Quakers and Insurrection
January 9, 2021 § 1 Comment
Barry Crossno, General Secretary of Friends General Conference, and FGC’s clerk Marvin Barnes have recently issued an epistle to Friends addressing our stance with respect to the recent insurrection at the nation’s capitol. (You can read it here.)
I very much appreciate their recognition of the racist roots of that insurrection, their commitment to interfaith action toward de-escalation, and their appeal to Friends to reflect in our actions our belief in a “seed of God” existing in each of us. I would have put that last part differently: I would hope our actions would reflect our grounding in and experience of the seed of God that exists within ourselves, rather than in a belief in its existence in others.
Reading this epistle, I could not help but be reminded of the important role political insurrection played in the history of the Quaker movement.
In 1661, Fifth Monarchist insurrectionists seized control of England’s parliament building. Hundreds of Quakers, including most of the movement’s leaders, were swept up by England’s state security forces after the insurrection and put in jail. The state feared dissenters of all stripes and falsely suspected Quaker involvement in the insurrection. This was the beginning of a generation of state-sponsored persecution of Friends and it began a process of radical change in Quakerism.
It annealed the red-hot fervency of the movement, binding Quakers together in a turn toward the spirit of Christ and his teaching and example of love for one’s enemies. This may have been the most important factor in our survival and subsequent direction as a people of God. It also found expression in the extraordinary statement we now call the 1660 Declaration. (The Fifth Monarchist insurrection occurred in January 1661 according to our current calendar, following the calendar reforms made in the 18th century, but it took place in the tenth month of 1660 according to the calendar of the time; hence the Declaration of 1660.)
In response to the persecution, George Fox and a number of other Quakers wrote “A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers” to newly crowned King Charles II defending Quakers from the accusations of participation in insurrection and violence. This document is often cited as the first articulation of our peace testimony. (You can read the text here and a great article in Friends Journal about it here.)
I invite Friends to reread the Declaration as a centering exercise in this weird and troubled time.