A Great Deep: The Peace Testimony and Historical Realism

By 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.

Re-examing Quaker Peace Testimony

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.

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.

Complexities of Quaker Pacifism

Meredith Weddle complains, at the end of her book, about “An uncharacteristic silence in Quaker records,” which she says “has veiled the complexities of Quaker pacifism.” This may be true of the period she studied; but it was not a problem for Thomas Kennedy in British Quakerism 1860-1920.

His subtitle, The Transformation of a Religious Community, lays out his agenda. And for it there is, two centuries after Rhode Island’s war, a plethora of material: minutes, speeches, articles, books, letters, journals and even court documents. These he was able to supplement, in his early years of work, by interviews with some of the principal characters of his later chapters, adding the perspective of their old age to the passion of youthful documents produced in medias res. Yet he handles this flood of material judiciously and with a sure hand, sustaining a narrative that evokes many strong characters and recounts dramatic events.

There is in these pages much more than the peace testimony; his dates alone make that clear. The book begins with the remarkable burst of renewal in British Quakerism, which became what he and others call the “Quaker Renaissance,” the culmination of a conscious effort to stop and reverse a long decline of both numbers and spirit. Any such venture would be almost certain to bring on some degree of internal conflict, and London Yearly Meeting was no exception to this rule. There were struggles over theology, church structure, and an array of social issues.

Each of these would be worth a substantial essay; but running through the whole period like the proverbial bright red thread is the issue of war and the peace testimony. As London’s “transformation” unfolded, this issue came inexorably into center stage, and moved from an abstract debate to a question of life and death practice. As Kennedy puts it,

The most important product of the Quaker Renaissance was the revitalization of the Society’s peace testimony. The young men and women who so ardently resisted the Great War and the imposition of conscription did not suddenly and conveniently discover Quaker pacifism once the war began . . . Quaker resistance to the Great War not only caused the public perception of Quakerism to be inexorably linked to pacifism . . . it also raised the stature of the Society of Friends in the post-war world to a higher plane than it had ever previously occupied. . . . One prominent . . . politician called Quakers the ‘religious body which came through the war least tainted’. (9)

As the period opened, a writer in The Friend of London, calling him (or her)self “Pacificus,” could say in truth that, for the middle and upper-middle class Victorian Society of Friends:

We live in a well-ordered State, where persons and property are . . . secure from the hand of violence, and in a country where the presence of a foreign enemy has not been felt for centuries. It is no trial of faith for us to abstain from the use of arms. . . and to refuse to engage in military service. . . . It therefore becomes us, at the present day, while steadfastly supporting the Christian doctrines which we believe to be right, to speak with deference, as never having really had our principle put to the test. (245)

This comment should resonate for many of us; and like us, the Victorian Friends’ long period of security was like the Titanic, steaming inexorably toward fatal icebergs of war.

The first major worldly clash which jolted British Friends was the Boer War of 1900-1903, in which British forces fought rebellious Dutch-descended Afrikaner settlers who wanted independence. When the war began, London Yearly Meeting had just been through a period of intense internal theological and generational controversy, as a younger, more liberal generation struggled to unseat an older Evangelical establishment. The insurgents were headed for ultimate success, but as the new century began, the contest was far from over.

It was predominantly the younger militants who were led to protest the British role in the war, which produced such doleful innovations of twentieth century combat as the concentration camp. But in addition to intense and occasionally violent public opposition to their peace statements and meetings, the peace activists were also shocked to find that a significant number of mainly older Friends, including some very weighty figures, supported the war, and the imperial venture of which it was a part.

Among these was the now-revered convinced Friend, and author of the classic Quaker Strongholds, Caroline Stephen. Stephen even appeared at a peace meeting to announce her position, causing consternation and dismay in many of her hearers. But she was unmoved in her belief 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 recognize that . . . certain wars appear to be not only inevitable but justifiable . . . I cannot, therefore, regard all war as wholly and unmitigatedly blameable. (257)

(For that matter, Stephen was also against women’s suffrage; but that’s another story.)

One outcome of the division over the Boer war was that many of the coming generation that had been shocked by it set out to renew (reinvent?) a strongly antiwar peace witness among British Quakers. And after a decade of work, as the First World War approached, many felt they were ready to take on the war machine. They also thought of themselves as part of a larger antimilitarist movement which could potentially disrupt the ability of national governments to wage wars.

Their idealistic folly in the face of onrushing calamity is plain enough in hindsight. Yet their illusions hardly compare with those of the statesmen who piled up corpses by the millions, and I found the saga of these young men–and many women too, who were often as vigorously outspoken–an inspiring one just the same. War came; and if they didn’t stop it, they never gave up trying, and many steadfastly refused to join it.

