Quaker Testimony Viewed Through the Lens of Theological Ethics - Rachel Muers

1. Introduction 

In Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics (SCM Press,2015), Quaker theologian Rachel Muers considers the nature of Quaker testimony through the lens of theological ethics. This book is academic but accessible in style and will be appreciated by Friends and others who wish to deepen their understanding of Quaker theology and spirituality. In particular, the chapter on the refusal of oaths is a tour de force.

I strongly recommend this excellent book and offer the following summary of key points in the hope that it will tempt you to read it for yourself. 

2. A General Definition of Testimony

Rachel Muers sets out the following general characteristics of Quaker testimony (pp.7-8). She states that it is:

·    An individual and collective response to God’s leading or call.

·    Something shared, sustained, communicated and developed over time.

·    Located in everyday life rather than confined to a special ‘religious’ context.

·    Conduct or action that seeks to communicate, challenge and transform within a particular context.

·    Based on ‘experiential’ knowledge that is tested by the community and open to revision (p.16) 
 3. Defines Who We Are 
 Muers suggests that testimony has been important in defining Quaker identity and forming Quaker community (p.5), however, she also points out that the description of testimony in terms of ‘lists’ (e.g. peace, equality, simplicity and truth) is a relatively recent innovation, emerging during the twentieth century. She argues that testimony displays both continuity and change over time and that “at its best, Quaker testimony calls members of this community to read their past as a preparation for discerning their present and future calling” (p.26). 

4. A Response to Divine Encounter 

Testimony emerges as a response to the encounter with God in Spirit. It is our answer to the guidance or promptings of God within us (p.101). Since the ‘ground and spring’ of testimony is our encounter with God, it can regarded as action and speech at the cutting edge of revelation (p.20). Over time Quakers have experienced an on-going sense of being called, gathered and having their condition spoken to (p.20). For early Friends, testimony represented an attempt to live in the same kind of relationship with the risen Christ that had transformed the lives of the apostles and the early church (p.39). This assumes that a direct experience of God’s saving power will be inextricably linked to changed visible patterns of everyday life (p.16). The Light is something that we come to know, see or believe in and our action is prompted by its illumination (p.43). Therefore, the task of testimony is the task of speaking and doing God’s truth, of coming to the Light and walking in the Light (p.45). 

5. Negative Testimony – Interruption and Refusal 

For a community with a long-standing commitment to peace and reconciliation, it can seem incongruous that Quaker testimony has often been adversarial, confrontational and negative (p.54). The negative nature of testimony is about a sustained enacted opposition to some power or structure of thought that claims to shape and uphold the world but in fact destroys it (p.58). Testimony is therefore a collective, learned and storied process of ‘doing the truth’ and opposing lies that systematically conceal, suppress or silence the complex reality of the world-before-God (p.63). Because of this testimony has often taken the form of a double negative – a denial of a lie (p.21). Two examples of this: 

Sexuality - the 1960s publication Towards a Quaker View of Sex was a piece of negative testimony aimed at denying the lies being told in the society of the time about what was and what was not ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ human expressions of sexuality (p.168) 

Sustainability – Proclaiming that, when humans assume that they own and are sovereign over the non-human creation, this is a systematically enacted falsehood that needs to be challenged (p.183).

Testimony can be understood as a form of repentance. It is an action of interruption, denial or refusal, rejecting current circumstances without yet knowing what the alternative might look like (p.65). This reflects a reticence about how knowledgeable we really are. It assumes that, although we can know and understand evil within the world, we cannot fully know or understand God. This leads us to a negative form of testimony and what Muers calls an apophatic theology (p.59). In kataphatic spirituality or ‘via positiva’ God is described in positive terms (i.e. God is this or that). In apophatic spirituality or ‘via negativa’ God as mystery is defined negatively (i.e. God is not this or that). 

6. Positive Testimony – Opening Up New Possibilities 

Negative testimony leads to positive testimony. Muers suggests that sustained negative practices of refusal give rise to new positive forms of practice. These might be called ‘holy experiments’ (p.81). We deny or refuse what we know in order to do something that is not yet fully known. Such denial or refusal interrupts established patterns and assumptions and makes space for alternative possibilities (p.59). In this sense testimony is future-oriented and open-ended. A testimony ‘against’ something leads to actions that express the hope for positive change (p.85). For example A Quaker View of Sex challenged powerful assumptions about what was ‘natural’ and healthy that wielded power over people’s lives and bodies. This created space for the development of alternatives (pp.165/6). 

