Religious Society of Friends (1640s - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Religious Society of Friends

In the past, they evoked fury, even hatred, from conventional Christians who were perplexed by the refusal of Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren to take up arms against their “enemies.” Today, members of the three historic peace churches are regarded as experienced, even inspiring peacemakers.

Through personal suffering in the face of community indifference or hostility, they set the pattern for conscientious objection to war and to other practices that undermined their religious commitment to peace. Thousands of Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren suffered death and imprisonment, in this country and abroad, for conscientiously refusing to kill their brothers and sisters, whatever the justification given by the State.

How many Americans know the heavy price paid by members of the historic peace churches in helping to guarantee our free exercise of religion? In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, Quakers were automatically imprisoned upon their arrival in the colonies; and four of them, including Mary Dyer — whose statue overlooks the Boston Common — were hanged for returning to Boston to worship as they pleased. In the same period, a young servant girl and a middle-aged mother of five children, after being transferred from shipboard to prison, were stripped naked, searched for witchcraft, and held for five weeks in darkness.

Quakers persisted nonetheless, showing immense courage in upholding their rights as citizens. While William Leddra was being considered for the death penalty, Wenlock Christison, who had already been banished on pain of death, calmly walked into the courtroom. And while he was being tried, Edward Wharton, ordered earlier to leave the colony or lose his life, wrote to the authorities of his decision to remain.

In 17th-century Virginia as well, Quakers were regarded as “unreasonable and turbulent ... teaching and publishing lies, miracles, false visions, prophecies and doctrines.” In the 18th century, Thomas Paine ridiculed Quakers who refused to take up arms in the revolutionary struggle against the English; and in the 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, that most principled of storytellers, characterized Quakers as troublemakers threatening to rend the delicate social fabric of the new nation.

Among the Mennonites, resolutions adopted by a 1961 General Conference in Pennsylvania echo their theology and the statements by other peace churches since 1725:

1. Our love and ministry must go out to all, whether friend or foe.

2. While rejecting any ideology which ... seeks to destroy the Christian faith, we cannot take any attitude or commit any act contrary to Christian love ...

3. If our country becomes involved in war, we shall ... avoid joining in any wartime hysteria of hatred, revenge, and retaliation.

Together with this refusal to kill went a commitment to “justice for all.” The Mennonites, for example, were among the first to resist slavery in the U.S.; one account describes an 18th-century Mennonite who slept in the forest rather than accept hospitality from a slaveholder.

Although relatively small in comparison with other religious groups — the Quakers for example, the largest of the three memberships, number only 120,000 in the U.S. — the peace churches have exercised an influence on American political traditions out of all proportion to their numbers. Famous libertarians who grew up in Quaker households include Thomas Paine, John Woolman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lucretia Mott, Walt Whitman, and Susan B. Anthony.

Whatever liberties Americans enjoy relating to freedom of assembly and the press and the principle of conscientious objection have their beginnings in the witness and persistence of the historic peace communities. The principle of conscientious objection alone, first recognized in Rhode Island and, in 1940, under Selective Service laws and regulations initiated at that time, owes much to the peace churches and to related organizations initiated at the time of the First World War.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) dates from 1652, when George Fox (1624-91) gathered a group of Seekers and other Children of Light around him in England. Although not all those Quakers were pacifists, within eight years, at the time of the Restoration of Charles II, they declared to the King:

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever, and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world that the 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.

Later in the 17th century, William Penn (1644-1718), another Englishman jailed for his pacifist beliefs, founded a large and influential Quaker community in the American colonies. In 1681, before coming to the colonies, he summarized the general philosophy of the peace churches in a letter to Native Americans, saying that God “made the world and all things therein ... not to devour and destroy one another, but [to] live soberly and kindly together in the world.” He generally agreed with his contemporary, Edward Burroughs, who thought that Quakers “must obey God only and deny active obedience for conscience’s sake, and patiently suffer what is inflicted upon us for our disobedience of men.”

William Penn’s hope for the New World, his vision, was based upon a famous passage from the Book of Isaiah, whereby the lion and the lamb would lie together, and all of nature would live in harmony. Edward Hicks, an 18th century Quaker painter — and later artists such as Fritz Eichenberg (1901-90) — popularized that image on canvas, in woodcuts and lithographs, in many versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Members of the Society of Friends who have been central figures of major social movements in the U.S. since Penn include John Woolman, Susan B. Anthony, Abigail Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott, and Rufus Jones.

