by Howard Brinton

This is an excerpt from his Guide to Quaker Practice. This Pendle Hill Pamphlet #20 is available from Pendle Hill Publications.

So far we have been concerned largely with activities within the meeting. The emphasis has been placed on the means of creating changes for the better within the individual and within specific groups. Experience shows that, as the individual becomes more sensitive, or, to use the old Quaker word, more “tender” to the movings of the Divine Spirit, this sensitivity finds its outward expression not simply within the group itself but also in widening circles outside. Divine-human bonds produce inter-human bonds. We should begin the reformation of society in that area where our most immediate responsibility lies—that is, in ourselves—and work from there outward as the way opens. But, though this process of beginning with the individual is primary, there is a secondary process in the opposite direction that must not be neglected. Structural changes in society have an educational effect in producing changes in the individual. Thus, if a meeting acts according to a certain pattern of behavior, individual members become educated in that pattern and tend to adopt it as their own. Similarly, in society at large, good laws and good institutions tend to produce good individuals.

But this process is secondary because good laws cannot be enforced, except by violence, if they are too far beyond the standards of a large proportion of the individuals concerned. Hence, those who believe in peaceful methods will place the first emphasis on inward convincement. Religion has always been the most important means in human history of producing changes from within.

Activities of Friends on behalf of others have usually been motivated by a desire for clearness of conscience. A social condition becomes a matter of concern if it gives rise to a feeling of inward spiritual discomfort. Such a concern does not originate externally through human involvement, but inwardly through a feeling that God has laid a burden upon the bearer. The Friend with an uneasy conscience who cannot remedy the matter single-handedly can secure a measure of inward satisfaction by acting as led regardless of results in terms of success or failure. In appealing to wrongdoers, the Quaker approach has generally been based not so much on the physical harm such persons were doing to others, for physical harm is comparatively unimportant, as on the spiritual harm they were doing to themselves and the resulting loss of inward peace.

The Society of Friends has never put forth a blueprint for an ideal society, having the same reluctance in this respect as in putting forth a religious creed. Nevertheless the meeting itself should aim, however short it may come of attaining its ideal, at a pattern of human relations among its own members that could be considered ideal for society as a whole.

This ideal pattern should be incarnated in the meeting as a social unit in which the various parts are organically related, becoming one entity “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). As such an organism, the meeting becomes to some degree the “mystical body of Christ,” to use an ancient Christian phrase, and the continuation of his incarnation. It becomes the feet and hands through which his work is carried on in the world.

From another point of view, the meeting becomes both a laboratory and a training ground for a better social order. All the social doctrines of Friends are first practiced within the meeting, where the environment is favorable. Those who have learned these lessons in such a seedbed can then become strong enough and resourceful enough to continue similar practices in the world outside.

Every social testimony of Friends goes through a process of discovery and development. It takes time to realize the social implications of a religious position. For example, the New Testament does not condemn slavery although it enunciates principles that eventually did away with slavery in Europe. The Society of Friends is still very far from having discovered all the consequences of its religious premises.

At the price of over-simplification, let us outline the Quaker social doctrines under four heads — community, harmony, equality, and simplicity. Obviously the four overlap, being derived out of the same fundamental principle.


Community within the meeting becomes manifest as an attempt of the members to share with one another, spiritually, intellectually, socially, and economically. Outside the meeting, it is manifest in attempts to increase the harmonious interdependence of people everywhere, in order to reduce self-centeredness and conflict. Friends have frequently made efforts to aid the poor and weak and to improve the condition of depressed classes. This once took place largely through philanthropy in the narrower sense of that word, but many today favor methods that attack the causes rather than the results of social evils. In addition to emphasizing the importance of professional social work in areas where expert knowledge is required, Friends stress individual responsibility on the part of all persons. There is a relationship between this emphasis and the Quaker insistence upon the religious responsibility of all members, which has produced the non-professional ministry. Friends encourage the kind of social service in which the work is done with rather than for those who are helped.

During every war since the beginning of its history, the Society of Friends has engaged in some kind of relief and reconstruction work for those who have suffered devastation, hunger, or pestilence. This relief work has been characterized, whenever possible, by the same principle of working along with a population rather than for them. For example, in France after the First World War, Quaker relief workers labored with the peasants in their fields, and in Germany they supplied food for children in cooperation with the German social agencies.

One can envisage a meeting in which this principle of community is developed to such an extent that the members share with each other economically to the same degree that they share intellectually and spiritually. Such sharing normally occurs in an average family, and the tendency is therefore present in our cultural inheritance to that extent. But the family is too small a unit to give the kind of security needed today. The tiny unit is too readily swept away in an economic storm. A religious family, being larger, can have greater stability. In most Friends meetings, members in need are cared for by the meeting as a whole.

