Although Quakers have traditionally been pacifists, some did take up arms and others supported the military in non-combatant ways.
Early Quakers did not object to participating in the military. Many were, in England, Cromwell’s soldiers and sailors. They believed war was sometimes necessary.
Quaker Founder Turned Down Captaincy in Cromwell’s Army
George Fox, considered the founder of Quakerism, was offered a captaincy in Cromwell’s Army. He refused, saying, “I live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” He was promptly thrown into prison.
Eventually, Fox and Richard Hubberthorne drew up the Declaration of 1661, which made pacifism an official Quaker tenet. Quakers were encouraged by fellow Quaker William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and married to Pennington’s step daughter, to give their testimony by “not fighting, but suffering.”
This made American Quakers unpopular. A strong defense against the natives and the French and Spanish armadas was considered crucial by non-Quaker settlers. In some areas conscription laws were enacted to exempt Quakers from military service. In most cases they were required to pay a fine in lieu of service. Many considered paying the fine participation in “warlike preparations” so refused. Some then found their property confiscated.
Yes to War But Peace the Goal
Isaac Pennington said: “I speak not this against any magistrate’s or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their own borders…” Even so, peace was still his goal. He put it this way: “…yet there is a better state which nations are to expect to travel towards.”
Pennington (1617-1679), born into a prominent Puritan family, was son of a Lord Mayor of London. He was well educated and in 1658 he and his wife joined the Quaker movement. Because of his beliefs, Pennington spent 11 years in prison, but as the prime interpreter of this religious movement, he left a legacy of public ministry, his remarkable letters and many publications.
In America, Quaker soldiers and sailors were considered “undisciplined”. They refused to doff their hats and salute their superiors, Many were expelled from the military.
Quaker Pacifism and the Revolutionary War
During the American Revolution many Quakers helped the military. In Philadelphia, these Friends called themselves “Free Quakers”. This caused such a rift that the Free Quakers built their own meeting house.
In other areas few actually enlisted and those that did probably were expelled from the Society. Many Quakers provided supplies, financial aid or medical assistance. Descendants of this latter category of Quaker can be found on the rolls of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Civil War’s Union Cavalry of Quakers
During the Civil War there was a Union cavalry unit made up, in great part, of Quakers. Samuel C. Means, a Quaker, was offered a commission to raise a cavalry of Loudoun County Virginians that were taking refuge in Maryland. He raised two companies, the Loudoun Rangers mustered into service June 20, 1862.
The Rangers set up camps on the Maryland side of the Potomac and made forays into Loudoun, Jefferson and Clarke counties in Virginia. These men also fought at the battles of Fisher’s Hill, Cedar Creek and Monocacy.
In recent conflicts, Quakers have been conscientious objectors, many serving in non-combatant roles. They were medics, chaplains, cooks and clerks and were seldom disowned by their Quaker meetings.
Companion articles name famous Quaker descendants, discuss the Quaker Anti-Slavery Stance and their work with the Underground Railway, and give tips on tracing Quaker ancestors.
- Cameron, Judy, “Quakers in the Military,” The Second Boat, Vol. 17, No. 6 (Winter, 1998).