Quakers started 350 years ago as a loosely-form group. They studied the New Testament as a model for behavior and to understand how a Christian community might organize, but a lot of things they found out by trial and error. There were embarrassments, but over time, they started learning techniques.

Their goal was to live a life in holy obedience to divine will, to listen to that Inward Christ and to follow it as individuals and as communities. They found there are certain techniques that are helpful, but also certain practices that keep us from that goal. They started coming up with a "wiki" about them.

Backtrack to 21st Century: Wikipedia is an online, collaboratively-edited encyclopedia. Someone comes along, decides they know something about a topic that no one's written about, and they write about. Someone comes along later and adds to it. People start getting into debates and edits are made. When the process works, the result is an article that's better than any one person could have created. Wikipedia entries are often better than single-edited pieces you'll find in traditional encyclopedias.

The Quaker testimonies are a type of wiki. As Friends discovered what worked and didn't work they started writing them down as minutes in yearly meeting sessions. Minute: Drinking makes it hard to discern God's will. Minute: Slavery erodes the soul of the slave owner committing horrible acts against fellow humans. You can almost see Quakers writing their wiki as they wrote, published and sent these minutes off to the different corners of the Quaker world (and later compiled them into books of "Discipline" or "Faith and Practice"). These testimonies tended to be very specific warnings about things that keep us from discerning the will of God.

In the 20th Century we're all positive thinkers and the testimonies started shifting. Howard Brinton, a giant among 20th Century American Friends, tried to come up with an easy way of describing Quakerism and summarized the testimonies. I've been told he wasn't trying to rewrite or superceded the classic testimonies, but his overarching categories have become seen as the testimonies themselves: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality. Together they are known as the "SPICE" testimonies.

The problem with SPICE is that they're so feel-goody that everyone likes them. There is no one outside the SPICE testimonies. A President sending us to war claims it's for the greater peace, and Walmart goes all soft-focus in its commericials telling us that it's acres of Chinese plastic is the hub of our hometown community.

Modern Quaker testimonies don't say that certain acts are wrong. We've lost the ability to point to bad behavior and to say "this behavior is not in the way of Friends." There are ways we can act that hinder our ability to discern what God wants us to do and ways we can act that disrupt our meeting community. The testimonies started as practical and useful guides--common sense tips for living in community. So take out some of the old books and check out some of the old testimonies because you just might find they have some life in them.

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Comment by Raye on 8th mo. 28, 2009 at 5:28pm
Martin, I enjoyed and appreciated this. Good reminder that we can focus so much on feel-good that we gloss over the fact that there are behaviors that hinder spiritual growth and healthy functioning of the body.
Comment by Nathan Swift on 11th mo. 16, 2008 at 11:55am
While the strictures that were characteristic of Quaker "uniform" in tradition may not have been specifically stated in books of discipline, they were very much a part of the culture for much of the history of the Society, and the practice started early as attested by Margaret Fell's "silly, poor gospel" comment. The point remains that there is a spectrum of applications of principles involved, and any one application, regardless of how traditional is subject to examination according to principles clearly "in the Light." I would venture to say that the books of discipline were sufficiently general that particulars, no matter how widespread never really received formal "certification."

In His Love,
Nate Swift
Comment by Martin Kelley on 11th mo. 16, 2008 at 9:40am
One of the things I'm realizing is that I haven't give examples of from older disciplines. The testimony on plainness is not at all specific about forms of dress; you can read it here and see that it's about the mindset of simplicity. One historian recently delved into records and found that there often wasn't any sort of Quaker dress uniform and that our ideas about that are shaped largely by early 20th century Quaker reenactors who would dress up in their grandmother's bonnets for meetinghouse anniversaries and get mad if anyone were to dress "wrong.'

Bill Taber wrote movingly and tragically of a generation of young Friends in his Conservative yearly who were more familiar with the proper cut of clothing than with the Living Christ, but to me that seems like the same old story of Friends who mistake their yearly meeting culture for Friends' faith. If they had read the corporate-minuted testimonies they would have seen their attention to detail was mis-placed. I realize if I'm going to talk about the old testimonies I need to try to dispell some of the layers of mis-perceptions that have arose.
Comment by Nathan Swift on 11th mo. 16, 2008 at 7:57am
This is a very interesting comment, and should probably have it's own topic for discussion, but for the moment, I will just comment of the difference in views preseted by Martin and Callid as i see them. There is always a tension between ideas, perceptions or general principles and how they are to be applied. There are always some people who don't want to work from principle and discern the particulars of application in their current situation, people who will just say, "Don't talk to me about principles, just tell me what I should do." Martin's point that the SPICE testimonies were formed by generalizing particulars taken from compilations of minutes concerning specific behaviors is only a description of the process of discerning major principles as far as I can see. The point is that we need to see and work from principles, or there is a tendency to make the details or particulars the whole point. To illustrate, there was a perception that Quakers should not participate in the vanity of court dress which had its pervasive reflections in style down to the lower levels of society. Such vanity was rejected and "plain dress" became a norm, later to be seen as part of the "testimony" of Simplicity. So far, no problem. The idea of dressing plainly seems simple, but it is only a little more specific than the idea of simplicity in daily lives. It was not long before "plain dress" became a pretty strict uniform, with colors and patterns held within narrow guidelines. Now you have particular rules of conduct eclipsing the simple rule of plain dress as part of the testimony of Simplicity. It is quite reasonable to formulate fairly simple rules of specific conduct, particularly for those who need to see rules in black and white, but it is also very necessary to recognize that those rules are not set in stone, and are subject to review as they bear out the principles of the Testimonies. Granted that the Testimonies are not principles unique to Quakers, we should hope and strive to make those testimonies a part of our lives with honest evaluations as to how well we are living them. When we have the principles in our hearts, we can discern how the practice will demonstrate it.

In His Love,
Nate Swift

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