'H' is for a Harmless People - Early Quaker Attitudes to War and Peace


For some time now a debate has been raging among scholars about whether the first generation Friends were genuinely pacifist or whether they only adopt this position as a matter of political expediency with the fall of the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the monarchy. Against the position of Marxist historians such as Berry Reay, Gerard Guiton in his book The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’: Peace, Testimony and Revolution’ has argued that early Friends were consistently nonviolent in their beliefs and conduct. David Boulton in his recent Presidential address to the Friends Historical Association has criticized Guiton’s work and defended the conclusions of Reay et al.


The uniquely Quaker argument for the rejection of violence from a new covenant apocalyptic perspective can be observed in the writings of early Friends and in particular in the first four public documents that attempted to explain and justify the Quaker Testimony against war. Here we see George Fox explicitly linking peaceable principles with a new covenant understanding:
"The Jews’ sword outwardly, by which they cut down the heathen, was a type (that is a figure) of the spirit of God within which (spirit) cuts down the heathenish nature within. So live in the peaceable Kingdom of Christ… and not in the lusts from whence wars arise." George Fox – Epistle, 1659
The first four public declarations about the peaceable principles of early Friends are:
  • James Nayler’s The Lamb’s War (1657). 
  • Edward Burrough’s To the Present Distracted and Broken Nation of England (1659) 
  • Margaret Fell’s A Declaration and an Information from us the People of God called Quakers (1660) 
  • George Fox and Richard Hubberthorne’s A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers (1661) 
The Argument in Summary
(taken from Lloyd Lee Wilson (2005) Wrestling with our Faith Tradition: Collected public Witness 1995-2004, pp.101-103)

We have been disarmed by the Lord - The roots of all war can be found in human nature in its fallen state (where humans are alienated from God) and in particular in our desire to exclusively and selfishly possess and use the creation (the lust of greed). However, we have experienced a spiritual transformation in which God has lifted us out of the fallen state and taken us back into the state of paradise again. This process has destroyed the lusts that lead to war. We have been turned away from the world and towards God. This has not been achieved by our own efforts but by the work of Christ within us. Christ has freed us from the motivation and compulsion that causes humans to fight.
"Our principle is, and our practices have always been, to seek peace and ensue it; to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God; seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all. We know that wars and fightings proceed from the lusts of men, as James iv. 1--3, out of which the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the occasion of war. The occasion of war, and war itself (wherein envious men, who are lovers of them-selves more than lovers of God lust, kill, and desire to have men's lives or estates) ariseth from lust All bloody principles and practices, as to our own particulars, we utterly- deny; with all outward wars and strife, and fightings with - outward weapons, for any end, or under an pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world.” Fox, Hubberthorne et al 1661
Christ is our king and he has commanded us not to fight - We regard Christ as our priest, prophet and king. Our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, not to worldly governments. Christ consistently commanded his followers not to fight. He prevented Peter from using violence at his arrest and refused to use force himself even though the power was at his disposal (Matthew 26:51-53). Christ came to save, not to destroy (Luke 9:56). The use of violence represents idolatry and a lack of faith. God’s people must rely exclusively on the Lord to protect them and should patiently endure persecution (Revelation 13:10).
“…Christ said to Peter, 'Put up thy sword in his place;' though he had said before, he that had no sword might sell his coat and buy one (to the fulfilling of the law and the Scripture), yet after, when he had bid him put it up, he said, ‘he that taketh the sword, shall perish with the sword.’ And further, Christ said to Pilate, 'Thinkest thou, that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?' And this might satisfy Peter, (Luke xxii. 36), after he had put up his sword, when he said to him. 'He that took it, should perish with it;' which satisfieth us, (Matt. xxvi. 51-53) And in the Revelation, it is said, 'He that kills with the sword, shall perish with the sword; and here is the faith and the patience of the saints.(Rev. 13:10)'” Fox, Hubberthorne et al 1661