7. God’s Way or the ways of the World? 

Quaker testimony tends to operate at the point of confrontation between the truth of God and the dominant untruths of a world-opposed-to-God (p.46). Historically, testimony has prompted Quaker to set themselves against any power structure or pattern of life that denies or obscures divine truth (p.118). Quaker stubbornness is not just the result of bloody-mindedness. At its best it is the result of refusal to sacrifice truth to power (p.198). Friends have tried to critique any attempt to make religion fit into a politically convenient box, particularly where this has the effect of creating more outsiders and eventually more victims (p.150).

In the Quaker refusal of the oath we see a conflict between the truth of God and the falsehood of the world. An oath is a symptom of a problem masquerading as a cure (p.113). For early Friends, an oath presented them with a choice between the temporal authorities of this world and the authority of Christ as Lord (p.116). 

8. Communicating – Winning by persuasion 

Testimony acts as nonviolent, self-involving communication that ‘wins’ by persuasion rather than coercion. It offers itself freely to be interpreted and misinterpreted by those who see and hear it (p.103). So testimony is fully incorporated into daily life. This is a life that ‘speaks’; it is speech, but it is speech that ‘lives’ fully embedded in a particular context (p.99). 

9. Provoking – Prompting a response 

Testimony presents itself to the world and calls forth a response from those who hear it and see it (p.99). It relies on the response of others for its interpretation and reception, much like vocal ministry (p.104). Again, this reflects a focus on ‘entreaty’ rather than ‘contention’. 

10. Inherently Risky and Uncertain 

Because it relies on the response of others for its interpretation and reception, testimony is inherently risky and uncertain. For example, James Nayler’s story reveals the ambiguous and risky character of testimony. This includes the possibility of being misunderstood, rejected, suffering and dying or being found to have been wrong (p.146).  In addition, we might expect good testimony to look odd and threatening and we might not expect its impact to be immediately apparent (p.190) 

11. Revealing Complexity 

Quaker testimony tends to undercut simplistic understandings and reveal the complexity of situations. For example, John Woolman’s simple living and single-eyed knowing made his world more complex. For him, there was no escaping the reality of the situation. His insights restored a sense of the complexity of the world and the real evils caused by people’s inability to face that complexity. In this sense, he shows how truth is more complex than the lies we live by (p.180). Similarly, Quaker testimony has also made the connection between small-scale untruths and the ‘bigger lies’ within our social and spiritual lives. An example of this might be the way small-scale haggling is linked to global unjust economic practices (p.84). 

12. Specific and Situated 

In practice, testimony is always specific and situated. The ‘Truth’ is God who is encountered, known, and followed from where we are. So what matters is what we can say from here and now (p.19). Testimony has to be worked out in particular cases and cannot be fully predicted or understood in advance (p.129). Effective and faithful testimony is a matter of case-by-case judgement through a process of discernment, informed by the history of testimony, by the needs of the present situation and by openness to surprise (p.191). 

13. Universal - Open to All 

The conviction that every person is enlightened by the divine Light of Christ underlies Quaker testimony as experiential practice (p.41). We all have the Spirit so we can all respond to the testimony of others by turning to the Light within ourselves (p.100). In addition the commitment to an experiential engagement with ‘that of God in everyone’ enables a way of speaking truth that, while it addresses and challenges power, does not simply repeat the dominant ways in which power is exercised and the methods by which success is measured and achieved (p.205).


  1. Thanks for this posting. Looks like a must-have for my local Meeting's library.

  2. A second comment...Rachel's book looks important because it deeply addresses a concern I have, which is that Quakers' confusing the testimony of equality of souls with socio-economic equality has led many Friends into a simple-minded, political leftism. Testimony is dynamic and creative and not about secular prejudices. Chapter 7 looks challenging. I tend not to like suggestions that Quakers are special or morally superior; it's just that our practice of discernment can lead us to insights that others can learn to share e.g. our insight into the moral necessity of peace-building

  3. Dear Mark, Thank you so much for your comments. I agree that modern Liberal Friends have a tendency to view Quaker Testimony through a secular political lens. I think that Rachel Muers offers a very helpful counter-balance to this by rooting the understanding of testimony within its Judeo-Christian framework. Our previous conversation on these matters leads me to think that we will always disagree somewhat on the appropriate Quaker relationship to the powers, political authorities, wider society. Early Friends were very clear that there was a fundamental distinction to be made between the dominant ways of 'the world' and the ways of God's kingdom (which I would describe as shalom but early Friends called 'gospel order'). That said, unlike the members of our close theological family, the Anabaptists (who have generally held to the importance of a radical separation from government/state), Quakers have generally maintained a more positive relationship with power (e.g. Quakers were actively involved in the governance of more than one American colony from very early on). This means that we have tended to work with and in government, when this has not contradicted the guidance of the Light in our consciences, but have strongly resisted and criticised power when it seems to be acting in a way contrary to that of the kingdom (e.g. by being conscientious objectors in the context of conscription). In my view this is not about being morally superior but it is about trying to maintain a degree of moral independence because our ultimate loyalty is to God's way rather than the ways of the world. So, in practice this comes down to individual and corporate discernment about what is required of us in specific circumstances. I hope that helps. Shalom, Stuart.

