The word testimony is used by Friends to describe a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based of the realisation that there is “that of God in everyone’, that all human beings are equal, and that all life is interconnected. It is affirmative but may lead to action that runs counter to certain practices currently accepted in the society at large. Testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends, however much individual Friends may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not ‘optional extras’ but fruits that grow from the tree of faith. Basic Quaker testimonies are: truth, equality, peace, simplicity and community.
Truth is a complex concept. Sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship, sometimes for the way of life. It was the obedience to truth as they understood it that led Friends to act in ways which others thought odd and even provocative. For early Friends, witnessing to Truth involved keeping up public meetings for worship, whatever the penalties involved. It also involved preaching, for which many Friends were imprisoned. The concern for truthfulness led Friends right from the first day to refuse to take oaths. An oath according to them was a sign that there were two different levels of truthfulness and they believed that you should tell the truth all the time. Margaret Fell, for instance, was imprisoned and lost all her property for her refusal to take an oath of loyalty to the king.
If God is directly accessible to all persons, regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, economic, social or educational position – if every person is held equal in God’s love and has equal potential to be a channel for the revelation of God’s Truth – then all persons are to be equally valued. There is that Seed, that Light – there is “that of God’ in every person. For Friends this insight has meant, from the beginning, equality of the sexes and of races. In England and the English colonies this had to mean the end of privilege based on wealth or class. In Japan and Kenya, where the existing cultures made women little more than ‘domestic property’, it resulted in the establishment of Quaker schools for girls. It also formed the basis for opposition to slavery and the death penalty.
The peace testimony is based on the same understanding of the nature of God and of human beings. How can one kill another child of God, a potential channel of Truth, no matter how misguided he or she may seem at the moment? This testimony has led Friends to oppose all wars and preparation for wars. At the time of the American Revolution, many Friends were ‘disowned’ by their meetings for participating in military actions. Later, Friends, faced with military conscription, worked to establish the right of conscientious objection. Some Friends still work to end conscription for military purposes, not only of their bodies but also of their tax money.
The peace testimony has meant efforts to ease suffering of victims of war on all sides. It means efforts to be or to seek a reconciling force between peoples and nations in conflict. It means a constant search for non-violent means of conflict resolution through institutions of law, such as international treaties and structures like the European Union or the United Nations. It means a continuing search for peace and social justice through personal and group non-violent techniques for mediation and social change. The Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) in Brussels, and the Quaker United Nation Offices (QUNOs) in Geneva and New York, for example, promote Quaker views at the heart of centres of power, where political, economic and military decisions with world-wide effect are made (“speaking truth to power”).
There is certainty among Friends that the world offers many distractions from the Truth, for example the pursuit of wealth or power or pleasure, extravagance in language, fashion or behaviour, and too great an emphasis on business, even for good causes. Truth is usually discovered in quiet, undistracted waiting for its leadings in the human heart, in the humble simplicity of spirit which acknowledges that ultimately God is in charge of our world, not we ourselves.
The testimony of simplicity seeks, therefore, to focus our attention on what is essential and eternal, without distraction by the transitory or the trivial. Plain and honest speech is an expression of simplicity. Respect for God’s creation and, therefore, concern for the environment and the right use of the world’s resources is another obvious expression of this testimony. A growth economy based on extravagance, wastefulness and artificially stimulated wants is seen to be a fundamental violation of the simplicity testimony.
As equally beloved children of God, all human beings are brothers and sisters, one human family, no matter how great our differences of experience, of culture, of age, of understanding. Friends have found that the Light may illuminate a gathered group as well as an individual heart and bind the group together in a community of faith, conscience and experience. Friends see it as their task to build a broader community throughout our world, by seeing and affirming in each other the divine potential, the Seed, the Christ, the Light within. We must learn to deal with one another by affirming and nurturing the best we find in each other – or, in the words of George Fox – by “answering that of God in everyone”. In such a community, Friends believe, human beings witness to the sovereignty, compassion and love of the God of their experiences.