Some Historic Statements Concerning the Quaker Peace Testimony
Although some superficial histories paint early Quakerism as uniformly and uncompromisingly pacifist, more careful research does not bear out this simplistic image.
Rather, it appears that there was a range of views, out of which the classic 1660 formulation of the Peace Testimony,which is cited below, emerged. While this view became “canonical,” it is also the case that many of the successive wars involving nations in which large populations of Friends were resident, moved some Friends to reconsider and then abandon, either temporarily or for good, the stance expressed in the 1660 statement and the similar ones which followed.
At the same time, down through the generations there have also always been Friends who stood firmly for a pacifist position, regardless of the personal or social cost. This collection of statements and commentary reflects some of this ambiguity, which continues as Friends and other peace-inclined persons wrestle with the events of Ninth Month (September) 11, 2001, and their implications.
We begin with two early documents, one from Isaac Penington, an eminent first-generation convert, and George Fox, which grapple with some of the ambiguities faced even by those who consdier themselves in harmony with “that life and power that takes away the occasion for war.” These are followed by personal narratives of early Quaker nonviolence in action, and a set of excerpts from early statements and epistles on the subject.
Additional early statements and narratives regarding Quakers and peace:
In an autobiographical “Memorandum“ Friend William Rotch of Nantucket Island tells a gripping story of living his peace testimony during and after the American Revolution, while under suspicion and accusation from both sides.
In this memoir, “Divine Protection,” Friend Dinah Goff recounts how she and her family coped with being targeted for slaughter in the bloody Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Jonathan Dymond (1796-1828), “Example and Testimony of the Early Christians on the Subject of War” (excerpted from Dymond’s book on war and Christianity)
Thomas Lurting (17th century), “The Fighting Sailor Turn’d Peaceable Christian” (An autobiographical account, featuring his conversion and an encounter with pirates handled nonviolently.)
Some Classic Statements regarding Peace from Britain Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice
(An Explanatory Note: Quaker congregations are organized into associations called yearly meetings. Each yearly meeting issues its own book of Faith and Practice (here’s ours) setting forth its history and convictions. Yearly meetings are autonomous; yet Britain Yearly Meeting, formerly called London Yearly Meeting, is in some sense the Quaker “mother church.” Its book of “Christian faith and practice” includes excerpts from many important statements by individuals and groups. None is the equivalent of a creed which members are required to accept; yet all are based in what the book calls, the “experience of the Society of Friends,” and many of its declarations have served as models for other Quaker groups. The excerpts below are from its 1960 edition.)
George Fox, commonly described as the Founder of Quakerism, wrote in 1651:
I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James’s doctrine… I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.
From “A Declaration to Charles II” 1660, includes what is considered the seminal statement of the Quaker peace witness:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world. 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 unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, 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.
Robert Barclay, the premier Quaker theologian, wrote in 1678:
Whoever can reconcile this, ‘Resist not evil’, with ‘Resist violence by force’, again, ‘Give also thy other cheek’, with ‘Strike again’; also, ‘Love thine enemies’, with ‘Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword’, or, ‘Pray for those that persecute you, and those that calumniate you’, with ‘Persecute them by fines, imprisonments and death itself’, whoever, I say, can find a means to reconcile these things may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil, Christ with Antichrist, Light with Darkness, and good with evil. But if this be impossible, as
indeed it is impossible, so will also the other be impossible, and men do but deceive both themselves and others, while they boldly adventure to establish such absurd and impossible things.
From A Letter Issued by London Yearly Meeting 1744, during the War of the Austrian Succession:
We entreat all who profess themselves members of our Society to be faithful to that ancient testimony, borne by us ever since we were a people, against bearing arms and fighting, that by a conduct agreeable to our profession we may demonstrate ourselves to be real followers of the Messiah, the peaceable Saviour, of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end.
Issued by Yearly Meeting 1804, 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars:
Most, if not all, people admit the transcendent excellency of peace. All who adopt the petition, ‘Thy kingdom come’, pray for its universal establishment. Some people then must begin to fulfil the evangelical promise, and cease to learn war any more. Now, friends, seeing these things cannot be controverted, how do we long that your whole conversation be as becometh the Gospel; and that while any of us are professing to scruple war, they may not in some parts of their conduct be inconsistent with that profession!…
Friends it is an awful thing to stand forth to the nation as the advocates of inviolable peace; and our testimony loses its efficacy in proportion to the want of consistency in any. And we can serve our country in no way more availingly, nor more
acceptably to him who holds its prosperity at his disposal,than by contributing, all that in us lies, to increase the number of meek, humble, and self-denying Christians.
Guard against placing your dependence on fleets and armies; be peaceable yourselves, in words and actions, and pray to the Father of the Universe that he would breathe the spirit of reconciliation into the hearts of his erring and contending creatures.
From an Epistle Issued by London Yearly Meeting 1854, during the Crimean War:
We feel bound explicitly to avow our continued unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our Divine Lord and Lawgiver, and with the whole spirit and tenor of His Gospel; and that no plea of necessity or of policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount
allegiance which they owe unto Him who hath said ‘Love your enemies.
The way of Christ is followed not by those who would be mighty and powerful, but by those who would serve. His peace for the world will be won by those who follow him in repentance and willingness to forgive.