  4. Thanks. I'm continuing to puzzle about the distinction between the ways of God and the ways of the world. Isn't this, like talk of structural violence, to depersonalise those with whom you disagree? Rather, aren't Quakers counselled to 'walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone'?

  5. Hi Mark, it's important to read Fox's words in context and in light of the early Quaker understanding. My view is that Fox is saying that, those whose lives have been transformed by the Inward Christ are called to rise above the ways of the world (i.e. walk over) and by the visible witness of their conduct and message (which is in stark contrast to the normal ways of the world) turned people to the Light within them that will liberate them too from the ways of the world. For early Friends, 'the world' meant human society and culture that is 'in the darkness', alienated from God.

  6. Hasn’t denunciation of the ways of the world ever been the stock in trade of the Puritan moraliser? ‘A moraliser is a person who seeks to impose upon others his view as to how they should live and behave…[Moralisers] want others to conform to their views and they seek to bring this about by coercion – employing means which range from social disapproval to legal control’ (A.C.Grayling The Meaning of Things). A good example of such coercive behaviour by Quakers is disownment for exogamy, about which I have written in my own blog. I think it is possible to defend Fox and the early Quakers from the charge of odious moralising but only by understanding their essential humanity. They were morally progressive, they were not morally independent. My article in the latest FQ on Penn draws attention to the strand of Christian humanism which was in Quakerism from the first.

    At its best, theological ethics is personalism in religious language. I've blogged about this too.

  7. Hi Mark, I don't think it is about moralising or coercion. I think it's about resisting those dominant aspects of human culture that cause harm and suffering (e.g. economic exploitation, scapegoating, violence/warfare, cruelty to other humans and animals, destruction of eco-systems, hatred of minorities based on race/ethicity, sexuality, gender etc etc...). Now, those of us who are White, male & middle class can be tempted to assume that the way the world works is how we experience it. However, if we were Black, female and working class, we might understand the ways of the world quite differently. I quite strongly disagree with your dismissal of Walter Wink's conception of the 'domination system'. At this time I think the domination system is particularly all-pervasive and dangerous. It involves an economic system that is seriously undermining the viability of life on this planet for most species, impoverishing the majority of humans while massively enriching a small minority. It is quite prepared to invade and bomb countries and people in order to advance its economic interests. It produces world hunger, migration crises and involves the suffering of millions of animals within factory-farming systems. It will be the death of us all unless we can achieve a degree of moral independence from it and fins ways to resist it and develop alternative systems that are more sustainable, more just and more compassionate. For me, the key problem with humanism is that it is far too narrow. Humans are only a small part of this. There is so much more. I do however, have quite a lot of sympathy for personalism as revealed in people like Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement and in the development of the Pendle Hill settlement.

  8. Your world picture is very one-sided. The UN says there has been progress. See http://www.un.org/press/en/2016/soc4832.doc.htm

  9. Hi Mark, well I would suggest that there are potential dangers associated with both our positions. I am tempted to be too pessimistic, too focused on conflict, too inclined to emphasise the dark side of dominant human institutions and too unwilling to recognise positive developments. You are likely to be too optimistic, too focused on consensus, too willing to accept the benign nature of dominant institutions and relatively unwilling to recognise the damage and injustices associated with dominant human institutions. In reality, I am very willing to accept the positive aspects of the development of modern human culture, particularly in the area of democracy. I guess that you are also willing to accept the reality of injustice, violence and destructiveness in human culture. My sense is that we find ourselves at a very interesting stage of human life. On the one hand, there have been all sorts of positive developments in terms of human rights, democracy, respect for minorities, and recognition of the value and integrity of other animals and the natural world. On the other hand we face an extremely dangerous future in which our power to destroy the life of most species on the planet including our own, is greater than at any other time (either by nuclear war or the undermining of eco-systems. I certainly want to support and celebrate the positive developments but I am also conscious that time is running out when it comes to avoiding the possibility of mass species extinction. I suppose on that basis, I am arguing that your position is no less one-sided than mine.


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