Quakers: From Peace to Civil War (Again?)

Since January 6, 2021, many American Quakers (& others) have waited anxiously to see whether a new civil war is soon to break out. As the first anniversary of the attempted coup approaches, the question of what Quakers can or should do in response to such a calamity lingers, as well it should.

I don’t have answers to that question. Or rather, there is in fact a surplus of answers, and sorting them out is “above my pay grade.” But I have studied how Quakers faced the (first?) U. S. Civil War. And these studies have been both reassuring and challenging, Perhaps they are worth reviewing briefly.

With the coming of the Civil War, a great many young Quakers felt themselves faced with a dilemma that was stated as well by Abraham Lincoln as by anyone:

“Your people–the Friends” he wrote to a Quaker minister, “–have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn, and some the other.”

To be sure, Lincoln was a politician, skillfully framing the choice in a way biased toward the war he was waging as the “only” way to “practically” end slavery.

But even Friends who declined to join accepted the binary formulation. And once fighting began, pro-war propaganda was relentless. Here’s a sample I just discovered. It’s a popular song, “A Quaker Letter to Lincoln,” from 1863:

Here are a couple of verses:

Thee’ll pardon me, friend Abraham, I feel that I should write,

Yea, I’m commanded so to do by this Internal Light.

While in the meeting house this morn, awaiting on the Lord,

I thought of nothing but the war and of this rebel horde.

And [Abraham, I write to say] I’ve felt a great concern,
To say the little in my breast that makes my bosom burn:
Although in principle a Friend opposed to wicked war,
Yet Abraham, I think thee needs at least a million more [troops] . . . .

I often ask myself the way a Quaker should pursue
If all we kept [Quaker] Discipline, our land would break in two.
And when the fracturing begins We’ll have no end of war
So Abraham although a friend thee needs a million more.

Our dear young men are all aroused so deeply they deplore
They’re joining “fighting [U. S. General] Joseph [Hooker]’s” band to end “this cruel war.”
I sometimes think, though minister and follower of Penn,
Man was not made for discipline but discipline for men. . . .

Is it any wonder that many young male Friends grasped Lincoln’s “horn” of enlistment.

Actual numbers are not easy to come by. There were Friends who declined or refused military service, and some suffered for their testimony. (The ordeal of Friend Cyrus Pringle of Vermont, is very telling. Less known, is that of Jesse Buckner, of Spring Meeting in North Carolina, who refused induction into the Confederate forces, and suffered for that until Sherman’s Union army conquered the state.)

Others, like poet (and quasi-Quaker) Walt Whitman did nor avoid the war, but refused to fight. Instead he spent most of the war volunteering in military hospitals around Washington, tending wounded and dying soldiers  (and writing poems). However, an Indiana historian has shown that at least 25 per cent of draft age male Quakers there joined the Union army; which compares to 62 per cent for the state’s draft age males at large. Despite clear prohibitions in their books of Discipline against joining in actual wars, responses from their meetings ran the gamut from disownment to toleration without comment.

I’m unaware of any comparable studies of eastern yearly meetings. However, the minutes of Baltimore Yearly Meeting-Hicksite vividly chart the trajectory. The yearly meeting covered most of Maryland and Virginia, areas where much of the fighting took place; the war was not some distant abstraction.

Even so, the elders and ministers, packed into the gallery at the head of meeting, preached and pleaded during these years for faithfulness to the “ancient testimony” of keeping out of wars, the course prescribed in the Discipline. Yet year by year, battle by battle, fewer of the young male Friends were listening.

Before the war, as in 1858, the responses by Baltimore’s monthly Meetings were summed up thus: “Our testimonies against a hireling ministry, oaths, military services, clandestine trade, prize goods and lotteries, appear to be generally maintained.” [Emphasis added.] Joining up was a ticket to disownment, no questions asked.

Yet in 1861, with the war underway, the summary report was different:

Friends appear to be mostly careful to maintain our testimony  . . . Yet some deficiency is acknowledged by several of the reports to exist, in the support of our important Christian testimony against war and military services, some cases of which are under care.” By 1863 it acknowledged: “all the reports admit a want of faithfulness in the support of our important testimony against military services and requisitions.”

This shift should not be a  surprise: the war was not distant for Baltimore Friends. Gettysburg’s battle was fought scarcely 50 miles northwest; and Antietam, which saw more killing in one day than any other fight, was only 70 miles away.

A few of the dead at Antietam, Sharpsburg MD, September 1862.

So it was all but predictable that in 1865, the summary admitted, “a deficiency in the faithful maintenance of our precious testimony against war and Military services, is acknowledged in all our reports”? But what was the yearly meeting to do in response?

By the time BYM gathered in November, 1865,  several months after the war’s end, the elders and overseers faced a new challenge: how to deal with the many returning Quaker warriors–those, that is, who returned alive–having traded defeat in one longtime testimony, pacifism, for victory in another, bringing an official end to the Confederate insurrection, and legal slavery.

The chattel trade in human beings was the demon which had haunted and fractured the Unites States — and Friends too — for more than a century. Were the elders now to repudiate the bargain entirely, and banish those who made it?

The short answer is that yes, a few meetings did; as noted in regard to Indiana Friends, there were some disownments. But most elders could not bear to.

Here’s what the Baltimore Minutes recorded in 1864:

“The Christian duty of dealing with offenders in the spirit of meekness and love, has been to our minds, a subject of religious exercise, and an earnest desire is felt that at this trying season, we may be governed by Divine wisdom, remembering that the first object to be sought, is the restoration of the diseased member to health, rather than its separation from the body.”

Yet in 1865, with the war concluded, their summary suggests, in that oblique way that Quaker minutes do, that there was still debate about the matter:

“We have felt it to be a cause of gratitude to the Father of all our sure mercies, that the desolations of war have been stayed in our land, while at the same time we have to lament, that so many of our precious young members, and some of more mature age, have been led to join the ranks of the warrior, disregarding the emphatic declaration of our blessed Master to His disciples, ‘my kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight.’

We [at the annual session] were exhorted that while remembering the scripture injunction to ‘deal gently with the young man,’ we should not desert the glorious banner of the Prince of Peace. It was feelingly testified that the many departures from this distinguishing characteristic of the followers of our blessed Lord, as reported in the answers which have come up from our subordinate meetings, should teach us humility . . . .”

[Note: an edited compilation of these minutes for all the war years, titled Speaking-Peace-Living-Peace, is in the attached PDF.)

Translated, these statements strongly suggest that the yearly meeting leadership had come face to face the prospect of undertaking mass disownments, mostly of their own kin, and could not, pardon the expression, “pull the trigger.”

Instead, what was emerging was a kind of unwritten but monumental compromise: the war veterans who wanted to stay could do so, provided that the official antiwar position of the body was still kept “on the books”.

Baltimore wasn’t the only body in such agony. Far to the north, in western New York, Genesee Yearly Meeting echoed this theme in one long sentence of their Epistle:

“While we have mourned that the spirit of war should have made its inroads among us, a peace-professing people, while we have sorrowed that some of our young men should have, under the influence of the excitement around them, been induced to enter the arena of military strife, and there become the instruments of shedding the blood of their fellow men; yet we earnestly hope now, as the conflict has ceased, and as they return to their peaceful homes, they may become so convinced of the superiority of the principle of love to that of force, and that it is better to suffer wrong for a season, than to do wrong, that they may so live in the future as not only to give satisfaction to their friends, and thus be continued in the bosom of Society, but by being thus convinced by experience, of the sweeter and more hallowed influence which surrounds those who dwell under the canopy of this Divine principle, become its devoted advocates in the future.”

The practical outcome was that, while the books of Discipline still pronounced war as unchristian and sinful, individual Friends would have to determine how far this edict applied to them personally.

Thus the longer, or larger answer to the question of American Quakers and peace is that the Civil War was a historic watershed, a game-changing event in American Quakerdom.

This seismic shift from the traditional group-centric polity to an individualistic one had been advocated  by the radical Hicksites called Progressive Friends. These reformers seemed to be making little headway until the crucible of war broke open the traditional order. After the war, not just the Progressives, but the Hicksites generally, and later most Orthodox and pastoral Friends, reached similar informal but real accommodations with ambiguity: the testimony against war as evil and unchristian remained “on the books.” But a crucial qualification was added, first in fact, eventually as policy: adherence to this standard was shifted from a group-enforced norm to a matter of individual judgment.

The move from group to personal conscience was, in fact, a key plank in the Progressive Friends platform, and I contend that its acceptance by Hicksites (and more slowly, by the Orthodox and other branches) could be counted as the movement’s first important achievement. (Some lament this change as a big step down the slippery slope to mushy modern liberalism; we won’t debate that matter here. But for good and ill, that it happened is incontestable.)

For their part, Progressive Friends had specifically disavowed such disciplinary powers. Indeed, they kept no formal membership lists, from which miscreants could be purged.

Thus by the war’s end, there were many stories like the two that follow, mainly kept by families. One concerns my personal hero, Lucretia Mott, in Philadelphia:

In some ways, the world still turned beyond the war. One small harbinger of this turned up in a letter written by Lucretia Mott to her sister Martha Wright, on Christmas Day, 1863. In it she told of attending a wedding.

The bride was Laura Strattan, a distant cousin, who  married a dashing army officer, Col. Fitzhugh Birney He was the son of James G. Birney, an abolitionist who had run for president for the Liberty Party. The groom came to a Unitarian church in his dress uniform,  accompanied by other soldiers.

“They made an imposing appearance,” Lucretia wrote, “with all the awful regimentals — [William] Furness [the minister] acted well his part–the whole thing beautiful–his prayer touching– especially the close for Fitzhugh.”

The marriage did not last long. Birney had taken part in many major battles, including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he had been wounded.

The exertions of this extended combat broke his strength, and in the spring his health failed.  He succumbed to pneumonia in June. 1864; Laura Strattan Birney was a war widow after less than seven months.

Theirs was one tragedy among a multitude. But there’s another  significance to this report for those concerned with Quakers and change, a detail that by contrast might seem trivial to the point of frivolousness, but is nonetheless portentous:

By joining their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott, aged seventy, had for the very first time in her life attended a non-Quaker wedding, one conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church.  Doing either had long been a disownable offense in her Quaker world; many more Friends were disowned for such “offenses” than ever were for joining wars. It was why, for instance, she had not attended the wedding of her good abolitionist friends Angelina Grimke and Theodore Weld in 1838. But now she did it.

And nothing happened. The war was changing the Quaker world, willy-nilly.

The price of combat fell heavily on another Progressive Quaker family, deep in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York. Marlborough Meeting became the home of three of what are known to history as “Fighting Quakers”: Nehemiah Hallock Mann, and two cousins: Edward and John Ketcham.

All three were raised in Milton, and had generations of Quaker ancestors. Antislavery sentiment ran high in their families,  and Nehemiah Mann left Milton to join a New York cavalry unit, and in April 1863 was made captain of a company in the Fourth New York Cavalry. Known as a brave and gallant soldier, he was cut down by a bullet near Front Royal, Virginia in August of 1864. His body was taken to the Friends Burial Ground in Milton.

Another Quaker widow from Milton was Martha Townsend Ketcham. Her two sons, Edward and John, were mindful of the need to support their mother. But with the outbreak of war, they were, says a local historian, “moved by an earnest and patriotic devotion to the cause of liberty, and firm in their convictions that the war was from God for the extermination of slavery. . . .”

They decided one should stay on the farm. Edward won the coin toss, and was first to enlist. He was commissioned on August 19, 1862 as a lieutenant in Company A of the 120th Regiment, NY State Volunteers.

“And so he turned,” a chronicler continues, “from the sweet home and the dear ones beneath its roof-tree, and parting with his devoted mother, who, with that grandeur of patriotism that characterized the mothers of Sparta, yet with many misgivings, surrendered him to God and duty, he went forth to battle for his country’s rights.”

His brother John chafed at having to stay on the farm, and finally joined up as well. On Feb. 6, 1863 he became a lieutenant of Company M 4th Regiment of Cavalry, NY Volunteers.

Thus the two brothers, who became known as ‘the Fighting Quakers,’ had become members of the Union army, and faithfully and conscientiously performed their duties . . . . Edward was shot in the head and killed at Gettysburg on July 2 1863. And that fall, John was captured in Virginia and sent to the notoriously crowded, disease-ridden Libby Prison in Richmond. There he developed an infection and died on October 8, 1863.

At John’s memorial, a visiting Unitarian preacher, Octavius Frothingham,  eulogized at length:

“It is a strange sight,” he said, “the coffin of a soldier, wrapped in a battle-flag, lying in a Friends meeting house. He was educated a Friend, and was in spirit, to the end, one of that peaceful brotherhood, who abhor violence, and blood-shedding, and war.

         “Comfort yourselves, oh, Friends! with the thought that he preserved that pious abhorrence as sacredly as you do. He was a lover of peace; he went out in a holy cause of peace, as a peacemaker. Not to make war or to continue war, but to put an end to war; to die himself, if need were, by the hand of war, that war might cease. To make war in his country forever impossible, by eradicating human slavery, its permanent cause, he took up arms. There seemed no other way of doing it. He would thankfully have used other means, had other means been permitted. . . .

         “You need not be afraid of shocking your principles by receiving him here from battle. His spirit would do no violence to the saintliest communion. Do we hate war less in these days than formerly? nay, friends, we hate it, if possible, a thousand times more, and we hate slavery ten thousand times more, when we see them, father and son, doing such deeds as this.”

[Marlborough Hist, pp 339-340]

Scarcely had the war ended before the three Milton casualties had been turned into a new kind of icon, that of “The Fighting Quaker.” That was the title of a book about them by A.J.H. Duganne, published in 1866, and reprinted several times. The style of this hagiography is evident in almost every paragraph:

P. 29: “Looking at the parting of this Quaker mother from her first-born marching to war, we may realize the grandeur of patriotism that inspired such multitudes of mothers, in our loyal land, to yield their living jewels for the cause of our Republic.”

P. 81: “Thus ‘marching on,’ the two lieutenants drew, one by one, to the holy altar of sacrifice. Each was a portion of that ‘grand army’ of loyal souls whose bodies were destined to sink by the wayside; but whose luminous examples are to light the path for innumerable armies in the great future.”

And so on.

In 1880, a local historian noted that, “The mother of these young heroes is still residing in Milton, N.Y., at an advanced age, cherishing in her heart of hearts the memory of her soldier boys, perusing and reperusing their letters so full of patriotism and loving devotion, and hoping for a bright reunion with them in the peaceful realms of the great beyond.” [Sylvester]

So. Vignettes for Quakers from our previous civil war. Samples of its “collateral damage” to accepted Friends practices and traditions. The struggles of individual Quakers to understand and live, alter or abandon testimonies in real time.

There are other wars we could look at, particularly Vietnam. But this should be enough.

And if it isn’t, then just turn on the news.

9 thoughts on “Quakers: From Peace to Civil War (Again?)”

  1. There must be something that makes a bright line between “making war’ and ‘policing’ . Making war is of course anathema but policing those who would hurt others? One of the saddest events in my meeting -not much discussed- is a military family treated shabbily, though the Father who was in the military felt that he was stopping more violence than would otherwise have occurred if there was no military which of course is a fair point. But my meeting sure couldn’t manage it engage with it and as I say treated them as pariahs and they left.

