Is Pacifism a Quaker belief?

The Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon College is holding a debate this year on just war theory. Since I am a Quaker (an anomaly here) I have been sought out by one student who was assigned the con side of the argument. Admittedly, I have not yet come to a solid stance on pacifism, and for a while was a bit ashamed to profess that, in fear it made me less Quaker! So, in order to have an educated conversation with this student, I have been reading up a bit from Quaker history on the subject.

Surprisingly, it seems as though Quakers have made a doctrine out of pacifism when it was not intended to be so. Let me explain: Fox began his argument for pacifism based on personal feelings against serving as an officer in the army. Other Quaker leaders followed in his footsteps, including Barclay, Pennington, and Penn. These, among many others, never explicitly state that to be Quaker means to be pacifist, especially when it comes to “double-horned” issues such as slavery, where war is one evil, but inhumane oppression is another evil. Which way does one go in this situation?

If I may, let me take this in a political direction. This has been especially apparent to me in what has seemed to be a fairly uniform support of Senator Obama by Quakers, or at least by those who are among the younger Quakers (20-35?). One of the stated reasons for this support is his desire to end the war, presumably an issue that “pacifists” care deeply about. But I wonder if this is something we can lay claim to as a group of Quakers. Certainly those outside of the Quaker church have labeled the Quaker church a peace church, though it was never meant to be seen as such.

These are burgeoning thoughts. I would love to hear more from you if you believe I am misguided in any way, or if you tend to agree. Peace.


17 comments so far

  1. dionysius on

    I’m not a Quaker but I thought I would comment. War is always a terrible evil but in our fallen world is sometimes unavoidable. I have much respect for those whom God has called to be pacifists, but not everyone is called as such. Sometimes to be a peacemaker, one must dish out some violence. Regrettable, but true. I would love to see the war over, but I would also hate to see the US or anyone else overran by deranged Islamists.

  2. cath on

    Making peace doesn’t always require a war–and sometimes I think we feel we “need” a war to justify the Peace Testimony. What about living a life as to take away all cause for war? What about seeking to resolve conflict?

    So many issues regarding peace or pacifism are presented in two-sided formats, with the two sides being the farthest ends of the spectrum of leading a life devoted to peace and peacemaking.

    So much lies in between.


  3. Rich Accetta-Evans on

    This is my first visit to your blog, but I hope it’s OK to contribute my 2 cents. A friend (who’s also a Friend) sent me a link to this post thinking I might want to comment, and I find that I do.

    First, I’d like to say that “pacifism” may be an accurate label as far as it goes, but it is not an early Quaker term and sounds a lot more political/ideological than the term I prefer: “Peace testimony” or “Testimony Against War”.

    It’s true that this “testimony” was not one of the formative principles of the Quaker movement. Friends in Fox’s time did not mount protests against war and usually did not focus on ending wars as a central concern. However, I think you err when you say that we were “never meant to be seen as a peace church.” Actually, Friends came very early to a very firm conviction that God called them to refuse all participation in or support of wars and violence “with outward weapons”.

    This was not really a matter of some new “Quaker belief”. It was a simple consequence of living in what Fox called “the life and power that takes away the occasion of wars”, and also of living in the Spirit of Jesus and walking in His steps.

    You refer to the incident in which Fox refused to serve as an officer in the army. This was not just a matter of “personal feelings” to him, but of costly discipleship. After all, he was imprisoned at the time this offer was made, and accepting it would have been his ticket to freedom. Even before that, when military service was not an issue but violence was, Fox had chosen to respond to violent abuse with what we would call non-violence. I don’t have the exact quotation handy, but I recall one occasion on which he was being man-handled and turned to offer himself as a target for more blows, saying “here’s Gospel for you”, a reference to Christ’s teaching about answering evil with good.

    The well-known testimony against “wars and fightings” that Friends addressed to Charles II had the immediate purpose of clearing themselves of suspicion in plots against the king, but it went much further than that, asserting boldly that the Spirit of Christ by which they were guided would never move them to war “for any end or for any purpose whatever.”

