‘Testimony’ is perhaps an old-fashioned word which in 21st century English carries connotations of what a witness might give during a trial in a court of law. In the context of mainstream churches, a person’s testimony is usually their story of how they became a Christian, what they were like before and how becoming part of a church has helped them since – often given as a personal speech before adult baptism or at ‘mission’ events.
The Quaker use of the word comes from our earliest days, and originates from its legal meaning. The first generations of Quakers were often brought to court for their beliefs – and the way they practised them – and in court they ‘testified’ to the power of Christ within them which led them to behave the way they did and to reject the religious practices of the time which they considered to be corrupt.
In the modern era, Quakers use the word ‘testimony’ as a shorthand to express something like “this is what our experience of God has shown us to be true”. In Britain today, Quakers together acknowledge four broad testimonies – the testimonies to peace, to equality, to simplicity, and to truth. The testimonies do not come in the form of specifically worded statements which all members are expected to sign or say “yes, I believe in that”, but rather have arisen from a shared understanding through our history, which each individual Quaker interprets for themselves according to their own conscience. Some Quakers’ interests lead them to concentrate on one testimony more than the others, but pretty much everybody agrees that all the testimonies are closely related to each other – without equality, for example, there can be no peace. In short, the Quaker testimonies are about the way we try to lead our lives in the world, and offer our example for others to hopefully follow.