“Many Friends Do Not Know ‘Where They Are'”: Some Divisions in London Yearly Meeting During the First World War”

Reprinted from Quaker Theology #11, 2005
Thomas C. Kennedy
author of British Quakerism 1860-1920

Late in 2001 in the terrible aftermath of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, Scott Simon, newsman and commentator for National Public Radio who claims membership in the Society of Friends, presented solemn public testimony in which he declared that because of the deaths of so many innocent people on September 11th even Quaker pacifists, like himself, were obliged to support the war against terrorism, specifically military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Simon’s statement was an expression of his understandable indignation and horror about the attack on his country and fellow citizens.

    But whatever else Scott Simon’s statement may have been it was, in my view, also an expression of his ignorance of the nature of his supposed Quaker pacifism. This same circumstance applied to British Quakers between August 1914 and November 1918, just as it applies to contemporary Friends and others who call themselves pacifists, as I shall attempt to illustrate in this discussion of British Friends and some of their difficulties during the Great War.

    In late August 1914 Ernest Taylor (1869-1955), then Secretary to the Yorkshire 1905 Committee, had a serious sense of disquiet even in the earliest stages of the Great War. Taylor lamented in his “Diary” that “Many Friends do not know ‘where they are’. . . . Caught by the ‘urgency’ and ‘righteousness’ of this war”, he noted, some were becoming “very cold” as regards Friends peace testimony1. Two of the coldest were Quaker Conservative MPs Frank Harris and Percy Bigland who had immediately deserted the peace camp to join the national cause. More significant perhaps was the weighty Henry Marriage Wallis, a member of Meeting for Sufferings, who immediately hit the recruiting trail to rally Quaker youth behind the war effort – and whose exertions were marked with considerable success. Such developments as these obviously contributed to the “depression . . . and . . . perplexity . . . as to the right attitude to adopt” felt by so many Friends in Pontefract Monthly Meeting.2

    Why was it so difficult for so many Friends to make up their minds about what stance to take as regards the First World War? Surely then, as now, the accumulated evidence of the Quaker peace testimony was abounding and ubiquitous. From the famous Declaration of 1661 from the Harmless and Innocent People called Quakers to the Yearly Meeting Epistle issued two centuries later in 1854 calling on Friends explicitly to “avow our continued unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our Divine Lord . . . and with the whole spirit and tenor of His Gospel; and that no plea of necessity or of policy . . . can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said ‘Love your enemies’ . . . .”

    Closer to hand in 1914 was a document entitled “Our Testimony for Peace” approved by London Yearly Meeting in 1912, wherein Friends had been enjoined “to take their stand for peace and righteousness, wherever their lot may be cast.” War, the resolution continued, was “contrary to the Spirit of the God whose name in Love” and the peace testimony remained “an organic outgrowth of our Faith as Christians.”3 On 7 August 1914 Meeting for Sufferings clearly reiterated this central idea by issuing a Message to Men and Women of Goodwill reminding Friends that “Our testimony loses its efficacy in proportion to the want of consistency . . . amongst us”. Nearly half a million copies of this document were printed for general distribution.4

    Yet despite these and other exhortations large numbers of young Quakers continued to join the Army and some mature Friends persisted in counseling them to do so. More than two hundred Quakers had enlisted in the forces by the Spring of 1915 and a Committee on Friends and Enlistment discovered that fifteen Friends were known to be engaged in recruiting activi-ties5. Other prominent Quakers, including Henry Marriage Wallis, J.B. Braithwaite, Jr. and Hebert Sefton-Jones, wrote to The Friend decrying the Society’s refusal to support the war effort. Shocked and shaken by this and other statements being made by war supporters in the Quaker press, the elderly evangelical Friend J.B. Hogdkin said in late 1915: “I am amazed at the apparent inability of some . . . to understand the position of the Society of Friends in relation to Peace and War.”6

    Of course, for most Quakers things were not so black and white as the foregoing paragraphs might seem to indicate. There was a wide range of Quaker reactions to the Great War. In the end, the majority of the membership of London Yearly Meeting followed, at least to some extent, the traditions of their Religious Society rather than the dictates of the Warrior State and refused to give open support to the British war effort. For most men of military age the refusal to fight with carnal weapons was sufficient proof of their adherence to religious principle. Such a stand encompassed those who joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit or the smaller Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee as well as others who took some sort of civilian alternative to military service which might or might not involve them in indirect assistance to the war.

    A small minority, many of these inspired by the moral and spiritual leadership of middle-aged Alfred Neave Brayshaw (1861-1940), a largely unsung pacifist hero, believed that fidelity to the peace testimony required, not just negative withdrawal from combat but positive steps aimed at bringing the war to an end. These were the absolutist conscientious objectors who served in military guardrooms [jails] and civil prisons for their refusal to have any part whatever in the prosecution of the war and who believed that the only national service they could legitimately perform was working to stop the war and repeal the compulsory service acts passed by Parliament in January and May 1916.