    This is a hard saying, though no more so than the teaching of Jesus himself. It is not a saying that the world is likely to embrace. It is not a policy that presidential candidates can run on. But it is the Quaker position, at least as I understand it. In fact, it is the Christian position.

    For this reason, there will never really be a Quaker President (Hoover and Nixon to the contrary notwithstanding) and there will never really be a Christian President (all the others to the contrary notwithstanding), since a President must be the commander of armies that Christians and Quakers cannot join. This is a commitment for those who have been called, though they live in this world, to live as subject’s of God’s Kingdom.

    – – Rich Accetta-Evans

  4. Will T on

    Thomas Lurting, in his description of how he came to be converted to Quakerism while serving in the British Navy (at around 1654) tells how God led him to a point where he could not take a life even though he did not know then that Quakers had scruples against fighting. By 1660, Fox in his letter to King Charles II he was pretty emphatic. “All bloody principles and practices, we, as to our own particulars, do utterly deny, with all outward war and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretense whatsoever.” That seems to be pretty much a pacifist position. At the time Fox declined the commission he said it was because he lived in the life and power that took away the occasion of war. What may have started out as individual scruples became accepted principles in fairly short order. It is not surprising that this was a process the early Friends were making it all up as they went along. It took a while to work out all of the implications of Quakerism for daily life and it was mostly a process of seeing what God required at any given moment.

    The major difference is that early Friends did not make the Peace Testimony the central part of their message as modern Friends are inclined to do.

    Will T

  5. Thy Friend John on

    You write, “it seems as though Quakers have made a doctrine out of pacifism when it was not intended to be so.” God forbid that the Quakers should make a doctrine out of pacifism! But I believe that the living Christ made a doctrine out of pacifism, and gave it to us Quakers. George Fox got it; William Dewsbury got it, quite independently; Thomas Lurting (whose “The Fighting Sailor Turned Peaceable Christian” is available online) got it while he was aiming a cannon at human targets. Lurting had been a convert to Quakerism before Quakerism had its “peace testimony.” As he was taking aim, the Lord asked him “How, if he killed a man?” and he was forced to tell his captain that he could not carry out his orders. From such individual awakenings of conscience grew Quaker pacifism, not from Fox’s “personal feelings against serving as an officer in the army.”

    I sit on the board of a Quaker school that often declares its support of “Quaker values,” and I repeatedly entreat it to consider that there is only one Quaker value, which is waiting worship of the living God; the so-called Quaker values and testimonies are either the living flowers and fruit of that intimacy with the Holy One, or they are mere forms without life. Forms without life cannot stand against the eminent reasonableness of such things as the Just War Theory. Forms without life cannot stand against the shining examples of the divinely led warriors Moses, Muhammad, and Arjuna, peace be on them all, nor against the scripture (Revelation 19:11) that declares “I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse, and he that sat upon him was called faithful and true, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.” But Jesus Christ’s command to me to put away my sword is something that will stand against all eminent reasonableness, against every shining example of God’s warriors, against every scripture whose “letter” might mislead me. There are other, better ways to be a warrior for one ready to lay down carnal weapons forever and bear only spiritual ones.

    I’m aware that a lot of Quakers are enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy,
    as I’m sure I might be if I had not felt an inward leading to put away voting altogether.
    I’m currently in the process of formulating a testimony, “Why I No Longer Vote,” that I
    hope to present to my monthly meeting soon. God willing, it will soon appear in the group blog “Among Friends,” which I share with three other Quakers (who don’t necessarily share all my views). In the meantime, I invite you – and anyone else who reads this – to read my tract “Jesus Christ Forbids War,” which is posted on a page there. Go to to find it.

    With my best wishes,

    Thy Friend John

  6. kevin roberts on

    Is pacifism a Quaker belief? Does it matter whether an issue like this conforms to a modern political orthodoxy? After all, that Jesus guy wasn’t a Quaker, and many of the things he must have passed by in his life without comment were the things that stop many modern Quakers in their tracks.