Soon, the war machine raised the stakes, coming for male Friends in the form of conscription, posing the direct threat from which they had for so long been exempt.

Reactions to the draft, Kennedy reports, seemed to fall into three more or less equal categories: one group enlisted in the army, and took its share of casualties; a second group resisted conscription; and a third opposed the war, but managed to avoid either risk.

Among the resisters, more than a hundred ended up in prison, among them many of the Society’s “best and brightest.” One of these was Wilfred Littleboy, a future Clerk of London Yearly Meeting, who spent two years in a prison with the Dickensian name of Wormwood Scrubs. Beside them were many radical women Friends, some of whom risked arrest by challenging wartime censorship. Their sufferings had the continuing support of the Yearly Meeting, the officers of which were firmly in the pacifist camp throughout.

But as in Rhode Island, Quaker unity was only apparent. In 1918, when three Quaker militants were tried for defying censorship, John Henry Barlow, the Yearly Meeting Clerk, interrupted the annual sessions to go with an official delegation to the trial as a solemn show of support.(As he did so, he yielded the clerk’s chair to the first female Friend to sit in that position; but that, too, is another story.)

A noble gesture; yet when the convictions of the three were on appeal, a new solicitor appeared at the hearing. He announced that he had come on behalf of “a large number” of “real” or “patriotic” Friends, who wanted nothing to do with such disloyalty, and who believed that supporting the war and the Empire were the true way to uphold Quaker peace principles.

Kennedy comments:

Quaker pacifists were prone to suggest that many war-Friends became actively involved in the Society’s affairs only ‘when the outbreak of the present war disclosed their wide divergence from the position of Friends as held throughout long years of trial.’ But such an assertion was difficult to sustain given the number, and sometimes the stature, of those who claimed to be moved by a conviction of the Inward Light which embraced the national cause. There were, in fact, significant defections from the peace camp in nearly all of the eighty British monthly meetings, often from among ancient and distinguished Quaker families. (389)

Nevertheless, while there was division, the Yearly Meeting overall finished out the war in a remarkable state of inner resolve: seasoned by the suffering witness of some of its most stalwart younger members, and somehow undaunted by the diversity it encompassed. Kennedy closes his story in 1920 on a note of unabashed admiration, which I was drawn irresistibly to share:

So, guided by the renewed authority of the Light of Christ Within, armed with a rejuvenated peace testimony more powerful than the commands of the State and moved by a quickened sense of social and economic justice for all women as well as all men, the British Society of Friends faced the world of the twentieth century resolved to create the Kingdom of God on earth. That they have so far failed to do so comes as no surprise; nor should anyone be amazed that they have never ceased to try. (420)

What can be learned from these two books?

For me, the first lesson is that there was no “Golden Age” of pristine Quaker unity and faithful witness, by comparison, to which we Friends today are a pale, compromised imitation. This notion of “Early-Friends-Good/Modern-Friends-Bad comes up in many guises these days, from almost every corner where special pleading and hidden agendas dwell. But such “Handbasket theology” is rubbish. As Weddle shows, in spades, we have much to learn from early Friends such as her Rhode Islanders. But we need not, should not hang our heads as we contemplate them.

Second, both Rhode Island in 1675 and London in 1915 show that bearing a Quaker peace testimony is perennially an ordeal of faith. This truth applies on at least three levels: to each of us inwardly, in our hearts and souls; within the body of Friends challenged by a given war; and then between the Society and the warmakers, be they the State, or non-state forces which would make us enemies and targets. The Apostle Paul’s warning that we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) applies here as much as anywhere.

Yet third, in these texts we can also see that the “great deep” of our peace witness, while hiding reefs and conflicting currents, is also a deep spring of spiritual energy. It has repeatedly renewed itself, and the Society, even in the midst of seeming confusion. So we need not hide from this diversity, or take it as evidence of defeat or even unfaithfulness. The struggle of faith may often be painful; but the fact of it is no cause for shame, or despair.

And not least, these two superb books show we have nothing to fear from seeing our history whole, strengths, weaknesses, incoherence and all. Indeed we are better off for seeing clearly: authentic renewal will be better built on truth, however mixed, than comforting but ultimately self-deluding myths.

I certainly feel more prepared by these two wonderful books to carry on with my bit of the work of rethinking and renewing the peace testimony for the challenging and difficult time that we almost certainly face. I hope many others will avail themselves of their riches.

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