From Protest to Resistance
The Quaker Peace Testimony
During the Vietnam War
July 18, 1998
(From a Pendle Hill gathering on Friends & the Vietnam War)
Jeremy Mott was born in Ridgewood, NJ, where he is still a member of Ridgewood Meeting. He left Harvard College in 1965 to work to end the Vietnam War. He later served 16 months in prison for draft resistance. Copyright (c) 1998 by Jeremy Mott. Posted by permission.
I’m going to start out with two quotations that I hope we will keep in mind during this speech.
First, “We are not for names nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other.. .but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound.”
Who wrote that? Of course it was a Friend -- Edward Burrough, in 1659, when this Puritan stalwart was changing by necessity from a highly political revolutionary to a more spiritual, but still highly political, revolutionary -- a Friend in today’s sense.
I took the quotation from the letterhead of Quaker House of Fayetteville, NC, which -- quite fittingly, I think -- is the only soldier’s coffeehouse project of the Vietnam era to survive until the present day. It makes a difference to have a peace testimony. Even if that testimony does change sometimes.
Second -- and I hope you’ll recite this with me:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
When I first heard the great civil rights leader Bob Moses introduce a talk with the 23rd Psalm, a year ago in New York City, the audience was mostly non-religious pacifists from the War Resisters League, and few could recite the psalm. I’m glad that Quakers can do a little better.
But all joking aside, please keep these two passages in mind. Partisanship, and fear -- both surely of the very essence of war played central roles in the making of the Quaker Peace Testimony and in its remaking during the Vietnam War. Even though I rarely refer to these matters, I always have them in mind.
Are Friends ready for a leap of faith? Maybe the Quaker Peace Testimony can best be described as God’s method, or a collection of methods, given to Friends for countering partisanship and fear. Because these are God’s methods, they work if used for their intended purpose. We can and must spread this knowledge.
Yet we can’t spread knowledge about the Quaker Peace Testimony if we don’t know it ourselves. As we unknowingly approached the Vietnam War, way back in the fifties and early sixties, what was the Quaker Peace Testimony?
It was a collection of ideas and attitudes that often seemed not to fit together very well. It still is a miscellany of this kind. In the marvelous description that Chel Avery, the organizer of this conference, provided in 1995 at the first Quaker Peace Roundtable, the Quaker Peace Testimony was described as a “Questing Beast.” (Her essay is found in the collection A Continuing Journey, edited by Chuck Fager and published by Pendle Hill, 1996.) The original Questing Beast, in the King Arthur legends, has “the head of a serpent, the body of a lizard, the haunches of a lion, and the feet of a deer” as well as the bark of sixty hounds. A very improbable creature. A strange mess.
When I first read about this Questing Beast in Chel’s 1995 paper, I laughed aloud. Finally someone had properly described our peace testimony. Quakerism has many theological messes, but the peace testimony may be the biggest mess of all.
Right from its beginning (or “crystallization”) in 1660-61, the Quaker Peace Testimony consisted of at least five major parts, some of them hardly compatible with others.
First, and most urgently needed in the early Restoration days, the Quaker Peace Testimony was a statement of Quaker non-participation in, and opposition to, violent revolution or secret “subversive” activity of any kind. In the slightly abridged version of the long original peace testimony in the Nickalls edition of George Fox’s Journal, at least three-quarters of the material is repetitive statements of our non-complicity in violent revolution.
Of course! Other Puritan revolutionary groups that still existed in the early reign of Charles II were plotting and revolting against the monarchy, and Quakers had to clear themselves from any involvement (and any suspicion of involvement) in this activity if they were to survive the consequent repression. George Fox, Margaret Fell, and Richard Hubberthome, along with other leading Friends, saw this clearly and wrote this testimony. Even our Friend Edward Burrough was compelled by good sense to go along with the peace testimony statement of January 1661, despite his radical Puritan sympathies, though he didn’t sign it. There were other Friends like him.
All this poses an obvious question: why didn’t the original Quaker Peace Testimony simply oppose violent revolution, and say nothing else? Certainly some Friends would have chosen this course.
This leads us to the second of the major purposes of the first Quaker Peace Testimony. Friends were then engaged in one of the greatest -- maybe the greatest -- campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience which we have ever engaged in. This was the struggle for religious freedom in Massachusetts, which had already cost the lives of four Friends and had (and would) subject countless Friends to imprisonment, whippings, and tortures and punishments of many kinds.
