Everyone has values they live by. Most people learn them at their parents’ knee and then develop them for themselves through their experience. Quakers are no different, but we have an old custom of writing some of them down as key words that encapsulate those values. Each word represents a multitude of behaviours and everyday actions that make us the people we are. We call the key words our ‘testimonies’, because they are living evidence of our way of life.
The testimonies of British Quakers today are: truth, simplicity, peace, sustainability and equality.
It’s tempting to think of these as our goals, but that isn’t quite right. They are ways to live now. They are results – consequences of the experience of living in a society that is riddled with inequalities and injustices of all kinds.
Each of these testimonies is a kind of umbrella, covering many of the tiny decisions we take each day, each month, each year. They apply as much to our relationships with one another as they do to the big, global picture. They help us to live our everyday lives with integrity.
So the testimony to truth, for example, isn’t just about not telling lies. For some Quakers it may express what they call ‘that of God’ in every human being. Others apply it in dozens of small but significant ways every day: being fair to people you disagree with, for example, or being honest when you’re given an extra £10 in your change, or standing up for the rights of refugees. This is a testimony that helps us to be true to ourselves, but it can go further than that, to encompass integrity, transparency and authenticity in every aspect of our private and public lives.
The testimony to simplicity is just as multi-layered. The simplicity of our core spiritual practice is one aspect of it. But, like the other testimonies, it can be seen clearly in the way we live. Most Quakers are careful to avoid extravagance, just as they try to ignore the artificial creation of new desires by an advertising industry anxious to cash in on our love of novelty. This testimony helps us to avoid abandoning our identity in that process. By living simply, we become more able to concentrate on the things that matter.
A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.
- Advices & Queries, 1995
The testimony to peace is not just about stopping wars – most of us are not in a position to do that. But we can learn to handle conflict in our everyday lives, and find ways to mediate when our family relationships come under strain. We can sidestep behaviours that contain what Quakers call ‘the seeds of war’ – not necessarily war-like in themselves, but designed to hurt, damage or provoke. We can learn the futility of trying to solve problems with violence. There is more about the peace testimony in the Working for Peace page of this website.
Peace begins within ourselves. It is to be implemented within the family, in our meetings, in our work and leisure, in our own localities, and internationally. The task will never be done. Peace is a process to engage in, not a goal to be reached.
- Sydney Bailey, 1993
If the peace testimony encourages us to live our lives in ways that avoid the seeds of war, our testimony to sustainability is about a way of behaving that does not contain the seeds of destruction. All people, Quakers and non-Quakers alike, are aware of the urgency of the problem and understand the need to address it in our everyday lives with selflessness and generosity. The crisis caused by global heating can only be averted if everyone on the planet is treated with complete equality.
And so the last Quaker testimony, the one to equality, now speaks for itself. It is not a testimony to sameness – we all have different talents – but to the fundamental right of each person to be treated with equal care and love. Without it, none of the other testimonies makes sense. It is fundamental to the Quaker way of life.