Early Friends’ willingness to give their lives and their community over to Christ’s leadership led them to corporate witness and ways of living that were in sharp contrast to the values, lifestyles, and institutions of 17th century Britain and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their approach to oath taking, dress, speech, recreation, and relationships between the genders and classes were rightfully regarded as revolutionary by the secular and religious leaders of the dominant social order of their day. Friends considered all these acts of witness as part of one cloth and (as they put it in their 1660 letter to King Charles on the subject of outward violence) as an expression of a single Quaker “testimony to the world”.
One Testimony vs. separate social testimonies
“Categorically Not the Testimonies” by Eric Moon is an article that describes well the unified witness of 17th century Friends and how different their approach to social witness was from the familiar SPICE categories.
The Meaning, Understanding & Use of Testimonies is a working paper that was presented by the Faith & Practice Revision Committee of New England YM to NEYM’s 2008 Annual Sessions.
If you ask many Friends today what Quaker social witness is they will often start naming a list of 5 or 6 “testimonies”. The most common list is peace, equality, simplicity, integrity, community, and stewardship or earthcare. Collectively these are often referred to by the acronyms “SPICE” or “SPICES”). This idea became well known from Howard Brinton’s section on 4 Social Testimonies from his 1942 Pendle Hill pamphlet called Guide to Quaker Practice.
These testimonies are certainly descriptive of aspects of Quaker witness held by many Friends. They are often used in teaching situations in Friends schools and religious education. The problem with the SPICEs is that they lead people to view them as separate entities disconnected from each other and from the core Quaker faith from which these ways of living and witnessing originally sprang.
Action that Springs from Our Faith
Quaker witness happens when our actions spring from discernment of God’s will for us. Although Friends may be led to join in common action with secular groups at times for common purpose, secular work to transform is very different from work that springs from one’s faith.
Each area of witness that has become important to Friends over the years has spring directly from both biblical roots and core Quaker beliefs. Our work is strong when we keep close to the faith roots of our witness.
Douglas Steere selected Thomas Kelly’s essay on “The Eternal Now and Social Concern” to be part of Kelly’s 1941 devotional collection, A Testament of Devotion.
Jack Kirk’s essay on Creaturely Activities of Spiritually Based Concerns (the opening chapter of Leonard Kenworthy’s book Friends Face the World) examines this in detail.
Michael Birkel’s 2002 Michener Lecture on Mysticism & Activism: Learning from John Woolman is about the unity of the inward and outward life and how spiritually-based action springs from a “feeling sense of the condition of others”.
Encouragement for Our Meetings in a Time of Crisis was written to the meetings of New England YM from its General Secretary, Noah Merrill.
Sandra Cronk’s essay Peace Be With You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony is a powerful example of approaching Quaker witness in a way that springs from and is completely integrated with our Quaker faith.
Quaker witness as prophecy
A way to look at Quaker witness as springing from our faith is as a form of prophecy.
Prophecy, in a spiritual sense, is not about predicting the future. It is God speaking truth into the hearts of God’s people. The prophet speaks this truth, describing what God is longing for to God’s people—and also to the surrounding secular world. If the people of God are willing to hear and respond to this truth, they live it out—in their relationships with each other within the faith community—and also in the world outside.
The early Quaker movement that began small in 1648 and broke out in 1652 from Firbank Fell functioned at least at least until 1688 as a prophetic movement, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, the early Christian communities prior to Constantine, the orders of friars and sisters founded by Francis and Claire, early Anabaptists, and other groups down to Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s in the U.S.
God’s prophetic message encompasses values and expectations that are in sharp contrast to the values, institutions, and lifestyles on which Empire is built. False prophets tell Empire’s rulers that all is well and they are doing God’s will. True prophets are willing to speak out against this narrative—and are generally punished severely by the powers that be for challenging the values and expectations on which Empire is built.
An Orientation to Prophecy, a talk given by Irish/English Friend Marion McNaughton to the FWCC Triennial held in Dublin in 2007, is to this editor’s knowledge the most comprehensive introduction to Quakerism as a prophetic movement to date.
