Thomas Lurting was an experienced seaman from Liverpool, England who converted to Quakerism while serving on a warship during one of Oliver Cromwell’s wars in the 1650s.
The brand-new Quaker movement hadn’t formally adopted a declaration of pacifism – Quakers were all over the map, some of them refusing to join in wars because of a literal application of the Sermon on the Mount, and others serving in Cromwell’s army and even upbraiding Cromwell for not being righteous enough to achieve more military victories – as Quaker leader George Fox wrote in 1658:
Oliver, hadst thou been faithful and thundered down the deceit, the Hollander had been thy subject and tributary, Germany had given up to have done thy will, and the Spaniard had quivered like a dry leaf wanting the virtue of God, the King of France should have bowed his neck under thee, the Pope should have withered as in winter, the Turk in all his fatness should have smoked, thou shouldst not have stood trifling about small things, but minded the work of the Lord as He began with thee at first … Let thy soldiers go forth… that thou may rock nations as a cradle.
Lurting started out as one of the warlike Quakers, but he switched from the prowar position to the pacifist position in the middle of a battle, deciding that God didn’t want Christians to kill people. So after somehow avoiding a hanging, Lurting left the Navy and continued his seafaring career as a merchant seaman. After the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, the British Navy kept trying to draft (“impress”) Lurting off of his merchant vessels, but he kept refusing to serve, and they let him go rather than endure his inflexible and troublesome conscience.
In the interim, George Fox had switched to a more peaceful tone as he tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the new royal regime that Quakers were loyal subjects. Far from plotting against the King, Fox and other Quaker leaders insisted, Quakers were, and had always, been, pacifists:
…our weapons are spiritual and not carnal, yet mighty through God to the plucking down of the strongholds of Satan, who is author of wars, fighting, murder, and plots. And our swords are broken until ploughshares and spears into pruning; hooks, as prophesied of in Micah iv. Therefore we cannot learn war any more, neither rise up against nation or kingdom with outward weapons, though you have numbered us among the transgressors and plotters. The Lord knows our innocency herein, and will plead our cause with all men and people upon earth at the day of their judgement, when all men shall have a reward according to their works…
This statement was influential enough to establish pacifism as a norm among Quakers for the time being.
On one of his merchant voyages in the 1660s, Lurting was mate under Captain George Pattison, who was sailing in the southern Mediterranean. Lurting had a premonition that their merchant ship would be captured by Algerian pirates, whom Lurting called “Turks” because of their nominal allegiance to the Muslim Turkish Sultan. Algerian pirates were in the habit of seizing European ships (or even conducting coastal raids) and enslaving Europeans. The captain pooh-poohed this possibility, so as the rules of drama require, they were, in fact, captured by Algerians. Lurting says he was no longer anxious, because he believed God would deliver them all from the “Turks.”
Lurting’s advice to the men was to comply with the Algerines’ demands and satisfy the pirates of their docility, thus lulling them into a false sense of security. Contrary to the wishes of some of the men, Lurting did not want to kill any of the pirates – such a thing would be un-Christian. Indeed, Lurting would rather be a slave in Algiers than be a killer, and he threatened to tell their captors if any of the sailors made any murderous attempt.
Lurting recovered the ship by a ruse, luring the pirates into the ship’s cabins on a rainy night, where the pirates fell into sleep and woke up to find their weapons seized and and in the hands of Lurting and his party (except their concealed daggers, which Lurting wasn’t aware of until later) . Then Pattison and Lurting turned the ship toward the Spanish island of Majorca (or Mallorca).
The Algerians were very unhappy, since the Spanish, if they got hold of the pirates, would enslave them – and these Algerines had signed up as enslavers, not as slaves.
Lurting, perhaps on account of his Quaker beliefs, or perhaps because of his and Pattison’s English abhorrence of turning anyone over to the despised Spaniards, decided to hide the Algerines in the ship while it docked in Majorca. During that time another English captain came over and thought it was stupid not to profit from the sale of such valuable human merchandise, so the other captain dropped a dime (or piece of eight) and told the Spaniards that there were valuable Muslim slaves in Pattison’s ship.
So Pattison, Lurting, the English crew, and the Algerine prisoners slipped away from Majorca.
Pattison and Lurting tricked the Algerines into thinking they were going to Algiers, steering that direction in the daytime but then surreptitiously steering for England at night. When the Algerines found out, they threatened Pattison, and it looked for a while as if the pirates might have the upper hand again. But the English crew, brandishing their weapons, persuaded the Algerines to give up their mutiny and go below. Lurting was pleased that nobody had been killed, though the English crew had only saved the day by threats of deadly force – not consistent with the purest form of pacifism.
Pattison and Lurting, based perhaps on their compassion for the Algerines and/or the desire to be rid of them, decided to drop them on shore near Algiers. Bringing the ship close to shore, Lurting arranged the Algerines in the ship’s boat. Others in the crew wanted to at least tie up the Algerines, but that would be too degrading, Lurting believed. So the English crew stood in the boat with their weapons (and the Algerines’), while having the Algerines sit on each others’ laps while the boat was rowed to shore.
Just before the boat landed, a crew member mistakenly thought he saw armed men in the bushes – this scared Lurting and the others, emboldening the Algerines to try another mutiny. Lurting became a bit less peaceful:
It’s better to strike a Blow, than to cleave a Man’s Head, or cut off an Arm ; and I turned the Hook of the Boat-hook into my Hand…then I struck the Captain [of the Algerines] a smart Blow, and bid him sit down, which he did instantly
Then the English turned the Algerines loose on shore and tossed their weapons over to them. The Algerines invited the English to come with them to a nearby town and have some wine, and Lurting was tempted, but apparently the rest of the crew were not.
So the English went back to their ship and went back to England. And nobody had been killed or enslaved. Maybe it made the pirates think.
William E. A. Axon, Thomas Lurting: A Liverpool Worthy. Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. For the year 1885 – Volume XXXVII. New Series.-Volume I. Liverpool: Printed for the Society, 1888, 21-28.
Mark G. Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Thomas Lurting, The Fighting Sailor Turn’d Peaceable Christian: Manifested in the Convincement and Conversion of Thomas Lurting. With a short Relation of many Great Dangers, and wonderful Deliverances, he met withal. First Written for private Satisfaction, and Now Published for general Service. London: Printed and Sold at the Bible in George yard, Lombard-Street, 1766.