    At the end of the day, both London Yearly Meeting and Meeting for Suffering adopted this same apparently radical version of the peace testimony by endorsing the absolutists’ stance while at the same time not demeaning those who felt able to accept of alternative service or some other lesser form of resistance. The subsequent misunderstanding and sometimes open hostility between, for example, leaders of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, which assumed a cooperative relationship with military officials, and the Young Friends Service Committee, which advocated non-cooperation as well as non-resistance, could fill many pages. So could the difficulties that arose from the sometimes radical socialist vision of London Yearly Meeting’s War and the Social Order Committee and Friends who adhered to pre-war Liberalism and felt socialism to be a distinctly unQuakerly social and political philosophy.

    There is not sufficient space here to deal with very many of these generally interesting though sometimes unfortunate and even depressing differences among British Friends. Rather, I intend to concentrate on the response of two prominent Friends on polar opposite ends of the Quaker wartime spectrum–one an inspiring absolutist who suffered long imprisonment for his steadfast adherence to a radical vision of the peace testimony; the other a vigorous and enthusiastic war Friend who served his time in the Royal Engineers.

    Wilfrid E. Littleboy (1885-1979) & Walter Trevelyan Thomson (1875-1928) were both birthright Quakers born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century into middle-class families which provided them with the sort of security, stability, support and educational opportunity open to but few of their contem-poraries.

    Littleboy attended Bootham School and, after two terms at Woodbrooke where his Uncle William and Aunt Margaret were Wardens, he secured an apprenticeship in accountancy at the Birmingham firm where he would in time become a senior partner. No doubt family and business connections helped launch him into the professional world under favorable circumstances. These same connections were doubtless of significance as he began to embrace important new religious responsibilities. In 1910 Littleboy was named Secretary to the Sibford School Committee and in the following year he became a member of the Woodbrooke Council. At the Swanwick Conference of Young Friends in 1911, he was named secretary to a special sub- committee charged with coordinating Young Friends activities with the Yearly Meeting’s Home Mission and Extension Committee. All in all, he seemed a promising young Quaker, beginning to make his way in both the world and his religious Society. Walter Thompson also received a thoroughly Quaker early education at Bootham and Ackworth schools, eventually becoming President of the Old Scholar’s Association at the latter institution. He joined a successful family iron-mongering business in Middleborough and became active in both Home Mission work and local Liberal politics, an interest which would eventually earn him a seat in Parliament.

    So far so good; two well-connected, well-respected Friends blossoming into maturity who could look forward to bigger and better things both within the Religious Society of Friends and the broader society of men. Then came August 1914 and the Great War.

    Littleboy’s initial response to the war included an article in The Friend (Oct. 1914) in which he noted that Quakers had to be “willing to face unpopularity and hard criticism . . . and to draw the line of what we may or may not do absolutely, according to the guidance of our conscience no matter what the result. . . . No one can honestly take our Quaker stand against all war without being committed to a higher . . . service, one leading to love and life and not to hatred and death.7

    Walter Thomson, on the other hand, after initially being rejected by the Army as too old for active service began to appear on recruiting platforms, representing himself as a Quaker, though not as a spokesperson for the Society of Friends. When in January 1915 his Monthly Meeting (Darlington) circulated a Minute which emphasized “our belief as Friends that no war can be defended”. Thompson responded by offering his resignation from the Meeting “[i]f . . .there is not room in our Society for any difference of opinion on this vexed question . . . .”8

    Subsequently, Walter Thomson was, in fact, disowned, “reluctantly and after prayerful consideration,” by Darlington Monthly Meeting, largely on the basis of “his action in appearing on a public platform in supporting of recruiting. . . .”9 Although Thomson was eventually reinstated on the basis of the Minute of the Yearly Meeting Peace Committee expressing a “general desire in the Society” not to pursue disownments of Friends supporting the war, he refused to be reconciled with Friends on the ground that most Monthly Meeting members, setting aside the “broad spirit of tolerance” that had distinguished early Quakerism, regarded his “association with them as a thing to be deplored.”

    Thereafter, Thomson was accepted into the Royal Engineers where he served throughout the war. In the immediate post-war election he was chosen as Liberal Member of Parliament for West Middlesborough, serving in Parliament with some distinction and increased majorities until his early demise in 1928, honored in death as in life as a brave soldier and exemplary citizen.

    Then there was Wilfrid Littleboy, religiously active and professionally thriving, who would seem to have been just as admirable a citizen but for the fact that a year after Walter Thomson joined the Royal Engineers, Littleboy commenced a twenty-eight month odyssey as a prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs and other of His Majesty’s prisons. This was, for him, the beginning of a spiritual journey which would culminate with his presiding over London Yearly Meeting before and during the Second World War.

