Quaker Testimony

episode 37 quaker testimony

Welcome to season 4! We’re on the final section of Traditional Quaker Christianity! Chapter 7A is on Quaker testimonies. Or Quaker testimony. We’re going to talk about the implications of those two.

Quaker Testimony

Testimony has two primary definitions:

  1. evidence in support of a fact, proof
  2. a public declaration regarding a religious experience

Second things first

The second version is something you hear especially from Evangelical Protestants. The song Amazing Grace is an example. The general formula is:

  1. I was a bad person.
  2. I found Jesus.
  3. I’m better now.
  4. Jesus can make you better too.

But also, a lot of the vocal ministry in meetings for worship is Quaker testimony. It might not be testimony about convincement (or conversion), but it’s often testimony about the way God is working in someone’s life.

A whole life

Looking at the first definition, though, we can think of our entire lives as evidence of our beliefs. The book points to many places in the Bible that talk about this. The point of all of them is that if you truly believe the things you say you believe, you will live a certain way. And so, Quakers used to talk about Quaker “testimony” in a more singular way: the Quaker lifestyle. There were many aspects to the Quaker lifestyle or testimony, like nonviolence or speaking a certain way, but it was all one Quaker testimony.

Sometimes I wonder whether, under the influence of the need to reach out to a secular society, we have made testimony simply into an expression of ethics. We have numbered and acronymised (forgive the invention!) our testimonies, and progressive people of goodwill will, more or less, be in agreement with them. That is fine as far as it goes. But the ways we express our relationship with the divine in everyday life surely cannot be limited to convenient words or headings in an index. Testimony is not a strategy, nor is it a political manifesto. Rather, it is a vital response to a call from the depths of our being to examine our lives and to heed the cry of the world itself.
— Harvey Gillman

Quaker Testimonies

And then Howard Brinton wrote Friends for 300 Years, and he categorized all those aspects. Next thing you know? Those category names were being listed off as “Quaker testimonies.” Yes, testimonies, plural. This was really handy for teaching to kids in First Day School, but it didn’t stop there. These fruits became divorced from their roots. That makes it much easier to secularize them. Who doesn’t like peace? Who doesn’t like truth? Who doesn’t like community?


The sort of “4 classic” Quaker testimonies you’ll hear British Friends or American ones who were around in the 1980s refer to are sometimes abbreviated STEP:

  • Simplicity
  • Truth
  • Equality
  • Peace


Some modern American Quakers have expanded it to six:

  • Simplicity
  • Peace
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Equality
  • Stewardship or Sustainability

That spells SPICES. Sometimes this results in things like “Quakers believe in spices!” as a tagline, which certainly makes some people cringe.

We conclude that the iterated testimonies are a gateway drug for bringing new people into liberal Quakerism.



Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith and Podcast, where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and a variety of Quaker beliefs found today. Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast, and finally I think for the first time in this entire podcast, we are going to say the word “spices”. I am McKenzie, and my cohost is Micah, and I’m sure there are people who have been listening for a year going, “Okay, but what about SPICES?”

Micah: Oregano is so good.

Mackenzie: Really? Wait, oregano is an herb, not a spice.

Micah: Eh, it’s in my spice cabinet.

Mackenzie: We are now moving into, we’re declaring this to be season four of the podcast, we are moving into chapter seven of traditional Quaker Christianity, which is on faithful living. The first section in here is our lives as our testimony. The topic here is testimony versus testimonies, plural. If you have listened to Pink Dandelion’s Swarth World lecture from 2014, you will remember that there was a section where he talks about this. If you haven’t, you should totally listen to it, I highly recommend it.

Micah: Do you want to, since we started out this episode mentioning SPICES and all this, like some of our listeners may have no idea what you’re talking about.

Mackenzie: That’s true. SPICES is an acronym that is used among US Quakers for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and then we get a little fuzzy on what the S is.

Micah: Stewardship?

Mackenzie: Sometimes people say stewardship, sometimes people say sustainability.

Micah: Okay.