In The Call to Radical Faithfulness: Covenant in Quaker Experience, Doug Gwyn describes early Friends’ vision of their work in transforming the world in response to God’s work in them—and how this in turn shapes our own faith & practice today as Friends.
A Prophetic Vision of the Peaceable Kingdom was written during a Peaceable Kingdom Workshop sponsored by New England YM in 1980—giving voice to God’s vision of the world as received by Friends.
The Prophetic Climate Action Working Group (PCAWG) was a team of New England YM Friends (under the care of NEYM’s Permanent Board) working to discern and organize faith-based nonviolent direct action against climate change between 2016 and 2018. For more on PCAWG and its work, see this website section on Earthcare /witness/earthcare witness.
Reflections on Prophetic Public Action is a brief summary by Peter Blood of prophetic witness, drawing on the experience of PCAWG.
Epistle from the August 2018 Encampment was written in 2018 at a PCAWG retreat held in Rindge, NH. It describes the group’s work to apply the principles of “The Lamb’s War” to prophetic struggle against the institutions and ideas that are threatening our precious planet today.
What is prophecy?
Five Dimensions of Prophecy. To be prophetic means more than protest. This was adapted from a paper by Peter Henriot, SJ and the Rev George Chauncey for Interfaith Action for Economic Justice, adapted for peace witness.
The person who has described most clearly the role of the individual prophet and of a prophetic movement is a United Church of Christ theologian and pastor named Walter Brueggermann.
Quotations & Resources on Prophecy contains several wonderful quotes on prophecy from the activist Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the Quaker Thomas Kelly along with a number of links to quotations, writings, and interviews with Walter Brueggermann.
This understanding of our witness is firmly rooted in prophetic biblical passages, such as Amos 5:24, Romans 55, Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5, Luke 4: 14-22, and Romans 12:1-2.
Perfection & possibility
One of the most difficult of early Friends’ teachings for many today was their doctrine of perfection. They called their Puritan opponents “apologists for sin”. They believed that they could be brought (as Fox said in his Journal when asked to join the army) into the “life and power that takes away the occasion of war”. It was very important to them that those who devoted themselves without reserve to God’s transforming power could be brought into the state that Adam was in “before the Fall” – beyond human sinfulness.
The Lamb’s War
Early Friends viewed themselves involved in a struggle against the oppressive spiritual and secular rulers of their day. They often wrote about this struggle in prophetic, even apocalyptic terms. This is particularly common in the period between 1652 to the mid-1660s when the movement was growing rapidly and they suffered severe persecution at the hands of the “powers that be”. Although most Friends will have difficulty with military language to describe a radical faith-based movement and also may find stops around language drawn from Revelations, there is much we can learn from early Friends’ writings on this subject. A number of Friends in the 21st century have drawn inspiration from these early writings as we imagine how Friends can become more prophetic in our witness today.
Chapter 8 of Doug Gwyn’s The Call to Faithfulness (on this site) is on James Nayler & the Lamb’s War: “Led by the Lamb in a Way They Know Not”.
Here are two pieces of James Nayler’s writings that relate to The Lamb’s War:
Not to Strive, but to Overcome by Suffering. “The foundation of community is truthfulness and love. Seeking for the Seed in each other is as crucial as seeking it in the world, and laboring by long-suffering and resoluteness to liberate it wherever it is oppressed.” (Brian Drayton’s introduction to this extract)
The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin is one of Naylor’s major tracts on the life we are called to, what our striving is to be, and how it is to be carried forward. This “war” is the root of outward justice and peace as well. This is the outward expression of the inward dimensions of this struggle described in the previous excerpt.
Nine Principles of The Lamb’s War discerned by the Prophetic Climate Action Working Group as essential components of a faith-driven prophetic struggle to transform empire into God’s vision of society and creation, drawing on mid-17th century Friends writings and struggles.
Revolutionary Quaker Witness: Learning from the Lamb’s War of the 1650s is adapted from a 2007 talk given by Doug Gwyn to the Spiritual Transformation Program of the Quaker Peacebuilder Camp in Rindge, New Hampshire.
If you know of good articles and resources on The Lamb’s War and on a prophetic view of Quaker witness, please send them to Peter Blood so we can consider adding them to this website.