    So, as a result of their opposing if genuinely felt reactions to the Great War, Walter Thomson ended up in Parliament and Wilfrid Littleboy in jail. Ultimately, and at least partially as a result of their choices, both succeeded in their separate spheres, though it took a bit longer for Littleboy to see the fruits of his sacrifice than for Thomson to reap the rewards of his patriotism. The Friendly warrior earned the respect and trust of his fellow-citizens; the pacifist Quaker, with considerably more time to see the results of his sacrifice made manifest, gained sufficient confidence from his co-religionists to be chosen as their spiritual leader. But whatever the results of the two men’s contrasting decisions, it would seem useful to consider the reasons each gave for making the choice he did.

    In this Wilfred would appear to have some advantage due in part to the preservation by his parents and his children of a series of remarkable and stirring letters he wrote from prison. These missives are the musings of a man moved by silence and sensual deprivation to spiritual depths he had never before plumbed and rather than being cast down by the ordeal of over two years in the third division in various of His Majesty’s prisons, Littleboy was exulted by “a sense of serene peace and contentment.” As he told his parents: “I have literally not been ‘off colour’ for a day. . . . “10 While he did not wish presumptuously to link he and his fellow absolutist prisoners (remember there were less than 150 of them or about 5 per cent of Friends of military age) too closely with their spiritual ancestors, he believed that “it is the same power that lived in them as shall live in us. . . . the old case of dreamers of the dream who assure the future . . .” And, for him, that future was in “perfectly safe hands.”11

    “I am content in the thought that God will not let my time here be wasted but will continue his preparation and constantly lead me on ‘to see greater things than these’: & whether it will be weeks, months, or longer, this stage will end when I can serve His purposes better elsewhere . . . .”12

    Walter Trevelyan Thomson can only stand in the shadow of the dazzling spiritual light exuded by Wilfrid Littleboy’s prison testimony. Still, lest one take a notion that Walter Thomson’s reasons for supporting the war were simply a gauche betrayal of religious principles, one should give this war Friend his due. He did not hide his patriotic convictions under a bushel but spoke them openly and in the company of his fellow Quakers, most succinctly on the occasion of his Presidential Address to the Ackworth Old Scholars Association in the Spring of 1915.

    The theme of Thomson’s presentation was his attempt to come to grips with the conflict between his obligations as a Quaker and his responsibilities as a citizen. In the desperate situation facing the British nation, he said, “the whirligig of time” had forced him to conclude that “the only safe course . . . [was] to follow Geo. Fox’s advice and let each ascertain for himself with the guidance of the Holy Spirit what is the Will of God for us in this matter.”

    Having leaned upon the Founder for his authority, Thomson went on to provide what Malcolm Thomas, former librarian at Friends House, has called “an excellent summary of the arguments against an absolute peace testimony. . . .” Indeed, he concluded that the Society’s apparent decision to embrace a narrow interpretation of acceptable wartime service had created “a new precedent” in determining “to ostracise and excommunicate . . . members who think the present war justifiable . . . as . . . the lesser of two evils.”13

    From whence did W.T. Thomson derive such arguments? Frankly, they would have been easily found from a wide variety of Quaker sources. To begin he might have pointed to the apparent ambivalence of George Fox and other early Friends prior to the Restoration crisis. In 1655 Edward Burrough showed no hesitation in enjoining parliamentary soldiers not to “strengthen the hand of evil-doers, but [to] lay your swords injustice upon every one that doth evil.” Closer to hand there was Caroline Stephen’s discussion of Quakers and peace in her popular book Quaker Strongholds published in 1890:

“It is commonly supposed that Friends have some special scruple about the use of physical force . . . . This I believe by no means true of the Society at large although . . . . Very likely to be founded on fact as regards individuals . . . . I came to understand that the Quaker testimony against all war did not take the form of any ethical theory of universal application . . . as to the ‘unlawfulness’ of war . . . . I personally cannot but recognise that certain wars appear to be not only inevitable but justifiable . . . I cannot, therefore, regard all war as wholly and unmitigatedly blameable.”14

    Walter Thomson might also have considered that strong support given to the war in South Africa by such publicly prominent Friends as the famous lexicographer John Bellows and the historian Thomas Hodgkin, whose son Robin served as an officer in that conflict. Then, he also might have read the comment of some fairly weighty contemporaries in the Quaker press. The stockbroker J.B. Braithwaite, Jr. called upon the Society to recognise “that the use of force against evil [i.e., the Hun] is not only permissible but necessary.” And Herbert Sefton-Jones, patent attorney & famed world traveler, noted that Robert Barclay, Quakerism’s most distinguished theologian, ranked “war with cock-fighting, bull-baiting, may-pole dancing, bell-ringing and other popular entertainments of his day . . . far less offensive in the sight of God than Hireling Ministry, Oaths or Payment of Tithes.” (I think it should be noted that while Sefton-Jones may have been cute and clever, anyone who actually read Barclay might have responded that while he did not say much, what he did say seemed decisive, e.g., “it is impossible to reconcile war and revenge with Christian practice.”)