Mackenzie: There’s also an acronym that’s used in Britain of STEP, which is for simplicity, truth, equality, peace. You’ll notice that is shorter, but so what’s going on here is that we’re going to talk about the word “testimony” and what it means. It can mean evidence and support of a fact or proof, that would be an example of when you hear that word used, is when you’re talking about a court room, like somebody presents testimony in court as to what they witnessed. The other thing is a public declaration regarding a religious experience, and if you have ever been to an evangelical church, you will have encountered that, where somebody gets up and says … Actually, the song “Amazing Grace” is an example of this. “I was so lost, I was this terrible person, and then I found Jesus, and through faith in him, I have been reborn and I have become this great new person,” and blah blah blah.

Micah: That sounded pretty sarcastic, but actually that’s sort of the foundational narrative for Protestant Christianity.

Mackenzie: Yeah, well okay, anyway-

Micah: Just for the record-

Mackenzie: Sorry for the sarcasm.

Micah: Since McKenzie was so sarcastic when she recounted-

Mackenzie: I ran out of what comes next, because I never actually heard one.

Micah: Well, just to make sure listeners don’t misunderstand since McKenzie was so sarcastic about basically the faith narrative of a billion people, I actually do share that faith narrative of “my life was falling apart, and then I found God and things changed”. I can relate to the “Amazing Grace” style narrative and testimony.

Mackenzie: Anyway, so in the book, they talk about how for the first 300 years of Quakers’ existence, both of these were in there. Actually, you know I’d say that a lot of what you hear people say during meeting worship is effectively testimony.

Micah: Oh yeah, yeah.

Mackenzie: It’s not a testimony of being born again, it’s a testimony of some other aspect of how spirit is moving in their life, but I think it’s specifically the born again type of testimony is the thing where I’ve never actually, I think I’ve heard somebody say that sort of thing once, and it’s just … Anyway.

Micah: Well, I’ll give an example of a testimony that I heard in a Quaker church some years back. It was actually very interesting, because the preacher for that day, after the testimony was given, they said, “Well, I think we’ve heard our sermon, so next week I’ll give a sermon, but I’m not going to even bother today.”

Mackenzie: Okay.

Micah: Because the testimony was extensive, but during the meeting worship time, a couple got up and basically like gave extended testimony about how they were ready to get a divorce, but then God intervened in their marriage, and now they were recovering in new marriage and things were going better, and thanking God for that. Like there is sort of your salvation testimony, but there’s also testimony about how God basically intervenes in your life in different ways and makes dramatic changes in your life.

Mackenzie: Yeah, and Mica and I had a conversation a few weeks ago at a Friends of Jesus thing, where his response to the thing I said was that that was a powerful testimony.

Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mackenzie: Anyway, continuing, so it says that throughout the first three centuries, friends embraced both definitions, recognizing that Jesus and the scriptures enjoin us to witness not only with our tongues, but also with our lives. They give a Bible verse where Jesus is telling the apostles, “Look, not everybody who calls me Lord is actually going to get into heaven, because you’ve got to do the things too. You have to do God’s will, it’s not enough to just say it.” I think we’ve talked before about professors and possessors, that professing faith is not the same thing as possessing faith.

Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mackenzie: It also talks about good fruit and bad fruit, which is another analogy that comes from the New Testament, that a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit, and never the opposite type of thing, basically, so that-

Micah: Bearing fruit is another way of talking about testimony.

Mackenzie: Right, that if you really have faith, that you’re going to live it out, it’s going to be visible in your life in the way that you treat others. I think some, I don’t know, maybe [Oedipus moons 00:06:41] ago now, we mentioned the fruits of the spirit, which in the Bible are love, joy, peace, forbearance, alternately “patience”, if you prefer that translation, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control, as opposed to, Mica was giving that as a contrast to wealth as being a prudent spirit, which it is not. This is all very much about how faith transforms into actions.

