Several years ago, a local television station set up a table in a shopping mall and asked people to sign a petition. What they didn’t say was that the petition was a summary of the Bill of Rights from the U.S. Constitution. As you might expect, many shoppers didn’t even stop and look, but surprisingly, of those who did stop, many refused to sign. The document, they said, was too radical, maybe even subversive. It made for a dandy piece on the news that night.
As I was thinking about this special issue of Friends Journal, that story came to mind. The Declaration of 1660 is known to many Friends as the first corporate statement of our Peace Testimony, but how many Quakers, I wondered, knew what it said? How many would agree with it? It seemed essential that a special issue on the Peace Testimony should include the text of the document to which so many trace that testimony.
My recollection was that the text of the Declaration was reprinted in a number of yearly meetings’ books of Faith and Practice and that it was only a few paragraphs long. You can imagine my surprise when I found the complete text was a full five pages! (The text can be found on Friends Journal’s website—spelling and punctuation have been modernized to make it easier to follow).
As to the questions above, I had to admit that I didn’t know what it said, and I couldn’t say if I agreed with it or not. Reading it and thinking about what it said were eye-opening. But before considering the text, let me give you a brief description of the conditions under which it was written.
In 1660, England was ending the decade-long experiment in government commonly called the Commonwealth. Civil war had broken out in the 1640s, and although there were political and economic issues that distinguished the various participants, religion was a major cause of the war—I believe it was the most important one. There were three principal sides in the war: the King and the established Church, the Parliament and the Puritans, and the Presbyterian Scots. In 1649, the Parliamentary forces captured King Charles I and he was executed. Initially, Parliament ruled in his place, but after four years of near chaos, the commander of the army, Oliver Cromwell, took control. Although his title was Lord Protector, he ruled like a king or a military dictator.
Five years later, in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died and was replaced by his ineffective son, Richard Cromwell. Now the country truly descended into chaos and senior members of the military conspired to restore the monarchy. In 1660, they brought Charles II, son of the last king, to London and crowned him king.
While much of the country was relieved to have a familiar form of government restored, a small, radical group called the Fifth Monarchy Men opposed it. They believed that Jesus was about to return to Earth, where he would become king of England. Under the Commonwealth the throne had been vacant and, to keep it empty for the coming of King Jesus, they attempted to overthrow the government in January 1661 (the tenth month of 1660 under the old calendar). Their revolt was a dismal failure and those plotters who were not killed during the insurrection were hunted down and executed.
Many in England believed that the Quakers had been involved in the plot and called for their heads. A royal proclamation seemed to indicate that King Charles II might agree with them. The purpose of the 1660 Declaration was to refute these charges and it met with some success. Although many Friends were arrested, no one was executed as an insurrectionist.
There are several things to notice in the declaration, beginning with its title: “A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers.” This is the central theme of the document—that Quakers are “harmless and innocent.” To emphasize this point, the first subtitle (of three) is, “Against all Plotters and Fighters in the World.” Without naming the Fifth Monarchy Men directly, the intended message plainly was, “In particular, we are not among those who attempted to overthrow the king.”
Reading on, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a distinctly religious text, making spiritual claims, not political ones. It directly cites Scripture 11 times to support its case and refers to at least a dozen other verses in developing its argument. The first citation is to the epistle of James and lays out the authors’ understanding of the causes of war. The declaration reads:
We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men (as James 4:1-3), out of which lusts the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war. The occasion of which war, and the war itself (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, and desire to have men’s lives or estates) ariseth from the lust.
The “lusts” referred to here are not merely sexual desires, but all human desires, including the desire for wealth and power, knowledge and recognition, praise and acclaim. War is declared to be the natural product of human desire and from this we can reasonably infer that, since desire lies in the heart of each person, war is inevitable. Nowhere does the Declaration denounce war itself or ask anyone else to give it up. It is only we Quakers who must “learn war no more.”
But why is fighting wrong for Friends? Several reasons are given, but ultimately, it comes down to one thing: God doesn’t want us to fight and God does not change, i.e., no new or continuing revelation will ever contradict what was previously revealed:
That 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 unto it. And we do certainly know, and so 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.
Furthermore, Quakers cannot engage in violence because we are God’s chosen people. Early Friends believed that others who called themselves “Christian” really were not. All other sects were apostate; they had fallen away from the true path. We were, as the Declaration describes us, “the Elect People of God”—the only true Christians—and because of that, as it repeatedly emphasizes, we were necessarily “innocent and harmless.”
Reading the text, it is equally clear that this is not an antiwar statement. Many Quakers had served in the military during the English civil wars. In fact, when Quakers were forced to resign from the army, George Fox complained that it was unfair. Moreover, while he refused to serve in the military, George Fox recognized the right of the state to use violence to protect itself and its citizens. At one point, the Declaration asks that the government “turn your Swords … [against] the Sinners and Transgressors, to keep them down.” In another paragraph, the government is described as “the power ordained of God for the punishment of evil-doers.” Even preemptive war could be justified. In a meeting with Oliver Cromwell, Fox chastised the Lord Protector for failing to use his army to overthrow the Pope.
Finally, despite all its protestation of innocence, this is a deeply subversive document. First, only “outward weapons” are relinquished. The truly dangerous weapons, the spiritual ones, are retained. An outward weapon may harm the body, but it cannot hurt the soul. What is more, as the Declaration itself notes, spiritual weapons are sufficient to demolish any stronghold (2 Corinthians 10:4).
Second, while distancing itself from the revolt of the Fifth Monarchy Men, it declares:
We do earnestly desire and wait, that (by the Word of God’s power, and its effectual operation in the hearts of men) the Kingdoms of this World may become the Kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ; that he might rule and reign in men.
Nowhere in the whole of the Declaration do the writers make an unequivocal pledge of loyalty to King Charles II and his Parliament. On the contrary, it calls for them to be replaced by the rule and reign of God. It is no wonder that many believed the Quakers were awaiting the imminent return of King Jesus—they were.
Then and Now
In reading and thinking about the 1660 Declaration, I’ve come to appreciate how very different it is from contemporary ideas about peace. It is both more realistic and more utopian than our formulations. It is realistic in seeing conflict, war, and fightings as inevitable products of human desire, and in accepting that governments can and do use violence as a way of achieving their goals. But at the same time, it is utopian in believing that God’s power working on the hearts of men and women will some day end not just war, but the whole system of organized violence on which our political organs depend.
To the 12 Friends who signed the Declaration, being a Quaker meant faithfully ordering our lives solely to the will of God. They declared that those lives would testify to peace—not to convince others or to change their behavior, but because a harmless and innocent life is unavoidable when one becomes a Friend.