by Christopher Moriarty
This article was published in Teaching Religious Education Issue 3 December 2008
Christopher Moriarty is Clerk of the Historical Committee of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland and a member of a group of volunteers who care for the archives and library of the Society at its headquarters in Ireland: Quaker House Dublin, Stocking Lane, Dublin 16. The library is open to the public on Thursday mornings from 10.30 am to 1 pm.
The Religious Society of Friends was founded by the 17 century Christian visionary George Fox. Its members came to be known as ‘Quakers’. Their beliefs were based firmly on the doctrine revealed in the Bible, and particularly on the teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Four Gospels. They adopted a belief, in distinct opposition to the feelings of the times, that the meaning of the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was unequivocal. Even more important was the instruction of Jesus to ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’. As early as 1651, Fox was jailed for refusing to fight in the English Civil War. William Edmundson, who established the Society’s first meeting for worship in Ireland in 1654, had served as a Cromwellian soldier but renounced violence soon after the end of hostilities in 1651.
In 1660, following the Restoration of King Charles II, Quakers put their views on non-violence in a formal declaration addressed to the king in person. Known over the centuries as ‘The Peace Testimony’ its first paragraph reads as follows:
Our principle is and our practices have always been, to seek peace, and ensue it, and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the good and the welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all. All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fighting with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ which leads us all into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
The declaration was prompted in part from a legalistic angle. Loyalty to the king was required from all his subjects – disloyalty was treason and punishable by death. To refuse to enlist in an army and fight for the king could be construed as treasonable. Quakers were not engaged in any subversion of the legal status quo and insisted on the truth of their claim that they were loyal and law-abiding subjects. The reasoning behind their refusal to bear arms therefore needed to be expressed very clearly. For this and for a number of other points of principle, many Quakers suffered imprisonment.
The Williamite warfare in Ireland in the 1690s saw the first serious test of the peace testimony and the great majority of Quakers acquitted themselves honourably. Four took part in the fighting and they were disowned by the Society. Of far greater importance was the fact that Quakers gave help to people on both sides in the conflict. This seems to have led to a recognition and respect rather than to any attempt at revenge by the victorious Williamites.
A hundred years later, the impending rising of 1798 brought about a vigorous campaign within the Society to take practical steps to ensure that its members would both privately and publicly renounce violence. The all-Ireland National Meeting in 1797 agreed:
The Subject of some in profession with us having guns in their houses, which might be made use of for the destruction of mankind, as well as other instruments of a like nature, having come weightily under the consideration of Friends in the three provinces, this meeting, under a solid feeling, is of the judgement that all such should be destroyed, the more fully to support our peaceable and Christian testimony in these perilous times…..
A committee was appointed to visit Quakers around the country and make sure that they had destroyed their firearms. At least one of them made a public display of his voluntary disarmament. Joseph Haughton, a member of the committee, took his fowling piece to the main street in Ferns and broke it up. Once again, the more positive – and extremely hazardous – practice of giving help to people on both sides of the conflict was followed in 1798. But, with few exceptions, it seems that the reputation of Quakers was so well established that their communities survived the hostilities without reprisals being taken.
The 20th century, with two world wars, the War of Independence in Ireland and the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ imposed a succession of major challenges. During and after both world wars, Quakers, amongst them a number of Irish members of the Society, were involved in two international movements. The first was the Friends Ambulance Unit in which young men enlisted. While they would not take up arms to fight any enemy, they were equally determined not to shelter from danger by staying away from the fighting. The Ambulance Unit, serving only to give help to the wounded – without discrimination as to whether friend or enemy – was a solution to the dilemma. The second came after the wars, when Quakers played an active role in bringing relief to those who suffered in the conquered countries – putting into practice the ideal of loving their enemies and establishing a reputation for their humanity. They continue to lobby the United Nations and the European Union, through Quaker offices in new York and Brussels.
In Northern Ireland, from 1969 onwards, Quakers became deeply involved in a variety of efforts to achieve reconciliation between the parties in sectarian strife. Quaker Cottage, on the outskirts of Belfast, was established to provide holiday breaks for families from both sides of the divide. The essential was that adults and children who, in the normal course of things, would avoid each other, were brought together. They discovered that the differences between them were remarkably few. As with the broader thrust of a world-wide renunciation of violence, Quakers have not been so naï¿½ve as to believe either their international work or the example of Quaker Cottage would convince a majority of people within a short time. The point is that their devotion to the cause of non-violence has changed the thinking of many individuals, actually saved the lives of others and is an essential step in spreading the message of peace.
The Quaker House project in Belfast city was –and still is – a centre giving fulltime employment to a small number of Quakers with skills in bringing national and local political figures together and, in an uncounted number of cases, defusing difficult and dangerous situations. It is easy to count the numbers of people who died during the Troubles. While it is impossible to enumerate the numbers saved by behind-the-scenes actions, there is no doubt that Quaker House was instrumental in averting countless tragedies. The need for unpublicised handling of such situations has meant that the institution rarely achieved public recognition for its achievements.
Another seminal activity in Ulster was the establishment of visitor centres, initially at the Maze and later at Long Kesh prisons. The abhorrence felt by the involved Quakers towards the violent actions that had led to the imprisonment of the inmates, was equalled by their belief in the humanity of each and every one of them. The ideal had been expressed poetically by George Fox in the 17th century; ‘Walk cheerfully over the world, answering to that of God in every man’ and it continues to be a core belief of Quakers everywhere. The visitor centres were places where the families who came to visit the prisoners could find shelter, relax over a cup of tea and, if they wanted, find someone willing to listen them. The work of the centres developed from an outside fringe activity to being accepted by the authorities who understood their value, not only in supporting people in great difficulties, but also in helping to keep families together and rehabilitate the prisoners when their eventual release came.
Meanwhile, in the Republic, individual Quakers, with official support from the Society, have been active in parallel activities to those of their northern counterparts in attempting to nurture a spirit of peace, even amongst people who are undergoing punishment for violent behaviour, often of an extreme nature. Quakers, with other religious groups, have been active in establishing and staffing visitor centres in prisons. At a more direct level, Quakers have been in the forefront of implanting AVP, the Alternatives to Violence Programme, which involves practical training sessions with prisoners.
This article gives some examples of the work undertaken by Irish Quakers towards sowing the seeds of peace and nurturing the rather delicate flowers that spring up. Similar projects are taking place in all countries in which there are Quaker communities. The Mission Statement of South Africa Quaker Peace Centre in Capetown gives an excellent summary of essentials that are applied throughout the world:
Our mission is to build a non-violent society where diversity is celebrated, the energies of conflict are turned into a positive transforming power and where the democratic rights of every individual are respected, protected and pursued.
Further Reading (more obtainable from ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’)
Maurice J Wigham (2nd Edition 2006) The Irish Quakers, a short history of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland Dublin: Historical Committee of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland.
Richard S Harrison (1986) Irish Anti-war Movements 1824-1974. Dublin: Irish Peace Publications.
Glynn Douglas (1998) Friends and 1798: Quaker witness to non-violence in 18th century Ireland. Dublin: Historical Committee of the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland.