Thursday, August 4, 2011

Persecution of Quakers in the American Revolution

Abstract. The Quakers as a religious group, a subset of the Protestant Churches, but unique in their theology and in the practice of their religion, were the particular recipients of persecution during the American Revolution, most notably for their opposition to the struggle for independence and even alleged collusion with Great Britain in attempting to retain its hold on the colonies.


Benson Bobrick, in his work entitled Angel in the Whirlwind, relates how “several Quaker collaborators were publicly hanged.” For collaborating with Great Britain, for being considered Tories due to their opposition to the War for Independence, Quakers received the particular fury of pro-independence Americans. Bobrick notes that early on in the history of Colonial America that New England Puritans were hostile to the Quaker sect. It is well known that Quakers were pacifists who did not believe in warfare in the flesh for as the Bible says very clearly in the part devoted to Christian doctrine that “…though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh.”
Again, the Christian Bible itself presented a problem to those devout people who were contemplating rebelling against their king for “…rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft…” The Quakers and presumably other Christian groups that were pacifistic in nature would have found it very difficult to accept within the terms of their faith and the covenants of their churches to take up arms against lawful authority and to oppose that authority by the force of arms. This pacifism led those inclined to carry out the war for independence not only to hold the Quakers in contempt for not being patriotic or cooperative but also to invent evidence against them to imply explicitly that they were not just pacifists but active traitors to the cause which it was believed all Americans must hold dear. In the book Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy
Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror by Robert Doyle and Arnold Krammer it is reported that fake minutes of Quaker meetings that never happened indicted them to be accused of betraying sensitive information to the British forces. Executions occurred simply because Quakers pleaded for deliverance to the British. The Quakers refusal to swear oaths of loyalty worked against their being released, as well. The Quakers and other religious groups take Jesus’ admonition to his Jewish followers to not swear oaths as restricting them from taking legal oaths and/or oaths of loyalty. “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
However, if Quakers were not all convinced that a revolution against British Imperialism was warranted they were most certainly convinced of the principles laid down by the signers of the Declaration of Independence to an even more honest degree and earlier than said signers themselves. Quakers everywhere were manumitting their slaves and even wealthy Quakers such as the elderly Philadelphia merchant, Joshua Fisher, bought slaves only to free them. Still, in spite of any connection to concepts of freedom many Quakers remained loyal to Britain for reasons other than Biblical command and pacifist doctrine. Quakers in America were very much linked to Quakers in the British Isles who were quick to point out to their American brethren that a war for independence meant treason and violated their core beliefs. They also felt distrust for politicians who had made their lives difficult before the revolution and yet now demanded their compliance in the Revolution. Some did go along with independence and even enlisted in the Continental Army and state militias. There were even signers of the Declaration of Independence with Quaker ties. However, for the most part exile and pain were the Quaker’s plight during the struggle. This was a tragedy for the Quakers of America as before the war they had had significant political clout, but after the war, virtually none. Pennsylvania had been founded by a Quaker, William Penn, on the foundation of freedom of conscience, and from the beginning Quakers had dominated the popularly elected assembly, that is until the Revolution.
It is interesting to note that while the Americans tried to force the Quakers into service as soldiers against their beliefs the British never did so. It’s also interesting to note that the Continental Congress, in July of 1775, stated that religious pacifists should be exempted from military duties. Later in the war this exemption was discarded as troop levies were requested from the states, which never exempted people of conscience from their military duties except in lieu of payment of a fine or tax.
The disenfranchising of the Quakers as a political force thus making it easier for their per-secution can be traced to the Pennsylvania assembly’s stand against dissolution of the ties with Great Britain. Even though the assembly later relented it was rendered irrelevant and then seems to have been abandoned by its members.
The Quakers in America were a potent moral and political force before the American Revolution. While it is true that many owned slaves it is also true that this was inconsistent with the tenets of their faith and resulted in many, if not all, manumitting the human beings they held in bondage. Their strong moral stances against oath taking, their pacifism, and their sense of identity with Quakers in the British Isles all helped make them unreliable as participants in a civil war against their king. Their political and financial strength, which would have kept them from persecution in many cases, was swept away by the events of the revolution.
Quakers were subjected to many indignities, persecutions, and hardships and some were executed. The forces within America that wanted independence from Great Britain, for the most part, could not tolerate the existence of a significant religious and political group that stood in opposition to their designs. When Quaker refusal to swear oaths or join in military service weren’t sufficient to cause them grief, then false charges were made against them in order to bring them down. While not all Quakers were against the War for Independence and some did participate it was the general consensus within the community that revolution was not the answer to the colonies problems with the mother country.
In concluding, it is also interesting to note that George Washington had reason himself to be angered at Quaker farmers for their lack of service toward his army suffering at Valley Forge. Conscientious objectors, pacifists, and people of varying religious beliefs have suffered in virtually all of America’s wars until Vietnam when the anti-war movement became mainstreamed. An argument has been made that it is the pacifist who is the persecutor by denying needed aid to the troops on the front line. In fact, “Support the Troops” has become the mantra by which supporters of a war can change the dissenter’s protest from a dispute over government policy to a lack of patriotism and compassion for his fellow citizens in combat, even labeling him a traitor.
But, Quakers, in the main, were not merely dissenting from government policies with which they didn’t agree. Many of them viewed the cause of independence as morally wrong. In fact, to even make war was against their most closely held beliefs. It is one of the dilemmas of a free society that a group may expect benefit from the protection of the rest without doing anything to aid in that protection and that men and women may be placed in harm’s way to ensure the freedom of people to disagree with that effort. Freedom of conscience, in the opinion of some, is the greatest gift that America has given to the world. It is easy to forget that this freedom was simply not recognized in most countries on earth until the founding of this country. The Quakers during the American Revolution are an example of the price some people paid for that freedom to exist.

Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York:
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Doyle, Robert C. & Krammer, Arnold. Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy
Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror. Lexington, Ky: University of
Press of Kentucky, 2010.

Frank, Andrew. American Revolution: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO,
Inc., 2008.

Hamm, Thomas. The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the
Struggle to Create America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

No comments: