An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.

An emergency instruction folder kept in a slot on the back of dorm room doors at a midwestern college, where a Quaker conference gathered a few years ago. The document seemed very out of place in the quiet, bucolic setting of the school. But then, similar Quaker conferences had been held successfully at Virginia Tech, also in a “quiet rural village.” Then in April 2007 a shooter killed 32 Virginia Tech students and staff and wounded 17 more.

Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?

Ideas? No.

Paranoia? Plenty.

Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.

Not yet, deo gratias.

(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)

So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.

I couldn’t find any information about the artist.

The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.

Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.

Was there anything to that? Could this be an example of Quaker “Active shooter training”?

Happy to dodge the second question, I jumped at the first: yes, I thought I knew something about the story. A bit of googling refreshed my dim memory.

The story is usually called “Fierce Feathers.” It has appeared in several publications, in various semi-fictionalized versions, and used informally in numerous First Day School lessons.

It’s supposed to be based on an actual incident, from 1777, at what is now Easton, New York Meeting. (Easton is a village northeast of Albany, between Saratoga Springs and the Vermont state line.)

The “Fierce Feathers” illustration in, “A Book of Quaker Saints.”

The most widely-distributed version of it is by L. V. Hodgkin, a British Friend, who made it part of a collection of stories for young readers, A Book of Quaker Saints, published in 1922. (The book is online in full text,  free, here.)

The climax of the story as Hodgkin imagined it is:

Robert Nisbet, the visiting Friend, who could speak and understand French, had a conversation with one of the Indians in that language, and this was what he said: ‘We surrounded your house, meaning to destroy every living person within it. But when we saw you sitting with your door open, and without weapons of defence, we had no wish any longer to hurt you. Now, we would fight for you, and defend you ourselves from all who wish you ill.’

Meanwhile the Chief who had entered first was speaking in broken English to old Zebulon Hoxie, gesticulating to make his meaning clear.

‘Indian come White Man House,’ he said, pointing with his finger towards the Settlement, ‘Indian want kill white man, one, two, three, six, all!’ and he clutched the tomahawk at his belt with a gruesome gesture. ‘Indian come, see White Man sit in house; no gun, no arrow, no knife; all quiet, all still, worshipping Great Spirit. Great Spirit inside Indian too;’ he pointed to his breast; ‘then Great Spirit say: “Indian! No kill them!”‘

With these words, the Chief took a white feather from one of his arrows, and stuck it firmly over the centre of the roof in a peculiar way. ‘With that white feather above your house,’ the French-speaking Indian said to Robert Nisbet, ‘your settlement is safe. We Indians are your friends henceforward, and you are ours.’

A moment later and the strange guests had all disappeared as noiselessly as they had come.

Easton, NY Meetinghouse, a recent photo.

The closest thing to a historical version of the incident was prepared by Dorothy M. Williams, then Clerk of Easton NY Meeting, and published in Quaker History, Spring 1976, as: “Feathers of Peace,” pp. 32-34. 

Here is the nub of the account by Williams:

The earliest written record of the Easton Indian story occurs in the report of a committee to the Meeting for Sufferings of New York Yearly Meeting, 1st mo. 9th, 1787. The committee . . . reported in some detail: 

A party of Indians with two Frenchmen surrounded the [meeting] house; one of the Indians after looking in, withdrew and beckoned with his hand upon which a Friend went out and was asked by signs whether there [were] soldiers there, the Indian shook hands with him and the rest came into the house; they were marked, painted and equipt for War, and it being about the conclusion of the Meeting, they shook hands with Friends, and one Friend having the French tongue could confer with them with the assistance of the two Frenchmen. When they understood Friends were at a Religious Meeting, they went to one of their houses got victuals of which a prisoner with them partook, and they departed. 

A later account verified by Zebulon Hoxsie, the first clerk of the Easton Meeting, was published in The Friend (Philadelphia) in 1833. It identifies the Friend “who had the French tongue” and who was the interpreter. He was “Robert Nisbet who lived at that time at East Hoosack about thirty miles distant, and who had felt a concern to walk through the then wilderness and sit with Friends at their weekday meeting.” Robert Nisbet “had a conversation with their leader in French.” The leader (a French speaking Indian or Frenchman?) told Robert Nisbet that they surrounded the house intending to destroy all that were in it. “When we saw you sitting with your door open and without weapons of defense, we had no disposition to hurt you. We would have fought for you.” 

This account speaks of human scalps the Indians had recently taken. “Zebulon Hoxsie, one of the Friends present then invited them to his house, put a cheese and what bread he had on the table and invited them to help themselves. They did so and went quietly and harmlessly away.” 

Sketch of a battle scene in the struggle for Saratoga Springs, 1777.

The Indians were allies and scouts for British General Burgoyne, who was preparing for two major battles around Saratoga Springs, in which American rebel forces  decisively defeated the British. These battles are described as a turning point of the American Revolution.

Well, so much for “Fierce Feathers.” Is this a sign of the miraculous  power of Quaker silence to disarm the bloodthirsty? Or were the Friends of Easton merely lucky, escaping unharmed when other settler families had been slaughtered?

I’ll leave that question to the Clerk. His other concern was for resources that might be raw material for role-playing exercises to dramatize such situations and their perils and maybe serve as preparation. That second query was tougher. Here are some possible resources I turned up:

> Historical background: Read Meredith Baldwin Weddle, Walking In The Way of Peace, Yale U. Press, about Quakers, the ”peace testimony,” and what white historians call King Philip’s War in New England, 1675-77. This war involved awful episodes of what we would now call “terrorism,” including events like the ”Fierce Feathers” situation, but which ended very differently from that in Easton NY. This is a scholarly book, but there are parts which will curl your hair. Weddle challenges Friends :

. . . to appreciate the moral task facing each Quaker during King Philip’s War, it is essential to imagine the immensity of the danger threatening the people of New England: the fear of violence shredding all certainty and all expectations, just as sword and hatchet shredded the bodies fallen in their way. ‘For all there was in an Uproar, Killing, and Burning, and Murdering, and great Distress was upon the peoples Minds.’ The imminence of death alone would have been enough to shake each vulnerable settler or Indian; when death itself was dressed up in atrocity, whether real or rumored, it would be the rare person who could be sure that principle would not yield to terror or rage. For the Quaker, alone in his small house, miles perhaps from a neighbor, fear and horror faced down the ordained love for his enemies . . . .To the extent that the danger and fear can be approximated from the security and predictability of modern America, to this extent no hesitation can be seen as remarkable or shameful. (197)

This last sentence, penned probably in the good old “secure and predictable” days of 2000, now seems poignantly antique. 

Stanley Ellin, suspense writer, Quaker.

> Next is a suspense novel exploring the scenario by Stanley Ellin, Stronghold.  (Secondhand copies on Amazon; a 1981 Canadian TV movie version is called The July Group. It’s relevant, but hard to find.)

In it a small town Quaker family is taken hostage for ransom. With help from their small meeting, they attempt to foil the crime without violence.

This thumbnail may sound hokey, but hold on: Stanley Ellin was a much-honored suspense/mystery writer from Brooklyn New York. He was also a Quaker, sometime Clerk of Brooklyn Meeting, and is buried in the small Quaker cemetery in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. His story is more plausible than you might think.

Amish funeral procession after Nickel Mines school killings.

> A real-life example, involving another “peace church”; details may be hard for Friends to face up to: The West Nickel Mines School Shootings, 2006 (an Amish School In rural PA.) Eight  Amish children were shot, five killed, by an “active shooter” in their one room schoolhouse. Shocking stuff.

A fourth option: call the local or state police, and ask if they can send an officer to describe their training for such events, and what they recommend for students and other groups who might become targets.

An active shooter training video, from the Los Angeles Police Department. There are many others.

> A Fifth option: Online videos. Google “Active shooter training churches” and check the ones that interest you.  And/or, google “Nickel Mines School shooting videos”. Lots of videos for both. Watch and discuss.

A few other church shootings (from a much longer list):  Emanuel AME Church in 2015, nine victims.

The Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh;

New Zealamd Mosque, 49 killed.

Many more.

Will these discussions, roleplays, whatever, be easy? I suspect not.

In Hodgkin’s Book of Quaker Saints, her introduction notes that when she tried to read some of the tough martyrdom stories from early Friends’ history, her younger hearers told her loudly & repeatedly that they did not want to hear or read about children being hurt or killed. (I expect she heard much the same from many adult readers.) So she hedged.

