“Quakerism is not just a set of beliefs or a statement of faith; it is a practical, ethical, and functional religious approach to life,” says Wilmer Cooper in A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs. “That is to say, it is a religious faith to be lived out and not just professed and talked about.” The connection between these examples is not merely that they show accidental or incidental contact with the state, then, but that the actions of early Friends in the world very much flowed from their understanding of faith and the importance of an outward expression of their inward reality. Further, I think we can reasonably assume that they were not only aware that their actions would be interpreted as a challenge to the existing political order but also of the likely consequences of those actions.
In other words, even with a cursory overview of early Friends history it is difficult to maintain that Quakers drew clean distinctions between their spirituality and the "worldly concerns" of the political sphere. It is true that withdrawal as an approach to politics has a history among Friends, as when many Quakers withdrew from the Pennsylvania assembly in 1756 in the face of strong pressure to raise a militia (69-70). Even here, however, this action could be interpreted as a subversive response to an effort to undermine the integrity of those Friends opposed to war, and it is certainly true that the influence of Friends continued to be felt in state politics (9-12). Again and again Friends have instead stepped forward into engagement. Their history indicates that this is a tradition firmly rooted in the origins and early development of the movement.
- Refusing hat honor - Early Friends took issue with what they took to be false hierarchies in society - both hereditary and political. As David Hackett Fischer writes in Albion's Seed, "In England, the stubborn refusal of the Quakers to give 'hat honor' was punished with a brutal force. In 1655, for example, the high sheriff of Lancashire, John Parker, routinely bullied and beat Quakers who did not bear their heads to him" (575).
- Nonviolence - "Parliamentarians grew suspicious of monarchist plots and fearful that the group travelling with Fox aimed to overthrow the government: by this time his meetings were regularly attracting crowds of over a thousand. In early 1655 he was arrested at Whetstone, Leicestershire and taken to London under armed guard. In March he was brought before the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. After affirming that he had no intention of taking up arms Fox was able to speak with Cromwell for most of the morning about the Friends and advised him to listen to God's voice and obey it so that, as Fox left, Cromwell "with tears in his eyes said, 'Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other'; adding that he wished [Fox] no more ill than he did to his own soul."
"This episode was later recalled as an example of 'speaking truth to power', a preaching technique by which subsequent Quakers hoped to influence the powerful. Although not used until the 20th century, the phrase is related to the ideas of plain speech and simplicity which Fox practiced, but motivated by the more worldly goal of eradicating war, injustice and oppression." It is worth noting that in their very attempt to assure Cromwell that they were no threat to him, the non-participation of Friends in taking up arms for any faction was itself a threat. Perhaps this is part of the reason that persecution of Quakers continued in spite of Cromwell releasing Fox.
- Refusing the oath - "Quakers were suspect...because of their principles which differed from the state imposed religion and because of their refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Cromwell or the King (Quakers obeyed the command of Christ to not swear, Matthew 5:34)." From George Fox's Journal:
"I was brought before Judge Twisden, the 14th of the month called March, the latter end of the year 1663.
"Then said the Judge to me, 'Will you take the oath of allegiance, George Fox?' I said, 'I never took any oath in my life, nor any covenant or engagement.' 'Well,' said he, 'will you swear or no?' I answered, 'I am a Christian, and Christ commands me not to swear; so does the apostle James; and whether I should obey God or man, do thou judge.'"
- Challenging the Conventicle Act - "To curb the potential power of Catholics, notably the Stuarts, Parliament passed the Conventicle Act, which aimed to suppress religious dissent as sedition. But the law was applied mainly against Quakers, perhaps because few were politically connected. Thousands were imprisoned for their beliefs. The government seized their properties, including the estate of his wife's family. Penn decided to challenge the Conventicle Act by holding a public meeting on August 14, 1670. The Lord Mayor of London arrested him and his fellow Quakers as soon as he began expressing his nonconformist religious views. At the historic trial, Penn insisted that since the government refused to present a formal indictment--officials were concerned the Conventicle Act might be overturned--the jury could never reach a guilty verdict. He appealed to England's common-law heritage: 'if these ancient and fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, and which are not limited to particular persuasions in matters of religion, must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who then can say that he has a right to the coat on his back? Certainly our liberties are to be openly invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer--as their trophies but our forfeits for conscience's sake.'
"The jury acquitted all defendants, but the Lord Mayor of London refused to accept this verdict. He hit the jury members with fines and ordered them held in brutal Newgate prison. Still, they affirmed their verdict. After the jury had been imprisoned for about two months, the Court of Common Pleas issued a writ of habeas corpus to set them free. Then they sued the Lord Mayor of London for false arrest. The Lord Chief Justice of England, together with his 11 associates, ruled unanimously that juries must not be coerced or punished for their verdicts. It was a key precedent protecting the right to trial by jury."
- Establishing Pennsylvania - "All kinds of Christians were eligible to vote or hold office; no believers in God were to be molested for their faith or worship, or to be compelled to attend or support any particular worship or ministry. Thus, synagogues and the various forms of churches were from the first as permissible as Quaker meetings. To meet the Quaker scruple against oaths, affirmations were declared valid for the same circumstances, and with the same penalties, under which oaths had been usually required.
"The penal code of Pennsylvania was also unique at its time. In England, then, some 200 kinds of offence were punishable by death. Except in cases of wilful murder, the death penalty was abolished entirely by William Penn."
For more on early Pennsylvania, see Murray Rothbard's essay "Pennsylvania's Anarchist Experiment: 1681- 1690."
The examples, of course, do not end there. Involvement in the Underground Railroad, conscientious objection, counter-recruitment efforts, and war tax resistance are just a few more recent efforts Quakers have undertaken that subvert the dominant narrative and power structure of the political order. May they - and may we - long continue to do so.