Why Quakers Stopped Voting



In 1762, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting approved a minute stating: “Liberty of conscience being . . . essential to the well-being of religious societies, we . . . therefore advise and exhort all in profession with us, to decline the acceptance of any office or station in civil government, the duties of which are inconsistent with our religious principles.” The meeting further agreed, “Friends ought not, in any wise, to be active or accessory in electing, their brethren to such offices.” In other words, don’t hold office, don’t work for candidates, and don’t vote.

The other North American yearly meetings followed suit. In some books of discipline, a list of offices was added to the general prohibition, listing positions ranging from state and federal legislatures to a local justice of the peace. If a Friend held a job in government, he was to be labored with and, if he was unwilling to resign his position, disowned. The ban on participation in elections was explicit; Friends were admonished not to support or vote for any office seeker, whether or not the candidate was a Friend.

This marked a new understanding of how Quakers should relate to the wider world. At that time, British Friends were not allowed to hold office, but many (who were male property owners) voted. In the American colonies, Quakers controlled the two colonies they had founded (West Jersey and Pennsylvania) and held substantial political power in two more (Rhode Island and North Carolina). In Pennsylvania, Quakers held a majority in the provincial assembly for 70 years—well after they had ceased to be a majority of the population.

As you might guess, our testimony against participation in war was an important element in this advice. Britain and France fought a series of wars in the eighteenth century, and colonists were expected to help pay the costs. Where Friends were in the minority, an individual assemblyman could vote against raising an army or imposing military taxes and levies, but that wasn’t an option when Quakers controlled the government. Instead, a variety of subterfuges were employed. Money would be raised “for the King’s use”—as if it were not known what use that might be. In one case, the Pennsylvania assembly voted to provide the provincial militia with “bread, beef, pork, flour, wheat or other grain.” Grains of gunpowder were among the supplies purchased. A breaking point came when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754. Rather than continue the deception, many Quakers resigned their government posts; the yearly meeting acted eight years later.

This happened at a time when there was a sense that the “hedge” protecting Quakers from the wider society was failing. Friends were no longer separate from “the world”—they were accommodating to it and becoming comfortable with its ways. In reaction, a spirit of reform swept through the American yearly meetings in the middle of the century. Withdrawal from public affairs was part of that reformation.

American Friends could have followed the British example—giving up the government service, but continuing to vote. Their decision to end all involvement in the political process resulted from an emerging understanding that governments by their nature are violent—all use coercion and military force to achieve their goals—and Quakers could not allow themselves to be entangled in that carnage.

The legitimacy of warfare rests on the assumption that the government has the authority to use armed force. The divine right of kings is one way of claiming that mandate; since God anointed the king or queen, all subjects were bound to obey the sovereign’s commands. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, this justification was supplanted by another one in the English-speaking world. The government was empowered to act by gaining the assent of those who were governed. This was achieved by a vote.

Voting creates a contractual relationship. In exchange for the right to vote, the voter confers legitimacy on the resulting government. Voters grant the election winners the right to act on their behalf. The government speaks in the name of all, not just those who favored the victors. Friends in the eighteenth century realized one implication of voting was that when the resulting government waged war, it was entitled to act in the name of all those who voted. Every voter bore an equal share of guilt for the blood spilled. To Friends, voting ensnared them in an inherently violent and corrupt system. Complete withdrawal seemed the only acceptable option.

There is another element to this decision. From its earliest days, the Society of Friends saw itself as called to an alternative way of living—to model what they called the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Quaker community testified that people should treat all others as vessels for that of God. It demonstrated that a society did not have to be founded on violence and coercion. When people follow the guidance of the Inward Light as best they are able, they become servants of the one God and together form the blessed community. Voting would subordinate them to the authority of the state—they would be serving two masters: God and the government.

Withdrawing from government service, politicking, and voting did not require Friends to be indifferent to the outcomes of elections or the governments formed as a result. Nor did it disqualify them from petitioning lawmakers. In fact, modeling a different way to live uniquely empowered them to lobby the governments of their day. As William Penn said, “They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others.” Having freed their slaves, they had the moral authority to advocate government action to abolish slavery. Having surrendered the shelter of armed force, they could urge the government to do likewise from a demonstrated position of experience.

Friends today have largely forsaken both parts of this testimony. We are more likely to vote than the average citizen and are not inhibited from civil service. But the realities inspiring our actions in the eighteenth century are alive today. Governments still depend on force, coercion, and violence, both in foreign relations and domestically.

Some will object that voting is a civil duty and if we don’t participate, the resulting government is more likely to consider deadly force a legitimate tool. Besides, they say, aren’t there times when the outcome of an election is too important? I felt that way in 2008. The opportunity to symbolically repudiate racism by voting for Barack Obama was too important. Moreover, he promised to end the war in Iraq, and I was sure he would stop the use of torture, secret prisons, drone assassinations, and so much more. Like many Americans, I listened for what I wanted to hear.

The symbolic result was achieved, but racism has not vanished. The wars have not ended. Drone strikes and assassinations continue. I have accepted my share of responsibility and guilt for all those actions undertaken in my name. There is blood on my hands.

Even so, I believe God still has hopes and dreams for me. I can try again to live a faithful life and a life of faith. I may not always succeed, but it is my calling as a Friend. I believe that it is our calling as Children of the Light. God gathered us to be a light unto the nations—to live in gospel order, relating to each other, the wider world, and all of creation in a different way. This is our mission as a community. When we vote, do we live up to that calling?

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. His most recent book is The Essential Elias Hicks.

22 thoughts on “Why Quakers Stopped Voting

  1. There are so many problems in society that only working together as supporters of a political party or government can we solve: wage slavery, the urge to make war on other nations, poverty and the lack of education that I feel I must vote for those principles in which I believe.

  2. It’s tempting for Friends to try to be “pure” in our actions, accordingly with how our consciences are illuminated by the Inward Light, and I have in the past been moved by this call to purity myself. The urge to “not vote” as an exercise of conscience and faith is an example of this.

    In this election, assuming it isn’t overtaken by events, either Clinton or Trump will be declared the victor. The candidates are strikingly different in their stated propensity to militarily confront Russia, and of course Ms. Clinton has actual experience in regard to advocating war that we must consider. In fact, the Obama administration, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, is dangerously confronting Russia right now.

    So one might ask him or herself, which is more important, to maintain the purity of my conscience, or to do whatever I can to prevent the election of someone who seems quite willing to risk a war with Russia? For the sake of my children, and all children, I would be willing to tarnish my conscience, and my choice is clear. I have positive reasons to support Mr. Trump, but this negative one alone would decide it for me. I don’t want a President who is reckless enough to militarily confront Russia for the sake of Aleppo and for armed insurgents trying to topple the government of Syria. The stakes are just too high.

    Not voting, in itself, absolves one of nothing, in my opinion. I don’t think we should flagellate ourselves for past actions; we all do the best we can with the knowledge and illumination we have at the time. But if we can act now, in whatever small way, to forestall great harm, we should do so.

  3. As a young Friend, I do not support war, but I can’t not vote for fear that it’ll result in more conflict between nations. Voting takes sides, but if one considers a vote to increase peace which is one of the five main testimonies/values, then voting is not a bad thing.

  4. Thank you for engaging! It helped me with my thinking. My conscience suggests Jill as the best choice, for I go with diplomacy instead of war.

  5. There are many more things that congress and the president do than “wage war.” Our votes place individuals who pass and enforce laws regulating commerce, health and the environment, for example.

    Our votes directly influence these policies. To not vote is to diminish our influence.

  6. I’m a Friend who’s felt personally called to lay down voting. I can’t, in any case, vote for any candidate empowered to authorize the use of lethal violence against anyone, or I become a killer by proxy, thereby unfit to be a member of Christ. But I vote every day for God to remain the world’s almighty ruler when I pray “Thy kingdom come.” It’s not just a figure of speech. Please think about that, Friends.

  7. Just for the sake of truth, I am a lapsed Quaker. I have given up my membership in the RSoF, because 90% of Quakers (by my estimation) are perfectly fine with using the proxy violence of government to accomplish any number of goals unrelated to peace. That, I cannot tolerate. You, I cannot tolerate. Sorry to be so direct, I know that’s not the Quaker way, but when it comes down to brass tacks, a Quaker will be that direct.

    I’m not an idiot. I live in the world. I accept that we probably have a more peaceful society when professionals enforce the law, or at least, *a* law. But those professional should not have a monopoly on violence, and they should only be able to use violence as an agent of the people they are protecting, and thus should not have any kind of immunity to prosecution. That mostly describes 1% of what governments do. Mostly governments use violence against peaceful people. As such, I cannot help but conclude that a Quaker must be an anarchist, or at least a libertarian.

    The straw that broke my camel’s back was when I was told to my face at a FGC Gathering that all libertarians were racists. First, because it’s not true. Here was this Quaker carrying a testimony that is not truth-telling. Second, because this Friend very obviously thought that no card-carrying Libertarian would be caught dead at any Quaker event.

  8. Sadly, it appears commenters here — friends, as you call yourselves, are as ignorant to the true and good principles laid out in this article as are those in my fellow Mormon tribe. This article is so clearly written that even a child could understand the principles laid out herein, and yet it seems the adults are the ones choosing to be childishly ignorant to the importance of heeding this counsel. If 2008 showed us anything, it is that one president — one election — these make zero difference in the grand scheme of things. It is really the people, willfully idle in matters of deepest importance, who most directly dictate the direction of our society. Many are up to speed on the latest buzz surrounding the lives of all the inconsequential Hollywood idols, yet have no idea how many countries the US is currently bombing. Thank you to the author for reassuring me that at least one other soul in the world sees (and still seeks) the light.

  9. Great article. I agree that voluntarily participating in a system in some way legitimizes it (at least with respect to the participant). From an ethical standpoint, when that system is founded on coercion, it stands to reason that it lacks legitimacy and therefore should not be supported (e.g., through voting). Additionally, and based on the statistic cited in the article that (historical abstention notwithstanding) today’s Quakers are more likely to vote than average citizens, it appears the suggestion made by another commenter that Quakers may find it more convenient to shirk voting “responsibilities” than to fulfill such a “civic duty” is misguided. Rather, the far stronger temptation for conscientious persons (in this case, within the Quaker community) appears to be to set aside the moral imperative to forsake injustice in all its forms (including socially accepted paradigms like so-called “representative” government) and instead conform to more popular and self-gratifying norms, like the contradiction in terms that voting for the “lesser of two evils” can in any way serve as a righteous act.

  10. With the centennial of women’s voting rights in Ohio, I have been researching Friends position on voting rights. I loved this article, Paul, and chuckled with the “”analysis paralysis” arising from deeply considering the moral consequences of pragmatic decision making — so quaker. Thank goodness someone is thinking deeply. The emphasis of the essay was the moral struggle of implied support of the war tool by voting for governments that will often resort to war in achieving moral goals. Missing was a discussion of other Friends’ moral guides; simplicity, equality, integrity and service. My family has been deeply pursuing equality for centuries. And yes, it is true that we favored the equality over peace at some times. My cousin Coppock was hanged for treason in 1859 at Harpers Ferry. Some family members are unhappy about that and others consider him a hero. His brother died fighting for equality in the Civil War. Morality is difficult and complex. In representing the quaker line of my family, I will continue to vote with equality my number one qualifier for those seeking public office.

  11. We have opportunity today to fight racism, the lying media and the fomenting of war. This current President has done more than any other to lift up the African American people, providing jobs for work, opening up opportunity zones for the poorer communities, giving opportunity to enroll in better schools, releasing those from prison with unjust sentences (Alice Johnson), prison reform, giving African American leaders a voice at round table discussions in the White House on a number of issues, including prison reform and police reform. This President has made every effort to pull out of war and bring our troops home and has lifted up the working man. He has honored those who have served ethically and worked to protect our freedom and the nation from the onslaught from within that is trying to tear us down. He has done much to remove the sin of human trafficking from this nation and the nations and has fought against religious persecution. Please vote this fall. TY

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