QUAKERS IN ACTION

Freedom of Conscience

Imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1669, William Penn wrote: "My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man."

For Quakers, the belief that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ leads to a deep conviction that conscience should not be coerced. Freedom of conscience implies freedom of speech, which in turn implies freedom of association and assembly.

Until the Act of Toleration 1689, these rights were severely curtailed in Britain. The only officially permitted form of worship was the Church of England. Early Friends affirmed the religious equality of all people and claimed the liberty to worship freely.

In the new Puritan colonies in North America, Quakers again suffered persecution for their beliefs. In Massachusetts between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers, including one woman (Mary Dyer) were hanged.

In Pennsylvania, however, Penn built religious toleration into the ‘First Frame of Government’, the colony’s constitution.

Quakers were instrumental in helping to establish other fundamental rights too. Believing that one standard of truth should apply equally in court and in every day life, many Quakers refuse to swear oaths. The right to affirm the truth in court was first granted to Quakers in England in 1695, but only in civil courts. It wasn’t until 1829 that this right was extended to criminal courts and Quakers were permitted to serve on juries or give evidence in criminal trials.

During the McCarthy era in the US, many States imposed loyalty oaths on employees, students and even on church bodies.  In 1954, Friends convened a National Conference on Civil Liberties and declared that God, not the state, was the source of truth. In Arizona, Quaker teacher, Barbara Elfbrandt took a stand against the oaths; she kept her job but went without pay for five years.  As recently as 2008, Quaker Marianne Kearney-Brown was fired from California State University for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.

The Quaker Peace Testimony has meant that many Quakers refuse to bear arms or to play any part in military action. In Britain, the Militia Ballot Act of 1757 allowed Quakers to be exempt from military service and the question of conscientious objection did not become an issue again until the outbreak of the First World War.  In the US, during the War of 1812 and, later, the Civil War (1860-5), conscientious objectors, such as Cyrus Pringle, who refused to pay ‘commutation money’ in lieu of military service could be imprisoned and might be subject to extremely cruel treatment.

During the First and Second World Wars, groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Ambulance Unit and the Friends Relief Service provided conscientious objectors with alternatives to military service.

Today, QUNO continues to campaign for the rights of conscientious objectors in countries such as Colombia, South Korea and Armenia.

Quakers around the world have worked to support prisoners of conscience and others who suffer for their religious or political beliefs. Quaker Eric Baker was key to the campaign that resulted in the founding of Amnesty International in 1962. Many Friends continue to be involved with Amnesty International, both as members and as volunteers.

Quakers are among those who have spoken out about abuses in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Groups such as Q-CAT (Quaker Concern For The Abolition Of Torture) in the UK and QUIT (The Quaker Initiative to End Torture) in the US campaign to end the use of torture worldwide.

Since 2001, Quakers have been concerned with the erosion of civil liberties as a result of the so-called War on Terror. In many countries legislation is being introduced which disproportionately threatens vulnerable minorities, criminalises dissent and – by the threat of unjust surveillance, harassment, wrongful conviction, denial of charitable status, and seizure of assets – could impede humanitarian work and social witness from Quakers and others.

Quakers have a long record of non-violent civil disobedience and have been involved in training others in non-violence.  Between 1963 and 1976, the Canadian Friends Service Committee operated a Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island. Their training programmes included confronting trainees with simulated conflict situations.  Today groups like AFSC-SENE and QPSW’s  ‘Turning the Tide’ programme continue to offer training in non-violence.

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