Micah: Right, but so I guess to use sort of a court room analogy, which is very common especially in the western tradition of Christianity, to think of faith in court room terms, which is kind of weird, but it’s really big in Paul’s writings, Paul uses a number of court room sort of analogies. Like the term “justification” is a court room thing.

Mackenzie: Funny enough, when I was a Catholic, I remember having a thing where they were going through and showing us how the furniture in front of the Catholic church matches what’s in a court room.

Micah: Yeah, well this is super tangent, but I will say when I have been in court, I was astonished how much it felt like a church.

Mackenzie: Okay.

Micah: Which I don’t think is an accident, but in any case, I think like the two ways of thinking about testimony as one of being bearing witness to your experience of God on the one hand, and on the other hand being sort of a practical proof of the reality of the gospel through your actions, I think can be sort of thought of in a court room sense, of like the first way is of getting up on the witness stand and telling what you’ve seen, and secondly would be actually submitting evidence to the court that they could file and look at as physical, tangible evidence of whatever.

Mackenzie: This one is just really thick with Bible verses, because there’s also the apostle James saying, “What good is it to have faith without deeds?” His analogy is that if somebody doesn’t have food or clothing, you can’t just say to them, “Peace brother, be warm and fed,” and walk away, it’s not going to fix the thing, and so faith without works is dead.

Micah: Many of us have probably had this experience, but I have a friend who told a story about this that was very, like almost to a T, this story from the book of James. She was in need, like she was basically totally broke and didn’t even have a place to go, and said this I think in the meeting for worship or like after it, but at some point at church-

Mackenzie: People were like, “Oh, I’ll pray for you.”

Micah: Someone came up to her and said, “Oh, I’ll pray for you,” and that was it. She just expressed a very real, tangible need, and their response was, “Well, I’ll pray for you.” It’s like, “Okay, that’s not …” Just to tie this to sort of public events a little bit, I noticed my family went out to the march for our lives in Washington, DC against gun violence, and calling for a little bit more sanity in our gun laws in this country. At the event, I saw a significant number of people carrying signs that seemed to me to be anti-religion, along the lines of like, “Your thoughts and prayers don’t matter.” I understand where those signs were coming from, because-

Mackenzie: I also saw that somebody had a sign that said, “We are the answer to the thoughts and prayers.”

Micah: Yeah, that’s a great sign, but like we as Christians really risk stoking anti-religious sentiment when we offer thoughts and prayers and don’t offer any concrete action, because we expose ourselves as hypocrites.

Mackenzie: That is a really really common criticism of Christians and Christianity. Okay, so we talked about testimony as the singular unified how we make God’s work known through our words and actions. Testimonies, plural, gets back to what we were saying about SPICES or STEP, and what’s going on there is that throughout the 20th century, people started making lists categorizing the testimonies. I believe it was Howard Brenton who did it first, and the way it started is in the book Friends for 300 Years, he took all of these various types of friends witness, like the plain dress or the not swearing oaths or like drinking alcohol, going back several episodes, he took all these different concrete actions friends did as part of living their testimony, and he categorized them.

Mackenzie: He had chapters in the book where each chapter was about one of these categories. Well from there, people started saying instead of, “This is a category of witnesses,” saying that this is a testimony. From that, we got the idea that we have an integrity testimony, or would he call it a testimony, which had not been talked about that way prior to, what’s that, like the 1940s or something?

Micah: Yeah. For me, coming into Quakerism as an adult, which I … I grew up, when I was a little kid, my parents were Quaker pastors, but then I had left Quakerism for all intents and purposes in my teenage years. When I came back as an adult, the testimonies I read, I read a book by Wilmer Cooper called A Living Faith, and a lot of that book focuses on sort of like looking at the testimonies in a lot of ways, and like how different friends have interpreted those and lived them. For me, and he actually goes a little bit deeper than SPICES, he has social testimonies, and I forget what he calls the other, but like two different classes of testimony, it’s very interesting, recommend the book.

