Quakers and The Lamb’s War: A Hermeneutic for Confronting Evil, Non-Violent Resistance

By Gene Hillman

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

As they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s 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 men’s 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 Lamb’s 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 James’s doctrine.” (Fox, 65) James’s 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 Christian’s 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 adversary’s 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 Christ’s 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)

Twentieth Century

I am choosing the publication by the American Friends Service Committee, of the booklet, Speak Truth to Power in 1955, to symbolize the transition from this passive stance of peacefulness back to the active (and activist) role of peacemaker. It was published at the advent of the “cold war” and reflects the danger of the institutional evil that was perceived at that time. “Truth is a very important word for Friends, probably second only to “The Light of Christ” theologically. Truth is another basic category of our testimony (as in “the Truth testimony”) but is much more than that. Truth has power. Before shortening our name to simply “Friends” (as in The Religious Society of Friends) we used the name “Friends of Truth” and Truth is often capitalized in our writings to distinguish the Truth of the Paraclete from a more conventional truth.

Two social conflicts in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century influenced North American Friends in their witness to peace: the civil rights movement and the protest against the Vietnam War. The civil rights movement in the United States in particular was a practical example of the power of non-violence. It is hard to identify where Quakers shaped the culture’s witness and where the culture shaped that of the Quakers. One Quaker, Bayard Rustin, was in the inner circle of advisors to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the teachings and witness of Dr. King had a major impact of Friends in turn.

The Peace Testimony Today

So what is the basis of the Friends peace testimony today? Wilmer Cooper, former Dean of the Earlham School of Religion, mentions five reasons for the peace testimony: George Fox’s “opening” that bearing arms was wrong; the Bible and particularly the teachings of Jesus; concern about what the spirit of violence will do to ourselves; preserving “that of God” in others; and the pragmatic fact that war does not pay. We have already seen how Fox described his opening, and if it did not resonate with our own experience of the leading of the Spirit, or Vehiculum Dei (the divine principle or light of Christ), it would not be convincing.

As to scripture we have only to look to the Sermon on the Mount, ask how one can reconcile “love your enemies” with war, and as in the Declaration of 1660 hear Jesus tell Peter to put up his sword. If the “time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 NRSV), and “the kingdom of God is among [us]” (Luke 17:21 NRSV) we cannot put off obedience to these commands.

As to what the spirit of violence will do to ourselves, Howard Brinton relates the journal entry of an eighteenth-century Friend who said he could not defend himself with violence. By so doing he would endanger his own soul and condemn his adversary, who should he die, would have no time to repent his attack; while if the Friend died without defending himself would die in grace while his attacker would still live and have time to repent (Brinton, 61). Modern Friends might not embrace this in those words but I think the attitude would be understood. Responding in kind would violate the next point as well.

“There is that of God in everyone” has become a common response of modern liberal Quakers when asked what Quakers believe. This phrase comes out of the writings of George Fox and was used by him often. He admonished Friends in 1656 in a letter from Launceston jail (and many other times) “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you go, so 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 every one.” (Fox, 263)The modern understanding is that by addressing the potential for good that potential will be actualized.

The fifth reason is the pragmatic one. War does not pay. Every war contains the seeds of the next one. Nonviolence is risky but so is violence. But even more, nonviolence does work. Witness the nonviolent revolutions in the last decades of the twentieth century.

A Modern Hermeneutic

Out of the context of South Africa struggling with the legact of apartheid, Walter Wink provides Christians and fellow Quakers with a modern hermeneutic for the nonviolent confrontation of evil which is consistent with the early Quaker understanding of the Lamb’s War. He has described what he calls Jesus’ Third Way in several places, including the volume Transforming Violence edited for the Historic Peace Church Committee. He points out that in the oft quoted “resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39a) the word resist (antistenai) usually had a military usage in contemporary sources. It is not that we are not to resist evil, but that we are not to resist evil on its own terms (stand against). He takes the following hard sayings, three admonitions to “turn the other cheek,” “give your cloak as well,” and “go the extra mile” (Matthew 5:39b-41) and shows how these are not admonitions to passivity, but to nonviolent assertiveness, asserting one’s integrity and dignity when faced with a contemptuous superior power. Wink points out that it is important that Jesus specifies, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” It would have to be a contemptuous, backhanded blow to the right cheek in a culture in which one would only strike with the right hand. Striking the left (other) cheek would have to be done as one would in a fight, as between equals. Turning the other (left) cheek is not an act of military resistance but the assertion of one’s own worth and dignity. Wink goes on to show how giving one’s cloak as well shames the one taking it and not the one left naked (again in that culture), and going the extra mile puts the (presumably) Roman solder who required the first mile (which he is permitted to require) on the defensive and in an embarrassing situation.

