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On Keeping Watch

George Fox Writes to Friends At Risk

“On Keeping Watch”

circa 1676

Introduction by Hal White, of Toronto Meeting, Canada:

It is easy to assume that the ‘peace testimonies’, e.g., that of 1661 to Charles II, meant to the authors and readers, in their time, what many understand them to mean now. This applies to the range of actions prohibited, but also to the reasons for the position. Several scholars (e.g. Weddles, 1994, in “The Basis of the Early Quaker Peace Testimony,” in Mullett, New Light on George Fox) have noted, for instance that the primary concern, in avoiding violence was to avoid damage to one’s own soul and relationship to God. It’s more common now to stress avoiding the suffering created by violence; we speak now of honoring ‘that of God’ in every person–but that concept also, was not invoked, in the 17th century, concludes Weddles, as a reason for non violence.

Since Quakers both established (in Pennsylvania) and maintained (in Rhode Island) governments, two issues arose: internal policing and defense against external threats. The position of Fox and others, as stated in Fox’s letter (1676), I have called Quaker Particular Pacifism (QPP), since there is a definite call upon Quakers not to take up “carnal weapons,” but an approval of the “magistrate” in doing so.

Further, Fox encourages Friends to ‘watch’ in their own way, meaning assist the magistrate, but without taking up arms or swearing. The magistrate is to honor this way of watching. Fox cites scripture and advances arguments for QPP. Many Friends, now, while pacifist in relation to an army, have no problem ‘calling the police,’ and that seems to be indicated in the letter below.

The letter goes further, clearly, in discussing invaders who might want to fire (burn) and ravish, and supports Quakers complaining to the magistrate and receiving protection through armed defensive action (by non-Quakers) against the threat. It seems plausible that this position is linked to the reason mentioned above–protecting one’s own soul– and the apparent non-issue of physical harm to those incurring the magistrate’s sword.

The position I have called QPP is laid out by George Fox, in very detailed fashion in this letter to “Friends in Nevis and the Caribee Islands” [Letter CCCXIX, {1676?} in _Works of George Fox,_ {1831, repr. 1990} Epistles, v. 2, p 86-92]. I reproduce about 2/3 of the letter, with almost no cuts. I have introduced some paragraph breaks, marked by “-“, not in the original, for ease of reading on screen.

–Hal White, Toronto MM.

[verbatim quotation]

Dear Friends,–To you all in Nevis, and the Carribee Islands thereabouts, I have seen a letter from some of you, wherein I understand that there has been some scruple concerning watching, or sending for watchmen in your own way.

Truly, friends, this I declare to you, that it is a great mercy of the Lord, to subject the governor’s mind so much by his power and truth, that he will permit you to watch in your own way, without carrying arms, which is a very civil thing, and to be taken notice of. For could Friends obtain the same in Jamaica, and other places, they would willingly have done it, and did proffer themselves to do it to the governors.

-But because they would not bring swords and guns, and other arms, to watch against the Spaniards, as they pretended, their standing fine was about 17s. each man’s neglect, but they took often 30s. worth for it, and tied some of them neck and heels besides, till the blood hath come forth at their mouth, nose, and ears. And this I have seen upon record, who freely proffered to watch in their own way, but it would not be accepted. And in other places it hath been the same.

And now as for watching in itself: Do not you watch your plantations against thieves in the night? And are not common watches set to discover thieves in the towns, or house breakers, so such as might wickedly fire houses? Such civil things we were subject to, and do submit ourselves, for conscience’ sake, unto every such ordinance of man, which are for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.

Now those evil doers that may rob your plantation, or houses, you complain to the magistrates, for the punishment of them, though you cannot swear against them; or if the Indians come to rob your plantations, or houses, you complain to the magistrates for the punishment of such evil doers, to stop them, which magistrates are for the praise of them that do well. So this watching is for the preventing thieves and murderers, and stopping burning of houses.

-So we do submit to every such ordinance of men for the Lord’s sake; for the apostle exhorted to submission, whether it be to the king, as supreme, or governors, as unto them that are sent by him, for the punishing of the evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well: for so it is the will of God, that with well doing you might put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, as free, not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as servants of God;

-so that justice, and truth, and righteousness may be set upon the unrighteousness and the unjust, not using this liberty for a cloak of unrighteousness to any one, but as servants in the righteousness of the righteous God, as you may see in 1 Peter ii. 13. and in Titus iii. 1. ‘Put them in mind to obey magistrates, and to be ready to every good work.’ Mark, ‘every good work,’ that is against the evil, as drunkenness, murder, whoredom, these and all manner of uncleanness; so far we can obey them, in the Lord’s power and truth, as they act against the evil, and that which dishonours God; and if they act against the good, or if they would compel us to these things, which are matter of conscience in us towards God, we resist not, but suffer under them.

-For rulers are not to be a terror to the good workers, but to the evil; and wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same; for he is a minister of God to thee for good, for he should keep down the evil. But if thou dost that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is a minister of God to revenge and execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. So he is the revenger and executioner of the wrath upon the evil doer, as God hath placed him, upon the adulterer, and him that steals or kills, and bears false witness, & c.