(I know of nothing more similar to this campaign than the great campaigns of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, in which many Friends were engaged. In each case there were hometown agitators and outside agitators, and there were distant safe bases where supplies and money could be gathered, newcomer agitators trained, and sufferers helped to recover. Rhode Island, with freedom of religion already established and a large Quaker population, was the major distant base for the Quaker campaign against Massachusetts.)
To their everlasting credit, the Quaker leaders who wrote and published the first Quaker Peace Testimony put their support for nonviolent civil disobedience right into the document, where it is quite prominent. So we have the second original part of our Quaker Peace Testimony: nonviolent civil disobedience for religious liberty or against intolerable injustice of any kind. One can hardly conceive of a Quaker Peace Testimony without nonviolent civil disobedience, any more than a Gandhian pacifism without it.
The third major element of our original peace testimony is harder to find, though it’s very strong, beneath the surface. The Quaker Peace Testimony was issued only a year after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. The years from 1640 to 1660 had been filled with civil wars, plots and counter-plots, changes in Parliament, the execution of King Charles I, changes in the established church -- the Church of England was Presbyterian for a time -- and the rise and fall of various radical sects -- Quakers being one of these. All sorts of religious and political groups had tried to establish their version of the Kingdom of Heaven by force of arms, and none had succeeded in establishing anything but chaos, destruction, and suffering. Quakers, in the England of 1661, partly by God’s Providence, partly by the wisdom of George Fox, were the one religious group not implicated in the years of savage warfare.
Yet English Quakers, like practically all English men and women in 1661, must have been terribly disillusioned, disheartened and even cynical about war and the zealotry associated with war. General disgust with war remains an extremely important part of our peace testimony to this day, and connects us with sensible and humane people of all politics and all religions. Imagine how important their disgust with war must have been to the English Quakers of the 1660’s. This disgust may have enabled Quakers to survive and grow among a people who had turned their backs on Puritanism of all other forms.
Now, everyone here knows, or should know, what the fourth -- and certainly most important -- element of our original peace testimony is. Christ forbids violence and war. The Christ of history says this repeatedly, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and, by example, in his crucifixion. The resurrected Christ, the Spirit of Christ, Christ Within (if you prefer a Quaker phrase) says no to violence and war whenever anyone (or any group) will sit still and listen to Him. And for those who do not know the Spirit of Christ by name, or do not believe in Him, God will still send a powerful message of love and nonviolence, if they will only listen for it.
I note that Christian and religious pacifism of this sort is not and cannot be entirely rational. Whenever we try to think rationally about violence and war, though we know that these are great evils, we come up with exceptional cases where violence and war seem to be rational and justified. Loving one’s enemies does not seem always to be possible for a rational person. The Voice of the Inward Light, saying we must love enemies and never go to war, is truly supernatural or at least spiritual, as early Friends said. It is the Voice of God and the Spirit of Christ, our best window on God.
This all-important Christian pacifism in our peace testimony, present from its beginning, unites the Society of Friends with those other Christian churches that actually follow, or attempt to follow, the teachings of Christ concerning war: The Catholic Church before the Emperor Constantine, the Mennonites and Hutterites, the Church of the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians. It also unites us with many millions of Christians of all denominations who believe in pacifism although their denominations do not. It is positive proof that the Society of Friends is a Christian church, even though some of our more liberal meetings admit non-Christians into membership.
Paradoxically, our pacifism also unites us with all the other Inner Light religions of the world, for most of these also believe in nonviolence (or something close to it): Taoism, many kinds of Buddhism, several forms of Hinduism and Islam, and doubtless other Inner Light faiths I have never heard of.
Most important, because we know our peace testimony is not really ours, but an assignment from God, we have the strength to live out its difficult demands. George Fox had a prison term extended for half a year in 1650, simply because he wouldn’t be a soldier. Conscientious objection’s recorded history in North America probably begins with Quakers in Maryland about 1658. The first conscientious objector law in North America --probably the first such law in the English speaking world thus -- the grand-daddy of all conscientious objector laws in the world today -- was enacted in 1673 by a Rhode Island Quaker government at war, for the benefit of Quaker and other conscientious objectors. Quakers in America pioneered war tax refusal during the Revolutionary War, and a few years earlier Pennsylvania Quakers ran their province successfully without an army for more than 70 years. A few years ago, six Friends in Burundi were martyred for offering refuge to both Hutus and Tutsis.
“Ordinary” -- I’ll put that word in quotation marks -- prophetic protest against war, as well as conscientious objection, has also kept Friends busy since our early days. One should note that the larger society requires a sense of the meeting for one activity: war. If a nation tries to conduct a war for any significant length of time without consensus among its own citizens, trouble, big trouble, lies ahead. This happened during the Vietnam War.
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