The Spirit of Christ and Our Historic Peace Testimony

“Support Ukraine” peaceful protest in Vienna, Austria. Photo by Tetiana Shyshkina.

“The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided . . .” are the stirring words in which leading Friends in 1660 proclaimed what motivated them to “utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons.” It was unconditional: “for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever,” even to fight for the kingdom of Christ!

The present warfare in Ukraine gives us renewed opportunity to look at what guides us, individually and as a Religious Society. I contrast the Spirit of Christ to what I sense all around me as “the spirit of war.”

 I am not exempt from infection by the spirit of war. The daily documentation of atrocity against civilians in Ukraine brings forth universal revulsion but also pushes toward a desire for revenge and punishment. None of us may be far from “righteous anger” and the desire to rally around the “good guys to defeat the bad guys.” American history is full of simplistic triumphalism in which it seems obvious that it is up to us to carry out “the fateful lightning of [God’s] terrible swift sword.” Facing the present war in Ukraine, Quakers among other good people may move beyond their impulse to provide relief to the suffering, and fall into cheerleading for the oppressed and for their military victory.

This is the contemporary context for considering our relation to Friends’ historic peace testimony. I hope to remind fellow Quakers that—then and now—ours is a corporate witness, which goes beyond any call to individual conscientious objection. This declaration of what had been a transformative experience arose not from an analysis of political factors. Rather, it was saying what the Divine Presence had led us to, which of course we would wish for others as well. 

It may have appeared to be only self-interested: pleading with King Charles not to lump Quakers together with the armed revolutionaries. But a reading of their entire statement reveals that they had an immediate and intimate sense of what Jesus’s example was, both historically and as it had transformed their own lives. This was a call to faithfulness, and showed elements of joy as well as determination.

Bryan Garman’s “The Peace Testimony and Ukraine” (FJ, April) documents that in times of war there have been Quakers who strayed from or rejected that historic testimony. Of course numbers never prove the rightness of any position, and Friends’ approach to discernment of the measure of Truth given them is a part of what we treasure as our communal experience. 

It was a painful reality that during the U.S. Civil War large numbers of Quaker youth accepted military service to oppose the evil of slavery. Their meetings often disowned them without severing the fellowship. Following that crisis, Friends found ways to welcome back their young veterans through a ritual of acknowledgement: Friends were brought back into membership after admitting that they had acted out of harmony with Friends’ peaceable testimony. They, and we, have found that those who experienced organized killing became even more determined to try to prevent it.

In that case, as in much else, individuals can be out of unity, unfaithful to elements of what we have stood for. However, the good news is that our human condition of fallibility is met with the grace of God: forgiveness and restoration. These are elements which I hope all of us have both given and received in the face of transgression.

Some would suggest that support for or participation in war is strictly an individual matter, beyond judgment by anyone or any group, an idea that elevates fallible conscience above any divine source of guidance. I hope we can examine this more closely, and be brought to consider whether morality is simply up to individual perception and definition. Alternatively, can our sense of the rightness of a course of action be guided by our submission to God’s presence experienced in community?

More than two millennia of Christian history has shown a predominance of the theory of the Just War, especially within the established churches who so often have had a symbiotic relationship with the state. But I would hope that integrity would compel us to admit and proclaim that ours is a different understanding of the gospel. 

Many of us were first drawn to this Religious Society because of its central place in the peace church tradition. Quakers sought to manifest “primitive Christianity revived.” They recalled that before Emperor Constantine captured the institution of the church, the followers of Jesus “Put up [their] sword into its place” (Matt. 26:52 NEB) and lived a life in which love and peace were present as fruits of the Spirit, transforming human relations. 

Regardless of individuals’ choices, our story as a people is that our testimony against fighting with outward weapons has never been rescinded by Quakers as an organized group. (I note that the “Free Quakers” who supported American colonists’ armed rebellion against Britain were gone by the early 1800s.) It doesn’t matter whether or not governments heed our counsel or follow our example. Jesus’s calling to “Follow me” (both within us and among us) is a voice which I hope we can still hear and heed. Discipleship may be costly, but it leads to life. And the Light given through us—although our numbers may always be small—may bring healing and hope to our troubled world.

David Hadley Finke

David Hadley Finke was peace education secretary in the Chicago office of American Friends Service Committee during the Vietnam conflict. He values his membership in 57th St. Meeting in Chicago, and he and his wife currently worship with Friends in Oberlin, Ohio, where they met as students in the early 1960s.

