Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002

Quakers and The Lambís War: A Hermeneutic for Confronting Evil

A paper presented at the International Historic Peace Church Consultation
Bienenberg Theological Seminary, Switzerland, June 25-28, 2001

By Gene Hillman

As they war not against menís persons, so their weapons are not carnal nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy menís lives nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands; their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son, their shield is faith and patience, their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good-will towards all the creation of God; their breastplate is righteousness and holiness to God, their minds are girded with godliness, and they are covered with salvation, and they are taught with truth. And thus the Lamb in them, and they in him, go out in judgment and righteousness to make war with his enemies, conquering and to conquer. Not as the prince of this world in his subjects, with whips and prisons, tortures and torments on the bodies of creatures, to kill and to destroy menís lives, who are deceived, and so become his enemies; but he goes forth in the power of the Spirit with the Word of Truth to pass judgment upon the head of the Serpent which does deceive and bewitch the world. (Nayler., pp.106-7)

The Quaker peace testimony must be seen within the context of all the testimonies (or "our Christian testimony," in the singular, as was the common usage). The first generation of Friends saw their testimonies as weapons in "The Lambís War," a form of what many today would call "spiritual warfare." Our Christian testimony was a form of nonviolent resistance to the hypocrisy and evil that early Friends found in the world. This was not non-resistance, but an active struggle against evil. I relate briefly a few incidents from our early history in an effort to show that, since its early articulation, our peace witness has been an assertive, if not aggressive, witness to the Truth.

The Religious Society of Friends arose in England in the mid-seventeenth century, during a period of great social, economic, political and religious turmoil. Diggers and Levelers questioned the social and economic system; a civil war resulted in regicide and abolishment of the monarchy in favor of a Commonwealth dominated by Puritans. Early Quakers confronted the perceived hypocrisy of those who professed to be Christians, particularly others in the Puritan wing of the Reformation, who while professing Christ did not possess his Spirit. Though Friends were not silent, this was done in large part through witness acted out in what were known as the testimonies.

The first articulation of the Quaker peace testimony usually cited was in 1651, though at this point it was not yet a corporate testimony. George Fox, generally considered to be the founder of the Quaker movement, was being held in Derby jail on charges of blasphemy. He was approached by Commissioners of the Commonwealth army who offered him release and the rank of captain in that army "because of [his] virtue." He declined, throwing the word "virtue" back at them "But I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars, and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust according to Jamesís doctrine." (Fox, 65) Jamesís doctrine to which he referred is contained in the first three verses of the fourth chapter of the Epistle of James (a letter which early Friends cited in support of other testimonies as well). In this epistle James attributes wars to the "lusts" (KJV), "appetites" (REB), or cravings (NRSV). Fox explains , "I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were." (Fox, 65)

This covenant of peace, or state of perfection, was expressed by Fox in an earlier, 1648, opening in which he saw himself return to the state of Adam before the fall. He wrote in his Journal, "now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell." (Fox, 27) He felt himself taken back to before the fall and original sin.

This doctrine of perfection held by early Quakers, though few actually claimed perfection for themselves, was central to the message of George Fox. It stood in contrast to the doctrine of human depravity held by the Puritans, and with the Anglicans and Roman Catholics which were seen to emphasize ritual that had become empty. The commissioners to whom he was speaking at Derby jail would have been the former. Fox was confronting the commissioners with the hypocrisy of their position in professing Christ while not possessing his spirit.

It was in 1653 that Fox went to a military garrison in Carlisle for the purpose of speaking to the troops and specifically addressed violence. He said he "turned them to the Lord Jesus Christ their teacher, and warned them of doing violence to any man, and that they might show forth a Christianís life, and turned them from the darkness to the light and from the power of Satan unto God." (Fox, 157) The objective here seems to have been convincment (conversion) and leading them to an openness to the inward teacher, but it was not explicit that the teacher would lead them from doing violence.

Hence the first characteristic is the conviction that it is possible to assertively live a life of peace. We do not have to passively give in to the lusts and cravings of which James speaks. The Sermon on the Mount is practical guidance for our lives.

Related to this is the second characteristic of the Quaker peace testimony. Friends believe that when we engage an adversary in the love and Truth of God, we can elicit that self-same divine spirit in the adversaryís response. George Fox is often quoted as admonishing Friends with

. . . a charge to you all in the presence of the living God, be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them yea may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing. (Fox, 263)

Not only is perfection possible, and to be sought, its seed is in everyone and can be elicited in others. Fox wrote to Friends held prisoner in Algiers on several occasions telling them to speak to that of God in their (Muslim) captors.

The third characteristic is community. Our witness is not that of an individual. We are part of a faith community that guides us and supports us in our witness, and often joins with us in that witness. In witness to those traditional testimonies we find in our books of Faith and Practice support should be automatic. This would include in particular non participation in the military. Other acts of civil disobedience are usually handled differently, through the clearness process.

