honor code. Students are asked to affirm their honesty on academic work by including the statement “I have been honest and have observed no dishonesty” in the materials they turn in to professors. Implied in this statement is a responsibility to maintain personal integrity and to encourage others to do so. In recent years, Guilford has also been moving toward developing a social honor code, “The Community Agreements Initiative,” that would reflect a more authentic attempt to live in community based on shared values and commitments.

The academic curriculum. Quaker principles and testimonies are embedded in the college curriculum, integrating the values of Guilford’s heritage into the core mission of the institution. From the introduction of these principles in First Year Experience classes to core requirements in diversity, social justice, environmental responsibility and multicultural awareness, Guilford courses reflect Quaker commitment. Such majors and concentrations as African-American studies, international studies, women’s studies, environmental studies, peace studies and other areas reflective of Quaker testimonies give further witness to this integration, as does a focus on interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge.

Peace

We are called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.’ Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ?

– Advices and Queries #31, Quaker Faith & Practice

For Friends, the peace testimony is not essentially a political statement. It is a testimony to the power of a divine experience that does away with the root of all violence—our own selfish passions—and excites our endeavors to mend the world. When George Fox was approached in prison with the opportunity for an early release if he would serve as a captain in the army, he refused with a response that is now included as a quote in the advice and query above. He went on to say that he knew the origins of violence, citing James 4:1-2: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. Any you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The implications for the Christian are clear: simplify your life to remove desires inconsistent with a Christ-centered life; trust God for your needs; seek the good of others; display your faith through works inspired by Christ’s example of love.

Ten years after Fox expressed this first understanding of the Quaker peace testimony, the “official” peace testimony was articulated in a declaration to King Charles II of England in 1660: “That 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.”

This statement was largely political in nature, in spite of the clearly religious language used to deny war; however, it became a universal principle for Friends during the succeeding two centuries. No Friend could remain a member of the Religious Society if s/he “appeared in a warlike manner,” as the Quaker disciplines often put it. Yet on occasion some Friends opted for the subtext of the 1660 Declaration and bore the sword in defense of self and community. For example, several hundred “fighting Quakers.” including Greensboro’s namesake Nathaniel Greene and seamstress Betsy Ross, supported the Revolutionary War.

The American Civil War helped create a sea change in Quakerism, as many young Friends, caught up in the excitement of the war and committed to the anti-slavery cause, chose to fight on the Union side. After the war, most were taken back into their meetings without the previous requirement of confessing their “sin.” The popular revivals of the late 1800s deeply affected American Quakerism and helped sweep away many of the Quaker distinctives, including plain dress, plain speech, silent worship and the expectation of refusing military service.

Expressions of the traditional peace testimony, however, remained in the books of discipline of the various Quaker bodies—and are still there today, even while the majority of Quaker men of military age chose to serve in some capacity in the armed forces during the 20th century. The American Friends Service Committee was formed in 1917 to offer Quakers opposed to war a peaceful alternative. Thousands of Friends were conscientious objectors during World War II, as were many during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Numerous Friends have refused to register with the Selective Service System since the re-instatement of draft registration in 1975. But many more have served in branches of the military, and there are numerous Quaker meetings that have plaques and ceremonies honoring their veterans.

So, is there a consistent peace testimony among Friends? Yes. On paper, at least, Friends have been consistent in expressing the belief that God’s will is to bring in “the peaceable kingdom,” that swords will be beaten into ploughshares and humankind will study war no more, and that Jesus provided the supreme example of one who willingly bears the cross rather than doing violence to others.

For some, the peace testimony has morphed into political pacifism and social activism. For others, it is an expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Others, still, find the notion of Biblical nonresistance hopelessly naïve in a broken and fallen world. Suffice it to say, debate over the traditional Quaker interpretation of Christian teachings about peace is lively in the wider community of Friends and on campus.

Expressions of this Testimony at Guilford College

Peace and Conflict Studies. Guilford has a vital, interdisciplinary program in the study of the causes of conflict, conflict transformation and nonviolent direct action, incorporating all of the Quaker testimonies. An active Conflict Resolution Resource Center serves members of the College community and beyond. Co-curricular programs are regularly sponsored on matters of social justice; discourse, rather than debate, is encouraged.

Response to issues of war. During times of war and preparation for war in the United States, the College typically responds with peace vigils, “learn-ins” and speakers and programs articulating interpretations of the historic Quaker peace testimony.

Restriction of military recruitment and education on conscientious objection. By tradition, military recruiters are not invited on campus. Information about military service is available in the Career Development center. Programs on preparing for a claim of conscientious objection to participation in war are offered at the College. Counseling by faculty, staff and students who are conscientious objectors is made available.

Student clubs and activity. Student groups are often active around issues of peace and the active attempt to “remove the occasion of war.” The Guilford Action Network, Amnesty International, Quaker Concerns and the Guilford Council of Religious Organizations are among those often organizing activities focusing on nonviolent response to conflict. Student volunteerism in programs of social concern on and off-campus is often related to peace issues, and members of the college community are connected with such area initiatives as the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project and the Peace & Justice Network.

Simplicity

Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?

– Advices and Queries #41, Quaker Faith & Practice

Other than the peace testimony, no other value tends to identify Quakers in the popular mind as much as simplicity. In some people’s minds, one is not a real Quaker unless dressed in basic grey with a bonnet or broad brim hat, pinching a penny until it screams, and looking altogether like the Amish.

Indeed, up until a certain time in Quaker history, one could pick a Quaker out of a police lineup by the way s/he dressed. While never actually wearing a “uniform” the way Hutterites or Amish do, Friends were advised to distinguish themselves from “the world’s people” by avoiding the changing fads and fashions of popular culture. The dress of one generation became standard for succeeding ones, and plainness was measured, literally, in the width of lapels and collars or in the color of one’s clothes. That fell out of custom by the late 1800s, and few Friends today dress distinctively plainly, although most still avoid ostentation.

The real roots of simplicity, however, do not lie in saving money or avoiding a display of wealth—as beneficial as those virtues may be. Fundamentally, the testimony of simplicity is a spiritual one. If the primary focus of a Quaker’s life is to harmonize that life around the promptings of the Inward Light, then all that distracts from that focus needs to be pruned away. As Caroline Stephen said in 1890, “In life, as in art, whatever does not help, hinders. All that is superfluous to the main object of life must be cleared away, if that object is to be fully attained.” (Quaker Strongholds, 110)

Friends also recognize the interconnection of lifestyle and the impact on others and the environment. If the resources of the world are to be shared equitably, can I continue to consume more than my fair share? If each child is a child of God, and “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” then “living simply so others may simply live” is a spiritual mandate.

One of the linguistic mistakes often made is to say, “Quakers practice a simplistic way of life.” To paraphrase the quintessential plain Friend, John Woolman, simple living is not simplistic; it requires a clear understanding of priorities and the discipline to place the proper boundaries on our desires so that all we do and possess may be turned into instruments of betterment for ourselves and the world.

Expressions of this Testimony at Guilford College

Plainness of buildings and grounds; environmental concerns. While Guilford’s campus is among the most delightful in academia, care is taken not to pour money into making a “show” of the grounds and buildings. There are no soaring Gothic structures, no “putting green” lawns, no excessive architecture. Sustainable practices are encouraged to lessen our “footprint” on the earth.

Faculty and student appearance. Some may decry the fact that members of the Guilford community don’t tend to “spruce up,” to put it mildly, but rather than emphasizing “vain and outward appearances,” the College has nurtured an environment that emphasizes inward beauty and qualities of mind and spirit rather than artificially enhanced physical appearance.