7 thoughts on “The Spirit of Christ and Our Historic Peace Testimony

  1. Perhaps it is necessary to differentiate between conscience and the inner light attributed to the Divine. Are they two entirely separate spheres of guidance? I think the conscience, like any human faculty, can be in error, especially if it seeks to justify itself and keep itself clear rather than struggle with imperfect choices. It can be faulty, but it is generally a guide that should not be ignored. The inner light, if I’m understanding correctly, is divine guidance ascertained through discernment, which implies using the faculties of mind and heart, analysis and discussion, especially as discernment is considered a community responsibility. This article asserts that the first Quakers knew their stance immediately, which implies that there was no need for discernment. I can say without hesitation or need for elaboration that a war of aggression is wrong. But we’re discussing the defense of people who are being being bombed, shot, and beaten into submission, systematically. The spirit raised in me by these acts is not about revenge or punishment. It’s about stopping the aggression. Could it be about compassion? I’ve always thought that the essence of Jesus’s example is love of neighbor. Does absolute pacifism fulfill the love of neighbor in all circumstances, every time? If I were in the position of Ukrainians, I don’t think I could comprehend what light of Christ it is that compels others to refrain from intervening. I don’t think I’d see it at all. And as I’ve mentioned in a previous comment, I am not a Quaker but I hope to connect with a community soon. Perhaps I don’t have the necessary central ethic, as for me it was not absolute pacifism but the practice of seeking inner light that drew my interest.

  2. Forrest Curo

    9:38 AM (2 hours ago)

    to Friends
    I certainly agree!

    But we should also remember the stories we were told about Kuwaiti babies dumped from their incubators, weapons of mass destruction, and many similar stories from previous wars, that governments in wartime lie; that we must not count our atrocities before we know what happened.

    There is a propaganda war ongoing between the US and Russian governments. Even so, when I search carefully in the best sources I know, I find ample evidence of US involvement in the origins of this war, as well as the likelihood that the atrocities we hear about were the work of Ukrainian forces:
    [and similar pieces on this site. Robert Scheer, as some you may remember, edited ‘Ramparts’ back in the 60’s, and wrote the definitive pamphlet about the historical origins of the US war in Vietnam. Currently his site is providing the best selection of articles on the situation I know of.]

    1. Thank you for this comment. I have not been following this discussion in Friends Journal before now, but I have been very concerned about Quakers and other commentators and activists who base their judgments on incomplete and distorted information. It is pretty clear that those of us who want to work for peace and justice in Ukraine and for a peaceful world need to focus our attention on US foreign policy, it’s disruptive and coercive covert actions in very many countries–one of them being Ukraine–and it’s connection with Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.


    The excruciating dilemma we face as we attempt to reconcile our beloved Peace Testimony with the carnage we see in Ukraine arises, I believe, from a misunderstanding of the witness for peace of early Friends. A more accurate grasp of the historic Peace Testimony may bring greater clarity.

    For early Friends, the Peace Testimony arose in the passion of a heart that had awakened to the Light Within. It sprang from an inward experience—an exalted feeling—of the Light of Christ. As Fox declared in Darby jail (1661), to live in this blessed state is to be “dead” to wars and fighting. One does not adhere to the Peace Testimony as a judgment of the mind, subject to rational consideration, pro and con; rather, it arises from a transformed spiritual life. To use words favored by George Fox: one does not manifest the Peace Testimony by simply “professing” it; one must “possess it” or—more accurately—be possessed by it.

    Early Friends accepted these words in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “If you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (13: 4) They understood this passage to authorize the use of the sword in two circumstances: (1) to deter domestic evil-doers, and (2) to defend against foreign invasion. Fox declared that because of the heightened spiritual state of Friends, they were above the use of the sword; but for those who had not yet attained that state, coercive power was necessary. Leading Friends were consistent over time on this point:

    “Who bears the sword of justice, who use their power to be a terror to the wicked . . . are Ministers of God”. (Edward Burrough, 1656)

    “The outward swordmen have not learned yet to beat their swords and spears into ploughshares and pruning hooks. Yet ye that are in the seed [i.e. Friends], see that you accuse no man falsely, that hath the sword of justice, which is to keep the peace, and is a terror to evil-doers, and to keep down the transgressors, and for the praise of them that do well; this is owned, in its place—but there is a time, when nations shall not learn war any more, but shall come to that which shall take away the occasion of wars.” (George Fox, 1659)

    “When the peaceableness of Quakers has spread over all the earth, fighting will stop . . . but in the meantime I speak not against magistrates or peoples defending themselves out of foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders . . . yet there is a better state, which the Lord has already brought some into [i.e. Friends].” (Isaac Penington, 1661)

    In his authoritative The Quaker Peace Testimony, 1660 to 1914, Peter Brock summarizes the views of Robert Barclay: “it is better for those who have not risen to the standard of the Sermon on the Mount to fight rather than yield to injustice. ” In Barclay’s own words, “We shall not say that . . . war, undertaken upon a just occasion, is altogether unlawful”. (Robert Barclay, 1678)

    Taking them at their word, early Friends would affirm the right of the people of Ukraine to use “the sword” in self-defense.

