War comes – how will Quakers respond?
While most British people supported the war, there were many who shared Bert's determination to oppose it. Others were unsure what to think. The Religious Society of Friends – more often known as the Quakers – had always been pacifists but they differed from each other in their reactions to World War I. The UK government claimed it was fighting a war for civilisation and against German 'militarism'.
In the first week of August, the editor of the weekly Quaker magazine The Friend was faced with writing an editorial that addressed the situation. It was no easy task. The Friend was – and remains – an independent magazine, not bound by the decisions of the wider Quaker organisation. Nonetheless, its staff were aware of the different views among Quakers: some were furious with the government, while at the other end of the spectrum, some were considering joining the army.
The Friend editorial, written shortly before Britain declared war, avoided criticism of the government while urging Quakers to refuse to fight. Here's an edited version:
The state of Europe at the present time almost leads one to despair. Like a gathering torrent which increases in volume and impetuosity, a war, at first confined to a remote corner and involving no great interest, seems about to engulf the whole of Europe, and threatens to sweep away in its onward rush, all the advances that civilisation has made in the last hundred years.
All has been prepared that we too may be caught by the rapidly swelling current and swept away – whither? Ah, that we know not. Five nations are already at war, and before this reaches our readers, the number may by increased and our own country may be amongst them. And for what reason? Because Serbia would not do all that Austria demanded? Is that the reason? Can it be? Is it not rather that years of suspicion and jealousy have produced a state of nervous apprehension, such that the very slightest occasion will bring about a great war.
Men have gone on repeating and believing in the foolish old heathen maxim, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. They have prepared for war, and war has come.
They have piled up armaments against one another year by year till the struggling taxpayer was bowed down with the weight. Then the natural result of their work comes, and the same poor struggling taxpayer must march out with a musket on his shoulder to shoot, or be shot by, his brother in misfortune from another state – a man with whom he had no quarrel, whom he had never seen, and whose interests are the same as his, at least to this extent, that neither stands to gain anything by war.
The duty is also clear. It is each in our place, in quietness and in confidence, to stand for Peace, and be its bold witness and defence. But how, if our country is at war, can we stand for Peace?
It may be that most of us feel that our government could not do otherwise than they have done. If our testimony for Peace were on any lower grounds than those of religious conviction, we might feel obliged, not only to give our moral support to the government, but even to volunteer to fight for our country. But to us there has come Christ's categorical imperative, for we have seen in Him a revelation of God's method of working in the world; of His way of saving men. And that method is the reverse of the way of force; it is the way of non-resistance; the way of returning good for evil.
Therefore with pain and sorrow of heart we must recognise that we have a higher duty than that of our duty to our country, we have a duty to God. This may mean withstanding the tide of popular passion; refusing to believe in the tales, that are sure to become current, of the depravity of our enemies; and above all working for a speedy close of hostilities. And it will bring contempt and perhaps fierce persecution upon us.
For if God's way of saving men is by the reverse of the war-method, it must be because the war method can never succeed. War for a just cause, while it may apparently succeed in attaining some good result, is in reality hindering the coming Kingdom. Therefore, however just be the cause, we are bound to refuse to fight in it.
For we have the greatest of all Captains, who hath chosen us to be his soldiers, and whose strength is made perfect in our weakness. He is our guide, our hope, our comfort, our victory. “In me ye have peace. In the world ye have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
As The Friend was about to go to press, the editor added a postscript to his editorial. Here it is.
All hope of averting the catastrophe is now gone. As we go to press the news has come in that our country and Germany are at war. What this means none of us know. The horrors will not be confined to the contending fleets, though there will be horrors enough there. One shot that goes home may sink a ship with one thousand men on board. No, at home too, in city and village, there will soon be deep sorrow, and in many cases, starvation and misery. When men go to war, they let loose forces over which they have no control.
From The Friend, 7 August 1914. Used by kind permission of The Friend Publications Ltd.
In the summer of 1914, the prospect of war felt far away to Bert Brocklesby, a teacher in the Yorkshire town of Conisbrough near Doncaster.