Part One: European Origins

This is not a topic I would have naturally written about, but SP made a comment that got me thinking and I turned up enough material to form the basis of what I thought would be a decent essay. Before I get into it, a few parameters and disclaimers. I’m using Protestantism in a fairly broad sense. Most of the early reformers (e.g., Luther & Calvin) would have decried the groups I refer to as heretics. Early modern here refers to a generally accepted period in European and North American history that runs from c. 1485 – 1800. Third, I’m sticking to developments in western and central Europe and North America. Fourth, most of the focus will be on pacifism and non-resistance as it relates to war. That is, I won’t be dealing with topics such as the death penalty or the role of judges. Disclaimers: I’m not suggesting the groups covered below are the only sources of pacifism. There are pacifist groups in Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions. There is also a strong thread of secular pacifism which emerged in the twentieth century.

Anabaptists & Pacifism

Anabaptist is a name given to a large number of smaller groups (some of whom don’t self-identify as anabaptists) including Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Swiss Brethren, Schwenkfelders, and Dunkers (the various Baptist churches in the United States are generally not considered to be anabaptists). The first clear ideas of pacifism among Protestant groups emerged from European anabaptist groups. As early as 1524 Conrad Grebel (c.1498-1526), a founder of the Swiss Brethren, wrote to a fellow Protestant declaring that:

The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves…True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; they must be baptized in anguish and affliction, tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death; they must be tried with fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing their bodily, but by mortifying their spiritual, enemies. Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them—unless, indeed, we would still be of the old [testament].

In 1527, Swiss Brethren leaders issued what came to be known as the Schleitheim Confession, an attempt to bring unity to anabaptist beliefs. Article VI concerned “the sword” and declared that using the sword for correction was the responsibility of secular rulers, not the church. Nonetheless they did attempt to address the question of “whether a Christian may or should use the sword against the wicked for the protection and defense of the good, or for the sake of love.” The answer to this question moves in the direction of non-resistance but, at least to my mind, is less definitive than many anabaptists hold. Using the example of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53ff), the article concludes, in part, that Christians should follow Christ’s example, “in mercy and forgiveness and warning, to sin no more. Such [an attitude] we also ought to take completely according to the rule of the ban.”

However, one of the leaders of the Schleitheim meeting was much clearer on the question of pacifism. Michael Sattler apparently once declared that “if the Turks came into the country, no resistance should be offered; indeed, if war could be morally justified, he would rather fight against the Christians than against the Turks.” About a year after Schleitheim, Sattler and a number of other Swiss Brethren were arrested and charged with both religious and political crimes. All were found guilty and executed. This did not deter people from converting to anabaptism and the faith spread through various parts of Europe and grew numerically. Increasingly, anabaptists embraced non-violence as a defining value. Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonites wrote, “Our fortress is Christ, our defense is patience, our sword is the Word of God, and our victory is the sincere, firm, unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ. Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine’s blood well-nigh of equal value.”

Anabaptist commitment to pacifism and non-resistance was not only theoretical, it was put into action more than once. A German anabaptist, arrested for his faith, told his interrogators, “The world regime is after the flesh, but the Christian regime is according to the spirit…the Christian’s arms and warfare are spiritual against the sovereignty of the devil…the Christian’s arms are the armor of God, that is truth, righteousness, peace, faith, sanctity, and…the word of God.” Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems was arrested by Catholic authorities because he rejected infant baptism. He escaped from his prison and, as he fled, crossed an iced-over pond. A guard pursuing him fell through the ice and Willems, driven by his pacifist views, turned back to pull the man from the water before he drowned. This delay led to Willems being re-captured and he was burned at the stake.

No good deed...

Dirk Willems Rescues His Pursuer


As time passed, anabaptist groups began to grapple with exactly what actions were, and were not, permitted by their beliefs. As early as the 1560s, some Dutch Mennonites prohibited their members from serving in any office which required wielding the coercive power of the state (constables, magistrates, etc.). It also seems this prohibition was extended to drilling with the town militia. This prohibition carried significant social cost because drilling was a pathway to town citizenship which conferred certain rights and privileges. In the seventeenth century, Dutch Mennonites decided to withdraw their investment from the Dutch East India Company because they determined the company was clearly a quasi-military organization (more accurately, as one historian has put it, it was a state-sponsored armed pirate operation). Mennonites even began to discipline merchant members who armed their own ships against pirate attacks.

