If people know anything about Quakers, they know we’re nonviolent, rejecting war and violence in all its forms. Think Grace Kelly in High Noon, urging Gary Cooper not to pick his guns back up and confront the outlaws headed to his town.
The Quaker commitment to peace goes back to our roots in 17th-century England. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny,” George Fox and other early Friends wrote to the British monarch Charles II in 1660, “with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.”
This was a period of intertwined political and religious unrest, and many wondered if Friends’ oppositional beliefs would lead them to outright rebellion against church or state. On that front, the Quakers were able to assure them: “[T]he 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.”
The peace testimony is probably about as close to an absolute as you can find in Quaker faith and practice; like silent worship, it goes a long way to defining who we are and how we live in this world. Though there are other “peace churches,” the frequency with which Quakers have refused to participate in war is a large part of the reason the United States government recognizes “conscientious objector” status with regard to the draft—and refusing to fight in wars isn’t always enough. For some Friends, the conviction toward pacifism runs so deep that they refuse to pay federal income taxes rather than contribute to military spending.
As with everything related to Quakerism, however, the peace testimony is a matter of individual conscience. The earliest Friends insisted on “seeking the good…and doing that which tends to the peace of all;” for some Friends, in some conflicts, that has meant taking up arms against tyranny and in defense of its victims. Also, Quakers aren’t saints: We can lose our tempers and lash out at others with unkind words or actions as easily as anybody else.
If we had to generalize, perhaps we could say this: All Quakers recognize peace as a worthy ideal, and do our best, guided by our consciences day by day, to make that dream a reality.
The way Quakers look at war is that, when we destroy other human beings, we’re not only destroying humanity but we’re also destroying that in humanity which is a reflection of God. In the Bible, one of the things that Christ himself said was that you should do unto others as you would do unto yourself, and if you love me, you would love your brethren.… It’s unequivocal. There’s no fine print there.