We are called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.’ Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ?
– Advices and Queries #31, Quaker Faith & Practice
For Friends, the peace testimony is not essentially a political statement. It is a testimony to the power of a divine experience that does away with the root of all violence—our own selfish passions—and excites our endeavors to mend the world. When George Fox was approached in prison with the opportunity for an early release if he would serve as a captain in the army, he refused with a response that is now included as a quote in the advice and query above. He went on to say that he knew the origins of violence, citing James 4:1-2: “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. Any you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do
The implications for the Christian are clear: simplify your life to remove desires inconsistent with a Christ-centered life; trust God for your needs; seek the good of others; display your faith through works inspired by Christ’s example of love.
Ten years after Fox expressed this first understanding of the Quaker peace testimony, the “official” peace testimony was articulated in a declaration to King Charles II of England in 1660: “That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; 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.”
This statement was largely political in nature, in spite of the clearly religious language used to deny war; however, it became a universal principle for Friends during the succeeding two centuries. No Friend could remain a member of the Religious Society if s/he “appeared in a warlike manner,” as the Quaker disciplines often put it. Yet on occasion some Friends opted for the subtext of the 1660 Declaration and bore the sword in defense of self and community. For example, several hundred “fighting Quakers.” including Greensboro’s namesake Nathaniel Greene and seamstress Betsy Ross, supported the Revolutionary War.
The American Civil War helped create a sea change in Quakerism, as many young Friends, caught up in the excitement of the war and committed to the anti-slavery cause, chose to fight on the Union side. After the war, most were taken back into their meetings without the previous requirement of confessing their “sin.” The popular revivals of the late 1800s deeply affected American Quakerism and helped sweep away many of the Quaker distinctives, including plain dress, plain speech, silent worship and the expectation of refusing military service.
Expressions of the traditional peace testimony, however, remained in the books of discipline of the various Quaker bodies—and are still there today, even while the majority of Quaker men of military age chose to serve in some capacity in the armed forces during the 20th century. The American Friends Service Committee was formed in 1917 to offer Quakers opposed to war a peaceful alternative. Thousands of Friends were conscientious objectors during World War II, as were many during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Numerous Friends have refused to register with the Selective Service System since the re-instatement of draft registration in 1975. But many more have served in branches of the military, and there are numerous Quaker meetings that have plaques and ceremonies honoring their veterans.
So, is there a consistent peace testimony among Friends? Yes. On paper, at least, Friends have been consistent in expressing the belief that God’s will is to bring in “the peaceable kingdom,” that swords will be beaten into ploughshares and humankind will study war no more, and that Jesus provided the supreme example of one who willingly bears the cross rather than doing violence
For some, the peace testimony has morphed into political pacifism and social activism. For others,
it is an expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Others, still, find the notion of Biblical nonresistance hopelessly naïve in a broken and fallen world. Suffice it to say, debate over the traditional Quaker interpretation of Christian teachings about peace is lively in the wider community of Friends and
Expressions of this testimony at Guilford College
Peace and Conflict Studies. Guilford has a vital, interdisciplinary program in the study of the causes of conflict, conflict transformation and nonviolent direct action, incorporating all of the Quaker testimonies. An active Conflict Resolution Resource Center serves members of the College community and beyond. Co-curricular programs are regularly sponsored on matters of social justice; discourse, rather than debate, is encouraged.
Response to issues of war. During times of war and preparation for war in the United States, the College typically responds with peace vigils, “learn-ins” and speakers and programs articulating interpretations of the historic Quaker peace testimony.
Restriction of military recruitment and education on conscientious objection. By tradition, military recruiters are not invited on campus. Information about military service is available in the Career Development center. Programs on preparing for a claim of conscientious objection to participation in war are offered at the College. Counseling by faculty, staff and students who are conscientious objectors is made available.
Student clubs and activity. Student groups are often active around issues of peace and the active attempt to “remove the occasion of war.” The Guilford Action Network, Amnesty International, Quaker Concerns and the Guilford Council of Religious Organizations are among those often organizing activities focusing on nonviolent response to conflict. Student volunteerism in programs of social concern on and off-campus is often related to peace issues, and members of the college community are connected with such area initiatives as the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project and the Peace & Justice Network.