Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quakerism and Politics

Frederick Tolles, a noted historian and professor of Quaker History and Research at Swarthmore College, presented the seventh Ward Lecture: "Quakerism and Politics" in 1956. In that lecture he quotes a passage written by Rufus Jones:
There has always been in the Society of Friends a group of persons pledged unswervingly to the ideal. To those who form this inner group compromise is under no circumstance allowable. If there comes a collision between allegiance to the ideal and the holding of public office, then the office must be deserted. If obedience to the soul's vision involves eye or hand, houses or lands or life, they must be immediately surrendered.

But there has always been as well another group who have held it to be equally imperative to work out their principles of life in the complex affairs of the community and the state, where to gain an end one must yield something; where to get on one must submit to existing conditions; and where to achieve ultimate triumph one must risk his ideals to the tender mercies of a world not yet ripe for them.
These are the two poles that Tolles discusses in this pamphlet. He views the history of Quakerism as an oscillation between extremes, and the main purpose of his lecture "is to trace historically the path of that oscillation, to underline some of the dilemmas in which Friends have found themselves in relation to politics, and, if possible, to draw from the record some conclusions which may have contemporary relevance."

From the very earliest appearance of the Quaker movement there were those, including George Fox, who were immersed in the political movement of the times. As Frederick Tolles muses:
We are accustomed to think that the early Friends stood aloof from politics, and we find it hard to see how men who had renounced force could justify administering the militia. Yet given the apocalyptic atmosphere of the time, it is not impossible to understand how Friends could have agreed to accept public office, even to take up the magistrate's sword, in the interests of establishing the Rule of the Saints.
In fact George Fox himself is a representative of the oscillations to which Tolles calls our attention. The effort to establish the 'Rule of the Saints' clearly fizzled when Charles II took the throne, and Fox had some 'sober second thoughts', ultimately recommending that Friends "keep out of the powers of the earth that run into wars and fightings" and to "take heed of joining with this or the other, or meddling with any, or being busy with other men's matters; but mind the Lord, and his power and his service."

But Fox's involvement doesn't at all end there. As Tolles notes,
lobbying was for Friends a more congenial method of influencing politics than electioneering. Quakers had been engaged in lobbying - that is to say, in seeking to influence legislators by personal visits - ever since 1659, when a hundred and sixty-five Friends went to Westminster Hall and sent into the House of Commons a paper offering to lie "body for body" in jail in place of their imprisoned and suffering fellow Quakers.
Putting it bluntly Tolles notes that if "anyone thinks the techniques of the FCNL are a modern innovation, he knows little of Quaker history."

The pamphlet continues with fine examples of British Quaker involvement in the political scene of the day: Joseph Pease, and in particular a noted Quaker statesman, John Bright.

The American experience of Quakers in political history is discussed as well, with a focus on William Penn's "Holy Experiment" in colonial Pennsylvania. As Tolles notes the experiment was fraught with contradiction.
As a concerned Friend William Penn gave his allegiance to the fundamental principle of Christian pacifism. So, as individual Friends, did most of his associates and successors who dominated Pennsylvania politics for three quarters of a century. But as responsible legislators and administrators governing a constituent part of the British Empire, they found it impossible in practice to maintain that principle without abatement or compromise.
The compromises and contradictions are still with us. However Tolles sees a particular Quaker role in the political sphere.
[There is a] prophetic mission to the rulers of men [which] is a distinctively Quaker approach to politics. When carried out under a deep religious concern by a person whose own life speaks of a genuine commitment to a spiritual vision, such an approach can be a way of avoiding the dilemma of isolation on the one hand and compromise on the other, a way of combining consistency of life with relevance to history.



View the complete 1956 Ward Lecture:Quakerism and Politics

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