In some jurisdictions, anabaptists negotiated with local rulers to gain exemption from military service. This often meant paying a fine or finding a substitute to serve in their stead. Some towns in central Europe agreed to specifically draft Mennonites (and others) into the fire service during sieges, thus allowing them to avoid combat. In some towns, Mennonites would voluntarily bring food and drink to the men standing watch on the walls during a siege. By the 1660s, some governments had a fairly permanent policy of levying fines on Mennonites in lieu of military service.

In 1633, the Hutterites moved to embrace pacifism in essentially all cases. That year, when servants of a local nobleman turned up to requisition horses, members of the Huttterite community at Sobotiste (present-day Hungary) resisted the requisition with axes, sticks, and pitchforks. Although no one on either side was seriously injured, the violence itself shocked Hutterite leaders. Later that year, the leadership condemned the violence and issued a statement declaring, “We therefore command you by the power which the Lord has given us…that henceforth no brother shall protect himself with violence from robbery, iniquity and pressure.” It did, however, seem to leave the door open for resisting threats of physical violence with force.

Before we leave anabaptist pacifism, a brief comment on one of the most famous of anabaptist events, the Munster Rebellion of 1534-35. Most definitely not a pacifist event, one of the Rebellion’s leaders, John of Leiden believed he had been called to use the sword to purge the world of evil to prepare for Christ’s return. In case you hadn’t noticed, this didn’t go well. But, historians have presented compelling arguments that the Anabaptists who seized control of Munster were a splinter group and did not represent the mainstream of Anabaptist thinking. For example, while the siege was taking place, an Anabaptist group in Amsterdam publicly and explicitly rejected the Munsterite position.

Anabaptists but not pacifists

Siege of Munster

Quakers & Pacifism

The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, were one of a number of radical groups which emerged in England in the early seventeenth century. Originally public troublemakers who sometimes stood naked in the streets to preach and, at other times, disrupted church services, the Quakers began to mellow somewhat by the mid-1600s. Friends’ founder, George Fox, appears to have personally embraced a form of pacifism early on. In 1650, Fox informed some government militia recruiters that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” Despite this, Fox preached to soldiers in the 1650s with some converting to the new faith. There is no record that Fox encouraged them to leave military service. Furthermore, when Cromwell’s Protectorate fell in 1659, many Quakers rushed to join militia units, including some who took up positions of command.

While Fox did not speak out against this, there is clear indication that he continued to struggle personally and doctrinally with the issue of Christians and warfare. At the heart of this was Fox’s commitment to the concept of the Inner Light, something that became a central tenant of the Quaker faith. Essentially, the Inner Light is the idea of the presence of God dwelling within every human regardless of their spiritual condition. (The Inner Light is a hard to define idea and one I don’t understand exactly. Here is one explanation). With respect to the topic at hand, through much of the 1650s, it seems that Fox believed that any person would, through spiritual growth which would lead them to more clearly understand the Inner Light, embrace pacifism. That is, for Fox, pacifism was intuitive and the result of personal spiritual evolution rather than reasoned from scripture as the anabaptists did.

However, by the 1660s, Fox and Quaker leaders came to believe that pacifism had to be embraced by anyone who identified as a Friend. In 1661, London was briefly thrown into turmoil by the Fifth Monarchy uprising, led by men who believed that they were about to usher in the millennial kingdom. Although the Quakers were not involved in the uprising, some in the government suspected they were. To counter these suspicions, within days of the uprising, Fox published a denial of Quaker involvement which was presented to Charles II. The declaration included the statement that “the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world.” Thus, war was a sin against the Inner Light and, by the 1660s, pacifism and non-resistance had become enshrined as bedrock Quaker values.

This stand could bring the Quakers into conflict with the state. Quakers in England fell afoul of the notorious naval “press.” Although some were willing to perform non-combat duties, even this was sometimes not enough. Richard Seller was pressed and offered to perform non-combat duties instead. According to Seller “they beat me very sore on the sand, and I refusing to go on board, they hoisted me in with a tackle on board of the ketch that pressed for the ship called the Royal Prince…[so] that I fell into a tub, and was so maimed that they were forced to swaddle me up with clothes … and they hauled me in at a gun-port on board.”

End of Part One. Coming up in Part Two: Protestant Pacifism comes to British North America