    As we use the term today, early Friends were not pacifists. The term “pacifism” was coined in the 20th century, hundreds of years after the beginning of Quakerism; applying it to early Friends is an anachronism. “Pacifism” implies a doctrine or system of beliefs that may be supported or refuted by rational argument, without regard for the character and spiritual maturity of those who debate it. In contrast, the Peace Testimony is not an “ism”, not a doctrine or theory; rather, it is an authentic report of one’s spiritual condition.

    Friends’ claim to be a redeemed people was not mere religious arrogance; rather, it arose from their experiences of profound spiritual awakening. William Penn described the impact of such awakening: “They were changed themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them.”

    But what of the 1661 “A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God, Called Quakers, Against All Seditions Plotters, and Fighters in the World”, which is regarded by most Friends today as the true foundation of the Peace Testimony? This Declaration is usually interpreted as an endorsement of pacifism, applying to Quakers and non-Quakers alike, always and everywhere. As most often quoted, the key passage indeed seems to endorse such a position: “All bloody principles and practices . . . we utterly deny; with all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.” Yet the ellipses in this widely-used quotation conceal a key qualifying phrase. Restored, the quotation reads, “All bloody principles and practices as to our particulars, we utterly deny . . .” Fox meant by “our particulars” the state of Friends themselves, in their immediate, concrete situation. (See a similar use of this term in Fox’s letter to Lady Claypoole, Journal, Nickalls edition, p.346.). Friends claimed an exalted spiritual status that they believed would someday be true of all people. Until then, the sword was needed.

    I find the historic Peace Testimony to be more tenable than a principle of pacifism—and I believe the historic Peace Testimony is close to the moral intuitions of most present-day Friends, as well. While they typically favor “soft power” over “hard power,” few Friends reject all coercive power—such as that used to protect innocent persons and maintain good social order. A rejection of all coercive authority is a definition of anarchy—and neither 17th-Century nor 21st-Century Friends are anarchists.

    It is useful to compare the historic Peace Testimony with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the most successful of all 20th-Century advocates of non-violence. A small Indian village had been overrun by a gang of violent marauders, and the men of the village had run away, leaving women and children behind. When challenged to justify their actions, the men claimed to be practicing non-violence. Learning of this incident, Gandhi was outraged. He declared, “He who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death, may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.” I suspect that most Friends today would agree with Gandhi’s judgment. Pacifism at any cost was not the prophetic teaching of early Friends.

    We can speculate how a spiritually mature, well trained and disciplined non-violent force might fare in the defense of Ukraine. I personally believe that such a strategy would have a far better outcome for both the defending Ukrainians and the attacking Russians than the current deadly conflict. When courageously practiced, love is indeed stronger than hate. In keeping with early Friends, however, I cannot withhold my support from the Ukrainian combatants who “have not learned yet to beat their swords and spears into ploughshares and pruning hooks,” and so defend their country with “the sword.” In the present dreadful conflict, my heart lies first with the people of Ukraine, then with the invading troops who are sustaining terrible burdens of physical and moral injury that continue into the future. There are no winners in war.

    Steve Smith is a member of Claremont friends Meeting in California. He is the past presiding clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting, and the author of “Living in Virtue: Declaring Against War,” Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 378, EASTERN LIGHT: AWAKENING TO PRESENCE IN ZEN, QUAKERISM AND CHRISTIANITY (QUPublishing 2015) and “The Original Quaker Peace Testimony,” in Western Friend, January/February 2016.Claremon

    Ps. In this posting, I have adapted some wording from my article, “The Original Quaker Peace Testimony,” published in Western Friend, January/February 2016.

    1. I appreciate this perspective. The qualifying phrase that you bring in here seems critical to understanding the historic peace testimony. Without this context, the testimony comes across as a top down universal edict, beyond question. The incident Gandhi relayed demonstrates, I believe, how insisting on an absolute proscription, even in the service of higher spiritual ideals, can result in an utter moral failure.

      I’m not sure what I think about Fox’s assertion that due to the heightened spiritual state of Friends they were above the use of the sword but for those who haven’t attained that state, coercive power is necessary. I do not consider those who used coercive power to defeat facsism in WWII as less enlightened.

      I do appreciate the perspective presented here.

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