Micah: I received those testimonies as essentially a catechism and a litmus test for whether I was going to become a Quaker. The point at which I decided to become a Quaker, because like all the other testimonies made immediate sense to me, you know integrity, simplicity, stewardship, all that stuff, all-

Mackenzie: Like, “Sure, telling the truth is good.”

Micah: Yeah yeah, all those made perfect sense to me, but the one “testimony” that I had to wrestle with more was the peace testimony, because I am not by nature a pacifist, I like to hit back. That’s my actual inclination when I am struck, but so like I really had to wrestle with what was called the peace testimony, or just testimony of non-violence or pacifism or non-resistance in some circles.

Mackenzie: That’s one against war.

Micah: That’s one against war. Anyway, I decided to apply for membership in a meeting after I decided that I could live with abiding by that testimony. It was basically a catechism and basically a set of requirements from my perspective, and I think that is what it has become is SPICES or STEP or whatever list that mostly liberal Quakers have decided on, has essentially become a set of doctrines that need to be accepted to be a legitimate Quaker.

Mackenzie: Except that they’re more values than doctrines too, in a lot of cases.

Micah: What’s the difference between a value and a doctrine?

Mackenzie: I would say doctrine is usually used to refer to factual statements that you accept or do not accept, whereas a value is things you think are good.

Micah: Interesting. I’m thinking of something I found out, this is maybe a little bit of a tangent, but I think it’s relevant, something I think is really interesting is how the military use the term “doctrine”, and actually the government uses the term “doctrine”, like you think of the Monroe Doctrine, which is that no other power besides the United States should be able to dictate terms in the Americas, or basically America, the United States should be the only country that can directly intervene in countries in the Americas, the George W. Bush Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine is the doctrine that it’s appropriate sometimes for America to engage in aggressive war to prevent war against us.

Micah: There are different doctrines, anyway these are terrible doctrines, but my point would be doctrines is not how terrible they are, which they are, those particular doctrines, but my point is that the doctrines are about how we act and what ethical and appropriate action is.

Mackenzie: Okay, whereas I think usually I’m used to the word “doctrine” being used in religious terms as being … Darn it, now you’ve got my brain all on these other doctrines, like the Doctrine of Discovery. Like I think of doctrine as being similar but not the same as dogma, when it comes to religion. Sometimes people say, “Well, Quakers don’t have doctrine, right?” I’m always like, “What about the inner light?”

Micah: Sure. Doctrine means teaching.

Mackenzie: We have, there is a light that exists in every person, that is a doctrine, you have said a thing that is absolutely [crosstalk 00:17:04].

Micah: Actually in terms of Quakerism, that’s a dogma. Dogma is basically a core doctrine that really is at the heart of the faith, and if you take it out, everything falls apart, yeah. Actually the doctrine of the light of Christ within is a dogma. Like in technical theological terms, it’s a dogma.

Mackenzie: Right.

Micah: You know, in popular speech, dogma means something that’s rote and fundamentalist and can’t ever be questioned in any way, blah blah blah. Yeah.

Mackenzie: Yeah, but people saying like, “Oh, Quakers don’t have doctrine, you just have to believe in the inner light,” I’m like, “Do you know what you just said?”

Micah: I guess how we got down this rabbit hole was, I was just saying that like for me as a new liberal Quaker, I experienced SPICES, or it wasn’t just SPICES, like I said it was from this book, so it was a little bit more than that, but I experienced the testimonies. It was positive, because it let me know what the boundaries were for the community and what I needed to conform to to consider myself a Quaker. That was good, I wanted that as a newcomer, I wanted to know what it meant for me to fit.

Mackenzie: For me, when I found Quakers, so first off, I was introduced to Quakerism by a British friend, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. I interacted with more things that he was showing me, and so I had the STEP version, not the SPICES version.

Micah: Maybe that’s why some people think we’re a British podcast.

Mackenzie: No, Martin thinks that the reason that Friends Journal listed us as British in the March edition is because on the about page on the website, it says that 87% of Quakers in Britain are convinced friends. I used the British stat just because nobody’s done a survey of American Quakers, like they take better stats over there, that’s all they got. Anyway.

