“And as they war not against men's persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men's lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God.”
James Nayler – The Lamb’s War 1657
What is the Lamb’s War?
During the 1650s the young Quaker movement launched a nation-wide preaching campaign of great vigour and intensity that became known as the Lamb’s War, referring to the book of Revelation in which John of Patmos recorded his visions of Christ’s final defeat of evil on earth and the establishment of the New Jerusalem. Doug Gwyn has called the Lamb’s War a ‘cultural revolution’ because it involved a comprehensive attack on all those institutions and practices that sustained the existing order and a proclamation of the coming of a new divine order.
The massive scope and rapid success of the Lamb’s War caused significant disquiet within the establishment. The apocalyptic imagery and language was disturbingly militaristic and many thought that the Quakers intended to overthrow the state by force. By the late 1650s rumours circulated widely about Anabaptists and Quakers coming to cut people’s throats.
Early Quaker Eschatology
The early Quaker claim that “Christ is come to teach his people himself” was for them an announcement that the great spiritual battle outlined in Revelation had begun.
Early Quakers expected that the inward transformation of individuals would lead to the outward transformation of the world. The Lamb’s War was therefore a campaign that took place first of all within the individual and then within the world. In this sense Quaker eschatology was both realised (within the individual) and to be realised (within the world).
Friends were certain that the final outcome would be the triumph of justice over evil and the establishment of God’s kingdom. However, this transformation was dependent on a human response. It required a universal acceptance of the power of the Lamb to crucify evil and resurrect the new creation within the individual and then within the world. Every human won by the Lamb weakens the power of the ‘Beast’.
The early Quaker movement experienced an inward liberation that they understood in terms of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Having rediscovered the pearl of inner and outer peace for all people, they were prepared to risk everything to establish the kingdom of God.
The Practice of the Lamb’s War
The methods used by early Friends in conducting the Lamb’s War reflected their understanding of the way in which God deals with evil.
The Lamb’s War was very much a corporate endeavour. It did not involve a lapse into personal piety. Early Friends recognised that the process of realising God’s kingdom on earth was a job for a gathered people, not for isolated individuals.
Despite the assertiveness and militaristic language of the Lamb’s War, it was a consistently non-violent campaign. Their religious experiences had taught Friends that spiritual transformation must involve a genuine change of heart and that this by its nature could not be achieved by force and coercion.
Instead of using force, the Lamb’s War was a campaign in which Friends sought to persuade others by the example of their lives and by the suffering they were prepared to endure. Friends were willing to face severe persecution rather than transgress the law of God written in their hearts.
The message of the Lamb’s War was addressed to everyone. For example, when Quakers spoke to those in authority, their principle aim was to prompt the moral reform of the powerful. No individual was regarded as entirely lost to the cause of the Lamb.
This was a struggle for liberation that sought to free people from bondage to the ‘lusts’ that produce injustice and destructive aggression. The struggle was to be won by turning people away from the evil present in the world and inward towards the power of the Lamb working in their hearts.
Shalom and the Lamb’s War
Through the Lamb’s War, Friends committed themselves to God’s project of liberating each and every soul and every part of the creation. They sought the restoration of all things to God’s order and kingdom by re-establishing the hearing and obeying relationship that humans had originally experienced with God in Eden.
The process of spiritual transformation experienced by early Friends convinced them that there would be no peace while two wills competed for supremacy (self-will and God’s will). The events enacted by the Lamb in their hearts (revelation, judgement, purging and restoration) were regarded as a microcosm of the events to be enacted throughout the whole of creation.
Friends believed that the Lamb’s War would bring people to gospel order, which is God’s shalom.
Guiton, G. (2005) ‘Growth and Development of Quaker Testimony 1652–1666 and 1960-1994: Conflict, Non-Violence and Conciliation’ (Edwin Mellen Press)
Gwyn, D. (1986) ‘Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox 1624-1691’ (Friends United Press)
Gwyn, D (1992) ‘The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism’ (Quaker Books)
Nayler, J. (1657) ‘The Lamb’s War’ in ‘The Works of James Nayler’, vol. 4 (Quaker Heritage Press)
Weddle, M. B. (2001) ‘Walking the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century’ (Oxford University Press)