About a decade ago, I was curious about the reasons for the peace testimony and whether they had changed over time, and so I read a number of statements from different yearly meetings and other corporate bodies of Friends that had been written over the centuries. The list of excerpted reasons follows below.
This exercise came to mind when I read a Friend’s blog post titled “Why I am not a Progressive Quaker .” I shared this Friend’s dislike of “hyper-individualism which has led to the fragmentation of the Quaker tradition.” Having done this exercise, however, of listing different reasons for the peace testimony that had been given throughout Friends history, I placed the beginning of the problem of loss of corporate unity further back in time than the heyday of Progressivism. Many of these excerpts from Friends corporate bodies–although still exhibiting group solidarity–put their reason for valuing peace elsewhere than a heeding of transcendent authority, that is to say, elsewhere than obedience to the living teacher of righteousness, Christ, which is the sine qua non of the original Quaker faith. This shift away from a hearing/obeying relationship with the Prince of Peace occurs long before the advent of individualism but, I think, led to it.
Tracking the motivation behind the peace witness, I saw that the loss of the transcendent basis of the faith could go unnoticed because, as many of these excerpts show, the secondary values of the faith tradition were still held, such as regard for Scripture, devotion to the historical Jesus as a model or example, or respect for Friends heritage. These secondary values motivated Friends to adhere to a peace witness; the original faith is given tribute but not manifested.
With the tradition’s loss of its transcendent reference, the move away from group solidarity into individualism would’ve been a natural sequence. After all, individual experience is real for everybody; thus–so the reasoning might go–everyone could be expected to agree to it as the ultimate authority.
Few of the excerpts below present the original basis of the peace witness that is evidenced in George Fox’s initial statement, which shows an immediate knowledge of the virtuous power lifting him out of the temptation to engage in war and strife. By contrast, many of the subsequent statements identify principles from Scriptures as the basis for rejecting war. Other excerpts show a peace witness based upon following Jesus’s commands as given in Scriptures, or following his example. For some, witness results from identification with Friends of the past who were people of peace. Some find their witness validated by idealism, some pragmatic consideration, and some by sentiment.
I once asked an old Quaker minister whose life work had been the study of first- generation Friends when our Society had begun its spiritual decline. “Was it in the ’60s when so many peace activists came in; or earlier, in the nineteenth century with the Great Separation, or was it some other time?” I asked. Without missing a beat, he replied, “1691.”
Some Friends will know that 1691 was the year that Fox died. Now, we don’t have to harness our spiritual hopes to one dynamo of a human being, and Fox would be the first to say so. But we do need to find the spirit that enlivened Fox and gave rise to the Quaker movement and tradition.
Reasons for Peace Testimony, chronologically listed
1651 George Fox statement
- I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.
1660 Peace Declaration
- ‘He that taketh the sword shall perish with the sword.’
- Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, therefore do not his servants fight, as he told Pilate…
- The spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons…
- Because the kingdom of Christ God will exalt, according to the promise, and cause it to grow and flourish in righteousness.
- By the Word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord…
- Since we owned the truth of God; neither shall we ever do it, because it is contrary to the spirit of Christ, his doctrine, and the practice of his apostles…
- [The] Lamb hath redeemed us from the unrighteous world, and we are not of it, but are heirs of a world in which there is no end and of a kingdom where no corruptible thing enters.
- Whoever can reconcile this, “Resist not evil,” with “Resist violence by force”…may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil etc…. it is impossible.
Letter from London YM 1744
- We entreat all…to be faithful to that ancient testimony, borne by us ever since we were a people…
- We may demonstrate ourselves to be real followers of the Messiah…
Issued by (?) YM 1804,1805 (Napoleonic Wars)
- transcendent excellency of peace
- Some people then must begin to fulfil the evangelical promise, and cease to learn war any more.
- While any of us are professing to scruple war, they may be…inconsistent with that [Gospel] profession!
- We can serve our country…nor more acceptably to him [God]…than by contributing …to increase the number of meek, humble, and self-denying Christians.
Epistle Issued by (?) YM 1854 (Crimean War)
- War is incompatible with the plain precepts of our Divine Lord and Lawgiver, and with the whole spirit and tenor of His Gospel…
- [It is]the paramount allegiance which they owe unto Him who hath said “Love your enemies.”
- His peace…will be won by those who follow him in repentance and willingness to forgive.
Richmond Declaration of Faith 1887
- All war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel.
- [It is] the allegiance they owe to Him who hath said, “Love your enemies”
- Exigencies of civil government and social order may be met under the banner of the Prince of Peace, in strict conformity with His commands
Statement by New Zealand YM 1987
- No end could ever justify such means.
- Everyone needs [vision of peace] to survive and flourish on a healthy, abundant earth.
- There is that of God in every one which makes each person too precious to damage or destroy.
- While someone lives there is always the hope of reaching that of God within.
- We would rather suffer and die than inflict evil in order to save ourselves and what we hold dear.
- The insane stockpiling of nuclear weapons could…destroy everyone and everything we value.
- What we advocate is not uniquely Quaker but human and, we believe, the will of God.