A testimony is a witness, a statement about the way things are. Quaker Testimonies could be considered as claims about the way things really are, a way which is disguised or made less than obvious by the world in which we live, but which is nevertheless true. They are sometimes presented as a list of abstract concepts, things we ‘believe in’:
You can add Integrity, Community, Sustainability, and others. I know some Friends who, confronted with such lists, say things like ‘well, this all a very modern formulation of Quaker principles…’. To which I am inclined to response: when does that matter and to whom? To historians, certainly. To those who wish to resist the oversimplification of Quakerism, perhaps. To people trying to explain Quakerism in one minute or less and in competition with professionally made advertising, not one jot. (One person may, of course, be any or all of these at various times.)
They’re principles or aspirations, not dogmas. Each and every one is up for debate – not (usually) ‘is x a good thing?’ but ‘how do we best manifest x in the world?’ To that there are often no easy answers, as I have written in my posts about Pacifism, Simplicity, Sustainability, and Truth.
It’s sometimes said about the Five Mindfulness Trainings that although you can technically take one and not the others, you’re likely to find that you have to face up to them all in the end because they are deeply intertwined. I think that the testimonies, however we list or number them or don’t, are also like that; if you want peace it’ll help to speak truthfully and to treat people equally, and if you want to live simply you’ll need peace in your community and your life as well as to acknowledge the truth about what you need and want, and if you are trying to be truthful you will need to acknowledge an essential equality (not sameness) between people… and so on.
Ultimately, the testimonies however phrased are collective normative principles of the Religious Society of Friends, arising from our patient and ongoing practice of waiting worship. They have been inspired in silence and tested by the community many times, and the authority which they bear rests in this process rather than in the formulations of the resulting ideas.