Quakers are marking the 350th anniversary of the first written declaration of Quaker commitment to peace. In the declaration, addressed to Charles II in January 1661, Quakers unequivocally refused to take up arms.
Ever since, they have worked for peace and alternatives to violence.
The declaration was made against the backdrop of violent times in London. In 1661, many died in street battles and 4000 Quakers were in prison. The leader of an uprising had been tried and executed. The king outlawed meetings of Fifth Monarchy Men, Baptists and Quakers and all members were required to take an oath of allegiance. The declaration was a political and strategic document, aimed at convincing others that Quakers posed no threat because they rejected the use of violence.
The declaration to the king, signed by George Fox and 11 others, said Quakers “utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons”. George Fox was one of the earliest Quakers. He turned down a commission in Cromwell’s army and later said that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”
The movement grew into one of the historic peace churches, called the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers. They are known for key roles in abolishing the Slave Trade, working to end the use of child soldiers and bringing thousands of mainly Jewish children to safety on the Kindertransport from Nazi occupied Europe. Quakers have played a key role in setting up many peace movements and organisations, such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Quakers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their post-war relief work.
“In Britain today, Quakers see peace as closely bound up with the sustainability of the planet, and with the rules of global economics,” says Christine Cannon, clerk of Meeting for Sufferings (Quakers’ representative decision-making body). “Quakers are working in these fields but also supporting a new network of peace organisations across South Asia, working at the United Nations for the rights of conscientious objectors and also training human rights observers for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, supporting those working for peace from across the communities.
“Quakers are inspired by the stories of our forebears resisting war and caring for those who were harmed by it. Today we work in many settings, often behind the scenes and at the heart of it all is respectful and deep listening to everyone involved.”
She continued,“We call this commitment to peace a testimony because it is how we witness to the world, a way that affirms the value of all life, rather than denying it through warfare,” she says.
Around the country Quakers are marking the anniversary by running workshops called “350 years on – what does the peace testimony mean today?”