K is for Kaiser Bill, Kitchener and Killing (and Conscientious Objection)

quaker alphabet project

Here we are again at the Quaker Alphabet. I have committed to posting 26 entries at least for each letter of the alphabet on my life as a Quaker in 2014. You can read other blogs in this project by going to the tab at the top of the page.

It’s taken me a while to get this post sorted out. I had quite a time thinking of a K. I toyed with Kinship, but bored myself writing it, so be grateful that that particular draft will not be seeing the light of your screen. I feel quite strongly about the Quaker Family but don’t seem to be able to express anything about it in less than mind-numblingly tedious terms. What else could I choose: kaleidoscopes, knitting, knights or knickers? I looked up the index of phrases in Quaker Faith and Practice for inspiration and found the only K was about Keeping the Meeting. I could cover that I suppose but probably rather less successfully than Kinship.

Then I suddenly remembered there is an anniversary of something this year which means that many people are focusing on Killing, although some are instead trying to focus on the alternative to that, by talking about Conscientious Objectors. A number of these people are, of course, Quakers, who have strong words to say about Peace and not fighting each other and finding more grown up ways to sort out differences.

The Quaker Peace testimony dates back to the beginnings of the Society, in the seventeenth century, and its first formal expression is usually associated with a lengthy document addressed to King Charles II following his Restoration. Entitled

“A DECLARATION FROM THE HARMLES & INNOCENT people of GOD, called QUAKERS, Against all Plotters and Fighters in the World”

a snappy title that rolls right off the tongue, it was delivered on 21 November 1660 and was intended to make clear that the king was not going to be at any risk from plots and insurgency against him by this particular group of religious reformers so would he stop banging them up in prison please.

Most memorably it includes the phrase

All bloody Principles & Practices … we do utterly deny, with all outward wars & strife, & fightings with outward Weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our Testimony to the whole world.

This phrase is frequently used as the short-hand for the testimony itself, and encapsulates a firm and unequivocal opposition to bearing arms. Life is rarely that straightforward of course.

Let us scroll forward through history to the early 20th century.

20,000 men were conscientious objectors in the 1914-18 war in Britain, following the implementation of conscription in March 1916. They included socialists, religious groups such as Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others with an ideological opposition to the war and its causes. The story of conscientious objection is told on the Peace Pledge Union website, so for more details please start there.

At the time of the 1660 Peace Testimony it was considered appropriate to wear a sword by default, if you were a gentleman, and so giving up swords was a contentious issue. Famously, William Penn is often quoted as advising his fellows to “wear it as long as thou canst”, meaning “until you feel unable to do so”. In a sense this was the dilemma facing Friends as the war in Europe loomed and then erupted. Friends played an active role in the protests against conscription, but I learned recently this was by no means a unanimous approach. A significant number were willing to serve in the armed forces; the Society was split in its views for and against the war. Some buckled on their metaphorical swords.

Other Friends established the Friends Ambulance Unit, being willing to serve in non-combatant roles. The FAU was a volunteer ambulance service, founded by members of the Society of Friends as a practical expression of the Quaker peace testimony. It operated from 1914 to 1919, 1939 to 1946 and 1946 to 1959 in 25 countries around the world, and its members were chiefly registered conscientious objectors.

Even this was viewed in some circles as tacitly supporting the war effort and so a third group opposed to supporting the war in any form served in prison or were executed.

Conscientious objection is more fully recognised now than in 1916, although not easily and certainly not universally. For myself I have never had to make the choice, and hope I never will, as to whether I accept military service or not. I would like to think I would be brave and stand firm but I don’t know and am now fortunately possessed of sufficient age probably never to have to decide. The Offspringses may yet have to make their choices.

Although I don’t agree philosophically with those who did wear their swords once more, nevertheless it pleases me that the Society of Friends was able to work out its differences around what is a fundamental principle of its belief system. Quakers can be a tricksy lot to get to grips with. As a former Bishop of Durham is quoted as saying “I wish Friends would preach what they practise.” We can be a bit vague at times and too often answer with “it depends…”. That is because we are Seekers of Truth not Purveyors, and, as we all know, the Truth can be complicated.

Namaste.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “K is for Kaiser Bill, Kitchener and Killing (and Conscientious Objection)

  1. ‘…a third group opposed to supporting the war in any form served in prison or were executed.’ Wow I didn’t know that. I know that Jersey passed a law in (?) 1916 making conscientious objecting illegal. Local men were therefore called up regardless but – I understand – managed to end up in non-combat units.

    • It’s shocking to us now, but a lot of people at the time thought it was the way to keep us safe. Awful. Fenner Brockway, I think, was even up for treason at one point.

  2. Yes indeed, and yes it’s so much more complicated than we thought. Nearly every day at the moment I’m finding questions to which I don’t know the answers. Janet Douglas who spoke on conscientious objection at Headingley Library last Wednesday said people who were in the FAU were not called up. Haven’t had time to check that. And what was the difference between the two Ellis twin sisters. Why is the one who went to prison better remembered than the one who married a Lord? My next task is to write a comment to David Rubinstein who is perhaps the leading explorer in Yorkshire complexities – way to go with all of this.

    • To be honest it makes my head hurt as I read more. I tried to avoid details in my post because I was sure I would get it wrong! Whatever the case it was all horrendous

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