Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Howard Brinton Invented SPICE, the Quaker Testimonies....

I spent the last two days at the Whittier College library writing about Howard Brinton's contributions to Quaker thought, and I am finally beginning to get a handle on this challenging topic. Howard is the most important Quaker theological thinker of the 20th century and yet no one has written a critical assessment of his work.... until now. Incredible.

This excerpt is about how Howard "reinvented" or "discovered" the Quaker testimonies on simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality (SPICE)--a discovery for which he is seldom, if ever, given credit.

Howard’s Guide to Quaker Practice (1943) has gone through numerous reprints and has been a staple of First-Day classes for nearly sixty years. Howard’s recommendations for business meeting, First Day school, vocal ministry, and other Quaker practices are expressed with such clarity, and with such a sense of authority, that they have been incorporated into Quaker books of discipline and become “standard operating procedure” among many unprogrammed Friends.

Although Howard does not address doctrinal matters, this guidebook reflects theological convictions expressed in his earlier writings, as Howard himself admits: “Practice presupposed belief. For this reason the determining principles of the Society of Friends must be kept constantly in mind.”[1] Howard’s basic theological conviction—what he considers the core of Quakerism—is that Truth or the Divine can be experienced both individually and corporately through unprogrammed meeting for worship and that this method of worship is the defining characteristic of Quakerism. As he attempts to show in this guidebook, every Quaker practice can be traced to this underlying principle.

Perhaps the most important innovation in this work is its systematization of the Quaker social “testimonies.” A testimony is defined by Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice as “a public statement or witness based on beliefs of the Society of Friends which give direction to our lives.” Interestingly, the word was not widely used in Quaker books of discipline prior to the publication of Howard’s pamphlet. Books of disciplines contained “advices” and “queries” and statements of “Christian doctrine,” but seldom was there any mention of testimonies (except for the Peace Testimony).

Until the publication of Guide to Quaker Practice, there was no consensus about what Friends’ social testimonies were. For example, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Christian Doctrine, Practice and Discipline (1871) includes a series of “advices” on war, slavery, oath taking, national fasts and rejoicings (Quakers should not take part in them), burials and mourning habits (Quakers should refrain from wearing mourning garments or attending burials since these are vain rituals). Other books of discipline reveal a similar hodgepodge of advices or “testimonies” without any clearly discernible pattern.

Howard surveyed this jumble of advices and distilled them into four distinct and memorable social testimonies—simplicity, peace, community, equality—and one personal testimony (integrity). Howard’s formulation of the five Quaker testimonies has become so commonplace in Quaker religious education that it is often referred to by the acronym SPICE. These testimonies also frequently appear in books of disciplines among unprogrammed Friends in the United States, particularly in the West. Few Friends realize that Howard “discovered” or “reinvented” the testimonies in 1943.

Howard “discovered” these testimonies in the same way that a scientist discovers a “law” or recurrent pattern in the physical universe. He looked back at the advices and behavior of Friends and saw patterns of behavior springing out of a distinctive way of life and worship. But Howard was not simply being descriptive. He was also arguing for a certain view of Quakerism—one that is rooted in a group mystical experience and aims to transform not only individuals but society. As he explains:

The Society of Friends has never put forth a blueprint of the structure of the
ideal society, having the same reluctance in this respect as in putting forth a
religious creed. Nevertheless the meeting itself should aim, however short it
may come of attaining its ideal, at a pattern of human relations between its own
members which could be considered as ideal for society as a whole.[2]

Howard relates this “ideal pattern” both to the organic “body of Christ” described in Ephesisn 4:16 and also to a “laboratory and a training ground,” thereby appealing both to the scientifically and religiously minded.

The four social testimonies are so well known, and have been discussed at such length among Friends, it is not necessary to say much about them here. It is worth noting that Howard preferred the word harmony instead of peace or pacifism since the word pacifism “has come to mean, for many persons, simply an unwillingness to take part in war.” In Howard’s view, Quakers do more than simply refrain from war. They actively engage in a “ministry of reconciliation” that leads to peace and justice through nonviolent means.

Ultimately, Howard’s how-to manual is a call to personal and social transformation. He ends his guidebook on a prophetic note: “The early Friends, like the early Christians, did not try to adjust themselves to the world. Their effort was directed towards adjusting the world and themselves to the standard of their religion… They characterize a community of persons which seeks, however much it may fail, to obey the scriptural injunction ‘Be no conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”[3]

[1] Guide to Quaker Practice, p. 7.
[2] Guide to Quaker Practice, Pendle Hill, 1945, p. 56.
[3] Ibid, p. 65.


  1. Thank you for this post. Too often Friends speak of the testimonies as starting principles from which we derive our practices, rather than as merely descriptive of certain themes that emerge more or less consistently when our starting point is an effort to be guided by the Spirit we encounter in worship. -- Brinton was not the first to try to list the testimonies, but his list is one that has held up over time (so far). I remember reading William Penn's list some years ago. I think there were 12 testimonies (or 8?), and few of them were ones most Friends would claim today.

  2. I've always had a soft spot for the hodgepodge of testimonies in the old Books of Discipline, and reading Thomas Clarkson's outsider account of circa 1800 helped me understand their use better. They were more practical & experienced-based that the SPICE list. Their underlying pattern was the way they addressed actual problems that had arisen in the Society of Friends. I've called them the "collective wisdom wiki" of Friends.

    As an old philosophy major I love the elegance of SPICE but I think the lack of specific testimonies has hurt our ability to identify and name issues when they come up at meeting. The modern world still has temptations that divide us from God, hurt our ability to empathize with our neighbors and divide our faith community but how do we talk with one another about these practices?