In the World, Of the World
The Society of Friends emerged from the disorder of the English Civil War, which was burdened by religion as well as the politics of representation. The Parliamentary “New Model Army” was one of Christian Soldiers, and the growing Quaker movement attracted numerous soldiers, often officers, who were dissenters - those at odds with the Church of England.
After the monarchy was restored, an unrelated group of dissenters,the Fifth Monarchy Men, attempted an uprising, casting royal doubt on other religious factions within the military. To allay the monarchy’s suspicion of a possible fifth column, a dozen leaders of the early Friends authored A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers Against all Plotters and Fighters in the World. The pamphlet explained that “wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men [from which] the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war.” They informed the king “that the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world.”
As a pacifist statement, it was less than complete. It says we will not fight for kings or to impose our beliefs on others, but not a thing about defending family, home, property, or country. What early Friends called the “magisterial sword” that protects the innocent from the evil was accepted.
|Come on up, I used to know your daddy.|
Quaker thought develops over time. As an example: in Colonial America, slavery was not widely questioned, but the Friends who recognized the inhumanity of it early challenged their Meetings. Eventually, owning a slave was grounds for a Meeting to disown a member. It took time, but the truth of it finally overcame self-interest, and Quakers became leaders in the Abolitionist cause.
The question of bearing arms was posed for some of the first Quaker colonists. The large contingent of Friends in Rhode Island, facing the Indian raids and attacks of of King Phillips War (1675-76), responded defensively -- and maybe offensively. After another 75 years, the pacifist stance became more institutionalized. During the buildup to the French and Indian War, Pennsylvania Quakers would not support even defensive measures for frontiersmen facing Indian raids, or later the threat of French warships sailing up the Delaware and closing the Philadelphia port. Philadelphia Friends disowned supporters of the Revolution. One was Betsy Ross, for providing flags for the army. By 1780, there were enough disowned Friends to form their own Meeting, and the Friends community did not reunite until the mid-1830s.
A different conundrum came with the Civil War, being leaders in the Abolition movement. With the war, two essential principles came into contradiction, the inherent equality of all mankind and the refusal to take a life. I don’t know that anyone has done a comparison, but from my reading it seems that disownment for joining the military was more common in the Revolution than in the Civil War. One was essentially a political war, the other presented a clash of principles, as with the Second World War, when numbers of Quakers chose to fight tyrannical and merciless invaders of two other continents.
The Quaker way is about seeking and discovering truth. We have made it a point not to have a creed, a code of standards of orthodoxy or membership. We talk a lot about matters like this. Such freedom of thought might have led to dissolution by anarchy, but we allow for varying opinions to contend and reform as our Meetings proceed to discern the truth together. It is the spirit of seeking -- or seeking of the Spirit -- that holds us together.
I asked a few months back, if Quakers are expected to be pacifists, am I one? To my surprise, it seems that I am, conditionally. A decade before I found the Charleston Friends Meeting I wore a uniform, but I was never comfortable in Navy blues during a national war. Whether I would feel the same if threatened by the sectarian and political paramilitary thugs that are so common now, that might be different.