Quaker testimonies are practices that testify or bear witness to our ideals regarding how we should live:
When William Penn became a Quaker, he did not take on the simple dress of the early Friends right away. He continued to wear hats. He continued to wear fancy clothes. And he continued to wear the sword that every well-dressed gentleman wore. One day he met George Fox, and Penn asked Fox about wearing the sword. Penn said it wasn't just about being well-dressed. He said that he had saved himself without violence because of his sword and that, after all, there were places in the gospel where Jesus said that you should take up a sword. George Fox replied, "Then I advise you to wear it as long as you can." Some time later George Fox ran into William Penn again. He noticed that Penn wasn't wearing a sword. "What happened to the sword?" Fox asked. Penn replied, "I did as you said. I wore it as long as I could."Penn's story illustrates what many Friends feel—that once they are commited to the Quaker life, they are drawn to certain life choices that they would not have necessarily predicted for themselves. The peace testimony is the perfect example of this, for the ways in which a Friend is called to practice peace may be difficult or even dangerous. We live the peace testimony in many ways, and we take it on at different rates. Many Friends have chosen to be conscientious objectors of wars, of compulsory service in the military, or of compulsory military registration. Some have chosen alternative service, serving in the military as non-combatants. Conscientious objectors to compulsory peacetime registration have been jailed, or have found ways to afford a college education without the availability of student loans. Yet conscientious objection is only one of the ways a Friend may live the peace testimony; many Friends are active in peace politics or organizations like Christian Peacemaker Teams, while others choose to quietly manifest peace in their daily lives (such as solving conflicts nonviolently).
I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:34-37; reiterated in James 5:12)
Living the testimonies is a choice left up to the individual Friend, and there are countless ways to manifest one’s conviction of a particular testimony. In living by the testimonies, some Friends choose to wear plain-colored clothing in public, decline the use of honorifics, refuse to swear in court, and protest the draft. Although a person who does these things may be easily identified as a Quaker, not all Quakers do them. Many Friends are indistinguishable from non-Quakers in their behavior, though their motives may be different.
For example, a Friend who is highly convinced of the merit of the testimony of integrity may yet submit to swearing to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in a court of law because they believe they must be honest about the fact that, despite their best intentions, they do not practice perfect integrity in their everyday speech. Situations like this are the reason one must be careful when characterizing Quakers, for each member is likely to act differently depending on where they are in their walk with God.
It is also a common misconception that the testimonies are a kind of creed, which you must adhere to if you want to consider yourself a practicing Quaker. In fact, it is much more accurate to say that the Quaker life results in the testimonies, not the other way around.
The testimonies are a kind of convenient summary of hundreds of years of earnest listening for God’s word; they are not the definition or prerequisite of being a Quaker. There are doubtless many people who have never heard of Quakerism and nonetheless believe that integrity, equality, and the rest are good touchstones for living. Likewise it is conceivable that there are Quakers whose journey with God has not yet brought them to the place where they are persuaded of the truth of all the testimonies. Most Friends feel comfortable listing them together as a representation of the godly life, but thoughtful people can and do disagree on the exact contents of that list. It is not for us to argue these points; an individual’s persuasion must come from God, not the power of human reason.
Although our testimonies have sometimes given rise to dramatic action on the part of the Quaker community, it is important to note that the Friends’ concept of worship requires that we continuously nurture the inner life of devotion, so that we may more effectively fulfill our humanitarian obligations in our outer life of service. Friends believe that attention to the “roots” of our faith must precede any concern for the “fruits” of activity. Throughout our history as a religious people, our humanitarian concerns have always developed as a result of the worship experience. Without an inner life of devotion, the outer life of service loses its power. Without an outer life of service, the inner life of devotion loses its meaning. Friends believe that in the religious life, we need both.