Quakers’ painful choice

Quakers’ painful choice

William C. Kashatus
Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, July 5, 2015

“Quakers are like antiquated virgins,” snapped Tom Paine, Philadelphia’s most impetuous radical.  “Unwisely mingling religion with politics, they pleasantly mistake wrinkles for dimples, conceive themselves yet lovely and wonder at the stupid world for not admiring them.”

Paine, a fallen Quaker himself, was incensed by the Friends’ refusal to fight in the War for American Independence because of a religious commitment to pacifism. Instead, he sought revenge by criticizing them and writing an incendiary pamphlet titled, Common Sense, to mobilize popular support for the patriot cause.

But Paine’s attempt to define the Religious Society of Friends as a self-centered and cowardly bunch who regretted rather than embraced their neighbors’ patriotism simplifies the complicated circumstances confronting Friends during the American Revolution.

As an American historian and Quaker, I have mixed emotions about the Fourth of July.  While I do believe there are some wars that are worth fighting – even dying for – and that the War for American Independence was certainly one of them, I also sympathize with the painful conflict of conviction experienced by my co-religionists of the late-eighteenth century.

Persecuted by the British government for their non-conformist beliefs, Quakers, led by William Penn, relocated to Pennsylvania in the 1680s and dedicated their “Holy Experiment” to the principles of the liberty of conscience and non-violence.

For them, a people’s right of self-determination in political affairs was just as important as brotherly love in a socially-diverse community.

But the arrival of the French-Indian War forced Friends to choose between those two principles.  Unable to reconcile their pacifist convictions with their wartime responsibilities as government officials in a largely non-Quaker colony, Friends, in 1756, withdrew from the Pennsylvania Assembly and made pacifism a fundamental article of their faith.

In 1776, after the Second Continental Congress declared American independence, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the governing body of Friends in southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, insisted on unconditional neutrality, purging from membership those who violated the Peace Testimony in any way.

While the vast majority of  the Yearly Meeting’s 30,000 members remained neutral, 1,276 were disowned for supporting  the American Revolution: 758 for joining the Continental Army; 239 for paying taxes in lieu of military service or helping to collect revenues to finance the war; 136 for subscribing loyalty tests;  69 for actively assisting the American war effort;  32 for serving on committees for defense; and 42 for miscellaneous deviations, including watching military drills and celebrating independence.