Pacifism in British North America to 1765

Persecution in England was a significant contributing factor to the formation and settlement of Pennsylvania. Offered the opportunity to create a haven for Quakers, William Penn seized the opportunity. Penn’s colony quickly developed a reputation as a haven for religious dissenters and this toleration was written into its governing documents. Toleration, in turn, served as a magnet for dissenting religious groups in Europe: Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and other anabaptist groups settled in the colony.

One other Protestant group—the Moravians—also settled in Pennsylvania in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Moravian idea of pacifism was complex. Their initial document of brotherhood forbade military service. But, by 1748, the key Moravian leader, Nicolaus Zinzendorf concluded that military service was up to individual conscience – although he did not believe that the authorities could compel military service. The Moravians had first settled in Georgia where an interesting expression of their pacifism took place in 1737. That year they were approached to commit men to a planned preemptive expedition against the Spanish settlements to the south. Uncertain as to what they should do, the Moravians employed the casting of the Lot (see Section XXVIII in the linked document), and determined that God did not want them to participate. In 1740, most of the Moravians began a move to Pennsylvania which became their main location in British North America – although a small settlement was also established in North Carolina.

The original decades of settlement in Pennsylvania provided little to test the pacifist commitments of the Quakers, Moravians or the various anabaptist groups. Most of the immigrants were farmers and so settled away from the colonial towns which attracted the press gangs. Furthermore, apart from the Quakers, most peace church adherents arrived after about 1710 during a period known as the Long Peace (c. 1714-1740) from the end of Queen Anne’s War to the outbreak of King George’s War. Furthermore, the Quaker attitude toward Indians meant that Pennsylvania avoided most of the violence of the latter conflict.

Edward Hicks: The Peaceable Kingdom 1820. (Pennsylvania)

The Quaker government of Pennsylvania did find itself in some disagreement with royal officials in the colony. As early as 1689, one officer of the crown declared of Pennsylvania that, “Hosts of mosquitoes are worse than of armed men, yet the men without arms worse than they.” By 1693, the Quakers and the crown had forged a symbolic compromise. That year, the assembly finally voted funds for the war effort, with the governor assuring them that money contributed by those opposed to war “shall not be dipt in blood.” In theory, this meant that such money would not be used to buy weapons and ammunition. There is no reason to believe the Quakers were not aware of the fungibility of money, but they had won a form of moral victory.

Pennsylvania’s Long Peace perished in the fire and bloodshed of the French & Indian War which forced decisions on all the pacifist groups. Members of peace churches rendered aid, provided food, and opened their homes to victims of the violence. Some Moravian missionaries even stayed in their isolated villages seeking to continue their ministry. But, in 1755, Indians allied with the French attacked the mission village of Gnadenhutten (present-day Lehighton, PA), destroying the buildings and killing 11 (both Indian and European) of the 15 residents. This led to a general flight from the frontier towns and more refugees to be cared for. Moravian leader August Spangenberg ordered defenses to be constructed at the principal Moravian settlements of Nazareth and Bethlehem. The residents bore arms, ready to defend themselves. Many Pennsylvanians, including Benjamin Franklin, were surprised by these preparations, having misunderstood the Moravian commitment to pacifism. Spangenberg explained that the Moravians were not absolute pacifists. He also pointed out that Bethlehem had become a refuge for those fleeing the fighting and he was preventing bloodshed by protecting the settlement. Spangenberg further argued that the Quaker-dominated assembly had failed in its duty to protect citizens. Finally, Spangenberg also took lessons from the Joe Biden school of self-defense, suggesting the first shot should go in the air – to warn residents to get inside the walls. If an attack came, the defenders were instructed to aim at the legs then bring the wounded inside the palisades to nurse them to health.

Mennonites, Amish, and other pacifists living in Pennsylvania were exempted from military service during the war. Some Mennonites individually abandoned the peace testimony and joined militia units, but they were the exception. Amish and Mennonite non-resistance did lead to fatalities in some backcountry regions. In September, 1756, the farm of Amish Jacob Hochstetler was attacked and burned. Jacob’s wife and two of his children were killed while he and the remaining children were taken into captivity for a number of years.

