THE POLITICS OF DESPAIR:
THE QUAKER PEACE TESTIMONY, 1661
H. Larry Ingle
Copyright (c) by H. Larry Ingle. All rights reserved. Used by Permission.
Hallowed by Friends even as it provoked attacks from opponents, the Quaker peace testimony remains the most remarked-on feature of the Religious Society of Friends. When the worldís people think of Friends, they think of our eschewal of war, and when Quakers want to distinguish themselves from other Christian groups, they identify themselves as one of the "historic peace churches."
Although "testimony" does not have the same connotation as "dogma" or "creed," it still points to the most fundamental practice that corporate bodies of Quakers have always formally adhered to; while some Friends have participated in every war that has torn asunder their human communities since 1661, no yearly or monthly meeting, insofar as I am aware, has ever formally repudiated it. (A group of so-called "Free Quakers," disowned by their meetings for supporting the military struggle for American independence, did set up a dissident meeting in 1781 in Philadelphia; they hung on, in dwindling numbers, until 1836.)1 To do so would be to cut that body off from other Quakers even more surely than, for example, using those whom early Friends dismissed as "hireling priests."
While considering Friendsí commitment to the testimony "feeble," historian Rufus Jones yet affirmed its centrality and importance: "It gave the world, as a living object-lesson, the exhibition of a coherent body of Christians who, generation after generation, staked their lives and fortunes on the absolute reality and worth of love as a working principle of social relations; who believed the kingdom of God as Christ proclaimed it should be put into operation here and now and practiced with seriousness and sincerity; and who were determined to test out that way of life in all its bearings and implications, whether, here in the temporal order, it led to survival or to annihilation."2
Surely, what we have here, if Jones be representative, was a way of life that somehow partook of a response to a divine commission. It is strong evidence of continuing revelation that our peace testimony has grown beyond its genesis. Not only was it bitterly resisted by weighty Friends like Isaac Penington, helping spark the dissident movement of John Perrot in the early 1660s, but it also amounted to a tactical political retreat at the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 166O.3
Springing from the despair that gripped leading Quakers as the Cromwellian Protectorate tottered on its way to oblivion, a despair falling with particular weight on Englandís First Friend George Fox, the testimony represented an unwillingness of Quakers to continue challenging the established order and seeking a government led by men embodying Christís spirit. In a very real sense, it marked the beginning of the kind of decorous Society of Friends that the world has since admired, one with peculiar principles but never mounting the basic threat it posed to the existing order of the 1650s. It represented a move to respectability, to what would become a slightly leftward position.
Thus one can certainly understand how the American Friends Service Committee embraces the kind of fashionable liberalism for which it is noted and applauded (if not always in Quaker quarters), or how Britain Yearly Meeting enjoys its honored status as a "privileged body," with the right to formally address the monarch on special royal occasions and holidays.4
Unable to read the future, George Fox and Richard Hubberthorne, the testimonyís two principal authors, would probably have looked askance at the respectability of the sect they labored so hard to create. Fox, who outlived his junior by nearly thirty years to face down opposition from both left and right, came to recognize that the kick-over-the-traces exuberance of Quakerismís early years had best be replaced with more stringent discipline. Whatever he himself may have desired, his tightening of internal controls inevitably and inexorably produced respectable Friends.
George Foxís role as first among Friends was never more clearly evident than in the evolution of his sectís witness for peace. Not only did he refuse to participate in the civil wars that wracked the Midlands countryside that was his home, he also specifically rejected a captaincy in the New Model Army offered to him while he was in Derby jail in 1651. Citing the apostle James epistle, Fox answered that he knew wherein wars arose, "Lust," and added that he "lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars."5 On another occasion he rejected a similar request by saying that he had been "brought off outward wars."6
Foxís statement was the first we know about on English soil of what we could call "pacifism." In that context, his comment pushed the peace movement a giant leap forward in his own country, particularly in that he was rejecting participation in a conflict with whose overall aims he was in fundamental agreement. The New Model Army, for example, was hardly your usual fighting force but a veritable praying, preaching, prophesying, and plundering throng of holy sectarians; in some ways it was a mass uprising on the model of the French revolutionary armies nearly 150 years on. And its leaders emphasized their determination to right the status quo by their execution of Charles I in 1649, a move Fox never explicitly allowed himself to endorse but one he used to advantage when he undertook to round up adherents for his movement.7
Many joined Friends and remained in army ranks. Both officers and recruits found that Quakerism spoke to their condition, and early Friends, including Fox, targeted them as potential converts without requiring them to give up their positions. Indeed, many early Quaker leaders were refugees from military service. Richard Hubberthorne himself and James Nayler, who rivaled Fox in the public mind as the movementís chief spokesman, had held high positions in the army, and others like Thomas Curtis, one of Foxís closest early companions, and Anthony Pearson, a amiable fellow traveler, served as militia commissioners and busily raised soldiers for the army as late as 1659; Pearson accepted the post but refused to don a sword, a kind of symbolic balancing act highlighting the tensions produced in the period. And the most notorious of all the leading army officers, John Lilburne, capped his career as a Friend.