    Finally, Thomson might even have drawn sustenance from the 1912 document “Our Testimony for Peace” which, again revealing the Quaker genius for backing and filling, noted:

    We do not desire, by hasty acts or harsh judgments, to drive from us those who, feeling themselves attached to our Society, and spiritual ideals, yet cannot honestly subscribe to the abstract doctrine that War under all circumstances is wrong.15

    So, Walter Trevelyan Thomson’s plea for tolerance based on historical precedent was not without considerable foundation.

    In light of this demonstration of the extreme differences concerning the nature of the peace testimony which arose in London Yearly Meeting during the Great War and the varying reasons given for those differences, I should like to return to the example with which I began this essay, Scott Simon’s vision of the peace testimony as something that can on occasion be put aside and ask again why it is as difficult for Quakers in the twenty-first century as it was for their forebears in the First World War to arrive at some satisfactory consensus about the relationship between being a Quaker and being a pacifist. Or to push the matter further, what it really means to be a pacifist, and how pacifism is related to Quakerism.

    Although I am neither a Quaker nor a pacifist, it seems to me to me to be a matter of definition. It is my view, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, that war leaves no choice to real pacifists, they must oppose it, or cease to be pacifists. This is because pacifism, like pregnancy, really is an all or nothing proposition.

    I cannot, of course, speak from any general knowledge or experience of contemporary Quaker pacifism but my personal experience has been that when I ask Friends to define their own understanding of the peace testimony, they stumble about for a bit and then mumble something about “that of God in every man”, although they seldom provide any sense of the origins or precise meaning of that elusive phase. Nor, on the other hand, are they likely to furnish any Biblical citations to support their understanding of what the peace testimony means to Friends or whether it means anything at all.

    I have asserted elsewhere that contemporary Quakerism can scarcely survive as a separate religious community if it ignores or eschews its historic peace testimony.16 Given the current situation in our nation and the world, it would seem incumbent upon Friends to seriously rethink and reassert their devotion to the principle and practice which, during the twentieth century, raised their Religious Society, striving as it did to create the Kingdom of God on earth, to its exalted position among the moral leaders of a physically riven and spiritually irresolute contemporary world.    


    1 Earnest E. Taylor, “Diary, 1914–“, 3 August 1914, Temp. Box 23/3, Library of the Society of Friends.

    2 Minute 2, 28 April 1915, Minutes of the Meeting of Elders, Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

    3 Yearly Meeting Epistle, 1854, quoted in Christian Practice (London 1925), 140 and “Our Testimony for Peace,” London Yearly Meeting, 1912, 107-8, 112-14, 116-17.

    4 Quoted from Christian Discipline, 1911 (London 1911), 141.

    5 London Yearly Meeting, 1915, 30 and The Friend, 28 May 1915, 408-09.

    6 For examples of letters from Quaker war supporters see The Friend, 20 Aug. 1914, 652-54; 3 Sept. 1914, 686; and 10 Sept. 1915, 707. For J.B. Hodgkin’s letter, see ibid., 19 Nov. 1915, 872-3 & 26 Nov. 1915, 887.)

    7 Wilfred E. Littleboy, “Our Peace Testimony and Some of Its Implications,” TF, 2 Oct. 1914, 722-4.

    8 W.T. Thomson to Clerk of Darlington Monthly Meeting [J.B. Hodgkin], 7 Dec. 1914, copy in Minutes, Darlington Monthly Meeting, 14 Jan. 1915, 463.

    9 Minutes, Darlington Monthly Meeting, 11 Feb. 1915, 468 & 13 March 1915, 473-4.

    10 Wilfred E. Littleboy (W.E.L. to his parents, 10 March & 30 July 1917, Wilfrid Littleboy Papers (WEP).

    11 W.E.L. to parents, 18 & 20 Jan. 1917, Ibid.

    12 W.E.L. to parents, 18 June 1918, Ibid.

    13 Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the Ackworth Old Scholars Association, edited by Albert G. Linney (York 1916), 18-19; W.T. Thomson to Clerk, 7 Dec. 1914, in Minutes, Darlington Monthly Meeting, 14 Jan. 1915; and Malcolm Thomas to John Lockett (copy), 31 July 1995 (seen through courtesy of the author).Ibid.

    14 Caroline Stephen, Quaker Strongholds (London 1891), 122, 130, 15, 159

    15 “Our Testimony for Peace,” LYM, 1912, 113.

    16 Thomas C. Kennedy, British Quakerism, 1860-1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press) , 429-30.

Leave a comment