Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
This thesis describes the evolution of the peace testimony of the British Society of Friends (Quakers) during W.W.I. From a disjointed and confused collection of inspirations, orientations, and critiques of society their peace witness developed into an integrated and comprehensive critique of human behaviour and fundamental social structures. In doing so, it tells a story that has been largely ignored by historians of British pacifism who have assumed that there was a coherent Quaker position during the Great War or have poorly understood as a whole the beliefs and practices of the Friends. The struggles of British Quakers, both with their individual consciences and amongst themselves, have been obscured by historians concentrating almost exclusively on the Society's involvement in the conscription controversy. By focusing on the Society of Friends over a broad range of issues, this thesis reveals that the Quaker response to war was not the easy reflex of traditional sectarian eccentricity. Rather, their response was one of an agonizing division of loyalties and a conscientious re-examination of fundamental beliefs. It is also the story of a closely knit community struggling to maintain a unity of belief in the face of a surprisingly wide range of opinion among its members. In the end, the unity of the Society was preserved but only at the cost of its potential as a significant agent of social change.
Between August 1914 and May 1915, British Quakers struggled to re-affirm a long-standing commitment to pacifism. This commitment was threatened by the complex and devastating nature of the war and by their own compromises of the previous fifty years. At their yearly gathering in London, in May 1915, the Society's members confirmed that pacifism was essential to their unique faith and determined that this witness should be an outward testimony: an immediately relevant gospel for all mankind.
Between May 1915 and May 1916, this invigorated pacifism led the Society into a conflict with the state over compulsory military service. Conscription forced Quakers to recognize the conflict between their ideals and their capacity for militancy. The majority of Quakers refused to endorse militant political action despite the example provided by an absolutist minority. Individual Quakers would continue to play active roles in more aggressive organizations but the Society of Friends would avoid controversy in the interests of unity.
Between May 1916 and May 1918, the re-examination of the peace testimony prompted by the outbreak of war began to bear fruit in the form of a more thorough-going understanding of the roots of violence. Liberal and socialist Quakers developed the Society's first comprehensive analysis of human nature and society and the implications for pacifism of such analyses. Combining the ideas of New Liberal thinkers such as T. H. Green, D. G. Ritche, and L. T. Hobhouse and the Guild socialism of S. G. Hobson and G. D. H. Cole, Quaker thinkers presented the Society with a remarkably radical program for social change. After some resistance from Quaker employers, the Society's Yearly Meeting of 1918 endorsed this approach as consistent with Quaker beliefs. Although the ideals expressed in the new testimony were never openly repudiated, the rejection of militancy in 1916 undercut the activism necessary to create the new society in Britain. Thus the decline in government-sponsored Reconstruction after 1918 was paralleled by and contributed to a decline in Quaker radicalism. The British Society of Friends never had such a complete understanding of its beliefs, but it was unable to face the challenges they presented.
Kerr-Wilson, Andrew David, "The Sword and the Light: Peace Testimony of the Friends, The Evolution of the British Society of 1914-1918" (1984). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 7069.
McMaster University Library