The Vanishing Quaker

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A History of Quaker Pacifism

This is just one short history of Quaker pacifism, and not at all a definitive history. Quaker history in this area is filled with holes-- since we have no central authority keeping records and issuing statements, we pretty much have to scrounge through the journals, news articles, minutes and Books of Discipline through the ages to see how our ancestors lived and thought. Often as not, we have to try and interpret small notices of actions we find in Meeting minutes.

So, this is merely what I have found so far, and I invite anyone to correct any misinterpretations here and to point me to good sources.

Modern Quaker "pacifism" appears to have evolved over the years, and while we are called one of the historic "peace churches," the first Friends would probably not recognize our attitude today. I daresay they wouldn't complain too much, and would very possibly agree with us, but this is not their Society.

The Peace Testimony presented to James II most definitely did not call for James to stop his wars with France, other pretenders to the throne, or anyone else. It simply said that the signers were not going to get involved in any way with any of these adventures. Politics and royalty being what it was back then, this was undoubtedly the safest way for a suspect religion to go. (This was, however, not simply a cynical document meant to get them out of the spotlight of James' inquisitors, but a genuine statement of faith that happened to have a certain timely convenience.) George Fox himself, while refusing a commission in the army and refusing a sword, still did much of his preaching and "advancement" in the barracks and it isn't mentioned that he demanded, or even suggested, the soldiers desert or abandon their military duties.

Robert Barclay, in his "Apology," barely mentions war and peace.

By the mid 1700's the concept of our leadings for peace and refusal to bear arms had matured to where John Woolman, in his Journal, talks of youth being jailed for refusing the draft and of war tax revolts. But, there seems to be little talk of disbanding armies and other more radical pacifist positions. Although Penn's "Holy Experiment" in Pennsylvania had great success in many ways, it didn't entirely condemn all war and Quakers in places like Rhode Island and North Carolina might not take up arms themselves but had few qualms about hiring armies and police to do the dirty work for them.

Unlike Mennonites and some other sects and groups, Quakers have always considered themselves to be an integral part of the wider community and fully participating in politics and government is not only allowed, but often encouraged. It has also been assumed that a large part of government involved police and defense, and that warfare is a normal, if not particularly wholesome, affair of government. The Quakers running Rhode Island and Pennsylvania knew full well where their responsibilities lay whenever their colonies were threatened, and while many would not personally bear arms, they would support those who would.

In more modern times, Howard Brinton, in "Friends for 350 Years," writes of the varying amounts of the Light within each of us and how there are times when you are a coward if you don't fight, and other times you are a coward if you do.

In even more modern times, The American Historical Association gives Meredith Baldwin Weddle's 1991 book "Walking In the Way of Peace" high marks, and it may well be the definitive work on the history of Quakers and peace. She thoroughly disects the myths of past pacifism and shows pacifism to be an intensely personal experience quite separate from actions on public policy.

Quakers are well known to have done much soul-searching (to the extent they believed in souls) in every major war we have been in. Quakers have fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and in WWI and II. Quakers have supported our "police" actions in Korea and Bosnia. And, Smedley Butler, the most decorated general in history, was the son of a politically well-connected Philadelphia Quaker family who dropped out of Quaker school to join the Marines. The family and local Meetings were dismayed, but moat apprently supported his decision.

So, where did we get this reputation of being a "Peace Church" and where did all the anti-war activism come from?

Chuck Fager of Quaker House, and who knows vastly more about Quaker history than I do, has said that much of it comes from the Viet Nam era when anti-war activism was at its peak, but I'm not so sure that's the whole story. The 19th Century already had very vocal preachers from Baptist and Assemblies of God churches preaching pacifism, and that tradition continued through William Jennings Bryan, who resigned as Secretary of State when we entered WWI. I have to get through Weddle's book to find out more, but I don't doubt for a minute that Quakers of the time were influenced by all this talk. We were in a period of "Quietism" through much of the 1800's, but that doesn't mean we weren't listening.

The American Friends Service Committee may have been a key element in solidifying our reputation. With its creation we were no longer a motley group of monthly and yearly Meetings squabbling over Hicksite, Gurneyite, Orthodox, Liberal-- who's the real Quaker... We now had a fairly unified voice, and that voice called for peace and resistance to the calls of war. Those Quakers around at the time now had an organization to rally around and those of a pacifist bent could be heard loudly.

Another key element may have been the overall gradual dawning of understanding, between the Civil War and WWI, that wars were rarely altruistic, generally horrible bloody things and was set to agree with the later words of Smedley Butler. Butler retired from the Marines to rage against war for profit and how his career had been largely to make Central America safe for United Fruit. War in defense of the nation may be grudgningly acceptable to even a pacifist Quaker, but war to steal Indian tribal land or to depose a government inconvenient for our profits cannot possibly be reconciled with any Quaker belief.

At any rate, the early 20th Century saw great changes in our national attitudes toward war and peace. Baptists ended up more warlike, Quakers became more peaceable, and the period after WWI saw the entire country become isolationist while the War Department was pretty much shut down. WWII and the Cold War changed all that once again, but the Quaker path hasn't changed this time.

Yet.

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