The traditional clearness committee, long an ad hoc committee named to determine clearness for membership, or clearness for marriage (in both cases the clearness had to do with prior entanglements), has been extended to now include clearness to proceed with a course of action. Clearness here is defined as a clearness of discernment or understanding. Clearness committees are appointed, usually by the Monthly Meeting (local congregation) at the request of the one who feels called to the action, to aid in discernment for those called to travel in the ministry or to witness in a way not traditional in our Religious Society. This might involve civil disobedience. If the committee unites with the individual(s) that the proposed action is a valid leading of the divine spirit, and if there is a request for support from the Monthly Meeting (prayer, money, transportation) the committee will report back. Monthly Meeting will then discern its degree of support. Only then will the Friend have the corporate support of her or his Meeting (faith community). As we will see below, the support of the community goes far beyond the organizational.

The Restoration and the Corporate Peace Testimony

With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 the civil power was no longer held by Puritans with whom some common understanding could be expected to be found. Quaker witness changed in response to the new situation. The new Cavalier parliament was suspicious of dissenting sects and many members of these sects, including Quakers, were arrested. In January 1661 (1660 by the calendar then in use, hence the name "Declaration of 1660") Friends issued the famous letter, "A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers," to distance themselves from the more radical and violence prone groups, in particular those who would attempt to establish Christís kingdom by force of arms. After citing the example of Peter in the garden being told by Jesus to put up his sword, and other examples from the gospels, it goes on to say

The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, 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. (Fox, 379)

The peace testimony was now stated as a doctrine in its own right based on scripture and the guidance of the Spirit of Christ. After the Toleration Act of 1689, for which leading Friends including Margaret Fell Fox "lobbied," the peace testimony became less something by which we would convince others and more an expression of our corporate self-understanding.

But Friends were not confined to renouncing war for themselves at this point. The peace testimony has had a political expression and embodiment since the seventeenth century. Around the end of the seventeenth century Friends were publishing their vision for a world without war, more specifically a vision of European unity. In 1693 William Penn published his Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, by the Establishment of an European Dyet, Parliament, or Estates, and in 1710 John Bellers published Some Reasons for a European State, Proposed to the Powers of Europe. (See Brock for a fuller discussion of the political expression of the peace testimony.)

The Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania

By the end of the seventeenth century Friends were turning inward, both socially and spiritually. In 1681 William Penn was given the land on which he would build the "holy experiment." Pennsylvania government was to be an experiment in and demonstration of the practicality of Christian civil society. It worked well when allowed to by the crown and by surrounding powers. The fighting common on the western frontiers of the other colonies was largely absent from Pennsylvania. The government was dominated by Quakers until 1756 when, during the "French and Indian War" (Seven Years War in Europe), most Friends withdrew from the Assembly rather than impose a war tax required by the crown. While many Friends were comfortable with paying taxes which included moneys for defense, "in the mix" a tax specifically for war was another matter. Two expressions of the peace testimony date from this period. John Woolman, better known for work against slavery, played a major part in raising both of these "concerns."

First was the payment of taxes which went to support war-

making activities of the civil authorities. It was the matter of war taxes that caused most Friends to withdraw from the Assembly in Pennsylvania in 1756. Payment of taxes which included support for the military "in the mix" (part of a general tax) was generally accepted, and in fact, as Woolman observed in 1755, "scrupling to pay a tax on account of the application hath seldom been heard of heretofore." (Woolman, 83) But he went on to author a letter, signed by twenty other Friends, which called on Friends to refuse the payment of a tax which included warlike purpose as a substantial part of the mix. (Woolman, 85-86) Tax refusal of that portion of the tax estimated to go to military purposes (a figure now computed yearly by the Friends Committee on National Legislation in the United States) is a significant form of Friends peace witness today. Several Quaker employers in the United States support those employees who elect such a witness, but to my knowledge only after the Friend has gone through the prayerful clearness process with her or his faith community as described above.

While tax resistance is not practiced by many Friends, it is an important witness and has come to be observed in a much more visible (and assertive) way in the twentieth century. It was felt to be effective in interfering with the functioning of the war machine during the Vietnam war. An example is the woman who claimed twenty Vietnam orphans as dependents (and therefore deductions from her tax liability, effectively bringing it to zero) on the grounds that the United States government had made them her dependents in the war. Of course she lost when finally taken to court, but she did cause it to go to court. Such actions may open one to a fine for having filed a frivolous tax return in addition to the interest and fines which are usually imposed for the basic action of tax refusal.

The second expression of the peace testimony which John Woolman raised is related to the stewardship of economic resources. John Woolman in his 1770 essay "A Plea for the Poor" tells us

Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast. (Woolman, 255)



                              << Back to Contents

QUEST, P.O. Box 1344, Fayetteville NC 28302 USA

e-mail: quest@quaker.org