    Jesus had a lot to say about what it meant to be good, and how being good and doing good were in many ways inseparable. But Jesus was no political activist, and no agitator for social reform. Nowhere did he advocate a pursuit of world peace as an end. Rather, inner peace and a peaceful world were consequences of aligning ones own self inside with God so thoroughly that non-peace became unthinkable.

    The only way to change the world is to change yourself first. When enough of us follow the Light, and live by the Light, then the world will swing into line with it, and peace will come.

    I don’t vote. I pray instead.


  7. John Kindley on

    Like the previous commenter, I have forsaken voting. My reason for this is that I believe not only that “war is the extension of politics by other means” (in the formulation of Carl von Clausewitz) but also that “politics is the extension of war by other means.” What makes government government is coercion and the threat of violence, and I think it’s unseemly for Friends to avail themselves of such methods — particularly when, to paraphrase Voltaire, the primary purpose of government appears to be to coercively take money out of one set of pockets and put them in another. (Lest it be thought that this sentiment evidences what is thought to be a greedy libertarian prejudice in favor of the rich against the welfare state — it does in fact evidence a prejudice on my part against the welfare state, but I would clarify that the state is always necessarily influenced most by the wealthier interests in society [those who have the wherewithal to pay for political campaigns], and the pockets the state is most prone to pick are not those of the rich on behalf of the poor but those of the poor on behalf of the rich. Welfare is a mere band-aid for poverty to which the state has perhaps the biggest hand in contributing. The state funds itself, and its wars, by outright theft. How can Friends support theft? The only tax that would arguably not be theft, given proper implementation, would be the “Georgist” “single ‘tax'” on the unimproved value of land, and arguably also inheritance taxes.)

    On the other hand, I don’t think Quakerism requires pacifism in all instances. Historically, Quakers have not had a problem with the maintenance of peace by police forces, and haven’t had a problem with Quakers serving as police officers, nor with the use of force that police action implies nor even with punishment of crime through due process. To my mind, I don’t see why recognition of the legitimacy of the use of force in these instances does not also indicate that it is not un-Quakerly to forcibly defend one’s own property and person and family from criminal invasion (or to do so in cooperation with others), just as a police officer would do.

    Caroline Stephens in her classic book Quaker Strongholds makes the point that she would have trouble denying that in theory certain wars — presumably purely defensive wars — would seem to be indistinguishable in character from police actions. That is, in theory, given the right conditions and circumstances, they might be seen as doing nothing other than what a police force would have the right to do, but on a much larger scale.

    What makes wars evil and not to be participated in by Friends is not so much the force (and therefore violence) involved but that they invariably are caused by and infused with the greed, lusts and passions of both parties to the conflict. We may and should distance and detach ourselves from the greed and violence perpetrated by our supposed representatives, not only internationally but domestically. By withdrawing our allegiance from the state, we mitigate our complicity and responsibility for the violence which the state commits and seeks to involve us in morally and financially.

    I wish that Friends would grow to recognize the anarchism with regard to the state that is inherent in our fundamental principles.

  8. Zach Alexander on

    Hi Jamie,
    First, let me say I’m glad I found your blog, and hope to make your acquaintance in person sometime in the not too distant future. I graduated from Gordon in ’06, and during most of my time there was probably the only (known) Quaker on campus, as you can imagine. And I’m a fellow Quaker history buff as well.

    I think it’s clear that, as you say, peace was not originally a central focus of Quakerism, nor was it entirely consistent for the first decade.

    But the others are also right that, in short order, this did become a pretty much universal Friends’ belief — though it was probably partially motivated by their desire to reassure the state that they wouldn’t be rebellious and thereby avoid persecution.

    In any case, I don’t think their pacifism should be taken as gospel truth. As you say, it was not a doctrine, but an expression of how they felt they were being led — an expression of their ethical intuitions. And a very longstanding line of Quaker thought indicates that later Friends will find themselves led in different ways than earlier ones — meaning that the entire question of what early Friends believed may be asked to give us context, but not firm guidance.

    In other words, the truly Quaker question is not, “What is Quaker,” but, “How are we being led?”

    In my travels, it seems quite a few Friends have doubts about taking a purist stance on peace. Perhaps we’re just ethically tonedeaf. Or perhaps we’re onto something.