Hodgkin:

The following stories are intended for children of various ages. The introductory chapter, ‘A Talk about Saints,’ and the stories marked with an asterisk in the Table of Contents, were written first for an eager listener of nine years old. But as the book has grown longer the age of its readers has grown older . . . .
. . .[B]ecause the stories of the persecutions of the Early Friends are too harrowing for younger children. Even a very much softened and milder version was met with the repeated request: ‘Do, please, skip this part and make it come happy quickly.’ I have preferred, therefore, to write for older boys and girls who will wish for a true account of suffering bravely borne; though without undue insistence on the physical side. For to tell the stories of these lives without the terrible, glorious account of the cruel beatings, imprisonments, and even martyrdom in which they often ended here, is not truly to tell them at all. The tragic darkness in the picture is necessary to enhance its high lights.

My youngest critic observes that ‘it does not matter so much what happens to grown-up people, because I can always skip that bit; but if anything bad is going to happen to children, you had better leave it out of your book altogether.’ I have therefore obediently omitted the actual sufferings of children as far as possible, except in one or two stories where they are an essential part of the narrative.

I can understand; the details of these incidents are not easy for me to take in. But just as Hodgkin notes of the persecutions faced by early Friends, many children are being targeted in today’s attacks. So how can they responsibly be left out of the preparations? Yet how can they be included without, or with minimal trauma?

And how the hell did we get into a state where these questions are not theoretical?

6 thoughts on “An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?”

  1. For an indigenous perspective of the Fierce Feathers story, see
    The arrow over the door / Joseph Bruchac ; pictures by James Watling. (1998)

    1. Good book for grade 4 and up. Joseph Bruchac is also a storyteller and has published collections of Native American stories. We met him at an FGC Gathering where he had been invited to speak by the bookstore manager.

  2. My son and his family live in Parkland, Florida and he works for the Broward County Schools, of which Parkland belongs. It is not possible to underestimate how deeply that shooting scarred so many. His twin children (then in 4th grade, now 5th grade) regularly go through “orange alerts” and active shooting drills at school. We have them at the college I teach at. I don’t know about the the Florida ones, but the college ones are beyond stupid. I was required by law years ago to watch the video you have linked. Being told to “Run! Hide! Fight” is hardly helpful.
    The Spirit has led me to refuse to take part in those drills.
    For a response closer to the Amish one, Clarence Jordan comes to mind.
    When he was living in Louisville, he entered into a a group of African American men speaking of taking revenge for the rape of a young girl by a white man.
    The story goes that Clarence walked to the front of the room, and put his head on the table and said, “If a white man must die for this rape, then let it be me. do it now.
    I am a Quaker, but for me, proud Southern Baptist Clarence Jordan is my model.
    I highly recommend the new book by Mike Martin & Shane Claiborne, “Beating Guns: Hope for People Weary of Violence”. In it is a very moving quote from Martin Luther King about how he got a gun to protect his family and then realized he felt less safe with it, so he got rid of it. He said it made him realize that what he needed to do was to face death. Once he realized he was willing to die, he didn’t need the gun, and was free to give his life up and live non-violence. (of course he said it much more eloquently than my paraphrase.)
    I hope many Friends will join me in observing “Wear Orange” this upcoming weekend, starting this Friday. There are rallies all over the country, and you can find them easily by googling “Wear Orange”.
    People with guns are afraid.
    My religious tradition teaches me “Be not afraid.”

  3. Beating Guns: Hope For People Who Are Weary of Violence by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin, Brazos Press, 3/5/2019, ISBN 9781587434136, paperback 288 pages, $19.99.

    We just wrote a review of this book for Friends Journal.

    If you want to work on violence issues, especially gun violence, and sensitize yourself to the ways we enable violence and find the motivation to change, get this book. If you want to talk about this with gun owners who are disproportionately white evangelical Christians, you need this book.

  4. The Quaker Social Concerns Network in Seattle has been working on a “Statement for Friends Meetings as guidance in case of attack on our gatherings”. We’ll publish it when it’s fully seasoned, but the action steps state that we’ll rely on our faith traditions rather than police power, listen with open hearts and respond out of love. This may sound naive but they worked well when University Friends Meeting had to cope with some angry people last year.

  5. I remember going to jury service and having to watch a video on the origins of the service. I didnt know Quakers were instrunental in it’s establishment. We have a great deal to contribute to the current climate of fear, paranoia, and violence. It behoves us to make ourselves known as centers of help and active involvement

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