Peace Part 5: Peace and Quakerism.

Quakers are likely best known for embracing the peace testimony.  My Theological response was my own, but it has much in common with Robert Barclay’s response in his Apology.  The language that Friends have used in expressing their official opposition to war has been strong, both historically and currently.  Yearly meetings throughout the world have their official statements against all wars, and many yearly meetings write minutes condemning current wars. Meetings ranging from theologically liberal to fundamentalist offer ‘counter-recruitment’ advice, recommending against military life.  There can be no doubt of the official position.

There is a rather strong streak of individualism among Friends.  Even when there is consensus to oppose all wars and discourage military service, military enlistment among Friends is fairly common.  American Friends have fought  in every war, and with the exception of the revolutionary war, returning soldiers were welcomed back into their meetings.

This confusing relationship with peace goes back to the founding days of the Society of Friends.  many of the first generation of Friends fought in the English civil war.  William Edmondson, for example, brought Quakerism to Ireland while serving in the military.  If things had gone differently, Quakerism might have supported the Lord Protector and forces against the monarchy.  If Quakerism had supported a party, Quakerism might have died with Oliver Cromwell.

While many Quakers fought in Cromwell’s army, George Fox refused when offered a commission as an officer.  This choice preferred prison over an endorsement of one side in the civil war.  Quakers were quickly seen as a danger, and the Quakers serving in Cromwell’s army were kicked out without pay, and often imprisoned.

In 1660, the commonwealth fell and the monarchy was restored.  Quakers made a declaration of opposing all wars, thus denying opposition to the new monarch and simultaneously refusing military loyalty.  The Quakers would soon find themselves with both people who fought under Oliver Cromwell, and others who were involved in making way for the restoration of the monarchy.  Resisting war might be an ideal — but in this case it is also a pragmatic decision.   If Quakers were seen as enemies of the monarchy, they would be punished for their politics.

One thing that the peace churches (Friends, Brethren, Mennonites) share is that the call for peace was made in times that these religious groups were facing violence.  There was both the refusal to take part in the wars which Robert Barclay characterizes as Christians killing Christians, and from the time that Quakers publicly declared the opposition to all wars, there was an acceptance of the state sponsored violence against Quakers that would come for the next 30 years. (The Toleration act was passed in May of 1689.)

Today the testimony against war seems easy.  There is no risk of suffering when a meeting writes a minute.  There are no hard choices to make if one does not choose to enlist in the military.  The easier it is, the quainter it appears.  Nobody remembers that when Quakers (and other peace churches) chose to deny violence, it was a pragmatic decision made by people who faced violence and threats on a daily basis.

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