[The following article is abridged from a more complete original text, which is available at: westernfriend.org/media/evolution-testimony.]
In 1660, Quakers were suspected of plotting against the Crown with other radical religious groups such as the Fifth Monarchy men. In response, they sent a testimony of peace to King Charles II:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense 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 once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move into it . . . the Spirit of Christ . . . will never move us to fight and war against any with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for kingdoms of this world.
This was the passionate statement by a persecuted religious group in the heady days of early revelation. It was the time of “The Lamb’s War,” when Quakers preached the Truth revealed to them by the Christ Within and thought that their faith and practice would soon convert the whole world. These early Friends came from the middle and working classes of England for the most part; few were formally educated, and very few were wealthy or entitled.
A century later, however, in the American colonies, the members of the Religious Society of Friends were in a new position. Quakers had come to the Americas “to do good and ended up doing very well.” They were free from religious persecution, active in government, and accumulating wealth. They were no longer just farmers, tradesmen, and artisans, but wealthy landowners, merchants, and manufacturers, especially in Philadelphia. Birthright membership had been established so the need to proselytize diminished, and the Meetings for Sufferings that has been established to help Friends imprisoned for their faith now regulated the community – by recognizing and recording ministers and by disciplining those who “walked disorderly.”
In the mid-1700s, two significant changes occurred. First, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) came to unity against slavery – after almost a century of emotional and divisive discernment. A PYM Friend could no longer own slaves and be a Quaker. This unity swept across the other yearly meetings, and as one, the Society of Friends moved to end slavery once and for all.
Second, William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” ended. The Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly had been unable to act for the state’s defense during the French and Indian War or to protect the frontier. The growing majority of non-Quaker citizens were outraged by the loss of life. There were riots during elections. Finally, Friends simply could not reconcile their religious beliefs with their political duties, and they withdrew from all office-holding in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia was the largest city in the American colonies, and Pennsylvania was a prosperous and influential colony. The political influence of Friends in America was never the same.
In the 1760’s, the King of England started to levy new taxes on the colonies to pay for his war with France. This began ten years of civil resistance by the colonists, who had no representatives in Parliament. Friends actively participated in the economic boycotts of the day, wrote pamphlets, and attended protests. But Quakers drew the line at law-breaking, deplored the Boston Tea Party, and would not countenance Revolution. They felt bound to uphold the law as written and to support the Crown.
When a Continental Congress was called in 1775 to debate a separation from England, Friends in Philadelphia issued a declaration that they owed their allegiance to the King. “We are therefore incited . . . publicly to declare against every usurpation of power and authority and against
all . . . insurrections, conspiracies and illegal assemblies . . .”
This position was not well received by those colonists who called themselves Patriots. They saw Quakers as planning to reap the benefits of a battle they were unwilling to fight and viewed pacificism as a betrayal of the principles of liberty and equality that patriots were willing to die for.
Difficulties arose within the Society itself from the published statement. Some birthright friends – Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine, and John Dickinson – continued their involvement with the Congress and left Quakerism behind. Charles Thomson, principal of the Quaker School in Philadelphia, became the Congress’s secretary. Stephen Hopkins, former governor of Rhode Island and a birthright Friend, attended the Congress as the representative from Rhode Island. He was no longer active in his monthly meeting by the time he signed the Declaration of Independence. Also signing was Josiah Lewes of North Carolina, a Quaker who, when elected as a delegate to Congress, promptly resigned from his meeting to attend.
As Lewes journeyed between North Carolina and Philadelphia the following year, he reported that among the companies of soldiers he saw forming, “There were several Companies of Quakers only, and many of them besides enrolled in other Companies promiscuously.” Clement Biddle, who had organized “The Quaker Blues” to protect the Lenape Indians in Pennsylvania, organized another Quaker Regiment and then became Washington’s Quartermaster.
As they had done during the French and Indian War, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting called delegates together to develop advices for the duration. These advices were clear: Friends should neither participate in the revolutionary army, nor in the revolutionary civil government. Quakers were advised that they should not pay revolutionary governments any fine, penalty, or tax in lieu of personal military service by themselves, their children, apprentices, or servants. (Conscientious objection was recognized but involved paying a fine.) Friends were not to engage in any business likely to support the war, nor should they provide food or medical aid for either army. They were advised not to use colonial money. They were not to break allegiance with the King.
All across the American colonies, the sad process of disciplining members began. Nathaniel Greene was disowned by his Meeting for attending a military parade in 1773. He later organized a militia and rose in the ranks to become one of Washington’s generals, known as “The Fighting Quaker.” Other Friends were disowned for joining militias, for working in the rebel government, for paying their taxes, and for using “Continentals” – the money issued by the Continental Congress.
Friends were penalized if they did abide by the Quaker advices as well. The Committee of Public Safety in Philadelphia went after Quaker businesses for refusing accept Continentals, and for failure to manufacture, sell, or donate goods to the fight. The Military Association of Privates pronounced that the Quaker refusal to assist the war effort “threatened the very existence of government under the pretense of liberty of Conscience.” Because of they refused to take a Loyalty Oath, Friends were often suspected of being spies.
Since many Friends lived in British-occupied New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, they were equally subject to punishment by the British as well: for not paying taxes, for using Continentals, and for spying. Two Quaker men were hung by the British for treason. Quaker farms were raided by both armies, and Quakers then faced discipline from their meetings for aiding one side over the other.
One result was the first real schism in Quakerism. In 1778, Samuel Weatherill, a recorded minister, informed the Philadelphia Yearly meeting that he intended to take the Pennsylvania Loyalty Oath (which was administered as a Quaker-style Affirmation) because he believed in the cause of Independence. He refused to accept his disownment when it came, writing back that it was the meeting itself that was walking disorderly.
Weatherill and other disowned friends began meeting for worship in each other’s homes. They called themselves the Free Quakers, and published tracts accusing PYM of “ecclesiastical tyranny.” During the war, their meetings attracted large numbers of Friends. One member, Lydia Darragh, was a spy for Washington. Another, Elizabeth Ross, had been disowned for marrying outside of meeting, and was now a widow, running an upholstery business. She made flags for the Revolutionary cause on the side.
Over the course of the Revolution, more than 1,700 Friends were disowned by their meetings. After the war, some returned to their meetings, but many joined other religions or pioneered the Ohio River Valley, starting a new yearly meeting there.
The tension between the two principles – peace and social justice – did not go away at the end of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Civil War also presented Friends with a profound dilemma. They had been fighting against slavery for over a century. How could they not join their country in the fight to end the evil of slavery once and for all? Like the Revolution, the alternative to military service was to pay a fine – which meant you sent someone to serve in your place.
It was the development of field hospitals during the Civil War, which needed trained support staff, that led to a recognized role for a conscientious objector who wanted to serve without picking up a weapon. The American Friends Service Committee was founded in 1917 to provide ambulances for the military during World War II. The mothers of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA, sent all their boys to the front during World War II with a Bible and their blessing – whether the young men chose to fight or perform alternative service.
The original peace testimony thrills our hearts. But a little revolution now and then is a good thing. We still object to carnal weapons; but our peace testimony is no longer a simple declaration.
Based upon love and concern for the well-being 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. . . 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. . .
– Pacific Yearly Meeting, Faith and Practice (2010)
Sharon Doyle is a recovering screenwriter and writing professor and a practicing novelist and essayist. She has been a member of Orange Grove Monthly Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PYM) for thirty years.