Committed to his own personal peace witness, Fox never, until 1661, took the kind of unequivocal position that Agnes Wilkinson evinced in 1853. In a brief epistle to "all who wear swords" she advised those who bore arms "to strip yourselves naked of all your carnal weapons and take upon you the sword of the Spirit, for the Lord is coming to judge men."8
It is clear that their acceptance of this last clause of Wilkinsonís advice caused Fox and his male compatriots to resist a firm commitment to a totally pacifist position during the turbulent 1650s. Proclaiming that Christ had come to teach his people, they could easily assent to the implication that he had given them power to become the nationís rulers. Fox and the early Friends thought the Interregnumís instability offered them an opportunity to take over England; in such a fashion God would rule through them. As a part of his millenarian position, Fox personally rejected the use of military force, but he did not repudiate the notion that the Children of the Light would replace the nationís interim rulers and come to power.9
The same position led men like Curtis and Pearson to conclude that military action represented a legitimate way to achieve their goal of a godly society, one in which Christ would rule as surely as they were convinced that he ruled in their hearts. Edward Burrough, too young to have participated in the civil wars of the 1640s but filled with the same zeal that motivated the soldiers then, postured that the Children were ready to lay down their lives for what aging revolutionaries liked to call "the Good Old Cause."10
As the lnterregnum came to an end, the slogan of not a few Quakers seems to have been, "Peaceful if we can, Forceful if we must." The year 1659 was a darkening period that sobered the Children of the Light. Their movement seemed such a threat in the deteriorating political situation that those previously committed to fundamental change began to tighten up. Talk of a restoration of the monarch increased; military commanders, like George Monck in Scotland, clamped down on Quaker activity in the army; rumors of conspiracies floated freely around the capital and fed demands for greater law and order; soldiers, their pay long since in arrears, refused to carry out customary orders; and the Rump parliament proved so unpopular that street urchins shouted "Kiss my Parliament" to replace their usual "Kiss my arse" when they wanted to insult their betters.
More pertinent for Fox and his followers, Parliament spurned his long letter outlining "Fifty-nine Particulars for the Regulation of Things"; this document, the most radical ever to flow from his pen, went so far as to propose confiscation of the lands of all "great" houses, churches, and abbeys. The charged atmosphere of 1659 did not win Quakers another hearing but rather fed popular distrust of the Children of the Light.
No wonder that for ten weeks, from October through December, Fox was immobilized by one of his periodic depressions; it was aggravated no doubt by the fact that he convalesced at the Reading home of Thomas Curtis, where he could hardly escape the presence of one taking a different course from the one he espoused. Meanwhile Richard Hubberthorne, galvanized by the impending crisis, proclaimed that Godís power would take off the peopleís bondage, "to make his creature a free creature and his people a free people."11
After his recovery, Fox headed for his home base in the north, where rumors of an armed uprising echoed across the countryside to alert the forces of General Monck. On May 29, 1660, Charles II, son of the beheaded king, entered London to the cheers of relieved and happy crowds of people. Grousing about evil days and perilous times, Friends glumly watched these events and bemoaned the perfidy and fickleness of people who had scorned their chance.
Within a month Fox had been picked up at Swarthmoor Hall and jailed in the dungeon in Lancaster castle, labeled a "Common Enemy to his Majesty." He remained there, in that dark, dank, and dreary place, with more time than he needed to ponder where he and the Children had missed their chance to mold events and change history.
"If I or my Friends," he ruefully remembered, "had been moved to go into a steeple house and look in any of the priestsí faces, their mouths would have been stopped, they would have gone away. . and they would have come down out of the pulpit.. . . The power of God would have gone so over them, they being so full of deceit, that it would have choked them."12
Surely he could not have forgotten that he had done these very things, so probably what he meant was that he and the Children had not done enough, enough to forestall the disaster that had now overtaken the nation and his movement. No matter how well organized--and they were better organized than any other of the countryís sects, including the all but moribund Anglicans--or how adroitly they turned out pamphlets and broadsides to publicize their cause, they had failed and failed miserably. The Day of the Lord, the day Fox had proclaimed from the heights of Pendle Hill, the millennium Revelation had promised and the signs of the times pointed to, that great Day had not arrived.
How he ached there in his cell, how he castigated himself for failing to rally his forces more successfully, how he must have wondered if he had placed his faith not in the truth but in a lie--it was enough to make the very stones that surrounded him cry out with anguish. Bitterness burned in his mouth at these hard facts.
