Quaker Opposition to War

The seventeenth & eighteenth centuries

The Peace Testimony has thus been a defining aspect of Quakerism for more than 350 years. At an individual level it involved a personal non-violent stance in social interaction, together with conscientious objection to service with the militia. As well as not bearing arms, a Quaker was not permitted to resort to a traditional alternative to militia duty, namely that of paying for a substitute. Additionally Quakers would not pay the fine that was levied upon failure to obey a summons to the militia. This refusal to pay resulted in militia objectors suffering distraint of property or, where they did not have sufficient means to meet this amount, a period of imprisonment. In the 42 years between 1660 and 1702, there were only 14 years in which Quakers in southern England did not experience such fines and imprisonment.

Due to the widespread presence of foreign privateers (armed vessels authorised by their government to attack merchant vessels of foreign countries deemed hostile and to confiscate any merchandise for personal profit) it was an almost universal practice, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for merchant vessels to be armed. The Society remained opposed to Quaker shipowners engaging in this practice and deviations from its prohibition were subject to disciplinary action by the Quarterly Meeting to which the shipowner belonged.

World Wars 1 & 2

Advocacy by the Society of Friends, together with the other historic peace churches, resulted in a greater recognition of a right of conscientious objection in many countries. In Australia, Quakers were at the forefront of opposition to 'boy conscription' under the provisions of the Defence Act of 1910 which required compulsory military training for all able-bodied males between the ages of 12 and 26.

Over time, there was a relaxation of attempts to enforce formal observance of the Peace Testimony in terms of a refusal to engage in military service. Formerly this could attract a range of responses including the sanction of disownment (that is, revocation of membership). Increasingly, these matters became a matter for personal discernment and, during the twentieth century, Quakers who enlisted for military service were not sanctioned for doing so.

During the First and Second World Wars most Quakers liable for military service engaged in some form of alternative service including that with the Friends Ambulance Unit that was created during the First World War and operated during the Second World War as well. Some Quakers did enlist for military service and a small number refused to countenance the alternative service option, on the grounds that this was part of the war process, and were imprisoned as a result.

Further information about Quaker activism during World War 1 can be found on the online exhibition, which can be accessed from this page.

Vietnam and later

Opposition to war has not been confined to Quakers liable for military service. There has been a long history of wider opposition to war from Quakers. At times this has taken the form of quite profound personal witness. One of the most striking of these was the action taken during the Vietnam War by a 31 year old Baltimore Quaker, Norman Morrison, who, on 2 November 1965, doused himself with petrol and self-immolated below the window of the Pentagon office of then Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara. This act had a significant effect on McNamara and appears to have been a motivating factor behind his secret commissioning of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. It also strongly resonated in Vietnam and To Huu, Vietnam's most famous revolutionary poet, wrote a commemorative poem five days after Morrison's death. In a visit to the United States, in 2007, the then President of Vietnam read this poem as a mark of homage to Morrison near to the place of his self-immolation. Also, prior to, and during, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the group of around eighty human shields who stayed at a number of civilian sites in Bagdad in order to prevent these sites being bombed included a number of Quakers, including some from Australia.