A Quaker writer going by the pen name “Pacificus” complained in The Friend () that some Quakers were coming up with shady ways of getting around that point of Quaker Discipline that disallowed paying militia exemption fines.
This piece is remarkable, I think, for the suggestion it makes about the power of civil disobedience to reform a nation — something that is commonly heard nowadays, but that I don’t see much of before this essay. “Pacificus” writes: “If Friends were faithful to maintain their testimony against war in all respects… in a very little time the system would be exploded. Were nothing to be gained but the incarceration of peaceable citizens in prison for conscience sake — no reward but the accusations of a troubled spirit — no honor but the plaudits of militia officers, and the averted looks of the considerate of all classes, it would require stout hands and unfeeling hearts long to support the system.”
Compare this to Thoreau’s words fifteen years later: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose.”
Here’s what “Pacificus” wrote:
From a knowledge of the character of the present collector of militia fines in the city of Philadelphia, and the unusual efforts recently made to collect them, taken in connection with the very small number of cases sent up to our late quarterly meeting, I have been led to fear that our Christian testimony against war has not been maintained as it should have been. Perhaps there are not many (are there not some?) who deliberately pay the demand, and openly violate the testimony of the Society; yet it may reasonably be feared, that under our name are to be found individuals who connive at its payment by others, and secretly rejoice that they can thus avoid suffering, without putting the Christian principle of peace to open shame. Such are not only injuring themselves, but bringing reproach upon truth. “Have you no friend to pay it for you?” is the enquiry of the collector; “Friend so-and-so always has his paid.” “Mr. S—— is a Friend, and he pays me his fine; so does Mr. T——; they never make a disturbance about it.”
The secret payment of this fine in lieu of military service or training, or the connivance at its payment by others, is a direct encouragement of the onerous militia system. If Friends were faithful to maintain their testimony against war in all respects, even keeping in subjection a warlike spirit in relation to this very oppression, and no one through mistaken kindness being induced to pay the fine for them, in a very little time the system would be exploded. Were nothing to be gained but the incarceration of peaceable citizens in prison for conscience sake — no reward but the accusations of a troubled spirit — no honor but the plaudits of militia officers, and the averted looks of the considerate of all classes, it would require stout hands and unfeeling hearts long to support the system. Yes! let it be impressed upon the weak and complying among us, that they are supporting this oppressive system — that it is to them, mainly, that the militia system, as far as regards Friends, is prolonged — that they are binding their fellow professors with this chain; and that if entire faithfulness was maintained on the part of all our members in refusing to pay these fines, or allowing others to do it, the spoiling of our goods and the imprisonment of our members for this precious cause — the cause of peace on earth — would soon be a narrative of times that are past.
Is not this testimony worth suffering for? “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you,” — especially when the consolatory reason is given, “that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven!”
One weakness begets another — the laying waste of one part of the enclosure of the Society, enfeebles and makes way for the prostration of another portion of the hedge. When called upon to pay militia fines, some of our members who have already departed from plainness of dress and address, are ashamed — yea, ashamed — to acknowledge the motive which should induce them to refuse compliance with these demands, from a consciousness that they do not look like Quakers, that if they are sheep, they are not in their clothing, and, through weakness begotten of this very cause, they fancy themselves compelled to act in accordance with their appearance.
It is very much to be desired that the testimony to the peaceable nature of Christ’s kingdom on earth may not be lowered in our Society, at a time too when the views so long peculiar to Friends in this respect, are spreading with others; but that all, more especially those who can no longer be ranked among the youth, the middle aged, may be aroused to the importance of having clean hands in this respect. It is not a mere matter of business between you and the collector; you are not to solace yourselves with the belief that no harm will come of it; every fine paid in this manner goes to encourage and sustain the system, to weaken your own hands, to bind fetters upon your brethren, to lay waste the testimonies of the Society, and to prepare for yourselves moments of bitter reflection when the unflattering witness comes to commune with you in the cool of the day.
Many of the younger class of our Society, it is encouraging to believe, have a proper view of the unlawfulness of war for Christians, and are endeavoring to walk worthy in this respect of their vocation, and while these may be encouraged to continued faithfulness, it is desired that some who are a few years their seniors may profit by their example.