Bearing and not bearing the sword

by Chuck Fager

The Friends’ “Peace Testimony” has a long and complicated history

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 117 in 2016 ]

THE FIRST THING most people think of when they hear “Quakers” is “silent meetings,” a characterization gleaned from childhood nursery rhymes. But the next quality many think of is “peace loving,” set forth by the very first Friends in England and still at the core of what it means to be a Quaker today. But could the call to peace be held consistently? It was one thing for Quakers to advocate “no sword” while governments persecuted them. It was harder to implement a “no sword” policy when Quakers themselves became governors. 

“we cannot learn war any more”

A letter of self-preservation directed to King Charles II by Margaret Fell and George Fox in 1660 started it all. Brief excerpts from the letter appear today in the Quaker books Discipline and Faith and Practice. In part the excerpts read: 

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever. … The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move us unto it … [it] will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the Kingdoms of this world. … Therefore, we cannot learn war any more. 

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These few sentences are foundational for Quakers. They are a kind of Quaker scripture, drafted by Quaker founders, preserved by Friends of all branches, and recited by Quaker faithful for three and a half centuries. But the truth about the Quaker peace testimony cannot be contained in a few sentences that are in fact altered from the original 1660 letter. In this discrepancy we glimpse the actual history of Quaker pacifism—a much more tangled, ambivalent, and compelling saga.

The original letter actually starts out: “All bloody principles and practices, as to our own particulars, we utterly deny; with all outward wars. . . .” Like other radical groups, Friends in England in 1660 were powerless, facing persecution by a newly restored monarchy that feared dissenters would plot coups. The letter to Charles hoped to ward off this persecution (it didn’t succeed, but that’s another story). The letter noted that while the Quakers had foresworn violence, they did not expect their rulers to do so: “Therefore in love we warn you [King Charles] for your soul’s good, not to … turn your sword backward upon such as the law was not made for, i.e., the righteous; but for sinners and transgressors, to keep them down.” This mention of the ruler’s sword rephrases Romans 13, familiar verses that are important in Western political history, having been often used as scriptural sanction for official state violence. 

The 1660 letter affirms a desire to live “under the power ordained of God for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that … live a peaceable and godly life.” Far from banning the use of violence altogether, the Quakers relinquished the sword to the government—and also pointed out their own piety, with the hope of being spared that same sword.

quakers in power

Moreover, once across the Atlantic, Quaker settlers in Rhode Island not only coveted worldly power but achieved it. The colony’s 1672 election produced a Quaker governor and a majority of Quakers in the assembly. Friends held the bulk of local political power for many years afterward.

This novel development (almost a decade before William Penn began his “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania) was soon endorsed by no less than Quaker founder George Fox himself. He visited Rhode Island in 1672, as an honored guest of the Quaker governor, and praised the new Quaker government as a righteous triumph.

Yet with righteous power also came the matter of bearing the biblically prescribed sword against evildoers. In England Quaker worldly power was still unimaginable. But in Rhode Island, rulership (and its sword) were in Quaker hands. What were they to do with it? In 1672 Rhode Island, there were threats of invasion by French and Dutch warships and thick forests inhabited by increasingly restive native tribes. In the summer of 1675, natives launched massive, region-wide assaults against white settlers in New England. Historian Meredith Baldwin Weddle evoked the terror Quakers felt: “. . . the fear of violence shredding all certainty and all expectations. … For the Quaker, alone in his small house, miles perhaps from a neighbor, fear and horror faced down the ordained love for his enemies. . . .”

We don’t know if the Friends in office underwent much soul-searching. We do know they adopted the first-ever conscientious objector statute, exempting from militia duty those whose religious scruples forbade bearing arms; and then they went to war. How did they reconcile this warmaking with the antiwar pronouncements of 1660? Apparently they didn’t bother. After all the 1660 letter contains both sentiments.

At this point, the letter’s oft-deleted phrase as to our own particulars comes back into focus. How much different were the “particulars” of powerless, persecuted Friends in England in 1660 from the “particulars” of Friends elected as governing authorities in Rhode Island? And how much difference did such “particulars” make?

In Pennsylvania during the 1750s, the Quaker-dominated assembly struggled over increasing calls to bear the sword against Native Americans and their French allies, and it finally yielded most political power to escape doing so. During the American Revolution, Yearly Meetings sternly warned Friends to stay out of the fighting on either side. Most Friends did stay out despite abuse from both sides and later from the victorious American rebels. Episodes of persecution also occurred during the War of 1812. But for decades thereafter, it was not a great burden for Friends to comply with the mandate in their Disciplines, to maintain “a faithful testimony against … bearing arms, training, or other military services. . . .” 

Quaker against Quaker

That is, it was not a great burden until the struggle over slavery boiled over. Friends had already turned against slavery, and as conflict intensified, they hoped in vain for a peaceful end to the practice. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, who had Quaker ancestors, wrote to a Quaker in 1864: “Your people—the Friends—have had and are having a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma some have chosen one horn and some the other.”

Some chose pacifism, but others, including many young male Friends, joined the Union Army. The traditional penalty for thus defying the Discipline was “disownment,” or expulsion. Yet after Appomattox the Quaker establishment recoiled from mass disownments. Adherence became a matter of individual judgment, not community enforcement, and many dissenters were re-admitted into fellowship.

Older Quaker writers had called for Friends to stay out of warmaking and its preparations as features of a fallen and corrupt world. But after the Civil War, a demand arose that war itself be ended. Quaker Lucretia Mott, known today for her women’s rights advocacy, was also a tireless peace campaigner and wrote in 1876, “If we believe that war is wrong, as everyone must, then we must also believe that by proper efforts on our part it can be done away with.” 

Yet at the same time, almost all American Friends had assimilated the view that they were citizens of a democratic government more than a “peculiar people” standing apart. During World War I, most draft-age Quaker men joined up to fight “the war to end war.” Pacifist sentiment resurged between the First and Second World Wars. But Pearl Harbor abruptly banished this pacifist mood, and most draft-age male Friends joined the crusade against Hitler and the Axis without religious penalty. To be sure some Quakers still conscientiously objected and resisted the draft in both wars, but they were a minority in their own church.

Not until the widely unpopular Vietnam War did attitudes among many American Friends turn again toward an activist pacifism, with a conviction that Friends in earlier times and sources must have been activist in a similar way. Quakers sustained this commitment until September 11, 2001.

Reliving the dilemmas of 1675 and 1864, between radical Muslim terror attacks and the call to arms, some Quakers quietly supported American military actions, while others hoped against hope that all war could somehow be eradicated. But “the proper efforts on our part” that Lucretia Mott called for to achieve this lofty goal still seemed both distant and hazy. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #117 The Surprising Quakers. Read it in context here!

Chuck Fager edits the journal Quaker Theology, blogs at A Friendly Letter, and is the author or editor of over 30 books on Quakerism and civil rights.

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