Harmony [or “Peace”]

Harmony is used here instead of pacifism, the latter word having come to mean, for many persons, simply an unwillingness to take part in war. The word pacifism or its equivalent did not occur in Quaker writings until recently because the peace testimony was once so intimately a part of the Quaker way of life that they did not set it by itself in a special category. The word harmony is used here to designate the function that any part exerts in an integrated whole. This function is such that no part of the social organism imposes violence on any other part, but that all work together in harmony. Those who hold the peace testimony seek to reconcile all individuals to one another so that a society will exist in which cooperation supplants conflict. In the last resort, we can find no better term for this effort than the biblical phrase, “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Such positive pacifism within a Friends meeting implies the ability of the members to achieve unity without authoritarian compulsion exercised by an individual, a majority, a program, a ritual, or a creed. The methods for attaining this type of unity are described in detail in the section on ‘gathering the meeting’ above. These methods can, to some degree, be applied to the settlement of disputes in the world at large. A settlement so reached does not result from one party prevailing over the other. Each contributes to the final outcome, even though the process may show that one side or the other is totally wrong.

From this ultimate aim of reconciliation arises the peace testimony in the narrower sense. Quakers cannot engage in war as a method of settling international disputes, for war is a test of strength, not a search for truth and justice. The methods used depart so far from ideal procedures that the attainment of truth and justice is highly improbable. Only spiritual means can achieve a spiritual end. Quakers are fighters, but they use weapons that they believe will really attain the results aimed at, however long a time it may take.

But the religious pacifist does not base a position solely on the apparently better results achieved by pacific methods since no human being can foresee what all the results of any action will be in the long course of history. Quaker pacifism is based primarily on religious insight, which often clearly indicates that certain actions are wrong irrespective of the results that may be humanly foreseen. The character of the source of action and the moral quality of the will that acts are generally more evident to a highly sensitive person than are uncertain consequences in a distant future. One must live up to one’s own conscience, which reveals the highest moral values that anyone knows, whether this conscience leads one to fight or to refrain from fighting. Experience shows, however, that, in proportion as conscience becomes educated and sensitized through prayer and worship, people will more and more be led to seek that type of solution to differences that leads away from
violence and toward peaceable reconciliation.

Quakers also believe that in refusing to take part in war they are following the injunctions of the founder of the Christian religion. They find by experience that the Christ within and the Christ of history speak with the same voice. Christians are “in the world but not of it” in the sense that the code of the Divine Kingdom, to which they aspire to belong, is not the code of the world around them.

Opinions differ on how far this opposition to the use of violence in dealing with human beings can be carried into situations other than international war. Friends generally consider the use of police power permissible when that power is exercised impartially in seeking to preserve the rights of the criminal as well as of society. But even here, nonviolent methods can be more successful than most persons suppose. Friends are active in prison reform, believing that punishment should never be exercised to wreak vengeance on the wrongdoer but rather to reform that person. They oppose capital punishment. They were probably the first to use nonviolent methods in dealing with the insane. An early reform abolished corporal punishment in Friends’ schools. That Friends have been pioneers in methods now universally used in dealing with prisoners, the mentally ill, and children may show that their opposition to war indicates a similar trend in pioneering for the future.


Equality, expressed as a Quaker social testimony, means that all persons have equal worth in the sight of God and that their personalities must be held equally inviolate. This does not mean that all are of equal ability. In a Friends’ business meeting, for instance, some members have more weight than others. It means, rather, that distinctions arising from sex, race, economic status, nationality, and education are unimportant and should never be used either to flatter or humiliate.

Equality in the ministry between men and women was recognized in the Society of Friends from the beginning. Equality was the earliest social testimony. Even before all Friends recognized the pacifist implications of their religion, a number were dismissed from Cromwell’s army because they treated their officers as social equals.

Friends early endeavored to do away with all the symbols which indicated that some are more worthy of respect than others. They did not use “you” to a social superior, as was the custom of the time, but addressed all by a singular pronoun. They refused to remove their hats as a sign of honor to any human being. They would not use the title master (Mr.) nor mistress (Mrs.) because these words did not express existing relations and were never used to inferiors. “Bowings and scrapings” were condemned for similar reasons. Doing away with accepted usages based on social inequalities caused extensive suffering through fine and imprisonment.

Under this head, perhaps, can be placed the long and painful struggle that resulted in placing all religious affiliations on an equality before the civil law. Friends in England in the seventeenth century refused to obey the laws which forbade nonconformist sects to worship according to their consciences; as a result many thousands were cast into prison, where many died, while still more lost all their property through fines. The coming of religious liberty to England was a great triumph of nonviolent methods after the then usual method of violence had failed. Only in those North American colonies that were controlled politically by the Quakers—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware—was there no state church. In this respect, as well as in others, Quaker tradition, especially as embodied in the constitution of Pennsylvania, exercised a powerful influence on the Constitution of the United States.