In the case where Jesus was struck for not showing proper deference (John 18:22-23), he did not turn the other cheek, but what he did was in the same spirit. We don’t know on which cheek he was struck but that doesn’t matter. He didn’t respond with anger, nor did he cower. He responded reasonably as one would to an equal and to one in whom you recognize the power of reason, and showing the unreasonableness of the attack. It did not change the situation (though we don’t know what effect it had on this particular guard), nor did Jesus intend for it to change the situation, as he had accepted “his cup” and knew what must happen.

Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and early Friends confronted the “priests and professors” of their day. What is the modern, or postmodern, hypocrisy we are confronting? In many cases it is men and women of faith, albeit of a very closed minded and often ethically limited variety, who are perpetrating unspeakable evils. It may also be that of liberal humanists who separate ends from means to the point they lose sight of the end for which they profess to be working.

Alternatives to Violence Project: A Model of Nonviolent Community

The Alternatives to Violence Project (known as AVP) began from a request by inmates of Greenhaven prison in New York State in 1975 for training in nonviolent conflict resolution. Out of this developed a program that is currently active in prisons and other settings around the world. I present it here as a model of Quaker peacemaking much in the manner of Jesus’ Third Way.

The program consists of three day workshops at three levels, Basic, Advanced, and Training for Trainers. Participation is voluntary. The basic workshop is a series of exercises to develop a sense of community in the group, build self-esteem, model group cooperation (and demonstrate the advantage of group effort over individual), examine values, develop active listening skills, practice with strategies for problem solving leading to win-win solutions, and ultimately to build trust. These are alternated with “light and livelies” which allow participants to get up, move around, and have some fun, while at the same time developing cooperation, trust and community.

Of particular interest is the exercise “I Messages.” I Messages are ways to clarify for both oneself and others the assumptions and the feelings that surround a problem. To un-muddy a conflict, participants are taught to communicate their feelings in three part statements beginning with “I feel,” followed by “when you” and ending with “because.” The speaker thereby states the effect the addressee’s action is having without placing blame or responsibility. An example would be “When you play your radio loud it gets me upset because I can’t concentrate on what I am doing.” This is asserting one’s self and one’s dignity without attacking the other person. It is not submissively accepting the situation but it is also not attacking in anger as would be yelling insults or threats, or breaking the radio. Just as in turning the other cheek, there is no guarantee this course of action will get the desired result, but it does assert one’s dignity and demand respect. (AVP Manual, Section E)

“Transforming Power” is the central concept in every AVP workshop. It is a term for the Vehiculum Dei which can lead us to the experience of God’s power but which does not have the theological implications and associations found in the various names for the Paraclete. It is experiential, as is Quakerism. The concept draws “heavily on the work of Gandhi and King, as well as on various nonviolent resistance efforts against Hitler. . . . It is what King calls love and Gandhi calls satyagraha (truth-force) – and King is right to emphasize the need to nurture one another so that we have the strength to love.” (Garver and Reitan, 12, 14)

Men (and I have only worked with men) usually associate it with the “Higher Power” of Twelve Step (addictions) programs and interpret it in the same way as “God as we know Him or Her.” This is necessary in working with mixed populations of mostly Christians and Muslims, with the occasional Jew, Hindu, and even others.

In every Basic workshop participants are given a card titled “Guide to Transforming Power.” On it are twelve principles.

