Jan de Voogd and David Hanson-Levering, New South Wales Regional Meeting
To the extent that the general public knows anything at all about the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), that knowledge probably relates to the Society’s opposition to war. Along with the Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of the Brethren and Seventh Day Adventists, the Quakers have been classified as a “peace church.”
It is an historical irony that any branch of Christianity should be so singled out, in that the early Christians were adamant in eschewing violence and military service. For a century and a half after Jesus’ ministry, Christians could not become soldiers, and soldiers who were converted to Christianity were compelled to resign from the army
Before the end of the second century, that radical pacifist position had been seriously compromised and by the time the Emperor Constantine became a convert and, later in the 4th century, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of Rome, the church essentially abandoned, albeit grudgingly, its pacifist witness.
The development of the Quaker Peace Testimony:
The Quakers belong on the extreme left wing of the Protestant Reformation. They identified themselves with the disciples after the death of Jesus; they felt dependent, as had Jesus’ immediate followers, on the Holy Spirit — the comforter which God had promised to send. Their religion was experiential rather than theological. Like all Protestants, they placed great credence in the authority of the Scriptures but for them the Bible was a secondary, not the ultimate revelation. Rather, they turned to “the prompting of the Spirit” as the guide to both belief and action.
England in the middle of the 17th century was a place of great economic, political and religious turmoil. Radical sects such as the Diggers and the Levellers challenged the economic system and a civil war had forced the monarchy to give way to a Commonwealth dominated by Puritans. Early Quakers were also Puritans, and most Quaker ethics came out of Puritan thinking. In fact Quaker teachings were often Puritan attitudes pushed to extreme conclusions.
While contemporary Quakers no longer share in a literal way the cosmology of their 17th century forbearers, they remain respectful of the meaning those original “Friends of Truth” found in what they called “The Lamb’s War.” It was this conception of the human condition that enabled them to grasp and make central what we now call the Quaker Peace Testimony.
The Lamb’s War
The Lamb’s War is described in the book of Revelation (12; 10-12). The struggle began in heaven between the conquering Christ and the forces of evil under Satan’s rule. Satan and the other rebellious angels were expelled from Heaven but found a new residence on earth. This displaced Evil not only afflicts individuals and but is corporate as well and can be effectively resisted only by those who are led by the “Spirit of Christ”. This Spirit will redeem individuals but also will ultimately destroy “Rome” (i.e. corrupt and oppressive political power) and Satan. This idea of a cosmic struggle with evil through which early Friends came to their acceptance of “the inner Christ” radically changed their lives.
Friends of the 1650’s were evangelical. They reached out to transform an unredeemed world. They wanted others to experience the same process of rebirth and transformation they had undergone. The prosecution, hostility and hatred that they expected and endured were understood as part of the redemptive process and thus only strengthened their resolve to change the hearts of their opponents. To return violence with non-violence is a powerful way of expressing love. Friends went out of their way to confront and provoke; to engage others in the Lamb’s War. In the words of James Nayler:
Thus the Lamb in them and they in him go out in judgement to make war with his enemies, conquering not as the prince of this world, but overcoming evil with good . . . He leads them by the moving of his Spirit out of their own ways . . . and guides them by the will of the Father by which they become more clean and holy.
While most contemporary Quakers would be uncomfortable with the evangelical or even apocalyptic language of the 17th century, the peace testimony is still an active one (it has much in common with the Gandhi notion of Satyagraha or “soul force”) generated by a confident assumption that its adherents are in communion with a cosmic force. As Janet Scott: wrote in 1980:
This is the truth which we know and try to live . . . That every person is capable of response to the divine spirit, that this Spirit, or Light, or God reaches out to each one of us directly or freely: that if we follow the leadings of the Spirit faithfully we are led into unity with the divine will; that this unity leads us into love and care for all humankind, who are our kin; that the Spirit shows us the living truth which cannot be fettered by words.
