An article I recently read about protesting the Iraq War mentioned how Quakers have historically been against war, and have often counseled people on how to avoid going to war, such as applying for conscientious objector status or by helping people flee to Canada. I thought this was pretty interesting and decided to do a little more reading on Quakers. Turns out, they are a pretty interesting group (though, unfortunately, their numbers seem to be declining).
Quakerism, or the Society of Friends as it is sometimes called, began about three hundred years ago in England by a man named George Fox, who was disheartened with the Anglican Church. He began wandering the English countryside searching for answers, and one day it came to him. He realized that Christ was a present reality, not just someone from the past. He felt that being a Christian didn’t just mean attending church, but living a life that had been changed through Christ, and that church is not simply a building but a fellowship of people. And lastly, someone did not become a minister through schooling and receiving degrees, but rather through their personal connection to Christ and their ability to share that message with others. Quakers focused on inward spiritual experiences, including long periods of silent prayer, and they also choose not to celebrate most holidays, believing instead we should think about these events all the time, not just once a year.
These beliefs led Quakers to do some very outlandish practices for their day – such as giving women an equal voice, protesting slavery and war, making decisions through consultation, and believing that American Indians should be treated as equals. The Quakers were one of the first institutional groups in the U.S. to denounce slavery, and Quakers who had previously owned slaves set them free. Many Quakers were also important actors in the Underground Railway, helping runaway slaves escape to the northern states or to Canada. An interesting side note to this is that Quakers also felt very strongly that one should be honest, so they faced a bit of a conundrum if they were caught by government officials helping runaway slaves. Do you answer the question honestly and say you’re hiding runaway slaves (because you believe honesty is an integral part of living a good Christian life), or do you lie, which you consider a sin, in order to allow runaway slaves to continue their journey toward freedom, because you also believe owning another human being to be sinful. Now that is a moral dilemma! I also read about other ways Quakers found to protest slavery. For example, I read about a Quaker who would refuse to eat in the homes of friends who owned slaves because the food had been prepared by slaves. Of course, this made for many awkward situations, but I think it’s a brilliant, and non-violent, way to show that you believe something is morally wrong. I also read about a Quaker-owned store that refused to sell products made by slaves, which reminded me of fair-trade products that we see today.
Quakers have historically been against war, and most have refused to fight even if there was a draft, choosing jail instead. Their objection to war comes from passages in the Bible that denounce it, such as “wars and fighting proceed from the lusts of men” (James 4:1-3) and “He that takes the sword, shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). They also have a Peace Testimony that they adhere to, which decries the evils of war, as well as preparation for war. Many Quakers also avoid working for companies that make weapons, and some even go so far as to refuse to pay taxes that go toward war. The Society of Friends, as a religious group, even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their efforts toward creating a more peaceful world.
On so many issues, it seems like the Quakers were ahead of their time. Protesting war and slavery, even from the very founding of this country, as well as other issues such as church hierarchy and the oppression of women, were not very popular stances to take. Many Quakers faced ridicule and persecution for their beliefs, but this did not deter them from the moral road they choose to tread. The Bible is a long book, and historically is so old and covers such a long period of time, that people and religious groups have been able to pick and choose passages that suit them in order to defend their beliefs. Sometime I agree with those passages, sometimes I don’t. In terms of the Quakers, I feel like they focused on the right passages. The ones about love and unity. Because in the end, what else matters?