Western Friend logo

The Original Quaker Peace Testimony

Steve Smith
On Countries (January 2016)
Inward Light

My paternal grandfather was a stern, strait-laced Ohio Quaker. My father, his eldest son, lived out most of those values in his own life, including the traditional Quaker repudiation of armed conflict. Yet at the outset of WWII, the youngest son of the family – my Uncle Clinton – chose to join the Army. My father evidently tried to dissuade his younger brother from joining the Army. In the summer of 1942 as Clinton was undergoing basic training in California, he responded to my father’s concerns with these words:

Peace theories are wonderful in theory . . . but theories are theories and facts are facts. So while I still have no criticism of conscientious objectors [and] I can still see their viewpoint; however I think it is time for everybody to get behind the Army and shove for this war is going to last for a long time.

A few months after writing these words, Uncle Clinton was killed when his plane went down on a mountain-side in New Guinea. In some measure my father blamed himself for the death of his brother; Clinton’s ghost haunted Dad in his final years.

Contemporary Quakers commonly believe that the repudiation of all armed conflict is fundamental to our Quaker faith. In fact, Quaker ambivalence toward war, the sort of ambivalence exemplified by my own family, has been typical of every period of Quaker history. Most of us fail to realize that this ambivalence has its roots in the published records of the most prominent figures of 17th century Quakerism. The founders of our faith espoused a much more complex attitude towards war and peace than “War is not the answer.” Searching more deeply, we uncover a position on violence, war and peace that is both more complex, and more spiritually grounded, than are most contemporary versions of pacifism.

In Fox’s Journal, the first declaration of what later became known as the Quaker Peace Testimony occurs in his account of imprisonment in the Derby House of Corrections in 1651. Having nearly completed his sentence, Fox was offered release from jail on condition that he become a captain in Cromwell’s army. Fox rejected this offer, declaring that he “lived in virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all war.”

Fox’s 1651 declaration was couched in the first person singular: he spoke only for himself. In 1661, however, responding to accusations of complicity in armed insurrection, a group of Friends, including Fox, drafted a statement on behalf of all Friends: “A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God, Called Quakers, Against All Sedition, Plotters, and Fighters in the World . . . Concerning Wars and Fightings.” The 1661 Declaration is commonly assumed to be an inclusive statement applying to Quakers and non-Quakers alike. As most often quoted, the key passage indeed seems to endorse such a position: “All bloody principles and practices . . . we utterly deny; with all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.” Yet this widely-used quotation omits a key qualifying phrase. Restored, the quotation reads, “All bloody principles and practices, as to our particulars, we utterly deny. . .” Friends, the “innocent babes of Christ,” claimed for themselves an elevated spiritual status; unlike others, they were “redeemed . . . out of the occasion of war.”

In his authoritative The Quaker Peace Testimony: 1660 to 1914, Peter Brock notes that in a little-known pamphlet published in 1659, Fox urged the army to carry their war “into the heartland of Spain and into Italy, as far as Rome, so as to destroy the Inquisition in those lands.” In Fox’s own words, “never set up your standard until you come to Rome, and it be atop of Rome, and there let your standard stand.” (Brock, p. 15)

When discussing the use of the sword, Early Friends frequently cited a scriptural passage, Romans 13:4. Here the Apostle Paul directs followers of Jesus to accept the use of the sword by governing authorities – “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrong-doer.” Friends endorsed this passage and understood it to authorize use of the sword, both to deter domestic evil-doers and to repel foreign invaders.

Fox’s 1659 pamphlet is consistent with published statements by other leading Quakers. In 1656, Edward Burrough wrote, “who bears the sword of justice, who use their power to be a terror to the wicked . . .are Ministers of God.” In 1661, Isaac Penington claimed that when the “peaceableness” of Quakers “had spread over all the earth, fighting would stop . . . [but] in the meantime, I speak not . . . against magistrates or peoples defending themselves out of foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders . . . yet there is a better state, which the Lord has already brought some into. . .” And Peter Brock summarizes Robert Barclay’s views: it is “better for those who had not risen to the standard of the Sermon on the Mount to fight rather than yield to injustice.” In 1678 Barclay wrote, “We shall not say, that . . . war, undertaken upon a just occasion, is altogether unlawful . . .” (Brock 30) Thus while Friends believed they themselves had been redeemed “out of the occasion of war,” they upheld the provisional right – even the necessity – of use of the sword by those who had not been redeemed, until all had come fully into the Light of Christ.

Early Friends looked forward to a time when all would abandon the sword, and saw themselves as harbingers of this divinely-ordained peace and harmony on earth. They claimed to exemplify that condition and point the way to it for others. The 1661 Declaration indeed held out a vision of a future state finally free of all war, fighting, contention and violence, in which “the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord.” Until this kingdom has arrived, however, reliance upon armed force by legitimate authorities is still necessary – and those that exercise it for the sake of justice should not be condemned. In his 1659 epistle, Fox spelled out this position in explicit terms:

The outward swordmen have not learned yet to beat their swords and spears into ploughshares and pruning hooks. Yet ye that are in the seed [i.e. Friends], see that ye accuse no man falsely, that hath the sword of justice, which is to keep the peace, and is a terror to the evil-doers, and to keep down the transgressors, and for the praise of them that do well; this is owned in its place; . . . but there is a time, when nations shall not learn war any more, but shall come to that which shall take away the occasion of wars, which was in the beginning, before the wars were. (Epistle #188)

Fox’s assurance that a time will come “when nations shall not learn war anymore” sets him apart from the compromise with violent means espoused by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who held that Jesus’ ethic of love and compassion is possible only between individuals. Niebuhr held that nations will never abandon armed violence as a means of achieving geopolitical ends; thus war is sometimes necessary to promote justice. The original Quaker peace testimony rejects this assumption of the supposed inevitability of “wars and fightings.” Friends are called to manifest an enlightened spiritual state that, through faithful human efforts and divine grace, will eventually prevail upon the earth.

