Thoughts on the Quaker “Testimony of Equality”

Thoughts on the Quaker “Testimony of Equality”

At first I was pleased when told that Quakers had a Testimony on Equality. That idea yielded a substantial chunk of the pride in being a Quaker that I wore, with appropriate humility.

But then I made a big mistake: I read some Quaker history. Even more grave, it began to sink in. And a few aspects of what it taught seem worth mentioning here, as they bear on topics like the role of Quakers in the world.

The first thing that turned up in the Quaker history of the “Equality Testimony” is the complete absence of the latter from most of the former. Yes, even in books of Faith and Practice published well into the middle of the twentieth century, there’s no mention of it. Further, in the original Disciplines, from 150 years before that, the term is absent and their spirit is quite the contrary. (Thee can check this for thyself right here, Friend.)

As to the earliest Friends? Well. Just to mention a few items: George Fox approved of owning slaves. William Penn actually owned slaves. John Woolman labored and sacrificed for thirty years just to get one yearly meeting to agree that slavery was a bad idea.

Then there’s Robert Barclay, the outstanding early Quaker theologian. In his magnum opus, The Apology for the True Christian Divinity, he insists that quaint early customs such as permitting a Quaker’s servants to (occasionally) speak up to their masters without invitation, by no means portended any “levelling” of the social hierarchy, but to the contrary put this class ladder on an even firmer (because more truly Christian) foundation. (And thee can check on THAT right here. )

For that matter, Barclay also declared that just because the Society of Friends did without a pope and bishops, that did NOT make all Friends, or all Meetings, equal either. For more than 200 years the books of Discipline backed him up, making “inferior” Meetings explicitly subordinate to “Superior” ones, and setting up an internal establishment (mainly those few on the elevated “facing benches”) to “keep a tender care of” (i.e., oversee) the rank and file many in the cheap seats.

But what about permitting women to speak? And have their own meetings? Yes it was an advance. But look closer, and you’ll see that the Women’s Meetings were firmly subordinated to, and all their actions subject to review by, the Men’s Meetings.

Better than other churches? Yes. “Equality”? Not exactly. (That’s why, in the end, the women insisted that their meetings be abolished; separate was not equal there either.)

While all this is inside stuff, it was not, to use the technical phrase, chopped liver. And there’s yet another, outward side to this earlier story too: a theological one, to wit:

Early Friends lacked a Testimony on Equality with the outside world because, to speak plainly, they (the Friends) were quite sure that those outside were NOT their equals.

A striking example of this is found deep in the famous 1660 Letter to King Charles II, from Fox and a dozen or so other leading Quakers — the one which announced what we now call the “Peace Testimony.”

In a part of the letter which does not get quoted on meeting house wall posters, Fox & Co. explain to the king, “for your soul’s good,” why he should avoid persecuting the Quakers. It was not merely because they were peaceable folk, innocent of plotting his overthrow; but more important, because to do so would mean he was fooling with “the babes of Christ, which he [Christ] hath in his hand, which he [Christ] cares for as the apple of his eye; neither seek to destroy the heritage of God . . . .”

And here we have early Quaker theology in a nutshell: Friends were God’s chosen people, “the apple of his eye.” In the Bible, the counterpart is referred to as a “royal seed.” Maybe the Friends were not destined to rule the world outwardly, sitting on actual thrones; but surely they were commissioned to show it the true way to what the Lord had in mind, and they needed to be able to do the Lord’s work unhampered.

So were Quakers “equal” to other humans, even the king? Not hardly; none of this lot came anywhere near their level as “the heritage of God.”

To be sure, in the next few generations some hard edges were scraped off this outlook by persecution and internal tension. Nevertheless, the nub of it survived for a long time: and I contend much of it is with us still, tho we have mislaid the history-tinted glasses which would enable us to see it.

Consider those old Disciplines again. From their first printed editions, through most of the 19th century, all these handbooks, both Hicksite and Orthodox, opened with the same introductory paragraph, which restated the sentiment of the 1660 letter. Here it is:

“As it hath pleased the Lord in these latter days, by his spirit and power, to gather a people to himself; and releasing them from the impositions and teachings of men. . . these have been engaged to meet together for the worship of God in spirit, according to the direction of the holy Lawgiver . . . . For this important end, and as an exterior hedge of preservation to us against the many temptations and dangers to which our situation in this world exposes us, rules for the government of the Society have been made and approved from time to time…”

In short: the Discipline protects God’s new Chosen People from the awful outside world (and those awful people in it).