The war had a greater affect on Pennsylvania’s Quaker community. At the time the war broke out, Quakers throughout the British world were caught up in a broader reforming movement within the group. There was renewed scrutiny on slave-owning, conspicuous wealth, alcohol and other issues. It was within this context that Quakers attempted to deal with the renewed demands for their military involvement. The results were complex. Some Quakers actually endorsed defensive war. Some Quakers sought to, again, fund non-military needs. But the reforming Quakers insisted on a return to the complete “peace testimony.” These men and women essentially argued that money was fungible, observing that raising taxes for non-military purposes was not possible because “they were…so mixed that we cannot in the manner proposed show our hearty concurrence therewith without at the same time assenting to…practices which we apprehend contrary to the testimony which the Lord has given us to bear for his name and Truth’s sake.” As the bloodshed continued, pressure grew on Quaker legislators. A London Quaker leader, John Fothergill, argued that, if the Pennsylvania Quakers did not fund defensive war, then “Will not all the blood that is spilt be at your doors?” Anglicans, backcountry settlers, and others raged at the Quaker legislators for abandoning them. In the end, some kind of deal was done: many Quakers did not stand for reelection allowing pro-war non-Quakers to take office with the understanding that the Quaker legislators would return to the chamber when the war was over.

In addition to these more institutional arguments, individual Quakers grappled with their own understanding of the “peace testimony.” Some Quakers declared they could not stand watch during the war or even pay for a substitute. Chester County Justice Aaron Ashburdge apparently tried to persuade men brought to him for the purpose of swearing oaths of military service from going ahead with their plans. On the other side, there was a trickle of Quakers who abandoned the peace testimony during the war and were subsequently disciplined by their local meetings. Few, if any, of them gave up their service. One man who was confronted for both taking oaths and bearing arms, informed the visitation committee that “he was not convinced of the unlawfulness of oathes.” The committee laconically concluded that it was “most safe to disown him.” Interestingly, near the end of the war, a group of Quakers in Pennsylvania did take up arms – to defend Indians from whites rather than whites from Indians. When the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia with the declared aim of massacring a group of Indians being held in protective custody, a number of younger Quakers took up arms to defend their lives. One older Quaker called these actions a “sorrowful defection from our religious testimony.”

The Paxton Expedition, Henry Dawson, 1764.

Virginia was another major front in the war and in some parts of this colony, militia service was required. Since Mennonites had never held the same concern as Quakers over paying militia fines, in parts of Virginia where militia service was required, Mennonites simply paid the fine and were exempted. As in Pennsylvania, some Mennonites paid the ultimate price for their pacifism. In 1764, Mennonite preacher John Rhodes, his wife, and six of their thirteen children were killed in a raid.

In Virginia, Quakers too, had long been generally exempted from military service although they were expected to pay for a substitute (something that caused a moral dilemma for many Friends). The war, however, brought renewed pressure on Quakers to serve in the military. In Frederick County, for example, eight Quakers were jailed for refusing to serve. In 1756, Colonel George Washington, in charge of the defense of the Shenandoah, had a written exchange with Governor Dinwiddie seeking advice on six Quakers who steadfastly refused to serve—in any capacity—in the militia. Despite Dinwiddie’s advice to “compel” the Friends to build fortifications, even the threat of severe whippings did not bring the recalcitrant Quakers to heel. Eventually, Washington released them from prison. The movement of the war away from Virginia meant little more pressure was put upon Friends in Virginia.

Pacifism and the American Revolution

The outbreak of the American Revolution led to renewed pressure on pacifist groups in a number of colonies. Mennonites and Brethren continued to affirm both their refusal to serve and their willingness to pay fines in lieu of service and taxes to support the war. The revolutionary governments in both Maryland and Virginia allowed Mennonites to purchase exemptions from military service. In some colonies Mennonites were happy to supply wagons and horses to the Continental Army and even worked as teamsters on occasion. They did, however, refuse to be paid in Continental money, insisting on hard currency.

Nonetheless, the Revolution did create complications for Mennonites in America. The Mennonite churches, generally, concluded that the various revolutionary governments (at the state and federal level) were illegitimate as they were a rebellion against the British government which, they believed, had been put in place by God (this was a standard view toward any government which these groups held. See Romans 13: 1,2 for context). For this reason, they refused to take loyalty oaths to revolutionary governments and also refused to pay the special taxes levied by those revolutionary governments. That this refusal was based in theology not politics was made clear at the conclusion of revolution when the Treaty of Paris recognized the legitimacy of the American (and by default) the state governments. At that time, Mennonites happily took oaths of loyalty to the new governments.

