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Millenarian Quakers for the Military (1659)

I mentioned the "the slow development of the Peace Testimony" in an earlier piece on New Light on George Fox, but it's actually a little more startling than that, seen from a modern Quaker perspective. The early period of Quakerism's development, in 1640s and 1650s England, was an era fraught with expectations that the end was near, that Christ's kingdom would break out on earth at any moment. The Peace Testimony didn't appear formally until after those expectations had been disappointed, as Christopher Hill writes:

As far as the Quakers were concerned, by 1659-60 the Army offered the only hope for reform - if it could be radicalised again. Bishop, Burrough, Howgill, Isaac Penington, all defended the Army's intervention in politics in 1659. Burrough acted as political leader of the Quakers in this period: Fox withdrew into the background. Burrough, Byllynge, and other Quaker leaders negotiated seriously with the republican government for co-operation to prevent a restoration of monarchy, and for social reforms.

In 1659-60 Quakers were rejoining the Army, and there was much talk of 'arming the Quakers'. Quakers acted as commissioners of the militia, as JPs. They were the last defenders of military dictatorship in England But the defeat of the radicals, when it came, was so decisive that it had to be accepted as the work of divine providence....

So Charles II came back in May 1660.

Eight months later, in January 1661, there was a violent revolt by Fifth Monarchists which for a short time terrorized London. Many Quakers were arrested on suspicion of connection with this revolt. Twelve days later the 'peace principle', henceforth characteristic of Quakerism, was declared. 'The spirit of Christ', Fox declared, 'will never move us to fight a war against any man with carnal weapons.' This was a new principle. There had been Quaker pacifists in the fifties, including John Lilburne and the sailor Thomas Lurting. But there was no official endorsement of pacifism....

Support for the peace principle was by no means unanimous. Some thought that the new discipline which accompanied it amounted to apostasy - a breach with the absolute individualism of the inner light in all believers.

1660 was a defeat for all radical social policies. It marked the end of millenarian hopes. The peace principle recognised these facts, and differentiated Quakers from irreconcilable Fifth Monarchist insurrectionists who advocated inaugurating Christ's kingdom by immediate military violence.

So acceptance of the peach principle marked the end of an epoch - recognition that Christ's kingdom was not of this world,at least not yet. Abandonment of the rule of the saints, possibly through the Army, ended the perceived Quaker political threat, though it took some time for non-saints to appreciate this. It marked the end of perfectability on earth as a political principle. It was a great turning point, shared by most other dissenters - as they now reluctantly became. (New Light, 29-32, paragraph breaks and links added.)

That first declaration is well worth a visit:

Our principle is, and our practices have always been to seek peace and ensue it; to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God; seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all. We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men, (as James Chapter 4. v1-3), out of which lusts the Lord has redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war. The occasion of war and war itself, arises from the lust, (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, and desire to have men's lives or estates). All bloody principles and practices we, as to our own basics, do utterly deny, with all outward wars, strife, and fighting with outward weapons for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever: this is our testimony to the whole world.

(Nickalls, 398-404; Works, I, 421-6; QS1, 105-6; QS2, 66-7; Online )

That declaration of the peace principle and the meeting discipline which accompanied it mark, I suspect, the point at which early Quakerism becomes easily recognizable to modern Quakers or, indeed Quakers from any generation after the first.


It should be noted that George Fox had made a statement about not participating in carnal wars at least as early as 1654. Fox never swayed from that, to the best of my knowledge.