The central belief of Quakers is that there is a spark of the Divine in every person. From that concept flow the traditional Quaker concerns for nonviolent conflict resolution, respect for each human being, and everyone’s ability to have a direct, living relationship with the Divine.
Quakerism began as part of the 17th century English Reformation, and it is rooted in Christian principles. From our beginnings we have chosen to avoid rituals, sacraments, written prayers and creeds, and clergy, preferring to emphasize the individual’s search for truth and the responsibility we each carry for living in accordance with our values.
Because of this emphasis on our individual paths you may find a wide range of opinions on religious questions in any Quaker meeting. However, we unite around several core beliefs, often referred to as our “testimonies.” We seek to “testify” to the world about these core beliefs not by preaching, but by living our lives in accordance with these principles.
An early Quaker, John Woolman, put it like this: ‘live simply, that others may simply live’. Early Quakers felt they should live simply, tending to real needs and avoiding luxuries. They were aware of the poverty around them, and that resources needed to be shared. For Quakers in the affluent West today, simplicity of lifestyle is hard. But the testimony is there to challenge us.
Peace and nonviolence testimony
George Fox and other early Quakers soon saw that since all protagonists in any situation of conflict have that of God in them, it followed that war could not be appropriate, and joining the military was unacceptable. Conscientious objection was a consequence of this.
But most conflicts are not in war settings and peaceful, nonviolent ways of dealing with these are equally essential to Quakers. This may be in their daily lives, but it is also about helping others caught up in conflict, and working for it in the wider world through the UN and many other channels. Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for such work.
Integrity and Truth testimony
Quakers have always been clear that honesty in all their dealings was fundamental.Early Quaker artisans and shopkeepers soon acquired a reputation for honesty and fair prices. Their integrity was a key factor in their great success in business and banking in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another manifestation of this testimony is often called ‘speaking truth to power’. Quakers are exhorted not to stand by, but to speak out about injustices they see.
Quakers soon saw that since there was that of God in everyone, all must be treated equally – men and women, master and slave, employer and employee.
Quakers quickly saw the equal humanity in prisoners, and Elizabeth Fry and many others soon became involved in prison reform and criminal justice. Quakers are particularly active nowadays in systems of restorative justice.
This is fundamentally about responding to the needs of others. Working for criminal justice and rehabilitation and for victims of crime, is part of this. The relief programmes Quakers have undertaken in times of famine, disaster and conflict, are another aspect. Seeking justice for refugees and asylum seekers, also witnesses to this.
This is a relatively new concern as a separate testimony, though strands of it are implicit in the testimonies listed above. Now that we are all much more aware of the need to take care of our planet for future generations, it is emerging as a testimony in its own right. A global consultation is underway about how Friends should be responding, and whether Quakers have something distinctive to say.