Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Conscientious Objection

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.

The Peace Testimony has led many (though not all) Quakers to refuse to bear arms or to play any part in military action.

Early Quakers in England could get into trouble for refusing to enlist in, or pay for, the local militia.  But by 1757, when the first attempt was made to establish a national militia, the Militia Ballot Act allowed Quakers exemption from military service.  Conscientious objection did not again become an issue in Britain until the First World War.

In the US it was an issue much earlier. During the War of 1812 and the Civil War (1861-5), those wishing to opt out of military service could pay ‘commutation money’ instead. However, despite Abraham Lincoln’s expression of sympathy for the Quaker stance, those who refused the payment on principle were often imprisoned and might be subject to extremely cruel treatment.

In 1863, the Quaker botanist Cyrus Pringle was drafted into the Union Army.  His uncle offered to pay $300 for his release, but Pringle would not allow it.  Along with two other Quakers, he was incarcerated for several months, sent on forced marches and made to carry guns on his back since he would not ‘bear arms’.  He was released only after President Lincoln personally intervened.

Although by 1917, when the US entered the First World War, the ‘Historic Peace Churches,’ (Quakers, Mennonites, Amish and the Church of the Brethren), were legally exempt from military service, state draft boards were not consistent in applying the law. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was established to provide support for conscientious objectors and alternatives to military service, work which continued throughout the Second World War.

In Britain, the Friends Ambulance Unit was established in 1914.  It operated ambulances, set up casualty hospitals and carried out relief work in France and Belgium.  When conscription was introduced in 1916, military tribunals were set up for those wishing to claim exemption from military service under the ‘conscience clause’.  Those ‘absolutists’ who refused any form of alternative service could face a harsh regime in gaol.

On the whole, British conscientious objectors were treated more sympathetically in the Second World War. The FAU was re-formed in September 1939 and undertook ambulance work in Europe and North Africa. In Britain, they provided emergency relief in bombed cities and assistance in short staffed hospitals.  In the Far East, they transported medical supplies along the Burma Road, and provided medical and civilian relief in China.

During the Vietnam War (1961-73), AFSC counselled thousands of draft-age citizens about conscientious objector status.  Many war resisters, particularly those whose CO status was not officially recognised, fled to Canada, where Quakers like Nancy Pocock provided refuge.  In 2004, CFSC again began welcoming US war resisters, this time fleeing the Iraq War.

Due in part to the persistent work of QUNO Geneva, the right to conscientious objection was recognised by the UN Human Rights Commission in 1987.  In recent years, QUNO has campaigned for the right of conscientious objection to be recognised in countries such as Colombia, South Korea and Armenia.

Some Quakers regard taxation for military purposes as a form of conscription. Refusal to pay tax as a form of protest goes back at least to 1709, when Pennsylvania Quakers refused a request for £4000 for a military expedition against the French in Canada, saying "it was contrary to their religious principles to hire men to kill one another". During the War of Independence, Quaker property was seized and many Quakers were jailed for war tax resistance.

In 1982, 25 Quaker members of staff at Meeting for Sufferings in London asked that the part of their income tax attributable to military purposes should be diverted to non-military uses.  Tax was withheld until, in 1985, the Appeal Court ruled that the action unlawful.  A submission was then made to the European Commission of Human Rights on the grounds of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion but the case was held inadmissible. Under sustained protest, Meeting for Sufferings continues to pay the tax due from its employees today.

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Further Reading and Credits

Photograph reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London