Quaker Theology #6 -Spring 2002

                                                                                REVIEW ESSAY

A Great Deep: The Peace Testimony and Historical Realism

continued - - 2

In 1660, Friends were a small, persecuted people, definitely outside the circles of power. But what was to happen if and when they became rulers? Was a Quaker magistrate to forswear the role laid out for him in Scripture? As Weddle puts it:

Quakers, by associating the magistrate with a divine appointment, recognized the validity of force and, by extension, violence . . . .Yet when one has acknow-ledged the legitimate power of the magistrate to use force, which may include violence, to control evil within society–that is, when one has legitimized a police function–one has by no means eliminated difficult questions of authority and inconsistency. Aside from the obvious difficulty of agreeing about what constitutes evil and therefore about the proper reach of law, the scope and nature of the force and violence allowed to the magistrate is at issue. Does the maintenance of a defensive army fall within the definition of the police function of the state? Do preemptive strikes against a neighbor constitute police action? (26)

These hypothetical questions quickly became concrete:

If the magistrate was a Quaker, as he would be during King Philip’s War in Rhode Island in 1675, which of his religious obligations would receive priority: the obligation to shun the use of weapons, the obligation to rely only on the protection of God, or the obligation, as a magistrate chosen by God, to be a terror to evildoers?(26)

Which indeed? And there was more: what of the Quaker citizens who did not hold office? Did their obligation to obey the magistrates, extend to submitting to their co-religionists’ commands to join warlike activities?

In Rhode Island, the pioneering CO exemption permitted many to elide one major aspect of this issue. Yet gratitude for this privilege was by no means unanimous. While their brethren in office went about the business of war, a group of unnamed Friends wrote and issued "A Testimony" which challenged this acceptance of war on almost every point. "Christ Jesus the Light of the world & Prince of peace is come," they began, and went on to lament that some Friends, after once being convinced,

"Yet notwithstanding goe out into the dark Spirit of the world again," to the extent that they were now prepared to: Justify, or encourage, by Word or Practice, Killing, Blood-shed, use of carnal Weapons. To preserve Life by takeing away Life; & Warrs outward either offensive; or defensive.(242-244)

Such backsliders "wound their own Souls," and their works of "the unrighteous Liberty"

arise out & from the dark Kingdom of Antichrist; & we (his People) disown such Practices & Works, & condemn the Spirit, which hath or may lead thereinto: and in the Peaceable Truth we stand .(244)

Weddle does not say it, but clearly what is being heard here is the echoed voice of 1660. These dissidents had solid Quaker precedent for their radical stand.

Which brings us to yet another aspect of Weddle’s contribution: showing with "chapter and verse" that attempts to live out the "peace principle" were, almost from the beginning, to be a recurring source of controversy and even division among Friends.

In other British colonies the point was raised again and again. Fox was drawn into the question in 1675, the same year war broke out in New England, by an appeal from Friends on the Carribean island of Nevis. Was it permitted, they wrote, to obey official demands to take turns keeping watch against French invaders or pirates? Or would that make them one more cog in the machinery of war?

Fox thought not; as he wrote, such watches, if carried out "in your own way" (unarmed) were no more than prudence, even though intruders would be reported to the "magistrate" who bore the sword to punish them.

Rhode Island, in short, was only the beginning. Down the decades, Quaker leaders would repeatedly be called on to draw the line between religious testimony, civic prudence and connivance at war. These lines were not always drawn consistently; nor, with the changes in society and warfare, could it hardly be otherwise. In Pennsylvania, the Quaker colony, the struggle over the meaning of Quaker magistracy, especially in terms of raising an army, would go on for more than fifty years.

Weddle closes her book with a meditation on what her study of colonial Rhode Island in war has shown:

The complexity of violence itself, the vast differences between cultures, both geographical and through time, the alternating periods of relative war and peace, and the influence of shining integrity have, with underlying contradictions, rendered Quaker pacifism far less coherent than it has appeared. The major coherence, in fact, has been the persistence of a continuum of belief and behavior even when the very basis of pacifism changed. . . .The existence of a pacifist continuum reflects the fact that the renunciation of violence is a great deep, containing within it schools of sources and justifications and reefs of contradictions and requiring a tide of action and restraint (229)

So, to the work of clear thinking about the Peace Testimony, Walking In the Way of Peace brings us above all, well, unclarity, which she kindly describes as a "continuum." This is at many points a painful realization. Yet Weddle has done Friends a great service, which can help pull the scales from our eyes as we work to think clearly about what this thing, this "great deep," is to mean to us today.

There are other important parallels between her Rhode Island in 1675, and our present state of disquiet, but one in particular cries out to be highlighted here, namely the sense of peril, approaching panic, in which Friends had to work out their various understandings. Let us hear her:

to appreciate the moral task facing each Quaker during King Philip’s War, it is essential to imagine the immensity of the danger threatening the people of New England: the fear of violence shredding all certainty and all expectations, just as sword and hatchet shredded the bodies fallen in their way. ‘For all there was in an Uproar, Killing, and Burning, and Murdering, and great Distress was upon the peoples Minds.’ The imminence of death alone would have been enough to shake each vulnerable settler or Indian; when death itself was dressed up in atrocity, whether real or rumored, it would be the rare person who could be sure that principle would not yield to terror or rage. For the Quaker, alone in his small house, miles perhaps from a neighbor, fear and horror faced down the ordained love for his enemies . . . .To the extent that the danger and fear can be approximated from the security and predictability of modern America, to this extent no hesitation can be seen as remarkable or shameful. (197)

This last sentence, penned probably in the good old peaceful days of 2000, now seems poignantly antique. Perhaps we are now able to empathize with our Rhode Island forebears a bit more fully. At least, let us hope so.

                                                  << Back             more >>  



<< Back to Contents

QUEST, P.O. Box 82, Bellefonte PA 16823