Now, go ahead: squeeze a commitment to equality out of this if you can; I can’t.

But what about ending slavery? A noble crusade indeed. Yet, as has been amply shown in the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, most Quakers who were totally opposed to slavery, were also totally okay with segregation, and this attitude was still widespread into the 1960s.
So where did the “Testimony of Equality” come from? And what exactly does it encompass? (Does it commit us, for instance, to “equality of opportunity,” or rather to “equality of results” in worldly circumstances? Some mix of the two? Something else?)
All good questions, and I don’t know of any substantial work exploring Quaker seeking and discussion of possible answers. As said earlier, I haven’t found the term listed as a “Testimony” in books of Faith and Practice til well after the 1950s; but maybe I missed some. Maybe the unnamed “prophet” who coined the acronym SPICE, which I only encountered in the late 1990s, was the real culprit. (Personally, I think SPICE belongs in a jar in the kitchen; unless it’s old — then it’s an after shave. But I digress.)

Smells nice — but is it a TESTIMONY??

Of course, Friends today are not bound by what Fox or Penn or Barclay believed, and many of the rules in the old Disciplines have been altered or abandoned.

SPICY for sure — But are they “Testimonies”?

Still, it is one thing to change the past, and another to escape it. The very complicated and ambiguous Quaker relationship to “equality’” both inside and outside our Society is still with us; very much so.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Quaker “Testimony of Equality””

  1. Chuck, I suspect the testimony of equality comes from Howard Brinton. In “Friends for 300 Years” and some of his other writings he lists 4 Quaker testimonies: harmony (later changed to peace), equality, simplicity, community. That book and that list were considered definitional by many Friends back in the 70s and 80s. (Maybe in the 50s and 60s, but I wasn’t around to observe.) If HB didn’t make up the list himself, I imagine he got it from Rufus Jones or one of that circle.

  2. Friends were never perfect, and sometimes their imperfection could reach shocking levels – as in the participation of some/many in the slave system.

    But, Friends have often been the ONLY ones speaking out for equality. You mention Woolman’s trials without noting that that small victory of his was the beginning of the anti-slavery movement.

    In 18th Century Ireland when the majority of people were the target of an elaborate system of legal religious criminalization, Friends were the only people who refused to recognize that system.

    I could go on, but my point is simple: ‘equality’ has never been a ‘state’ it has always been a quest. And while it is both correct and healthy for us to recognize the imperfections of those who have gone before, we should not lose sight of the often heroic struggles that many endured.

    Would that we would do as well as Woolman in confronting evil that is deeply embedded in our world.

  3. I agree that claiming a non-existant testimony is improper. Equality is of the heart and by approaching the scriptures as a living source from which the Holy Spirit can lead us to become little christs, quakers provide a culture from which equality can be championed. The problem of early quakers feeling superior as the apple of God’s eye is not uncommon as feeling special to God is a common experience amnongst those of us who are awakened spiritually though the Bible. Of course as we open ourselves up even more to what the Bible says about God’s love for us we find that God loves the World and all who are in it just as much. It’s just hard to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love and His ability to love everyone as if they were the most important thing ever created, which is exactly what He seems to do. There is just no way to express that sense that comes over you when you realize how much God loves you.
    In my reading of Elias Hicks’ journals it was apparent that he didn’t see his slaves as equal socially even though he was led to free them and help set up schools for educating them. I think this is the way God works in us. He leads us to do what is right even when mentally and culturally we don’t understand the full reasoning behind what we are doing. That’s why obedience is so important. If we waited for understanding or complete revelation change would take forever. Obedience built on Trust built on a revelation of love leads us closer to a better place, here and hearafter.

  4. ……surely Friends’ testimony is to the equality of all men and women before God? Hence e.g. the avoidance of the use of ‘flattering worldly titles’ and ‘hat honour’………

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