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?