Quaker Theology #6 -Spring 2002

                                                                                REVIEW ESSAY

A Great Deep: The Peace Testimony and Historical Realism

Chuck Fager

Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century. Meredith Baldwin Weddle. Oxford University Pres, 2001

British Quakerism 1860-1920: the Transformation of a Religious Community. Thomas C. Kennedy. Oxford University Press, 2001.


In our current circumstances, few tasks are more urgent for Friends than to reexamine and reaffirm our Quaker Peace Testimony. As Howard Brinton put it in his essay on The Peace Testimony of the Society of Friends, (p. 15, no date), "Every war has acted as a purge of nominal members, has awakened old members to new life and has brought in new members." I haven’t yet seen a great influx of newcomers in the present war; but the upheaval of purge and (may it be) new life seems well underway.

In this labor, there are few things more difficult than to think clearly about this testimony, and to make sense of what "reaffirming" it means, for each of us individually, and for Friends as a gathered people.

This exercise will, I suspect, be long and challenging. Fortunately, in the very season of our extremity, two crucially relevant books have appeared which can add immeasurably to the clarity of thought which is its base and starting point.

The first, certainly in chronology and perhaps in importance, is Walking In the Way of Peace, by Meredith Baldwin Weddle (Oxford University Press, 348 pp, 2001). Its companion, also from Oxford, is British Quakerism 1860-1920, by Thomas C. Kennedy. Neither author is a Friend. Kennedy is Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, while Weddle is described as "an independent scholar," who did much of her work while a fellow at Yale.

Both are mature works. Kennedy invested twenty years of effort and numerous trans-Atlantic trips in his labor. Weddle, too, traveled to Albion in her quest, but most of her seeking was done much closer to home, in Rhode Island. For that is the locale of her study, colonial Rhode Island, particularly in 1675-77.

Some readers may know these were the years of what is called "King Philip’s War," the decisive conflict between European settlers and the indigenous Indians in New England. Some fewer may also know that in this period Friends, in George Fox’s phrase, "had the government."

Perhaps most important, and least known of all, is the fact that Rhode Island was then the first place where Quakers moved from being persecuted or tolerated dissenters to rulers, or in their preferred term, "magistrates."

Rhode Island was not founded by Friends; but its character as a haven for dissenters and religious exiles attracted them, and by 1672, they were numerous enough to win colonial elections. And with the office of Governor, and the legislative seats as Councillors, came also the first occasion to apply what was not yet even called the "peace testimony" in an accountable public capacity. We could even say that a Quaker peace testimony was forged in the unanticipated crucible of war.

It is in tracing the formation, application and–yes–the ambiguities of this public testimony that Walking In the Way of Peace is of primary value for Friends today, and this value has several related aspects.

One of Weddle’s first and more astringent contributions is to banish more than three centuries of historiographical bunkum, not to say falsehood about what happened in Quaker Rhode Island during this war. The received version is that Rhode Island’s Quaker leaders, restrained by their "peace principles," stayed neutral in the conflict, declining to join colonists from Boston and Plymouth colonies in military campaigns against the rampaging Wampanoags and their Nipmuck allies. Instead, the story goes, they depended on a history of friendly relations with the natives (and the sanctuary of Aquidneck Island) to protect them.

This tale of beleaguered pacifist neutrality has been repeated by generations of chroniclers, some admiring (including Rufus Jones), others critical, and of the latter there have been not a few. It is also an ancient story, having been written down contemporaneously (and perhaps originated) by William Edmundson, a weighty Friend who was in the area at the time, and should have known what he was talking about.

But he didn’t. Weddle starkly sums up the actual facts of the case, which she has uncovered and for the first time set straight, as follows:

Rhode Island exiled Indians, supplied boats to the Plymouth and Massachusetts armies, blockaded Philip. . . rescued English soldiers, provisioned and provided a safe haven for colonial troops, raised and dispatched soldiers, stored ammunition, transported troops . . . to battle, encouraged the mobilization and training of the local militias, deployed gunboats, manned an official garrison, contributed troops to the final search for Philip himself–and at last, tried and executed prisoners of war. (170)

"This," she concludes drily, "is scarcely the record of either a neutral government or an inactive one."

It is also the war record of a Quaker administration, one moreover which had had the benefit of personal counsel and hearty approval by George Fox, through a personal visit in its formative year of 1672, and in supportive epistles later.

About the only distinctively Quaker feature of this war record that Weddle can find is that in 1673 the Rhode Island council adopted the first known conscientious objector statute, providing an exemption from militia service for those whose religious convictions forbade them to take part in war or its preparations. We can be confident that this provision, at least, was a Quaker idea because as soon as non-Friends regained control of the Council, they repealed it.

Debunking seems to be the furthest thing from Weddle’s mind, so her conclusion is stated dispassionately, if plainly. Yet this exposure of what seems nothing less than false witness about our own history is deeply humiliating to me–and not just on general principles. In 1975, I wrote, and the Providence Journal’s Sunday magazine published, an article on the tercentenary of King Philip’s War, based on several of these sources, in which I too repeated the neutralist pacifist version of Rhode Island history she has now shown to be a myth.

What are we to make of this now-revealed record? How can it be reconciled with the equally venerable image of the Society of Friends as already and unmistakably committed since 1660 to the rejection of "carnal weapons" and "all outward wars . . . for any end . . .whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world." If this is not pacifism, what can be?

Seeking nuanced, credible answers to these questions is Weddle’s underlying task, and she does a masterful job of it. Her disentangling of the various aspects and dilemmas of this testimony is the next level of current usefulness of her work.

One of her key insights is that for early Friends, including Fox, the 1660 Declaration, however sincerely meant, was not the end of the story when it came to war and peace. Fox and others also frequently quoted verses from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, which describe the "powers that be" as divinely constituted, and which "do not bear the sword in vain" as "a terror to evildoers"; indeed even the 1660 Declaration includes such an allusion. Thus while they were against joining wars as Friends (or "as to our own particulars" as the 1660 Declaration put it), the "magistrate" had a job of public protection to do also, which they acknowledged involved force, against both individuals and groups.

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