However, during the revolutionary years, what the Mennonites saw as political neutrality was dangerous in a time of war. A number of those who refused to take oaths suffered imprisonment, fines, and confiscation of property at the hands of revolutionary forces. A group of farmers in Upper Saucon, Pennsylvania reported that the local sheriff had seized beds, linens, bibles, books, and stoves. A number of Amish in Reading were imprisoned for refusing to take a loyalty oath. The Brethren publisher Christopher Sower (or Saur) had his Germantown press destroyed and was arrested for refusing to take the oath. In 1783, Brethren elder Martin Urner welcomed three travelers into his home. Over dinner they informed him that they were escaped British prisoners. Urner urged them to give themselves up but did not report them to the revolutionary authorities. The next day they left Urner’s house but returned a few weeks later in the company of American troops. The three men were spies, sent to find out British loyalists. Urner was sentence to 117 lashes, later commuted to a fine.

Pacifism cost at least one pacifist group more than a fine. Sometime between 1777 and 1780, the small Brethren settlement at in Morrison’s Cove Pennsylvania was attacked by Indians. The Brethren refused to either flee or fight and were, apparently, killed to the last person.

Officially the Moravians held a position of non-involvement during the Revolution. The key argument made by Moravian leaders to their churches was that the British government had provided a place of refuge for Moravians when they were being persecuted. How, then, could the sect now rebel against that government? Unofficially, many Moravians chose one side or the other during the Revolution.

For the most part, Quakers resisted calls to become involved in the Revolution, a mark of how successful the Quaker reformers had been in previous decades. Quakers argued that overturning kings was God’s business not men’s. Indeed, as a group, the Quaker commitment to peace became more acute during the revolution. Quakers refused to take oaths to the revolutionary governments. Although Quakers had always refused to take oaths (and, indeed, British law carved out an exemption for them in this regard), they fell under the same suspicions as did the Mennonites and Brethren. Quakers also continued their refusal to pay war taxes. Quaker meetings began to discipline members who paid a fine for refusing to serve in the militia rather than going to prison as Quaker rules required. Some Quakers did refuse to pay the fine and were imprisoned for this measure of resistance. One such instance in Salem, New Jersey, caused consternation when two Quakers who had been imprisoned were released on payment of the fines. Local leaders investigated the case, preparing to discipline the two men. However, the local meeting learned that the fines had been paid by a non-Quaker who was concerned for the prisoners’ well-being.

An even more fascinating incident took place in Trenton, New Jersey in 1776. The Quaker meeting house there had been used for both the New Jersey Convention, which met in the wake of the Continental Congress, and as a barracks by revolutionary troops. Although the local Quakers had not supported these uses, they had either given the meeting house key to local officials or unlocked the meeting house themselves “to prevent the breaking of the doors.” A Quaker committee which reviewed these actions criticized the decision to hand over the key suggesting it would have been better for the doors to be broken down and the leaders arrested for refusing to assist the revolutionaries.

In Virginia, some Quakers were forcibly recruited into the military and marched off to army camps with their hands bound. In response, they refused to take any food or water. After a day in camp, all were discharged by George Washington (who had perhaps learned from his experiences during the French and Indian Wars). In general, these acts of passive resistance prevented further impositions on Virginia Quakers.

But, while Quaker meetings and leaders were generally moving more strongly into pacifist positions, the Revolution also saw widespread defections from the Quaker faith over the issue of military service. Page after page of Quaker records from congregations in places such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey record the names of young men who came under discipline for “going off to war” or “practicing military arts” or “drilling with the militia” or similar offenses. Occasionally, one of these men repented. Anthony Woodward, for example, condemned himself for “being so far in the spirit of War as to carry Arms in shew of defence.” But, men like Woodward were the exception rather than the norm. The vast majority of Quakers who faced discipline for joining up had never been in trouble with the Friends before on any matter. The decision to go off to war represented a change in thinking for these men: a decision to abandon the “peace witness” of the Quakers, was a decision to leave the Friends completely. Many of them joined other churches.


One of the cornerstones of libertarianism—the non-aggression principle—can be explained as a refusal to engage in offensive violence while retaining the right to resist personal threats vigorously, even to the point of using lethal force. Under this principle, most libertarians would probably see themselves as having more in common with the Quakers who left their faith to serve in the Revolution than with the Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, and others who held fast to their principles of pacifism. I’ve never been faced with that kind of choice, but my philosophical commitment would be to resist threats against me or my family with the minimal appropriate level of force. Nonetheless, I hold nothing but admiration for those who refuse to take the life of one of their fellow men on principle. For me this stems not from a lack of courage, but from the possession of courage of a different kind.