There are four important traditions within the Society of Friends, or Quakers as they will be referred to here, that promote spiritual life. The first is the testimony of peace; the second, the testimony of equality ; the third, the testimony of truth or integrity; the fourth, the testimony of simplicity.
My religious path involves three and a half stages. First, was a childhood, where I was brought up in a methodist tradition in the United Church of Canada. I left that as a young adult because I could not accept the concept of the trinity, and became a Unitarian. This was followed by a half stage where I investigated the Quakers, before becoming a member of the Baha’i Faith.
Much of the appeal of the Quakers was their testimonies. These emphasized that one’s spiritual life and character is more important than anything else. The focus was not the next world, but the current world. It implies that resources, including money and time, should be used to make life truly better for everyone.
The main reason I never became a Quaker, is because I had reservations about some aspects of these testimonies. As an example, some Quaker groups forbid drama because it involves the assumption of non-truthful roles. For me, this was one step too far.
Quaker usage of the term testify is often misunderstood. It is a commitment to action, in which spiritual ideals require a physical expression. Integrity requires personal wholeness, consistency, honesty and fair dealings. It necessitates not only telling the truth, but also the avoidance of statements that are technically true but misleading.
The testimony of peace requires committed action to promote peace, to refrain from violence, to actively oppose participation in war. Most Quakers are conscientious objectors, and refuse to carry or use any form of weapon. Many Quakers refuse to pay that share of taxes that goes to the military.
The testimony of peace can be broadened to include what is referred to as active non-violence: protests and demonstrations in opposition to government policies of war. Some confront others who bear arms. Restorative justice can also be part of Quaker peace testimony, while only a minority include vegetarianism.
The British Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their work to relieve suffering and feed many millions of starving people during and after both world wars.
The testimony of equality involved equality of the sexes and equality of races. It encouraged the women’s suffrage movement and the anti-slavery movement. Yet, there were other areas where equality applied, especially the humane treatment of the mentally ill, and of prisoners.
In their relationships with others, words and actions had to flow from beliefs. This meant not only speaking the truth, even when it was difficult, to use grace and tact to say difficult things, but also to receive difficult messages gracefully.
Quakers took responsibility for their actions. They fulfilled their commitments, such as taking care of people and things entrusted to their care. They learned to assess people and situations fairly and accurately, but also guarded their reputation for honesty, fairness and fidelity. They were noted for their openness to the ideas of others, and for giving credit to others for contributions. At the same time, they avoided being swayed too easily. They were expected to confront lapses in the integrity of themselves and others.
In terms of economics, the testimony of integrity had many implications. Not only did people have to be paid fair wages for their work, but employers had to be given the right amount of labor for pay received. Quaker businessmen operated with fixed but fair prices to avoid haggling. Similarly, debt financing was avoided to prevent people from spending beyond their means.
They assiduously avoided class distinction by refusing to use honorific titles and by using familiar forms of thee and thou, instead of the respectful you. Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr are avoided. Instead children and adults address people using only the first or both first and last names without a title. They use the term friend rather than sir or madam with someone whose name they do not know. In writing, this becomes Dear Friend instead of Dear Sir or Madam. Letters typically end with yours in truth or yours in friendship.
In the Testimony of Simplicity, there are three areas where this is most pronounced: dress, speech and material possessions.
The Quaker dress code varies today. Avoiding extremes, one would not be out of place at many Quaker meetings wearing generic, dull coloured work wear, without any form of jewelery or cosmetics. In terms of body fashion, piercings, tattoos and hair colour would be avoided.
Plainness in speech, naturally, had to address issues already noted in the other testimonies. In its early years, especially, the vestiges of paganism concerned many Quakers, especially because the names of the days and months referred to Roman or Norse gods or Roman emperors. This resulted in referring to both the days of the week and the months of the year by number.
Quakers often limited possessions to what they needed, rather than accumulating luxuries. It is not the goods themselves, but one’s attitude towards them that is important. There have been many wealthy Quakers, who have used their wealth for spiritual purposes, including helping the poor and oppressed. Others found their wealth a spiritual burden, and gave it away. Three of the largest chocolate manufacturing companies in the world – Cadbury, Roundtree and Fry – were started by Quakers.
Even in death, simplicity is important. A Quaker grave marking will ideally be a simple and low-lying stone.
Despite being only a half-stage in my spiritual development, many of my fundamental beliefs originate in reflecting on Quaker values. This reflection resulted a rejection of some values, but an acceptance of others.