Friends (Quakers) and Peace

Originally published May 1, 1999 at

One of the things probably best known about Quakers is that we have a testimony against participation in war, which we call the peace testimony. As the Quaker movement was developing, Christian bodies did not generally take a pacifist stance. Friends themselves took a little while to become clear about it as a movement. In the very early years of the movement in the mid-seventeenth century in Britain, some Friends served in Cromwell's army. As late as 1659, prominent Friend Isaac Penington wrote a paper To the Parliament, the Army, and all the Well-affected in the Nation, who have been faithful to the Good Old Cause, in which he said the army had been "glorious Instruments in the hand of God."

Development of the Peace Testimony

Although the peace testimony was not a clear testimony of the movement as a whole at first, it does seem to have been clear early on to George Fox, generally called the founder of Quakerism. In his Journal, Fox notes that he was asked to take a position as a captain in Cromwell's army, and he reports, "I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James' doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars."

Fox records the following from 1654:
The next morning I was moved of the Lord to write a paper to the Protector, Oliver Cromwell; wherein I did, in the presence of the Lord God, declare that I denied the wearing or drawing of a carnal sword, or any other outward weapon, against him or any man; and that I was sent of God to stand a witness against all violence, and against the works of darkness; and to turn people from darkness to light; and to bring them from the causes of war and fighting, to the peaceable gospel. When I had written what the Lord had given me to write, I set my name to it, and gave it to Captain Drury to hand to Oliver Cromwell, which he did.
The impetus for articulating a corporate peace testimony may have come from a political need to assure King Charles II that he need not fear that Quakers would raise arms against him. The first clear statement of the testimony articulated not just by an individual but by the body of Friends was the 1660 A Declaration from the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers, against all sedition, plotters, and fighters in the world: for removing the ground of jealousy and suspicion from magistrates and people concerning wars and fightings. This laid out both the biblical basis for rejecting war, and how Friends intended to practice the testimony. This has been a clear testimony of the Religious Society of Friends ever since.

Basis of the Peace Testimony

Friends referred to their movement as "primitive Christianity revived." The Friends peace testimony, as with other aspects of Friends' faith and practice, harkens back to the understanding of early Christians. For the first couple of centuries after the crucifixion of Christ, Christians refused to bear arms. The explanations of Quakers for the peace testimony echo the views of early Christians whose writings are still available to us.

In the beginning of the Declaration, Friends noted that "wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men" (James 4:1-3). In this context, lusts refers not particularly to sexual desires, but more broadly to covetousness and greed. The Christian is released from serving these base desires, drawn rather to serve Jesus Christ which brings a very different spirit to one's life.

Friends noted that Jesus said, "He that takes the sword, shall perish with the sword." (Matthew 26:52) The New Testament call is to "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).

The New Testament call to peace is prefigured by the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah had a vision in which the Lord said, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit" (Zechariah 4:6). Both Isaiah and Micah had a vision of a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:2-4, Micah 4:1-4).

The Lamb's War

That Friends are pacifists does not mean Friends are passive. Drawing from Revelation, Friends believed in the concept of the "Lamb's War," a war fought with spiritual weapons not carnal ones. Led by the Lamb, Jesus Christ, all life, personal and social, would be transformed.

Living Out the Peace Testimony

Friends have held that we should not participate in the wars of humans, or preparations for them. Thus, we have historically refused to be soldiers, refused to pay levies solely for war purposes, refused to work making weapons, and in every other way sought to separate ourselves from warmaking. At various times, Friends have suffered imprisonment, loss of income, and even death for their faithfulness to this testimony.

However, the peace testimony is not just about negatives. It requires us to live as peacemakers - with families, colleagues and neighbors as well as internationally. Over the centuries, Friends have been involved in a variety of efforts such as relief for war victims, seeking to foster understanding among diplomats of hostile nations, mediation, and training people in how to respond nonviolently in conflict situations.

The positive contributions of Friends in the area of peace have often been recognized by the larger society. In 1947, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the American Friends Service Committee and the British Friends Service Council (now known as Quaker Peace and Service). The Prize was intended to recognize the peace work of the entire Religious Society of Friends, not just the two organizations named.