    Warm regards,

  9. Mike Reid on

    Like many who have responded before me I am not a Quaker. It seems to me that if we only hold onto the “orthodox” teachings of our forebears (whether those teachings are on war or social justice or Christianity) we are not listening to the Spirit leading us today.
    I am intrigued by those who have decided to forego voting. I will be interested in hearing their reasoning and arguments. I know there are those faith communities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who have withdrawn from the political world all together, refusing to vote, fight or hold office. I also know that the Spirit led many men and women, in my lifetime, to strive against the hatred and bigotry of racism for the right to vote in the United States. I honor those martyrs for justice by making an informed choice casting my ballot everytime I have the opportunity. I can speak for no one else but this is where my heart leads me.

  10. John K. on

    “I am intrigued by those who have decided to forego voting. I will be interested in hearing their reasoning and arguments.”

    I agree with Lysander Spooner that “there is, and can be, correctly speaking, no law but natural law.” Thomas Aquinas held essentially the same thing, in this Latin formulation: “Lex malla, lex nulla” (“A bad law is no law”).

    A majority vote adds nothing and subtracts nothing from justice, which is what it is independently of what a majority or minority might think. This principle should be easy to understand for Quakers, who reject the notion that a mere majority vote is enough to supply “the sense of the meeting,” and instead hold out for something closer to unity. I think natural justice is something simpler and more amenable to rational understanding than people make it out to be, but insofar as we feel the need to resolve residual disagreement about how natural justice applies in particular circumstances, I think democracy took a wrong turn when it arbitrarily decided that a mere 51% majority was enough to resolve such disagreements. Why not 80 or 90% instead of 51%? Indeed, given that government laws and mandates always necessarily imply coercion and the threat of violence, a salutary Christian presumption against the use of coercion and violence would seem to suggest that we would have been better off if “democracy” required something along these lines, i.e. something closer to unity and analogous to the Quaker “sense of the meeting.”

    Most elections are not about what 90% of the population already agree about (e.g. that murder, assault, theft, fraud, etc., are crimes), but are mostly about taxing and spending; i.e. how much are we going to take from whom and on what are we going to spend the booty? With so much loot at stake, with so much to lose that rightfully belongs to us and so much to gain that rightfully belongs to others, no wonder people are as passionate as they are about their political “campaigns.” Is this what Friends should be about? These are the same kinds of things wars are fought over, with the same instruments — namely state power and the coercion and threat of violence that lies behind every exercise of state power.

    I’m all about economic justice. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the philosophy of Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty (which had antecedents in Thomas Paine and John Woolman), and to his proposal that government should be funded solely by a “single ‘tax'” on the unimproved value of land (reflecting the truth that everyone born into the world has a natural and inalienable right to a free and equal share of the earth and the earth’s natural resources, and that those who’ve appropriated more of the world’s resources to the exclusion of others should compensate those others for what has been taken from them. As I indicated above, I think an inheritance tax could be justified on similar grounds.) But I don’t see Georgism or anything remotely resembling it on the ballot.

    I believe the state does far more harm than good, and I wish to do my part to de-mythologize its pretensions. The state has no special prerogative to do anything that you or I would have no right to do. Voting is against my principles, because by participating in the process I would appear to be granting that the process adds or subtracts something from true law, and would by my vote help to confer an appearance of legitimacy on that process which it in fact does not have.

  11. kevin roberts on

    Well, the reason I don’t vote is that first, I don’t believe in democracy, and second, I’m more concerned that I spend my time where I think it will do the most good.

    As a Friend, I don’t believe in majorities being some sort of ideal way to make decisions. Adolph Hitler was legally elected Chancellor in Germany in 1936, wasn’t he? A majority sometimes is just wrong. And often, in American elections anyway, the electorate is divided almost 50/50. Is any decision in which almost half the people lose a good way to go?

    Second, there isn’t any political movement that honestly represents what I believe. Should I vote for a lesser evil, and hope that someday my choices will be better? As long as I am satisifed with second best, I am not likely to see anything better to choose, I think. Politics doesn’t work that way.