Confusion about the original Quaker Peace Testimony arises in part from our use of the word “pacifism.” Coined in the first decade of the 20th century, this term implies a doctrine or system of beliefs that may be supported or refuted by rational argument, without regard for the character and spiritual maturity of those who debate it. In contrast, a testimony as understood by early Friends is a report of one’s spiritual condition, a confession that if one is faithful to the guidance of the Spirit, one must speak and act in ways that are consistent with that guidance. Genuine spiritual testimony comes from a conviction of the heart, not a belief of the head. Friends’ claim to be a redeemed people was not mere religious arrogance; rather, it arose from experiences of profound spiritual awakening. William Penn described the impact of such awakening upon the first Friends: “they were changed . . . themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them.”

Early Friends held that their exceptional spiritual status was available to all – including those who had never been exposed to Christian teachings. What mattered were not religious dogmas and formulas but an inward experience underlying all words – a message that was universal, not narrowly sectarian.

Thus the original Quaker Peace Testimony was not a product of rational persuasion, but an outcome of a transforming spiritual conviction. One becomes “dead to wars and fightings” only when one becomes fully alive to the guidance of the Spirit. Holding to the Peace Testimony is not a simple profession of belief, but confession of a personal state of grace. Hence it is not vulnerable to the endless series of hypothetical challenges typically posed by critics of absolute pacifism (e.g. “What would you do if your mother were being assaulted?”).

How shall we evaluate the original Quaker Peace Testimony for today? An instructive comparison is the use of spiritually-based nonviolence by its two most famous and successful 20th-century practitioners, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The prophetic witness of these moral and spiritual giants resonates well with the Peace Testimony of early Friends. Throughout his nonviolent campaigns, Gandhi repeatedly insisted that true nonviolence required disciplined spiritual training: “You do not become non-violent merely by saying ‘I shall not use force.’ It must be felt in the heart.” Gandhi held that “He who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death, may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.”

Likewise, those who took direct nonviolent action in Martin Luther King’s campaigns were required to undergo strenuous spiritual training to prepare them to meet violence with nonviolence; those who did not undergo such training were discouraged from participating in those campaigns. Late in his life, King spoke out against the Vietnam War, and the threat of nuclear weapons; yet he did not make a blanket statement opposing use of force in a just cause by those who were as yet incapable of spiritually-based nonviolent resistance.

Applying the original Quaker Peace Testimony to our lives, rather than the contemporary version that opposes armed force in all situations by all people, requires less changes than we might suppose. Quakers are still called to be prophets for peace – to hold up a vision of a world that is governed by justice and free of violence, and to do all in their power to promote such a world.

In reality, most contemporary Quakers actually live according to an understanding of the Peace Testimony that is close to the original version. Like early Friends, most contemporary Quakers support the existence of an enlightened, well-disciplined domestic police force that employs limited coercion to maintain social order and prevent harm to the vulnerable. Many contemporary Friends support a “just policing” model for international armed conflict (for example, by the intervention of well-trained non-partisan UN peacekeeping forces) until it can be replaced by fully nonviolent means. Finally, most Friends refrain from moralistic criticism of those who choose to join the military; such choices are likely to arouse more sadness than condemnation. (My father took a grieving yet forgiving attitude toward my uncle Clinton’s decision to join the army.)

In one critical dimension, however, the original Peace Testimony makes demands upon us that are often overlooked by contemporary advocates for peace: in order to live out the Peace Testimony, we must undergo a radical inversion of our former perspective and awaken to a transformed life. Until then, we do not (in Fox’s words) truly possess that which we profess. This radical shift awakens us not only to a vision of a new, peaceful world order, but also – and of even greater importance – to more generous, loving and forgiving relationships within our personal lives. Those who advocate for peaceful resolutions of international conflicts but are unkind or indifferent to those around them fail to appreciate what the Peace Testimony requires.

How might George Fox have regarded the decision of my Uncle Clinton in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Army? If we take him at his written word, Fox would caution against criticizing Clinton, who was acting in good faith according to the light he was given. Like so many others then and now, he had “not learned yet to beat his own sword and spear into a ploughshare or pruning hook.” Yet Fox would have followed that caution with a bracing challenge: to open ourselves without reservation to the Light, be searched, transformed, and lifted up, and thus awaken to a new life “which shall take away the occasion of all wars.”  ~~~

Steve Smith is a member of Claremont Monthly Meeting (PYM). He served recently as the presiding clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting and taught for forty years in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College.


Pacifism History War peace testimony

Return to "On Countries" issue