Micah: You were corresponding with this man in Edinburgh?

Mackenzie: Right, so I mean I was dating him.

Micah: Okay.

Mackenzie: Long distance dating.

Micah: Cool.

Mackenzie: Anyway, so they have the four-testimony version, as opposed to American Quakers are now on six testimonies, which my sister-in-law who’s a software developer says it’s like future creep, “Hey, it’s testimony creep, like let’s just add one more.”

Micah: Oh yeah. If it weren’t an actual word, it would have crept a lot more by now. Like if it were like LGBT, like we would have like 10 or 11 things now, different testimonies.

Mackenzie: Anyway, the understanding that I had had of it coming from hanging out online with a bunch of British friends, then in person at Friends Meeting of Washington, which is very liberal meeting here, was basically what it means to be a Quaker is to think that peace and truth and equality and simplicity are all good things.

Micah: Who doesn’t think that.

Mackenzie: Right, that’s the trouble with that construction of having it as just your list of four values, or six.

Micah: This is the problem with like Howard Brenton. Howard Brenton in many ways is the founder of liberal Quakerism, and-

Mackenzie: Yeah, because I’ve said before that Elias Hicks is, like there’s just a gulf between Elias Hicks and modern liberal Quakerism.

Micah: No, Elias Hicks theologically has almost nothing to do with modern Quakerism.

Mackenzie: I guess [crosstalk 00:20:57].

Micah: Howard Brenton is certainly like one of the founding figures of liberal Quakerism, and I actually appreciate what he was attempting to do, even though I don’t agree theologically with where things have gone, I appreciate what he was attempting to do. Because what he was trying to do was he was like in the thick of modernism, and he was basically trying to take Quakerism and streamline it and rationalize it to make it understandable to the modern mind. In doing so, he sort of boiled Quakerism down to a quick list of principles, and I understand why that seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect, I think it’s pretty clear that those principles become meaningless very quickly, because who knows what they even mean?

Mackenzie: Like the STEP or SPICES things are, I think those are useful for first day of school, like when you’re dealing with small children. As we said in one or two episodes ago, you put it as the milk before the meat, like spiritual baby food. I said that going from having only a shallow thing and never getting the deeper more complex thing or view, that can be really detrimental to faith, because you run out of rope.

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: I feel like that is what happens when we stick to treating SPICES or STEP as, “This is the core of Quakerism.” That’s why we have not talked about them at all until now.

Micah: No, I mean SPICES are a gateway drug, SPICES are like intro 101, it’s baby food.

Mackenzie: The spices must flow.

Micah: Right, the spices must flow. For all you non-geeks out there, that’s a reference to Dune, which is an amazing book, but totally irrelevant to this podcast.

Mackenzie: I’ve never actually read it.

Micah: Oh man, so good. Actually that’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about this, but SPICES, like the testimonies were very helpful to me when I was brand new. They were actually very helpful to me, but they couldn’t keep up with my need to grow in the faith beyond a pretty brief period of time. Within a year or two, they were completely useless, whereas in the beginning, they were quite useful.

Mackenzie: Right, and I remember like when I started dating this Scottish friend, and like I remember the Wikipedia page on Quakers, that was the first thing I did. Like well, okay, he had a tee shirt that’s a common tee shirt among young adults in Britain that says, “Young friends do it in silence.”

Micah: If only we could see facial expressions through our podcast.

Mackenzie: Yes, you should see Mica’s face. They still like making some of these tee shirts in Britain. I did not get the joke, and so I was like, “I think friend means Quaker, I’ve got to figure out what this joke is,” and so I read the Wikipedia page on Quakers. Wikipedia page said like, “There are non-theist, and Quakers’ thing are SPICES,” basically. I mean, it’s a very long Wikipedia page, it gave the whole background, it gave all the stuff, but-

Micah: The Quaker Wikipedia page is incredibly politicized, like it’s a battleground.

