Peace and Nonviolence

In 1651 George Fox was offered an army commission. His response is widely regarded as the first statement of the Quaker peace testimony:

“I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars... I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.

Written in 1660, Margaret Fell’s letter to King Charles II lifted the Quaker Peace Testimony beyond a simple refusal to bear arms and turned it into a way of life.

“We are a people that follow after those things that make for peace, love, and unity; it is our desire that others' feet may walk in the same, and do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, and wars.”

The Peace Testimony, which derives ultimately from the Quaker belief that there is ‘That of God in everyone', has remained at the core of Quakers' belief for over 350 years.  Yet how that belief is translated into action remains something that all Quakers must determine for themselves.

Sidney Bailey, in his 1993 Swarthmore Lecture, Peace is a Process, divided Quaker responses to the Peace Testimony into three broad areas:

A refusal to bear arms or to take part in military service

The Peace Testimony has led many (though not all) Quakers to refuse to bear arms or to play any part in military action. Many conscientious objectors have undertaken alternative forms of service during wartime, and others have been imprisoned.

It has also led at times to a refusal to contribute resources to the preparation for war – from Pennsylvania’s refusal to provide funds for the defence of New York in 1693, to modern day Peace Tax campaigns.

The repudiation of violence as a means to an end has led many Quakers to espouse forms of non-violent direct action – from a refusal to pay church tithes in England in the 17th Century, to the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the campaign for democracy in South Korea, and many others.

An obligation to help the victims of wars and conflicts

Quakers have coupled their refusal to fight with work to provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims of war, on both sides. The Quaker Service emblem was created during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.   Quakers were active during both World Wars and were honoured for their relief work with the Nobel peace prize in 1947.

A commitment to active peace making

Quakers have frequently taken peacebuilding initiatives to reconcile communities and nations involved in violent conflicts, such as in post-genocide Rwanda. Often working on the ground in the midst of hostilities, they have used their good offices to bring together those who regard each other as “enemies”.

Quakers have also undertaken much ‘non-formal diplomacy’.  Acting as trusted intermediaries or neutral hosts, they have enabled diplomats, and other representatives of nations in conflict to meet or communicate discreetly. In the 1970s it was estimated that '10% of the diplomatic community had met each other under Quaker-sponsored auspices.

Whether they are part of peacebuilding or non-formal diplomacy, quiet off the record meetings   provide opportunities to discuss issues, weaken stereotypes, listen to experts and be listened to. The Quaker stance is ‘balanced partiality’. Participants know they will not take sides but will seek to help everyone equally out of the impasse and the violence.

Many Quakers have addressed issues of disarmament. Internationally they have helped weapons experts to meet across political divides, and have also been active in campaigns against mines and other weapons particularly destructive to civilian populations.  Many individual Quakers are part of peace movement campaigns in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and non-military approaches to conflict resolution.

Education for peace aims to empower individuals to handle violence in themselves and others, and to build peace wherever they can. It includes fostering a ‘Quaker ethos’ in Friends schools and colleges, and the development of peace curricula and peace studies programmes that can be used much more widely. Alternatives to Violence workshops (started by Quakers in US prisons) have been adapted and used in many different settings. Training in ‘active non-violence’ campaigning techniques is another strand.

Finally, Quakers have played a significant role in the creation and support of peace organisations not run by Quakers.  Examples include Oxfam, Amnesty International, and of course the UN and the League of Nations.