When George Fox was imprisoned in 1650 for blasphemy and offered a captaincy if he would fight for the Commonwealth, Fox replied; “But I told them that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. I told them I was come into the covenant of Peace, which was before wars and strifes was.” This and other early statements and the eventual “official” Peace Testimony itself were often occasioned by the need of Quakers to reassure Cromwell and then the restored monarchy that they were not involved in plots to subvert or overthrow the government. In 1661, when the so called “Fifth Monarchy” followers staged a rebellion against Charles II’s restored government, George fox and 4,230 Friends were put in prison as it was believed that they were part of the rebellion. A group of Friends wrote to King Charles II that taking up arms even for Christ’s cause was not In the way of Friends, and the Friends were not part of the uprising. The following is an excerpt from that declaration:
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 to command from a thing as evil and again move into it; and we certainly know and testify to the whole world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any (person) with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world.
Along with the drafting of formal statements, Friends also collected personal stories to illustrate individual efforts to implement the principles of those statements. An example of such stories is the account of Thomas Lurting which was recorded in 1657. Lurting was press-ganged at the age of 14 to fight with the Parliamentary army in Ireland. In 1657 he was serving as a boatswain’s mate on a frigate and he was in charge of 200 men. There were Quaker sailors on board and part of Lurting’s job was to punish them for refusing hat honour to the captain and for not attending official worship services. (The Quakers met separately in silent worship instead.)
However he came to the point where the official services were not spiritually fulfilling. He decided to try the Quaker meetings in spite of his better judgement and the remonstrances of the chaplain and captain, and in time became convinced.
Lurting and the other Quaker sailors eventually won the respect of the captain because of their conduct during an epidemic, their reliability in battle and their refusal to take plunder. Then one day an amazing event occurred while the ship was attacking a castle in Barcelona. Lurting as he was preparing to fire his gun suddenly thought, “What if thou killest a man?” Reeling from this thought, he left his position at the gun. His friends seeing his confusion asked if he was wounded. He replied that he wasn’t, but his conscience would no longer allow him to fight (at this time he wasn’t aware that any Quaker had refused to fight). That night he talked to the other Quakers about his stand. They obviously had not considered it wrong to fight either. They agreed never to fight again, once they reached home. However Lurting was not satisfied. He persisted and convinced them to join him in his stand then, even though it meant they could face the death penalty. Shortly after one sailor went to the captain and asked for his discharge, because he was unable to fight again. The captain had the man thrashed and threatened to run his sword through anyone who didn’t fight. Some time later the ship was off Leghorn, the call for battle stations was sounded when what appeared to be a Spanish man-of–war approached. The Quakers refused to obey the order and the captain was immediately summoned. The captain went to Lurting and drew his sword. It was an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, and after some tense moments the captain walked off. The approaching ship turned out to be friendly and the captain apologised. (from Brock, Pacifism in Europe to 1914 p. 281.)
Recent Representations of Quaker Peace Testimony:
For over three hundred years, Quakers have been concerned to deepen and more accurately articulate this testimony. Here is a contemporary sample:
Based upon love and concern for the wellbeing of all, Friends work for reconciliation and active nonviolent resolutions of conflict. Friends have traditionally supported conscientious objectors to military service, while holding in love, but disagreeing with, those who feel that they must enter the armed forces. Friends oppose all war as inconsistent with God’s will.
From Faith and Practice of the Pacific Yearly Meeting in the USA
Recognizing that violence and war typically arise from unjust circumstances, Friends address the causes of war by working to correct social injustice and by strengthening communities, institutions and processes to provide nonviolent alternatives to disparities of wealth and income and against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, class sexual orientations, and other divisions of people. John Woolman implored Friends to seek out the seeds of war in themselves:
Oh that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates. May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these possessions?
The work of peace is the work of sustaining relationships of mutual human regard, of seeing and speaking to that of God in everyone, of seeking peace within ourselves, the family, the community and the world. The Kingdom of God is both present in each of us and a goal yet to be fulfilled. The task may never be done, but sustained by God’s love we are called to pursue it.