Mackenzie: Yes. It’s extremely long, it’s very thorough, and it gave the whole background, but it said that in the liberal group, like having these values is the thing that matters more, and there are even atheists. I was like, “I could try this,” and so like I went to meeting for the first time. Yeah, pretty quickly it was like I wanted to get more … Like, I mean basically the way I see it, the SPICES stuff, that’s the fruit, and I wanted to get further toward the root. Pretty quickly, I started, shockingly, my school … I did not go to a Quaker school. My university had an entire bookcase for Quaker books, which is shocking.

Micah: Wow, what school was this?

Mackenzie: George Washington University.

Micah: That’s bizarre.

Mackenzie: Yeah, I don’t know why they had an entire bookcase for Quakers, but they did. I started reading things out of there, and like as I was reading them … Obviously I’m not an atheist anymore, and part of that is Mica’s fault, but yeah, I think the gateway drug is … While I don’t think “gateway drug” is actually a very accurate thing in real life, I think that’s an apt metaphor for the SPICES stuff.

Micah: I guess that’s something I learned in the last 25 minutes in recording this podcast, is I actually am grateful for SPICES, and I actually think they have a purpose. I don’t think they’re all bad, they’ve really helped me, but they are for spiritual infants, they are not the main course, they are not the core.

Mackenzie: That is why it’s very important to actually have an ongoing religious ed program in your meeting. I mean, we say on our about page for this podcast that we’re doing this in part because there is uneven availability of religious ed for grown-ups in meetings. Like meetings that have kids will have a kid’s program, but they don’t always necessarily have something for adults, or they might only have a newcomer class, or they might only have ongoing and not have a newcomer class. There’s all these gaps in the religious education and faith formation process in a lot of meetings.

Micah: Also, like I mean I think a lot of people are like me, where I’ve got small kids at home and I work really long hours sometimes, and I don’t have much time. It’s hard for me to get through a book these days, and so like I had the opportunity in my 20s to spend like almost a decade just devoting myself to prayer and study and ministry and doing all this stuff and reading tons of books and all this stuff, but like that’s not realistic for most people most times. I couldn’t do that now, if I were becoming a Quaker now, like how would I ever learn this stuff, because since I don’t have really the space to be reading dozens and dozens of books.

Micah: Figuring out, like hopefully this podcast is a place where like, hopefully some people are listening to this on their way to work for their 50-hour workweeks, where this is their opportunity to actually think a little bit more deeply about what’s faith about, because most Quakers in most places, regardless of their theological persuasion, don’t know that much about the faith. The more we can make it easy to get access to this stuff without having to dig through 50 dusty tomes, the better we’re going to be.

Mackenzie: Yeah, and okay, funny enough, so the first book that I grabbed out of the school library about Quakers was Pink Dandelion: An Introduction to Quakerism. Last June, I actually met Pink Dandelion, this was down at Guilford College for a conference, and two of his students were there, PhD candidate students. Both of them, their response to that book being the first book I read about Quakers after reading the Wikipedia page was to question my sanity.

Micah: Which book?

Mackenzie: An Introduction to Quakerism.

Micah: Why is that insane? Doesn’t it say it’s an introduction?

Mackenzie: It does, I don’t know. I mean, there’s also the very short introduction, which is obviously not shorter, this is like a 200-page book that takes you through Quaker history and through the schisms.

Micah: I bought it, and never read it, for some reason. I don’t know why. It looked very interesting, [crosstalk 00:29:22].

Mackenzie: It was very interesting, and it made me feel like that I could not sort of stay static in just SPICES or MICE, and needed to actually look a lot deeper into the faith. Apparently, it’s a difficult or too detailed or whatever read, I guess. I don’t know, I liked it.

Micah: Man, these Quaker kids these days are soft.

Mackenzie: All right, let’s wrap it up there. Next time, we are going to be looking at a listener request, we’re going to talk about the book of Revelation, because the next part in the book is about the lamb’s war, and we decided that this listener request really fit in there really nicely, so we’re just going to slip it in between. You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org, as @QuakerPodcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon, and on iTunes.