    So instead of voting, I act, personally. I give the money in my pockets to cold homeless people whenever I am asked. I spend my income in industries that I have respect for. I gave up $75,000 per year in Silicon Valley, and now live in literal poverty in Appalachia, but with a supportive local Friends meeting. I used to be a petroleum geologist for Exxon Company USA, and now I’m a beekeeper. I make food–primary production.

    Democracy is the best secular system of government that I can think of, but its very nature is based on solving problems from the outside. I try to solve them from the inside, by stepping out of the system and trying to be something other than just the flip side of the political coin.

    And I pray. There is no presidential candidate that can do more for suffering humanity than God, even with a two-thirds majority. So I work on the God part, where I think I get the most bang for my buck.

    And I don’t read newspapers, or have a television set, or listen to the radio, or read online commentaries. I know who Obama and McCain are because my wife keeps up with that stuff. In 20 years I will have forgotten them, and so will most everybody else.

    But I will still be working with that Jesus guy.

    In Christ,

  12. jrjohnson on

    John K. and Kevin,

    I appreciate each of you sharing your reasons for not voting, and I admit, it is compelling! I have always been uneasy with the fact that 51% is “enough” to move forward. I pray you will continue to be able to share with the others true discernment and the great outcome it can be when people together can come to a consensus. It is hard work, but necessary work. Thank you.


  13. Cherice on

    Hey Jamie,

    I just found your blog (through Michael’s meme), and noticed this post. I’d be interested in hearing what sources you’ve found about early Quakers and pacifism, because I’m going to try to write a paper on the history of pacifism in Quakerism for my class I’ve been writing about…but it’s a big topic. So I know basic stuff, like the early quote about Quakers not fighting outward wars and strife, and Fox refusing military service but that being more of a personal decision (not meant to be a doctrine–but of course nothing was meant to be a doctrine by early Friends because they were against doctrines…), and of course there’s Barclay. Any other thoughts on resources that might be of use on the topic of the development of pacifism in Quakerism? Thanks, and I hope you’re doing well! We should get together sometime, we’re up in Boston fairly often to visit friends up there.

  14. Randy Schutt on

    You might find this article interesting:

    Nonviolent Action — A More Ethical and Effective Alternative to War


  15. Chris Mohr on

    Another Friend who has written about why he is led not to vote is “Thy Friend John” from 15th Street Meeting in New York City. I remember reading his statements in blog comments he has made, perhaps on the Brooklyn Quaker blog…. Here’s a link to his bio on the Among Friends blog:

  16. Kirk on

    Well actually you’ve tapped into a line of thinking that goes all the way back, and has plenty of support in contemporary Quaker practice, as well as in the behaviors of Friends over the centuries.

    The first place to check is an article about “The Quaker Military Alliance” in the 1650s, examined in detail by David Boulton, a Friend from Kendal, England. His article, originally published in Friends Quarterly (Oct-97), is posted on the web at:

    (It starts about three-fifths of the way down the page. Search for “peace-loving Friends” to get to it.)

    I’ve been intrigued by the anomalies in the Quaker “peace testimony” and have posted several times about it in my Street Corner Society blog.

    As for the Friend(s) who don’t vote, that’s another curiosity, in my opinion. The Quaker movement emerged in England as a spin-off of one of the boldest first campaigns for broad and deep electoral democracy — the Leveller movement in Britain. I could go on, but suffice it to say if you go back to the roots, and if you think “the roots” are important, two long and twisted roots are pacifism and democratic impulse in Quakerism.

    (Sorry I came to this discussion late. I’ve been out of the blogs, pretty much, for a couple of months.)

  17. Kirk on

    correction to the above…

    Q’m wasn’t exactly a “spin-off” of the Leveller movement, but it “came in the wake of” (that’s a different verbal metaphor) and it picked up on a lot of the same issues, same tactics (including massive petitions gathered up and down the country), and adopted the same legal strategies (habeas corpus, etc.). well, they also included a number of former Leveller activists and sympathizers, and for instance in legal support work they relied on a network that had been formed during that period (late 40’s)

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