The Kingdom of God cannot be established by human force - The Kingdom of God is fundamentally different from the kingdoms of the world (John 18:36). God has made it clear that the Kingdom will be achieved by spiritual means, not by force (Zechariah 4:6). Christ has led us into the new peaceable covenant mentioned by the prophets (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). In this state we are literally unable to engage in violence and war. Therefore we are engaged in a spiritual struggle with spiritual weapons, not an outward war with physical weapons (2 Corinthian 10:4).
“..for we have chosen the Son of God to be our King, and he hath chosen us to be his People; whose Kingdom is not of this World (John 18:3), neither is his Warfare with carnal Weapons (2 Corinthians 10:4), neither is his Victory by the murdering and killing of men’s Persons; but we are given up to bear and suffer all things for his Name's sake; and our present Glory and Renown therein stands till the appointed time of our Deliverance, without the Arm of Flesh, or any multitude of an Host of men; this we declare.” Edward Burrough 1659
We want everyone to enter the Kingdom of God - We are not interested in fighting for the kingdoms of this world or trying to take them over. These kingdoms will be replaced by God’s Kingdom. So we wait and pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God where Christ will rule in every one of us. It is Christ’s rule in human hearts that brings Shalom. This is God’s wish and intent.
“The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.” James Nayler 1657

We recognise the right of government to punish evil-doers - We recognise that in the world as it currently is (i.e. a fallen world) God has set up government and the law to use force and violence where necessary to control and punish those who do evil (Romans 13).
"Therefore in love we warn you for your soul's good, not to wrong the innocent, nor the babes of Christ, which he hath in his hand, which he cares for as the apple of his eye; neither seek to destroy the heritage of God, nor turn your swords backward upon such as the law was not made for, i.e., the righteous; but for sinners and transgressors, to keep them down.” Fox, Hubberthorne et al 1661

Those who are sympathetic to the idea that Friends were not consistently nonviolent in the 1650s have pointed to a number of Quaker texts written around 1658-1659 which appear to give encouragement to Cromwell and the army in using force against their enemies:
"Had you been faithful and thundered down the deceit, the Hollander had been your subject and tributers; and Germany had given up to have done your will; and the Spaniard had quivered like a dry leaf, wanting the virtue of God; the king of France should have bowed under you his neck; the Pope should have withered as in winter; the Turk in all his fatness should have smoked. You should not have a-stood trifling about small things but minded the work of the Lord as he began with you at first… Arise and come out, for had you been faithful you should have crumbled Nations to dust…"
Oh! Oliver – George Fox (In Burrough’s Good Counsel and Advice, 1659)
"Had you been faithful to the power of… God …(and) gone into the midst of Spain … to require the blood of the innocent that there had been shed and commanded them to have offered up their inquisition to you … and knocked at Rome’s gates … and set up a standard… then you should have sent for the Turk’s idol, the Mahomet, and plucked up idolatry.’ To the Council of Officers and the Army – George Fox, 1658/9
"…and the God of heaven is setting up his Kingdom over the kingdoms of the world, degeneration is entered amongst all, and all must be purged of all orders of men, and the evil cast out, the work of the Lord is great and mighty, and he requires no help from thee, nor any man whatsoever, for his own arm will bring it to pass, yet he would not have thee to gain-say his work, and strive against it, and seek to quench what the Lord is bringing forth, if thou do it, then thou be condemned, and the Lord will speedily execute his judgement, and remove thee, and overthrow thy power and authority into destruction; wherefore be passive in this matter and look thou at the Lord, and protect and defend men’s persons and (?) from wrong, but meddle not with their opinions and professions in religions, to exalt any of them nor yet to persecute them; and as concerns armies abroad, act faithfully and just men that will not seek themselves be put in turst, for the Army is of great concernment to thee, to stand or fall through them as to man’s account, and the war against Spain be faithful to God in it, and let trusty men have authority, the Lord may accomplish something by it to his honour and to thine, if thou be meek and humble and walk with the Lord; and to say no more about it, there is something in it known to the Lord, and he may bring it to pass in his reason." Good Counsel and Advice Rejected – Edward Burrough to Oliver Cromwell 1658
"And this I do know, that the Lord hath owned and honoured our English Army, and done good things for them and by them in these Nations in our age, and the Lord once armed them with the spirit of courage and zeal against many abominations and tyrannies, and he was with them in many things which he called them to, and gave them victory and Dominion over much injustice and oppression, and over Tyrants and cruel Laws and he was with them till that a spirit of vain glory and Ambition and self-seeking, and the honour of this world entered into some and defiled the whole body, & made it deformed & void of its former beauty, and of its valour and nobleness also, at which the anger of the Lord was kindled, and against you also was his hand turned, with the losse of his presence, because the sincerity & the faithful principle was almost choaked & the good eaten out from amongst you, by the false spirit of self-seeking and vain glory, which was entered into the hearts of many but this is to the army in general, and to say no more of it to you, only that you might search your own hearts, and may be purged, and may again return to the old spirit of righteousness, which will reach after the liberty of the people and the freedom of the Nations, and that all oppression and tyranny and unjust powers may be broken down to the dust before you, and be subdued by you as your prey, and that there be no more a looking back by you for rest and ease in the flesh, in great houses of residence, till you have visited Rome and inquired after, and sought out the innocent blood that is buried therein, and avenge the blood of the guiltless through all the Dominions of the Pope, the blood of the just it cryes through Italy and Spain, and the time is come that the Lord will search it and seek it out and repay it, and it would be your honor to be made use of by the Lord in any degree in order to this matter, whether the Lord will revenge the grievous blood-guiltiness that lies upon them, 30 by himself without an instrument, or whether by you or others as an instrument, whether this way or another; that God will do it, this I determine not, but this I do know, the time is not long, that he will one way or another avenge and revenge the blood of the just upon the murderous head; and this I also believe that the Lord will do it, or make way hereunto even by you, the men of our English Nation, if you be faithful to him, and do what he requires of you, for what are these few poor Islands that you have run through, and laid many mountains low, and wounded the remainder of the Romish Idolatry that was standing in the beginning of your Wars, and the remaining part thereof, which stood between the dayes of Queen Mary, and the last years of Charles hath received a mortal blow, both by you, and partly as preparers of the way, but what are these little Islands of England, & Scotland· Ireland, they are but little in comparison of the great part of Christendom in which Idolatry, tyranie and grievous oppressions do abound, which the hand of the Lord is against, and which he will take vengeance upon." A Visitation and Warning Proclaimed - Edward Burrough & Samuel Fisher, 1659

