Friday, September 12, 2014

Why Do Quakers Have Testimonies?

ESR alum and current Richmond First Friends pastor Derek Parker delivered this message during worship there on Sunday, August 24, 2014:


Psalm 117 & Acts 2: 14-18

About a year ago, when my nephew was 4-years old, we were in his backyard when he played a little game with me that many small children play.  He asked me “Why?”  In fact, he repeatedly asked me “Why?”
          “Uncle Derek,” he said, “Why are plants green?”
          And I replied that the green parts make the food that plants use.
          “Why?  Why does green make food?”
          Well, there is a chemical inside the plant.  The chemical is green.  And when the sun shines on the green parts of the plant, the chemical makes food.
          “Why?  Why does it make food?  Can they make something “more funner” ?”
          And I replied that everything alive needs food to live.  And plants make their own food inside the green parts of their bodies; because plants don’t have mouths to eat food that comes from outside their bodies.
          But that answer only led to my nephew asking another why.  “Why don’t plants have mouths?”  And it went on, and on, and on…
          When we were children, like my nephew, we were gifted with a tremendous curiosity about the world around us.  We asked the question, “Why?” about almost anything.  Sometimes we also asked questions like “When?” or “Who?” or “How?”  But then as we grew up, many of us gradually asked “Why?” less often. 
We found there was so much to learn and keep track of, and asking questions simply gave us more to remember.
Some adults also taught us to be anxious about asking “Why?”, because they responded to our questions by saying, “Well that’s a stupid question.”
And for many of us, when it came to religion, we were subtly taught never to ask “Why?”  Matters of faith were to be matters of certainty – not about questions.  And the Bible and God were supposedly unquestionable. 
But if we never asked “Why?”, our understandings of things would be overly simplistic and shallow.  No matter if we are trying to understand plants, or chemicals, or even Christian faith.
We need to ask “Why?” if we are going to be capable of growing.
This past year, both Josh Brown and Matt Hamm have spoken to our meeting for worship, about the Friends Testimonies.  These Testimonies are often listed as Peace, Integrity, Equality, and Simplicity.  Some Quakers also add to that list items like Community, Earthcare, and Stewardship.  These Testimonies, no matter how you construct the list, are important to understanding how Quakers approach Christian faith.
But as much as we speak about Quaker Testimonies, have you ever asked “Why?”
“Why do Quakers have Testimonies?”
Some people have told me that in our faith tradition, we have Testimonies because those are the things a good Quaker must do.  They say its like the 10 Commandments.  Thou shalt not commit warfare!  Thou shalt not tell lies!  Thou shalt treat everybody as equals!  Thou shalt not spend money like a Kardashian!
But Friends, this approach misses the mark.  In response to the question, “Why do Quakers have testimonies?” the answer here is, “So we can have rules to follow.”  And I want you to know that needing rules is not why Quakers have testimonies.  The Testimonies may influence people in terms of what we do, or do not do, but they are not simplistically a list of rules.  To reduce the Testimonies to rules, is to make them into a purity code by which we measure and pass judgment on ourselves and others.  And a preoccupation with passing judgment is seldom a health practice.
Other people have told me that Quakers have the Testimonies so that we can have a list of beliefs to tell others about.  If somebody asks you what Quakers believe, you say, “We believe in peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.”  And if you tell somebody this, they will likely reply, “Well I believe the same thing.  What’s so Quaker about that?”
Friends, if we think about it, there is nothing special about believing in peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  In fact, how many people have we met who would say they believe in violence, dishonesty, discrimination, and complexity?  Perhaps a small number of sinister oddballs, but most people I’ve met don’t believe in those vices either.
There is nothing particularly Quaker about believing in peace.  Perhaps that is because the Testimonies are not simply matters of belief.  The Testimonies are not matters about what we think.  Reducing the Testimonies to a list of important thoughts that Quakers must have, also misses the mark.  All sorts of people think about peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  But why do we think about these things?  Why do Quakers think about these things, and then try to do these things? 
Friends, our various official lists of Quaker Testimonies did not exist prior to the 20TH Century.  If we were to ask earlier generations of Quakers like George Fox, William Penn, or Lucretia Mott to list the Friends Testimonies, they would not have understood the question.  How could they make a list of something that they did not think about in terms of lists?  We have Testimonies because ours is a faith tradition that asks us to pay attention to our lived experience of God, and to apply those experiences to the practice of living.
Until the 20TH Century, virtually all Friends understood Testimony as a matter of letting your life witness to others about your faith.  Testimony was not simply a rule of conduct, nor a list of things you were supposed to think were true.  Testimonies were things people did, springing up from religiously grounded experiences.
Did we do these things so we can be right?  So that we can think the correct thoughts?  Or only do the pure and good things?
Deep down, the Testimonies are supposed to stem from our experience of God.  No matter what kind of a list of Testimonies that we could write down, Quaker communities begin with the experience of God, and then respond in ways that speak to that inspiration.  Then our way of life should give testimony to what our relationship with God is like.  If God is ultimate peace, are we more peace-filled?  Do we endeavor to build a greater degree of peace in the world around us?  Or equality among us as children of God?  Are we inspired to be honest with others and with ourselves?

Why do Quakers have Testimonies?  Because an authentic walk of faith will take us through the presence of God and out into all of life.  Because Christian faith in the manner of Friends is more a way of life, than it is a set of rules, or a list of correct thoughts.  We have Testimonies, because whether or not we can write down a list of Testimonies, our lives speak volumes about our relationships with the Spirit of God.

Derek is a former geologist, and 2004 ESR graduate.  He previously served Friends meetings in Muncie and Irvington; as well as ministries with the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, and the United Church of Christ.


  1. Question? I saw at the beginning that this was delivered during worship. I've attended Quiet meetings. Does this mean that some meetings have talks or sermons. Also, I saw in a new book on Simplicity a reference to Advice and Inquires #2. Is that the same as a Testimony? Thank you, Ken

  2. Hello there Ken! Yes, there is a wide range of Quaker worship. You can find a good summary online here: Advices and Inquiries (or Queries) are generally more specific than broad testimonies. You can find out a bit more about the testimonies here: I hope that helps!