1. Seek to resolve conflicts by reaching common ground.

2. Reach for that something good in others.

3. Listen before making judgements.

4. Base your position on truth.

5. Be ready to revise your position if it is wrong.

6. Expect to experience great inward power to act.

7. Risk being creative rather than violent.

8. Use surprise and humor.

9. Learn to trust your inner sense of when to act.

10. Be willing to suffer for what is important.

11. Be patient and persistent.

12. Build community based on honesty, respect and caring.

It is point eleven (patience) that is germane to the issue of “I Messages.” One “I Message” is not going to repair the effect of years of hostility and anger. Point ten also comes in; suffering may result in the short term, and maybe even the long term, but there is a power we feel (point 6) when we act out of integrity (point 4).

Participants in the Basic workshop, after experiencing improved self esteem, and learning the skills mentioned above: cooperation, active listening skills, problem solving techniques and developing trust, may go on to participate in one or more Advanced workshops. Here one of the topics explored in the Basic, determined by the group at its first meeting, is further developed. The third level of workshop is Training for Trainers in which inmates are trained in leading workshops themselves (the inmates have a lot more credibility in teaching nonviolence than a middle- aged, middle class, white male like myself). There is usually a period of internship after this before an inmate becomes a full fledged trainer.

The skills learned are important, but just as important is the sense of community experienced by participants. Inmates who may never have experienced being truly listened to, valued, or respected (except when they held a weapon), and who internalized the negative values society applied to them, learn to live in a community in which trust and respect is the norm. AVP workshops become what Elise Boulding has called “zones of peace,” and their influence affects the institution in which they exist. It is true that when they return to their tiers and cells the community is left behind, but they take a part of it with them. They know what it is like. At the Advanced level, community is strengthened, and AVP Trainers in the general population of inmates, I am told, have a stabilizing influence on that population.


For Friends, practice takes precedence over doctrine. The Quaker peace testimony depends less on a verbally articulated theology than on an implicit realized eschatology (e.g. as in Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is among you.” NRSV) in which the Sermon on the Mount is taken seriously here and now and not for some future time. Our ecclesiology is more explicit, finding church in the community of believers and, more important, doers. Central to our peace testimony is an optimistic anthropology in which we can know and witness to the divine Spirit, and thereby nurture its seed in others, and “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”

Three aspects of our peace testimony, which when taken together give a distinctive flavor to our peace witness, are its assertiveness (“speak Truth to power”), its positive assumptions (the call “to answer that of God in everyone”) and its basis in community. Walter Wink provides us with a modern Quaker hermeneutic for understanding it, as based in Jesus’ Third Way. The Alternative to Violence Project provides us with a model of how this can work in at least one area in which violence is a problem.


American Friends Service Committee. Speak Truth to Power. A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, A Study of International Conflict. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1955.

AVP Manual Basic Course. New York: Alternatives to Violence Project, 1986.

Boulding, Elise. “Cultures of Peace and Communities of Faith,” reprinted in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking. Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr, Eds. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998, pp. 95-104.

Brinton, Howard. Quaker Journals. Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill, 1972.

Brock, Peter. The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660 to 1914. York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1990.

———–, Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Cooper, Wilmer. A Living Faith: An Historical Study of Quaker Beliefs. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1990.

Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. John L. Nickalls, Ed. London: London Yearly Meeting, 1975.

Garver, Newton and Eric Reitan. Nonviolence and Community: Reflections on the Alternatives to Violence Project. Pendle Hill Pamphlet #322. Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Publications, 1995.

Nayler, James. “The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin,” reprinted in Early Quaker Writings 1650-1 700. Hugh Barbour and Arthur 0. Roberts, Eds. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1973, pp. 104-116.

Wink, Walter. “Beyond Just War and Pacifism,” in War and Its Discontents: Pacifism and Quietism in the Abraha,nic Traditions. J. Patout Burns, Ed. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996, pp. 102-121.

———- “Jesus’ Third Way,” reprinted in Transforming Violence. Linking Local and Global Peacemaking. Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr, Eds. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998, pp. 34-47.

Woolman, John. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woo/man. Phillips P. Moulton, Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.


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