What do these mixed messages tell us about early Quaker attitudes to war and the use of violence? I suggest that this reflects a distinction that early Friends made between two different dimensions of divine providence; how God acts through the people of God and how God acts through the powers of this world:

A. God’s People – have been regenerated and therefore liberated from the lusts that lead to violent conflict. In the new covenant God’s people defeat evil using spiritual weapons rather than carnal weapons.

B. This World – In this world God may use the rebellious powers and unregenerated people to achieve divine ends. Since the powers of this world use violence, divine providence may be exercised in this way.

It would seem that this apparent contradiction can be explained by recognizing that the vision of Early Friends assumed that in the new covenant the people of God were in some sense already living in the God’s kingdom even though they were still located in a world that has not yet been regenerated. This meant that they saw an overlapping to two modes of existence with two different standards of conduct and ethics.


  1. Interesting stuff, especially given the somewhat mixed history of Anabaptist commitment to non-violence. What are the implications of this for the modern world and for the pacifists within it?

  2. I think the early Quaker position raises lots of contemporary questions. I'll briefly mention two:

    1. We need to consider how to manage the tension between peaceableness as a fruit of the Spirit (which may involve a long, slow and arduous individual process of renewal) and our opposition to war as a more general ethical principle. Is it hypocritical to condemn war in general when we still have the seeds of war within our hearts? I think that this issue demands individual humility and the willingness to submit to careful spiritual discernment within our communities.

    2. Are we prepared to countenance the possibility that God pursues divine ends through the violence actions of the world's powers. If Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace shows us how God deals with evil, can it be possible that God acts in ways that contradict the way of Jesus? Is this where we have to admit that we are incapable of understanding the mystery that is God or is that just a cop-out?

    3. Early Anabaptists and Quakers do seem to model a way for us that is pacifist but not passivist.

  3. A fascinating exposition Stuart, many thanks for this. It seems difficult to decribe the early Quaker position as pacifist in the modern sense, as they clearly accepted the State's right to use violence for the purpose of 'keeping down' sinners and transgressors, (apparently including foreign powers).
    My understanding of orthodox Christian theology is that God's purposes can be fulfilled through the violent actions of evil-doers (eg Yahweh 'hardened the heart of Pharaoh'). This has always seemed impossible to accept, unless one is also willing to say that God 'hardened the heart of Hitler'. I'd be interested to know where you stand personally on this.
    In Frendship,

  4. Thanks for your thoughts Craig. I see early Quakers as people who by the transformative power of the Spirit were in many ways liberated from the limitations and prejudices of their day but who nevertheless remained people of their time and place. They clearly bought into the dominant understanding of divine providence even though it appears to conflict with their understanding that God's people are freed of the motivations that lead to violent conflict and that the kingdom of God would be realised by spiritual struggle rather than physical force. I believe that in Jesus God shows us how God deals with evil. Jesus refuses to resort to evil in confronting evil and maintains his moral independence of the powers of this world. In him evil and violence hit a brick wall and are defeated. As a result I can't accept that God actively seeks to achieve divine ends by using violent means. That doesn't mean the God as Spirit is not an active presence. It may be that if God is 'love and truth' then God's Spirit may be active in all people (including armies, governments and empires) as an influence in favour of peace and justice. I think that is very different from arguing that God actively uses systems of repression and violence.

