Weren’t The Quakers Right?
Note from the Limb: You are about to read a provocative post. My good friend, Mike Bock, has been carrying on an e-mail conversation with a friend about their reactions to David McCullough's biography of John Adams. This post was born of that conversation. As someone who has revered the founders of the American republic, it is difficult for me to even consider that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, et al, may have been mistaken and that world history since might have been just as free and more peaceful had the Quakers' pacifism prevailed in the 1770s. It is an interesting discussion though, and so, despite a little discomfort at the thought, I am pleased to give Mike this forum to explore his ideas. Whadya'll think?
Was the Revolutionary War justified? I read in David McCullough’s book on John Adams that the Quakers opposed the Revolutionary War, an opposition based upon the Quakers’ understanding of the principle of Christian pacifism. I must have previously heard that fact, but, before now, I’ve never really thought about the implications of the Quaker opposition to the Revolutionary War.
We are brainwashed from childhood, of course, to believe that the Revolutionary War was a war of virtue; by implication or by outright teaching the message about the beginnings of our country is that the Revolutionary War, by founding a Christian nation, was a war pleasing to God. But the Quakers say: No. The Quakers have always said: No to War. The history of man is that violence begets violence, war leads to more war. The American Revolution, in a very important way, served as a bad example to history. Violence -- in the name of liberty, equality, etc. -- via the American Revolution, was given legitimacy/moral approval and this approval has helped to spawn and to legitimize violence throughout the entire world, up to and including this time.
Didn’t the Quakers, in opposing the Revolutionary War, advocate a position more in keeping with the teachings of Christ than the position advocated by individuals such as Adams or Jefferson? It seems to me that the thesis could be developed that The Revolutionary War, a war that gained popular support via persuasive propaganda such as Common Sense, etc., and gained support via the advocacy of highly regarded thinkers such as John Adams, was, in fact, a war of choice. How could the act of choosing to pursue war, an unnecessary war, be defended as in keeping with the teachings of Christ? Of course, the key word is “unnecessary” and the point that war is unnecessary is never a point granted by the propagandists -- of the Revolutionary War or of any war. Rather, propagandists convince people of the urgency/need for war, because war is presented as demanded by circumstances, as impossible to avoid, etc. But as it turns out, and history shows, the Revolutionary War, in fact, was not necessary. The arc of history that produced a democratic Canada and Australia would also, in time, certainly have produced a democratic United States. And, it is interesting to consider, if the United States would have been created through nonviolence, and if the principles of nonviolence, early in our history, would have been instilled as part of our national character, how spectacularly improved would the world be today?
The fact that there were devout Christians -- Quakers -- who, in response to their Christianity, opposed the Revolutionary War is a fact that is often overlooked in our history textbooks. As a country, we want to believe that God sanctioned the Revolutionary War, and we want to believe that God sanctions our current war. Our textbooks, opinion pages and TV news/commentaries disseminate information that assists in persuading us of the belief that as a nation we are, “under God.” We have the picture of George Washington, at Valley Forge, praying over the falling snow, as part of our national mythology. And we connect that iconic image of Washington praying with the image of George W. Bush, looking pious, at a prayer breakfast, praying. As a country, we want to convince ourselves that God is on our side.
But, as I heard in a sermon once, the question we should ask is not if God is on our side, but, we should ask if we are on God’s side. What is interesting is that there are many people who identify themselves as Christians who reject the idea that one of God’s principles, as revealed by Christ, is the principle of pacifism. It is interesting that today many people who identify themselves as Christians claim that God’s principles actually sanction war and violence. Of course, throughout history, people who have identified themselves as Christians have also claimed that God’s principles have sanctioned such things as: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of infidels, and the institution of slavery. So there is ample historical evidence that people who call themselves Christians have been spectacularly wrong in their understanding of what Christianity should be all about, wrong about what the message of Christ is all about, wrong about what God’s principles are. I am wondering if it is possible that we are entering an era when many Christians will experience a revelation that they are spectacularly wrong about the issues of peace and war and that this revelation will be the basis for a genuine Christian peace movement within our nation?
The Quakers, during the Revolutionary War, were persecuted for their conviction that pacifism is God’s principle. And the Quakers, regardless of persecution, stood by their principles. Shouldn’t we learn from the Quakers? Weren’t the Quakers right then? And, aren’t the Quakers right even now?