Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Campaigning against Capital Punishment in Britain

British Quakers oppose capital punishment with our Statement on the Death Penalty“private vengeance or judicial execution serves no purpose but to perpetuate… the trauma. Killing… as a judicial act, brutalises a society that kills.”

Several early Quakers objected to capital punishment. In 1682, William Penn reduced the number of capital offences in Pennsylvania. John Bellers, a great social commentator, was the first Quaker abolitionist in 18th century Britain.

In the eighteenth century, Great Britain experienced a dramatic increase in capital  punishment. There was no increase in crime itself:  the reason was that more and more crimes, such as the petty one of pick-pocketing, were made punishable by death.  Still, by 1770, the seeds of the capital code’s demise had been planted, when Sir William Meredith suggested that Parliament consider "more proportionate punishments". His proposal fell flat, but it began the long string of events that led to eventual abolition nearly two hundred years later.

Quaker campaigning against the death penalty gained real momentum in the second quarter of the 19th century. They added an ethical dimension to the evidence-based criticisms of the capital code, by rationalists, lawyers, and radicals. They were very effective in appealing to the strong religious sympathies of the English public and, more importantly, Parliament. By the 1820s, they and others "had substantially shifted the vocabulary of reform".

There were no Quaker MPs until Joseph Pease was elected in 1832, so Friends had to find other ways of making their voices heard.  Thus they learned how to influence politicians’ perception of public opinion. The great irony is that their representations of public opinion were skewed versions of the popular reality. Their public opinion was defined by the noisiest voices, not the most numerous", drawn largely from the middle class. Through its apparently widespread acceptance by the middle class, reform of capital punishment came to be accepted by both the aristocracy and the destitute alike.

Once there were Quaker MPs, they were able to make their views directly known in Parliament itself. Charles Gilpin, MP for Northampton from 1857 to 1874, was particularly active.

By the 1850’s, a strong wish to end the practice of public execution had emerged, and the scaffolds of Britain were moved within the prison walls in 1868. The last public execution, on 27 May 1868, was held outside Newgate in London. Two days later, after months of heated debate, Parliament passed the Act to Provide for the Carrying out of Capital Punishment in Prisons.

Although the onset of World War II helped strengthen public opinion in favour of capital punishment in the United Kingdom, for the first time in nearly 200 years, the Allied victory precipitated its rapid decline. In the aftermath of the war came a new, extremely potent wave of human rights consciousness and international cooperation. A "European regional system of human rights" was implemented. The formation of the United Nations in 1945 and its adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were clear indicators of the relatively new notion of international law. Of more practical importance, the European Convention On Human Rights, adopted in 1950, strengthened the link between international human rights policies and British domestic law. Quakers were involved in this, and remain active in human rights work to this day.

Working through such international treaties, the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights, abolitionists throughout Europe were able to pool their strengths. Such reforms were, admittedly, barely a necessity, since capital punishment was all but nonexistent in most western European nations, including Great Britain. Still, the first call for abolition under international law didn’t come until 1961, when the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe suggested the abolition of capital punishment in all member nations. The resolution failed, but three years later Great Britain acted independently, abolishing the death penalty temporarily in 1964, vowing to review the decision within ten years. In 1973 the House of Commons reaffirmed the 1964 Act, concluding that capital punishment "must now be seen to be inhuman and degrading". Thus, capital punishment came to an end in the United Kingdom: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Th presence of the death penalty in parts of the United States of America and other countries continues, and Quakers still campaign against it. QUNO is particularly active.

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Further Reading and Credits

For statement on the death penalty see http://qfp.quakerweb.org.uk/qfp23-97.html