    1. re: making war vs. policing

      In fact, the distinction between making war and policing has been lost on military leadership in the U.S., viz Vietnam and Afghanistan. Of course our own police forces quite often, probably fair to say most often, miss that point also.

  2. Today more than ever before Quakers should realize that war does not change the hearts and minds of the vanquished. We are still dealing with the fall out of the civil war. The seeds of oppression are within all of us.

  3. Perhaps it is “disownment” that been abandoned by Friends’ Meetings? Your essay sounds as if a “Just War Theory” has been adopted by “Liberal” Friends.

    I only know of one Quaker man who enlisted in the military during the Vietnam war. He is a birthright Friend who expressed anger that nobody in his home Meeting tried to talk him out of enlisting. He is still haunted by the ghosts of the people he killed.

    I believe that leaving this important decision to be made by young people alone is wrong. We now know that our brains ability to make long term decisions are not yet fully developed until one is about 25 years old.

    The argument that the Civil War was needed be fought to end slavery falls apart when one looks around the world and sees how other countries ended slavery due to economic reasons. It turns out that it costs more money to keep slaves than to hire “free” people. (notice how the “gig economy” is a continuation of this concept.)

    I have noticed that those who return from participating in war seem to turn against the idea of war as a good thing to do. We are all “bombarded” with messages about war being a necessary thing to do. Our Federal budget is squeezing out any money that might go for improved health care, education, arts, infrastructure and transportation.

    Friends need to END the causes of war. Not fight in them.

    Since the end of the Vietnam War, America’s leaders have “whitewashed” what war actually does. The military has automated the fighting enough so that they no longer seem to need a “draft”. So, we now have a military made up of people whose families have a tradition of going to war and those people who have a hard time getting a job with decent pay/benefits; ie. the poor. The censorship of the number of dead Americans who were returning home also helped to isolate the widows and parents of soldiers who died for “their country”.

    I believe that “War is not the Answer”. War is a way to fuel the Next War. We haven’t been allowed to heal from any of our wars, if you believe Native Americans who say it takes 7 generations before the effects of warfare are healed.

    The continuation of America’s “Civil War” in the news this week is showing me how true that statement is.

  4. I believe there is a middle ground, where the resources Lincoln chose to put into a costly and divisive war he could have spent on reparations to the Southern slave owners over a period of years. Instead he chose death and destruction that only benefited the industrial North.

  5. I was surprised recently to learn that, in 1763, after many Philadelphia Quaker men joined the hastily formed militias to resist the invasion of the Paxton Boys and their intended murder of Moravian Indians to whom the city had provided sanctuary (and certain named Quakers they believed to be too pro-Indian), no one was disowned, despite advice from London YM that discipline be enforced. Philadelphia meetings did interview each of the approx 150 men who participated, asking them to repent, and while some did, many did not, claiming their conscience compelled them to protect the city. Nevertheless, none of the unrepentant were sanctioned. This relaxation/reinterpretation of the peace testimony predated the civil war by 100 years.

    1. This “news” doesn’t really surprise me. As I read the history, Friends have often had trouble keeping out of “popular” wars (meaning popular at the beginning, at least). For instance, while I have seen no reliable numbers about U. S. Quakers in World War One, it appears that many young male Friends were convinced by the brilliant (but bogus) “This is the war to END war” propaganda campaign launched by Woodrow Wilson.

      1. Cannot have peace without justice.
        Cannot have justice without integrity.
        Cannot have integrity without community
        Cannot have community without simplicity.

        My YM’’s testimonies need all the others in order for them to survive the propaganda that precedes a war.

        Note how President Putin is making a big deal about “NATO Encroachment” of his country’s borders. This statement is for the Russian people .

        A dangerous ploy to use when nuclear bomb owners are confronting each othrr.

        Other connections can be made. Must be made

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