Friends are sometimes called “practical mystics” because Quaker worship has been the wellspring for service in the community and world. Commitment to a life of obedience to the Spirit has been of essential importance to Friends both as individuals and as Meetings. This commitment has led us to support much that is creative in public life, education, business, and concern for the oppressed. It also has led us to oppose practices and institutions that result in violence and exploitation in the world around us.
An old story relates the whispered question asked by someone attending meeting for worship for the first time and puzzled by the absence of overt activity: “When does the service begin?” The response: “When the meeting for worship ends.”
For more than three hundred years, Friends have acted upon shared concerns through practices which historically have been distinctive and definitive. While the specifics of Friends’ practice have varied as times have changed, Friends today continue to have concerns and underlying beliefs similar to those of past generations. The word testimonies is used to refer to this common set of deeply held, historically rooted attitudes and modes of living in the world.
Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceives it—truth is known through relationship with God. The testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light, outward expressions reflective of the inward experience of divine leading, differently described by various Friends and in changing eras. Often in the past, they were defined specifically, such as the testimony against taking oaths; recently it has become customary to speak of them more generally, as in the testimony of simplicity. Through the testimonies, with that measure of the Light that is granted, Friends strive for unity and integrity of inner and outer life, both in living with ourselves and others and in living in the world.
Our own history, however, demonstrates that our discernment has not always been complete: we have not always been united in our perceptions of what obedience to the Spirit requires, and we have fallen into conflict and misunderstanding even among ourselves. Yet out of such conflicts, painful as they have been, have come greater clarity of commitment and unity in witness.