Understanding how that vision might be lived out has been a three-century effort of trial and error, action and meditation, commitment and hesitation by these small communities of believers. How and when, in conscience, must one “stick up for God,” as Ammon Hennacy used to say, and when may one “render unto Caesar”? While Christian churches justified “killing for Christ,” with arguments formulated by apologists such as Augustine and other “just war” theorists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren, in association with other pacifists, nonviolent resisters, and Christian anarchists, have endured continual hardship in working to eradicate injustices perpetrated by war and violence.

At the time of the First World War, for example, as a way not only to resist war, but also to demonstrate “a service of love,” the Society of Friends in the U.S., with encouragement from English Friends, initiated a service arm of the Society, the American Friends Service Committee. That organization, which maintains regional offices throughout the country, has trained thousands of people for work among refugees around the world and for nonviolent campaigns at home—for civil rights and nuclear disarmament, as well as against the Vietnam war and arms shipments to Central America.

The Mennonites, named for Menno Simons (1496-1561), and the Church of the Brethren both trace their origins to 16th-century Anabaptists, who resisted any union between church and state. Originating in Germany and Switzerland respectively, they believed in freedom of conscience and condemned religious persecution of any kind. The writings of Christopher Sauer, a radical pietist and uncompromising pacifist, influenced both groups in early Pennsylvania, where they joined with their Quaker neighbors in supporting a beneficent government. Sauer, who spoke of soldiers as “military slaves,” said that true followers of Jesus could not kill and that participation in war was contrary to the gospel.

At the time of the American Revolution, Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers composed a significant percentage of the population in the colonies, with the latter group numbering about 50,000 among a total population of 1.6 million. They were responsible for establishing friendly relationships with Native Americans, and later, for making Pennsylvania the first state to abolish slavery. In the 19th century, they provided much of the leadership for the abolitionist movement.

Among the peace churches, their colleges, service committees, and publishing houses are especially important in maintaining and expanding their influence in the wider community. For the Quakers, they include Swarthmore College and Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and Earlham College in Indiana; the main office, in Philadelphia, of the American Friends Service Committee, which received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1947; and the office of Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington, D.C. For the Mennonites, they include Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, Goshen College in Indiana, and Bethel College in Kansas; and for the Church of the Brethren, McPherson College in Kansas, and Manchester College in Indiana. Many peace and justice organizations that eventually became independent of these churches also owe much to their inspiration and guidance, and the larger Christian denominations have much to learn from the religious education programs and publications sponsored by the peace churches on moral issues relating to justice and peace. The following statement by a prominent member of the Brethren about 18th-century Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics remains true today: “What is still more horrible, they go publicly to war, and slaughter one another by the thousands.”

In rejecting war, even in revolutionary struggle, the peace churches run risks today similar to those they ran three centuries ago, when they were imprisoned and beaten, their homes seized or burned for their refusal to take up arms against the British. Recognizing “that of God in every person” and “proceeding as the way opens,” Quakers choose nonviolence, not because it guarantees results, but because they must, as Margaret Hope Bacon has said. Along that way lies suffering, even death, but only through peaceful means, they argue, does anyone achieve a peaceful end. And even for many who cannot accept the discipline of that life, the historic peace churches — by their witness and experience — remain central to any sustained effort “to construct peace.” In their sustained effort to build “the peaceable kingdom” by resolving conflict and initiating social change without killing, they claim particular authority in building nonviolent alternatives to the violence of the status quo.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by the Religious Society of Friends
Selected material about the Religious Society of Friends
  • Bacon, Margaret Hope. The Quiet Rebels: The Story of the Quakers in America. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1985.
  • Brock, Peter. Pacifism in the U.S. from the Colonial Era to the First World War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.
  • Brown, Dale W. Brethren and Pacifism. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1970.
  • Keim, Albert N, and Grant M. Stoltzfus. The Politics of Conscience: The Historic Peace Churches and America at War, 1917-1955. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1988.
  • Yoder, John H. What Would You Do?: A Serious Answer to a Standard Question. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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