But Fox rallied himself and composed an epistle warning that what had now come to be was Godís doing; to murmur against it would only provoke thunder from heaven. In the same breath, though, he promised that the divine hand would began to work its mysterious will and confound the saintsí enemies.
Clearly, he was trying to recapture the essence of the faith that had gripped him early on and empowered him--his belief that the Day of the Lord, despite secular ups and downs, was still possible. He began to search for a way out, one that would at once preserve the Children from what was bound to be the days of persecution that lay ahead, yet hold out hope that they might resurrect the Good Old Days. He groped toward what we would call a pacifist position.
In 1660, probably about the same time that Charles mounted his newly proffered throne, Fox buried in a broadside on why Quakers did not swear oaths a sentence explaining that they rejected force except for a "war with the devil and his works." Friends denied, he went on, "to plot and confederate or to raise insurrections,... or taking up arms outwardly," but they would not swear even to this.13
It only remained for him to define more precisely a war with the devil and his works. On another occasion, he yet again embraced the view that the sword might be used to pursue Godís will. He admonished the new king that permitting plays and maygames would only indicate that he carried his sword in vain. It might be used, he implied, for worthwhile purposes, such as, for example, keeping the peace and protecting peopleís estates. Fox seemed to be searching for the right balance, one allowing him and his followers to hold on to their past commitments to broad societal justice, yet one that would not bring down on them the kind of persecution likely to inhibit their growth, especially among people whose property, as they saw it, needed protecting.
Freed from jail in September, Fox arrived in London during the third week in October. If he needed evidence of the change in mood, he did not have far to look: that very week royal vengeance was gruesomely evident when the regicides were hanged before giddily happy crowds at Charing Cross. For a reason not altogether clear, however, the king adopted a conciliatory tone toward Foxís Children, dismissing all charges against him and ordering others released from jail or not incarcerated for wearing hats in court or failing to attend church.
On January 6, 1661, an event occurred that threatened to overwhelm whatever friendship King Charles harbored toward these sectarian subjects of his. A London congregation of Fifth Monarchists, a Baptist-derived group of millenarians who held that Jesus intended to return physically to sit upon Englandís throne, staged an abortive uprising under the slogan, "King Jesus." Although occupying St. Paulís cathedral for a brief time, they were quickly subdued; fourteen, including their leader, were executed, their heads stuck up on London Bridge as grisly warnings to others with similar ideas.
In a city traumatized by fear, shops were hastily shuttered, and armed militiamen nervously patrolled the streets. The government, ignoring the kingís own personal friendliness toward Foxís followers, issued a proclamation for Scotland lumping together Quakers with Anabaptists and Fifth Monarchists because of their "cruel tenets and bloody practices"Ų and allowing magistrates to seek out their meetings and arrest those taking part; soon reports came in from Yorkshire, just south of the Scottish border, that detentions had taken place there also.
In this tense atmosphere the Quaker peace testimony emerged. Stating formally that Friends were "against all plotters and fighters in the world," that is, people like the Fifth Monarchists, it was designed "that all occasion of suspicion may be taken away and our innocency cleared."
But it also raised the statement above the immediate issue: "All bloody principles and practices.., we do utterly deny, with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoeve." As for the kingdoms of the world, the authors revised their radical millenarian emphasis of the past decade without giving it up entirely: "we can not covet them, much less can we fight for them, but we do earnest desire and wait, that by the Word of Godís power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ."
This tactical retreat from the political involvement that had frightened defenders of the status quo enough to make them want to restore the monarchy indicated that Friends wanted to remain aloof from politics. Thus it marked a sharp departure in the Quaker approach of the previous decade, one that presupposed fundamental changes in the nationís economic, political, and social systems. Before they had hoped to fill the role of guardians, even rulers, of the country.
Their new stance amounted to a tacit admission that they would not be available for such a task but would seek to protect their own immediate interests. Now they saw themselves as heirs of another kingdom, not of this world, ruled by one calling them to respond without resisting to swords, clubs, staves, and pistols. "Therefore we cannot learn war any more, neither rise up against nation or kingdom with outward weapons. . . ." "[O)ur weapons," they insisted, "are spiritual and not carnal, yet mighty through God, to the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan."
The statement was signed by twelve men (no women affixed their signatures, certainly not Agnes Wilkinson, apparently already disgraced for sexual irregularities, nor Margaret Fell or Ann Curtis, the former in London at the time, the latter at her home in nearby Reading). Not issued by a meeting with formal authority, it never had the status that, say, the womenís meetings enjoyed in the next decade.14
A bundle of ambivalences remained in the statement. Fox and Hubberthorne did not rule out payment of taxes for war, an omission that brought down on them criticism from at least one dissident non-Foxian Quaker.15 The fact that they supported use of "spiritual" weapons to pull down the "strongholds of sin and Satan" laid the basis for a continuing engagement with the state that was quite unlike the isolation practiced by Anabaptists in the other main peace churches; this emphasis fed directly into the positions taken in the twentieth century by the AFSC and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Similarly, Fox, at least, never betook himself to deny the right, even duty, of a ruler to wield weapons in a just cause. The problem was determining exactly what such a cause was and by whose standards it would be judged. In this sense, it fed the individualism at the heart of Quakerism, for it ultimately left to each Friend the responsibility of making that determination.