The full implications of the doctrine of racial equality developed more slowly. Friends freed their slaves a century before the Civil War. They have been active from the beginning in educating African Americans and Native Americans. Some yearly meetings maintain committees that seek opportunities to promote interracial understanding. Yet work in line with this testimony has failed to keep pace with the need.

The doctrine of equality as far as it refers to economic status is, as yet, largely undeveloped, although small beginnings have been made. Servants in Quaker households often received the same social consideration as members of the family, and in the meeting they sometimes had more influence than their employers. There are instances of Quakers in business giving unusual privileges and responsibilities to their employees. From time to time Pendle Hill, or a committee on the social order, has brought employers and representatives of employees together to discuss their common problems. Many Friends today are groping for light on these difficult questions that are rendered even more complex by contemporary conditions.


Simplicity is a testimony that has assumed many different forms. In general, it means sincerity, genuineness, avoidance of superfluity. It has been commonly referred to in books of Faith and Practice as “simplicity in dress, speech, and behavior,” or an equivalent phrase. In dress, simplicity first led to dispensing with useless ornaments at a time when the dress of the fashionable was excessively elaborate. Finding themselves victimized by changes in fashion that benefited no one but the tailor, Friends adopted one fashion and clung to it for more than a hundred years. This became known as “plain dress.” As such, it was a means by which the wearer could inform the world where he or she stood. This dress has now largely disappeared. Much ornamentation is still considered out of place. Here, simplicity and modern good taste coincide.

In speech, simplicity means that the truth should be stated as simply as possible without affectation, excess words, or rhetorical flourish. As a result, directness and often bluntness became characteristic of Quaker conversation. The Quaker shopkeeper was the first to introduce the one-price system in selling goods. He believed it appropriate to tell at the outset the truth regarding the price he would accept instead of going through the customary drama of bargaining. This turned out to be good business as well as good ethics.

Under simplicity in language should be included the testimony against judicial oaths, which imply a double standard of speech, one for the court of justice and the other for less formal occasions. Another reason for the refusal to swear was the express instruction by Jesus. This testimony caused much acute suffering until Friends won the right to make a simple affirmation instead of taking the oath. In recent times [the 1950s], this doctrine has appeared in an entirely new form. Some Friends have lost their positions because of refusal to take an oath of loyalty. While the words they are asked to say express the truth regarding themselves, they consider this requirement to be an entering wedge in a control of opinion characteristic of the police state. The so-called “plain language,” in the more formal sense, refers to the Quaker practice of using to one person the singular pronoun “thou,” which in common speech has been replaced by “thee,” of omitting titles such as Mr. and Mrs., and of numbering the days of the week and the months of the year instead of using names derived from pagan mythology. Discriminations formerly in vogue having largely disappeared today, this aspect of the testimony for simplicity has become meaningless, though many still consider it valuable as a sign of intimacy and religious fellowship.

In behavior, simplicity means avoiding pretense or affectation. On account of a keen interest in decorum, the actions of Friends on social occasions were often characterized by a peculiar grace and dignity that, however, bore little relation to the standardized manners of their day. Simplicity in behavior also means the omission of superfluous activities that serve no good end. Friends are warned in their books of Faith and Practice against “engaging in business beyond their ability to manage.” In Quaker journals there are many instances recorded of Friends giving up large businesses in order to engage in smaller ones because the large business took up time and attention that should be given to religious matters. Some Friends have restricted scientific research for the same reason. In outlining social testimonies, it does not need to be pointed out that members of the Society of Friends are far from living up to what they profess. They believe, however, that a high goal is better than a low one and that it is better to aim at the highest and fail than to make a virtue of compromise.

Friends know that they are an integral part of the society in which they live and that they share in its weakness and guilt. They also realize that they have themselves so lived that they are partly responsible for war, for the exploitation of the weak, and for other social evils by which they have materially benefited. Therefore, they should be humble and penitent. Yet they also believe in the power of God that can enable humanity, as
George Fox expressed it, to “get atop of” these things. The early Friends, like the early Christians, did not try to adjust themselves to the world. Their effort was directed toward adjusting the world and themselves to the standards of their religion. The practices outlined here are not now prevalent in the world. They characterize a community of persons that seeks, however much it may fail, to obey the scriptural injunction, “Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).

Brinton is usually credited with having originating the concept of Quaker social testimonies (not often referred to as SPICE or SPICES). This post is an excerpt from Guide to Quaker Practice by Howard Brinton, Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 20. Howard & Anna Brinton were the directors of Pendle Hill from 1936-49. Howard retired in 1952. He was also the author of Friends for 300 Years.