  5. These are very interesting comments, so thank you both.

    My book, The Early Quakers and the 'Kingdom of God', was about how the central focus of the early Quakers was the Kingdom of God.

    You have mentioned 5 EQ positions against the use of violence. These seem water-tight nonviolent positions according to their own Light but perhaps to ours too. The Kingdom was unconditional to time and space. Today, I do not know of any theologian who regard the Kingdom of God as violent.

    However, the 'violent' tracts are problematic at first. I address them comprehensively in the book. Crudely, I maintain they contain apocalyptic language which the first Friends gleaned from their wide knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. This language contains much metaphor (with which Friends like M. Fell were well acquainted) and anagogy. Biblical language, and particularly from the Hebrew Bible, is often militaristic. They simply used this language, at face value so to speak, without agreeing with the violence of the words. This was actually common practice at the time.

    There is need for more research on early Quaker linguistics, but also, among modern Friends, a greater appreciation (urged in my book) for the astounding theological competency of the early movement's literati such as Samuel Fisher.

    Were the EQs pacifist? It's a common question today because many people, Friends or otherwise, think 'pacifism' has a long lineage. It is of recent origin. They were certainly nonviolent, however. The two of course are not the same. They were nonviolent because they believed Jesus was nonviolent, and that the Lamb's War (itself clearly nonviolent--even its name suggests it!) for spreading the Kingdom on earth needed to be correspondingly nonviolent. There's a simple logic at work here, I think, and indeed they wrote many, many, MANY tracts in favour of non-'carnal' weaponry.

    They were also in favour, sensibly, of what we would call 'police action'. They were not up for a social free-for-all. This is clear, for instance, from the injunction at the bottom of p. 5 of the Fox-Hubberthorne declaration (erroneously) called the 'peace testimony' by modern Friends. They had this in common with people like Gerrard Winstanley who in 'The Law of Freedom' distinguished between a 'fighting army' and a 'ruling army' (see my book p. 338). All this has to be contextualised vis-a-vis the concept of 'army'. We have a modern view of this word. The ancients had a different view as my book outlines, and in it I commend the work of Coleby. His work on the nature of the civil aspect of the NMA needs studying by supporters of the Marxist position. Indeed, as we're talking about contexts, the Marxist position must itself be seen within the context of the 20th century's cold war when Marxist apologists, very active across the whole intellectual spectrum, were busy creating scholarly apologies for the revolution (take a peak at 'New Left Review' and the Marxist-inspired journals, 'The Seventeenth Century' and 'History Workshop'). Looking back to the seventeenth century English 'revolution' they saw justification for their own revolutionary stance. The EQs were recruited to their cause but they failed to understand the nature and direction of EQ mystical and apocalyptic language.

    In the modern context we would of course be unwise to adopt the EQ weltanschauung wholesale. But their understanding of the Kingdom--again, the purpose of the book--needs closer examination in my view because it has much to teach us today.

    To this end I have written a short work which is very near completion. I've written it for a general audience for today's milieu and intend to call it 'The Way of Blessedness'. In it I make use of a small number of early Quakers but take a magnifying glass to the Kingdom itself. I call it 'The Way' and examine 12 of its principal features and 12 outcomes of following the 'Way'.

  6. Dear Gerard, thank you for your helpful comments. I have very much appreciated both of your previous books. I have one or two quibbles with 'Kingdom' but the amount of material from early Friends that it makes available is extensive and very valuable. I look forward to reading 'The Way of Blessedness', best wishes with its completions. Blessings, Stuart.

  7. Relevant is Robert Barclay's An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several Princes of Europe met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom (1677), which he produced having journeyed to the continent with Fox in 1676, the background being the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1678. In this pamphlet Barclay called upon kings who are Christians to behave accordingly, Jesus being Lord of All. He also said 'Magistry is an ordinance of God who bear not the sword in vain', referring to Rom 13:1-4. His call was for peace-making not disarmament as such. The eventual Treaty of Nijmegen (1679) established a long-standing peace between France and the Dutch Republic, so Barclay's words may have had some effect.

  8. Thank you Mark, that's very interesting. I think after the first generation, the opposition to war and commitment to peace became a more general ethical principle rather than just an indicator or new birth in Christ.

    Shalom, Stuart.


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