In addition, since the statement spoke only for Friends and formally represented only the signersí personal testimony against participation in war, it never presumed to speak for those beyond the bounds of the Quaker faith. Certainly in denying carnal weapons, it was not making a universal statement. Hence its spirit was foreign to the kind of Enlightenment optimism that practically oozed from William Pennís 1693 Essay "Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe," only a bit more than a generation later.16
This pamphlet proposed a structure for a united European parliament that would end international conflict and secure peace. The difference between the two approaches involved more than the mere passage of time: one from two ill-educated Quakers, whose despair at the Stuart Restoration gave them little hope of ever seeing "the Day of the Lord" or having to person- ally confront the question of wielding the sword in a just cause; the other from the pen of a thoughtful, well-off, and worldly educated imperial proprietor who oversaw his colonyís rules.
The implications of the peace testimony thus stand apart from most modern Quaker peacemaking, which owes more to the aristocratic Penn than to the ruder Fox and Hubberthorne. When our 1661 authors stated that they spoke for those "whom the Lord has called into the obedience of his Truth," they were affirming a course open only to those who might apprehend "as God persuades every manís heart to believe." The Quaker peace testimony amounted to a sectarian call to Friends to be faithful to the word of God they had heard in the silence of their meetings; it spoke only to those who had been convinced of its truth and knew themselves called to uphold a unique standard.
Friends thus witnessed to their own experiences and convictions, hardly expecting others to follow their lonely course. Its words still ring, for they retain their aura of experiential truth, however--perhaps because--they echo its authorsí heartache and despair. Yet the absolute course they recommend regarding participation in war fits illy on sophisticated modern Quakers, determined to be all things to all people.
1 Arthur J. Mekeel, "The Founding Years," in John M. Moore, ed., Friends in the Delaware Valley (Haverford, Penn.: Friends Historical Association, 1981), 50, 252.
2 Rufus M. Jones, The Later Periods of Quakerism (London: Macmillan, 1921), I, 165-66.
3 For background to the peace testimony, I will draw from my biography of George Fox, First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. chs. 12 and 13.
4 Interestingly, when London Yearly Meetingís Meeting for Sufferings attempted in the mid-1980s to lay before the queen its concern about nuclear weapons and "the right nurturing of international relations" in the mid-1980s, they were rebuffed and informed that exercising the right of a privileged body could occur only on formal occasions. See The Friend 141 (7 Oct 1983), 1268-69, (11 Nov 1983), 1429, and 142 (10 Feb 1984), 173-74, for discussion of this matter in the Meeting for Sufferings. Significantly, one Friend said London Yearly Meetingís status as a "privileged body" worried him.
5 A Journal or Historical Account of. .. George Fox (London: no publ, 1694), 46.
6 Ibid., 48.
7 One of his most illuminating efforts in this regard occurred on Foxís first meeting with Margaret Fellís husband Thomas during which he was willing to link himself with the regicides. See Journal, 80, and lngle, First Among Friends, 9 1-92.
8 Agnes Wilkinson, Epistle, 1653, Swarthmore Ms, IV, 228, Library of the Society of Friends, London.
9 On this point see H. Larry Ingle, "George Fox, Millenarian," Albion, 24 (1992): 261-78.
10 Barry Reay, "The Quakers and 1659: Two Newly Discovered Broadsides by Edward Burrough," Journal of the Friendsí Historical Society, 54(1977): 101-11.
11 Richard Hubberthorne, The Real Cause of the Nations Bondage and Slavery, here Demonstrated (London: N.p, 1659), 2.
12 The Short Journal and Itinerary Journals of George Fox, ed. Norman Penney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), 56.
13 There is an expanded version of this broadside in George Fox, Gospel-Truth Demonstrated (London: T. Sowle, 1706), 223-25; quotation, 223. If it was published before June 1660, a publication date I prefer, it refutes Bonnelyn Y. Kunze in her assertion that Margaret Fell was "the first radical sectarian to publish.., a statement on the peaceful principle of Quakerism." See her Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 5, 137.
14 The most convenient source for the peace testimony is Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 398-403.
15 William Mucklow, Tyranny and Hypocrisy Detected (London: N.p., 1673), 225.
16 The most convenient source for this essay is Frederick B. Tolles and E. Gordon Alderfer, The Witness of William Penn (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 140-59.
Copyright (c) by H. larry Ingle. All rights reserved. Used by Permission.