-But when the magistrate turns his sword backward upon the just and righteous, then he abuses his power, and therein the just suffer under him. And therefore such [rulers] have been warned by the just, as you may see through the scriptures.

-So you are not to be the revengers, but he [ruler] is the revenger; and to that power that executes the revenge, and brings the sword upon the adulterer, murderer, thief, false witness, and other evil doers, we must be subject to that power, and own that power, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; which is for the punishment of the evil doers, and praise of them that do well.

-For if any should come to burn your house, or rob you, or come to ravish your wives or daughters, or a company should come to fire a city or town, or come to kill people; do not you watch against all such actions? And will you not watch against such evil things in the power of God in your own way? You cannot but discover such things to the magistrates, who are to punish such things; and therefore the watch is kept and set to discover such to the magistrate, that they may be punished; and if he does it not, he bears his sword in vain.

-So if thou watches thy own plantation against thieves, in thy own way, which thou are desired, for the good of thyself and neighbours, against such as would burn thy plantation, and thy neighbor’s and destroy and rob you, wilt thou not discover this to the magistrates, to punish such evil doers, who are set for the punishing of the evil doers and executing wrath upon them, and for the praise of them that do well? Surely yes.

And for this cause, we pay tribute to them and give Caesar his due, that we may live a godly and peaceable life under them, as they are God’s ministers attending upon this very thing, to wit, the punishing of the evil doers, and the praise of them that do well; for the law was not made for the righteous, but for the sinner and disobedient, which is good in its place. Now if they do not do their duty, we are clear in giving them their tribute or customs; I say, if they do not do their duty to keep down evil doers, and be for the praise of them that do well, God Almighty will turn against them.

-But if the magistrate would have all, both God’s due, and Caeasar’s too, that we cannot give; for God must have his worship, his praise, his honour, and his due; and Caeasar must have his due, his earthly custom and tribute, and so herein, we render unto God the things which are God’s and unto Caesar the things which are his.

And whereas some may say, that the apostle would not eat flesh, lest he should offend his brother, that was upon a religious account; and not to give offence to the magistrate, who is set for the punishing of the evil doers and for the praise of them that do well.

And whereas the apostle saith, Col ii. ‘wherefore if you be dead with Christ, from the rudiments of the world; why as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, touch not, taste not, handle not, which all are to perish with the using, after the commandments and doctrines of men?’ Now these ordinances, these doctrines, these commandments, were concerning religion and worship; and that was another thing, where the apostle saith, ‘Be subject to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake: for the punishment of evil doers’ 1 Pet. ii. 13. For this was for the Lord’s sake, which was for the praise of them that do well, and for the punishment of the evil doer. So he makes a distinction here.

And you know that masters of ships, and Friends, have their watches all night long, and they watch to preserve the ship, and to prevent any enemy, or hurts that might come to the ship by passengers or otherwise.

And Christ came in the fourth watch of the night, walking on the sea, &c. And Peter was in the ship and his disciples, as you may see in Matt. xiv. and in Mark vi 48.

And Simon Peter had part of the ship, as you may see in Luke v. And so it was that James and John, sons of Zebedee, were partners with Simon.

And Christ saith (Luke xii, 38,39.) speaking of his coming, and exhorting to watch, ‘If he, (to wit, the master) should come in the second or third watch, and find them watching, blessed are those servants.’ So this watching was for Christ, and against sin and evil in their own hearts. And then he brings a comparison, ‘And this know, that if the good man of the house,’ said, he, ‘had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not suffered his house to be broken up,’ &c.

And so here is the good man’s watching again sin and evil without, and the spoiler and thief without, whom the magistrate is to revenge, and to lay his sword upon. And here is also a watching against sin and evil within, and a waiting to receive Christ the Lord at his coming.

And as there is a shutting the outward doors, to keep out the murderers and the thieves, and a bolting and locking of them out. So there is a shutting up, and locking the doors of the heart, to keep out the adulterer and murderer, and all that is deceitful, from coming within, into the heart. [2 paras. omitted] …

So where Friends have the government, as in Rhode Island, and that province, Friends were willing to watch, in their own way, and they made a law, that none should be compelled to take arms.

So Friends, have always proffered the magistrates, though they could not join with them in carrying arms, swords, and pistols; yet to watch in their own way against the evil doer.

And this they have proffered in Barbadoes, as I have heard, to discover, if negroes should rise up to burn plantations, or steal, or do any hurt or other Indians invading their land. And so if the foreign Indians should come to steal your goods, or to kill; for you to be left to your freedom to watch in your own way, and to discover to the magistrate such as would destroy your lives or plantations, or steal, let them come from at home, or come from abroad, such evil doers the magistrate is to punish, who is for the praise of them that do well. So that you may live and lead a godly and peaceable life under them. … [9 paras. omitted]

G.F. Swarthmore, the 5th of the 9th month. [1676?]