William Edgerton on the Endangered Quaker Peace Testimony

On , William Edgerton addressed a conference at Spiceland (Indiana) Quarterly Meeting (of Quakers), and touched on the decline of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends. Excerpts:

One definition of militarism is “a warlike or military spirit.” That spirit persecuted our church fathers because they refused to bear arms, and consistently declined to use them even in self-defence. By their patience and fortitude under suffering, they fairly earned the reputation we have inherited of being as a body opponents of all war. Within the memory of living men this spirit imposed fines on Friends or whoever refused to muster, i.e., take lessons in the art of manslaughter, and further distrained property if the fines were not paid.

Those regarded then as consistent Friends refused to pay, and suffered the loss. The principle was held so firmly that not a few were disowned (before my recollection), as I am informed, for paying their fines.

Later, those who paid their fines were not disciplined, and so by degrees and by temporizing the clearness of the testimony was lost.

When the Civil War came on, Southern Friends much more generally adhered to their peace principles and suffered personal abuse than did those under the Washington government. Its lenient Secretary of War, after conference with representative Friends, consented that conscientious persons might take places in hospital service instead of using guns. Some, perhaps, availed themselves of this questionable commutation, but observation, confirmed by reports of recruiting officers, warrants the belief that the large yearly meetings of the middle West furnished as many soldiers in proportion to their membership as other denominations, or even the general citizenship. For generations Friends had been known as opposed on principle to both war and slavery, and thus it came about that the Quakerly hatred of slavery and the inherited hatred of war were set over against each other. For Friends to appear to be neutral in this death struggle between slavery and the government would look like a betrayal of the sacred cause of freedom. To profess sympathy with the purpose of government, and yet refuse the support able-bodied Friends could give in military service, would seem to the authorities and our unconvinced members, too, as inconsistent, if not insincere.

Under this utmost possible strain — apparent conflict between two righteous commandments — our practical testimony against war broke down. Whether this consideration palliates the course of those who engaged in fighting or not, when the church never disowned a soldier as such, nor demanded that he condemn his conduct, nothing can avert the conclusion that the standard erected by our fathers has been let down.

Indeed, are not many active members regularly drawing pensions as soldiers? I am credibly informed that some recorded ministers do that very thing.

The fact that this growing militarism has invaded the church and practically silenced the pulpit is the saddest features of this crisis. While the salt holds its savor there is hope. When that is lost it is sure to be trodden under foot of men.

E.H. Crosby, in the “Episcopal Recorder,” as quoted in The American Friend, , announced this startling conclusion: “I am driven reluctantly to this conclusion, which I only express here under a grave sense of duty, and that is that the churches are the chief strongholds in Christendom of the spirit of warfare.”

If truth warrants a picture so dark as this, or near it, is there not a fearful responsibility resting on our church which in its youth saw in the sight of God this vital truth and proclaimed it in the face of hostile churchmen? Dare we allow that banner to trail in the dust? The statement in our Discipline is complete as far as profession can go. But is the book of Discipline a sufficient candlestick? Will our light thus reach the public, and especially the officers chosen to direct the government and decide between war and peace?

I know of no rule as to how frequently our principles should be publicly restated. Once in a generation would surely be too seldom. I believe that by next yearly meeting time we ought to ask the attention of government, and the public as well, while we reiterate our doctrine on the peace question, and fortify it as well as we may with reason and Scripture.

The argument can easily be made strong enough to command respect, but will fail of effective influence, I fear, because of our well-known shortcomings in practical consistency. If truth backs the taunt, “Physician, heal thyself,” who can but quail? When we are convinced of sin, either as churches or individuals, the best course is to confess, repent and amend the life — better acknowledge the truth though it humbles us in the dust. We have not consistently maintained our testimony against war; and it is simply impossible to reverse the movement of our body and recover the environment and temper of our Society one hundred years ago. Then, a member who should go to war would no more be quietly retained in Society than a horse thief. Indeed, mankilling was regarded as worse than stealing. Even dealing in prize goods was forbidden.

Since we cannot go backward to the place where we left the true course, what can we do? Go forward. Though preaching unsupported by practice is shorn of half its force, still truth has power in and of itself regardless of who proclaims it, and will win its way. Notwithstanding their failures, Friends have still a commission from heaven which they dare not disregard — to portray before all men the horrors and sinfulness of war and the joys and beauty of peace, and especially to appeal to fellow Christians.

In conclusion, let us glance at the present condition of the world relative to war and peace. The agreement of the Hague Conference to establish a Court of Nations has culminated lately in the appointment of the fifty-second member of this truly Supreme (earthly) Court. Other nations will yet appoint, but by proclamation of Secretary Hay it is now organized and ready for business. Any nation at variance with another has now the chance to avoid war without dishonor and yet obtain justice. This is a great advance on old sanguinary methods, I gladly admit, though I cannot see such a rosy dawn of the triumph day for peace as some do. The nations have come very far toward our light. Never must we suffer it to become darkness. And yet, when we cannot forget that nearly ever since the adjournment of the Peace Conference England and America have been in bloody conflict with foreigners, most of whom they superciliously call “child people,” it is enough to make the heart sink and almost despair. Add to this the fact that while our government is demanding by shot and shell the unconditional submission of the Filipinos, a Presidential election occurs and the same party and policy receives a sweeping endorsement by re-election, not only without protest from the Christian Church, but by the help of the votes of its membership, and the cloud assumes almost inky blackness.

The silver lining to this cloud is visible only from this standpoint: neither nation dared defy humanity’s aversion to war simply as war; i.e., for conquest or revenge. They paid some deference to the Christian public sentiment of the nations of the world.

If the real motive was greed of gain or thirst for dominion the rulers felt obliged to conceal it under a cloak of “justice to the Uitlanders and protection to the natives” in South Africa; and in the West Indies, better still, a plea of “compassion for the poor Cubans, whose sufferings under the yoke of Spanish cruelty we could not bear to witness.”

May the day soon arrive when even such devices as these cannot avail to save the horrid head of war from its death blow.

I think now, more than a century on, this experiment in “going forward” can safely be judged a failure. Edgerton’s description of the hypocritical figleaf of humanitarian intervention applies just as aptly to the militaristic imperialism of today, and Christianity is by-and-large just as willing to go along with it or applaud the uniforms it poses in.

I entertained some similar thoughts to Edgerton’s when I looked at the deceptions and distortions that American hawks were twisting themselves into in order to justify their wars and thought to myself, well, at least they feel like they have to dress up their bloodlust in fancy clothes to get people to go along with it… there must be some silver lining there. Today, though, I have a harder time discerning any shine. I think it may have just been wishful thinking.

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