The Willoughbys on Pacifism

Ironically, few issues have divided Quakers more than war-making and peacemaking. A favorite image of Quakers in the wider world is that of the people who love peace—who don’t go to war. The reality is more complex. There were Fighting Quakers in England during the earliest days of the movement; the young George Fox himself was conflicted on the subject of pacifism.

We in the United States recall the Free (fighting) Quakers of the Revolutionary War, who were read out of their home congregations for taking up arms against the British. Some Quakers certainly fought in World War II—the so-called Good War—and may have been represented in the U.S. military in each of our numerous conflicts.

This Friendly willingness to take up arms for a patriotic cause contrasts with the rigor of well-known Christian Scripture and early Quaker antiwar statements. The English Quakers set an uncompromising standard in their 1660 Declaration to Charles II, which was drafted by the emerging pacifist Fox and states in part:

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fighting with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world. . . . The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move us unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the Kingdoms of this world. . . . Therefore, we cannot learn war any more.

Their statement echoes Christ’s own testimony, as expressed most prominently in the Sermon on the Mount.

Learned observers have quibbled with both Christ’s ideal and the 1660 Declaration. Reinhold Niebuhr, among other theologians, has held that Christ’s "perfectionism" was too stringent for imperfect humans to live out. As for Fox and his 1660 group, one charge has been that the Quakers were only seeking desperately to persuade the monarch that they would not launch an armed rebellion.

Quaker texts since the mid-17th century have generally softened the pacifist rhetoric. William Penn walked gingerly around the question of war and peace. In his book No Cross, No Crown, he addresses the Peace Testimony only obliquely: after noting the Turks’ concurrent expansion of their empire by force, he writes "And yet they are to be outdone by apostate Christians. . . . If we look abroad into remoter parts of the world, we shall rarely hear of wars; but in Christendom rarely of peace." There is little sign that his antiwar feelings would tend him toward conscientious objection.

In colonial America, tremendous pressure was exerted on Penn and other Quakers to support militias, to provision the British army, to pay taxes for unexplained uses that might well turn out to be military expeditions. Governing a large colony (Pennsylvania) in which Quakers were a minority, and in which the majority wanted protection from Indian attacks, forced further compromises. Only with the advent of John Woolman, who with others sent a letter to the Pennsylvania assembly concerning a royal levy, do we read a text approaching the conviction of Christ and Fox. As reported by Peter Brock in his The Quaker Peace Testimony, 1660-1914, it states in part:

And being painfully apprehensive that the large sum granted by the . . . Assembly for the King’s use is principally intended for purposes inconsistent with our peaceable testimony, we therefore think that as we cannot be concerned in wars and fightings, so neither ought we to contribute thereto by paying the tax directly by the said act, though suffering be the consequence of our refusal.

Despite the influence of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, Friends remained divided on the question of "rendering unto Caesar" that which "Caesar" claimed.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, assorted schisms in Quakerism served to undermine the centrality of pacifism. In our day, the British short book Faithful Deeds: A Rough Guide to the Quaker Peace Testimony makes no mention of the 1660 declaration. A number of Friends churches have withdrawn their commitment to pacifism. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s text (in the 1997 Faith and Practice) honors the Peace Testimony while showing tenderness to those who might disagree: "While counseling against military service, we hold in love our members who feel they must undertake it."

To longtime peace activists George and Lillian Willoughby, by contrast, the message of the 1660 Declaration remains compelling today. "I believe so thoroughly that everybody has a kernel of the Divine, of Truth within them," Lillian commented in an early interview for the Willoughbys’ biography, "[that] I couldn’t possibly kill anybody." She joined "absolutely" with the mature Fox and the 17th-century Friends on pacifism. George stated, in the same interview, "[Pacifism] means that I cannot take human life. It is morally wrong for me to kill somebody—anyone. . . . I don’t have to prove it or defend it; it’s my position. As a pacifist, I have to make the decision for myself." He believed that even if he was not responsible for peace in the world, "I am responsible for what I do and for upholding my values." The Willoughbys both asserted that no war was justified.

They have acted on their beliefs—through war tax refusal, protests, speak-outs, vigils, and imprisonment for antiwar activities. Lillian was the first woman to trespass on the Mercury Flats (Nevada) atomic test site in 1957, an action she repeated in 1988. In 1958, George was part of the four-man crew that sailed the Golden Rule toward the Pacific testing zone, and was imprisoned in Honolulu for six weeks. The Willoughbys joined numerous protests against the Vietnam War and were even detained in Thailand for protesting the first Gulf War, which was launched while they were visiting that country. Most recently, Lillian was arrested for blockading the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse on the outbreak of Iraq hostilities in 2003 and spent a week in Federal prison in October 2004, at age 89.

Consistently, the Willoughbys have demonstrated their position that pacifism is not passivity but should include active resistance to violence and aggression. When not protesting war-making themselves, they have trained others in nonviolent resistance. George began serious study of Mohandas Gandhi and his theory of satyagraha (active nonviolence) while a graduate student. In 1960, he effectively turned a trip to India for the War Resisters International triennial conference into a pilgrimage.

George returned in 1963 to join the World Peace Brigade’s arduous and ultimately stymied Delhi-Peking march—an attempt to end the border hostilities of the day between India and China. In all, he spent a year in India on that occasion. After the march ended, he traveled about, meeting with other activists, sharing his experiences in nonviolent direct action, and studying the ways of Gandhi and the Indian people.

Thereafter George returned many times, and Lillian often went with him. They worked as a team, bringing strategies for nonviolent resistance to Thailand and Sri Lanka as well as to India. George received India’s Jamnalal Bajaj International Award in 2002 for his peacemaking work—an award he believed belonged to both of them.

Lillian, George, and I returned to the subject of war, peace, and pacifism in an interview a month before Lillian’s incarceration. We were discussing current events and their responses to increased military activity. The war on Iraq weighed on the Willoughbys’ thoughts. Following the U.S. invasion, they had joined in the relaunching of A Quaker Action Group, which during the Vietnam conflict had sent boatloads of supplies to both the North and South of that country, read out the names of the U.S. war dead from the Capitol steps—for which George was briefly imprisoned—and joined sit-ins, rallies, and "die-ins" in Washington. The group’s modern incarnation was conducting speak-outs against the war on Iraq in prominent Philadelphia locations.

"People are good at heart," Lillian began. "There are so many layers of the onion. It’s hard to get to the central core. Like George Bush: how do you get to his central core?" Nonviolence, love, and understanding were her bywords. "The TV, movies, everything gears us to violence, as though that were a way of life," she commented. "That is not the way of life."

George opened with what he thought was the lesson of his life: "One man cannot do it alone." He claimed no feeling of defeat or despair but a recognition of what humanity faces. "Don’t lose faith," was his testament to fellow peace workers. "Get involved, have a vision." Lillian added that, because we all have a core of humanity, "Our job is to find ways of helping to open it up."

Again they said that they found no differences among wars. War killed too many people and devastated the Earth. There was "absolutely" no good or just war. Lillian held out for adversaries shaking hands and talking. George even laid some blame on the Vietnamese for their war with the United States: they should have done "what I would do: resist." He termed just war only "a construct of the human mind," and was impatient with U.S. statements that on the one hand, war was a bad thing but, on the other, "we will defend ourselves."

The Willoughbys were asked specifically if they saw a difference between the U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. They did not: "It’s all violent action of the state," said George. "It’s purely I come first, America comes first." Christians who supported these wars were "dishonest with themselves," if they said as "Christians" that "God told them to do something that the Christian God says you can’t do. Jesus didn’t say, in some cases, you can go bomb Najaf. Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’"

"We’ve become just as bad as Saddam," Lillian added: "Killing! What’s the difference?" With all the nuclear weapons and U.S. warring behavior, she continued, "How can anyone in the world feel safe?" George believed the United States had become "the monster nation of the world. . . . This is destroying our society. It’s like the alcoholic that can’t let go." Pacifism, to him, meant following Jesus’ message of love, forgiveness, and acceptance of suffering, along with active nonviolent resistance.

The Willoughbys were asked if they were happy with the term "primitive Christians," which is sometimes applied to Quakers. They preferred to consider themselves "early Christians"—the believers who practiced in advance of the concept of the divinity of Jesus and of the ascension of Constantine. Here George mentioned William Penn as his ideal of a politician. He conceded that Penn struggled with pacifism and had to make a number of compromises, but liked his pragmatism. He felt that Penn’s signal contribution to peacemaking was his treating fairly with the Indians. Politicians today, by contrast, didn’t struggle with nonviolence.

Our prolonged discussion of war-making by her nation had begun to weigh heavily on Lillian. "We’ve been training terrorists for all these years," she said, "through the School of the Americas. Now we’re the terrorists ourselves." She concluded, "For the first time in my life, I feel I’m not a part of the United States of America. We ought to recognize that we’re the United States. We ought to be different. But instead of finding a way to deal with conflict, people want to eliminate the opposition."

She bowed her head and spoke inaudibly, unable to continue. The interview ended, and the Willoughbys gathered up their things. Tomorrow would be another day for making their testimony to the whole world.

Gregory A. Barnes

Gregory A. Barnes is a writer and a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. He is completing a joint biography of George and Lillian Willoughby.