[saymaListserv] Review of Weddle's Walking in the Way of Peace

Larry Ingle lingle at bellsouth.net
Tue Aug 20 21:11:06 JEST 2002


Meredith B. Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace:  Quaker Pacifism in the 
Seventeenth Century (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001), 348 pp.

    Historians have failed to examine specific instances of how Friends in
the 17th century "walked in the way of peace," rightfully claims the author
of this intriguing and fascinating work.  Originating as a PhD dissertation
at Yale University in 1994--a fact that Meredith Weddle, a non-Friend,
neglects to inform her readers--this book focuses both on how Friends
thought about the 1661 Peace Testimony and how they acted on it, especially
during King Philip's War against New England Indians in 1675 and 1676.

    The first part of Weddle's book is hampered by two straw men that she
sets up:  one is the view of most Quakers who have written about Friends in
the testimony on peace, and the other is the view held by most other
historians.  The first group, interested in enhancing the reputation of
Quakers, have gleaned interesting little anecedotes from the sources and
used them to inspire their readers with tales of heroic actions.  Consider
Thomas Lurting, an English seaman in the 1650s, hallowed in Quaker
hagiography and First Day school rooms.  After becoming a convinced Friend,
he found that he could not lift his hands against any who attacked the ship
he was on.  Surely this is a tale of inspiration revealing the depths of
Lurting's conviction.

    The second analysis comes from more secularly oriented historians who
see the 1661 Peace Testimony, Weddle insists, as marking the beginning of a
period in which adherence to pacifism was a strategic calculation occasioned
by the Stuart Restoration.  Henceforth say these scholars, pacifism became a
"new orthodoxy" with all Friends embracing it.  She quotes this reviewer as
one who holds that the Peace Testimony was "a retreat from politics."

    The problem is that, at least as far as the second group is concerned,
this is an overstatment.  Christopher Hill and Barry Reay, the two
historians for whom Weddle saves her strongest words, do see the testimony
as marked by strategic considerations, but neither they nor others who write
in this vein are as rigid as she want to insist.  (Had she up-dated her
manuscript from its origins as a dissertation and considered my biography of
George Fox more carefully, she may not have fallen victim to this rhetorical
trick.)

    Those caveats having been made, however, the book merits great praise.
Well-researched and just as well-conceived, its exploration of King Philip's
War is masterful.  What makes it so convincing is that Weddle understands
the complexity and nuances that usually marks human beings and their lives.
They simply had to work out and struggle with the meaning of their Peace
Testimony in the real world.  The book is occasionally slow going, but its
subject matter is quite appealing.

    In 1675, Quakers were in charge of the Rhode Island government, with one
of their own as chief executive and the assembly dominated by Friends.
Hence when the war started they had to respond as "magistrates," an office
duly acclaimed by Fox and the earliest Friends as acting for God in the
secular world.  They had to respond to pleas of their New England neighbors
and to demands of non-Friends.

    Hence the range of responses was individual, as each Friend struggled to
square his convictions with demands as they played themselves out.  (There's
a fascinating lesson here on the willingness of these 17th century Rhode
Islanders to permit what might be called "liberal Quakerism," although
Weddle allows the reader to draw that conclusion.)  The assembly first
approved an exemption law that allowed full freedom to those who could not
support the war either by becoming soldiers, being taxed, paying to be
exempted from fighting, or any other level.  But the assembly also ordered
towns to raise armies of those willing to serve; they proceeded to carry out
offensive action.  And except for one unsigned statement of a men's meeting
protesting this violation of what we might consider Quaker orthodoxy on war,
no one demurred, not even George Fox.  Everyone at the time, except their
critics, seemed willing to accept Quaker individuals' varied responses.

    The Peace Testimony, in other words, was still in the process of being
worked out, was still quite fluid, and hence was able to allow individual
Friends to move in a number of acceptable directions.  There was a
flexibility and a tentativeness in these early days that soon disappeared
from Quakerism, to its hurt, this reviewer would suggest.

    Weddle uncovered a slightly suspect quotation from Isaac Penington in a
work by hardly an orthodox Friend, Londoner John Pennyman, that she uses to
sum up this approach; however suspect, it's still worth pondering.  "It is
not the different practice from one another that breaks the Peace and
Unity," she quotes, "but judging of one another because of different
practices."

For what it's worth.

Larry Ingle
Chattanooga Meeting (SAYMA)
    



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