Magistrate’s Sword

A Discussion of Isaac Penington’s views on war, circa 1661

Quotations and Commentary by George Amoss, a member of Homewood Friends Meeting, Baltimore, Maryland.


…I hope in this post to share what I learned (or re-learned) and to continue working toward clarification of my feelings about Quaker pacifism.

Larry Ingle’s [biography of George Fox] First Among Friends referred me to a piece written by Isaac Penington in 1661. Turning to a collection of Penington’s writings . . . I read some of his views on pacifism — some of which, according to Ingle, Fox may by then have moved away from. So with the caveat that Quaker diversity is active as always, I’ll briefly discuss here what I’ve read. As always, I hope that Friends who see flaws in my reasoning or have alternative interpretations of the texts will respond.

Penington clearly states his hope and expectation that the Peaceable Kingdom, in which God would preserve the meek, was drawing near:

“There is to be a time,” he wrote, “when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'”

And that time was at last approaching.

“After this long night of apostasy, the Lord hath begun to make some preparations toward this state again…. And what remains toward the carrying on of this work, but the Lord’s prospering of this principle, and blowing upon the other? As the Lord doth this, so will it go on; and the nations…, as this principle is raised in them, and the contrary wisdom, the earthly policy which undoes all, brought down, so they will feel the blessing of God in themselves, and become a blessing to others.”

The increase of truth, as seen in the growth of the Quaker movement, was evidence for Penington that the eschaton was near, for that increase was God’s doing. God was bringing the world to the true gospel of “life, mercy, good-will, and forgiveness,” and “…the gospel will teach a nation (if they hearken to it) as well as a particular person, to trust the Lord, and to wait on him for preservation.”

We do find among early Friends, then, the belief that we should rely solely on God for protection. But when?

“If the Lord shall undertake the defence of a nation by his Spirit and power, what can hurt that nation? What power of man can reach it, to disturb the peace of it?”

But note the “if”: the belief was bound up with expectation of the eschaton.

“There is a desire in all men (in whom the principle of God is not wholly slain) after righteousness; which desire will be more and more kindled by God in the nations, before righteousness and peace meet together and be established in them.”

(“In whom the principle of God is not wholly slain” is a very interesting comment, one that might shed light on what Friends first meant by “that of God in every one.” But that must await another discussion.)

In the meantime, however, as I read Penington, it is the state’s God-given duty to protect the weak, the innocent, and — those whose Spirit-wrought love and forgiveness led them not to fight.

“Magistracy was intended by God for the defence of the people; not only of those who have ability, and can fight for them, but also of such who cannot, or are forbidden by the love and law of God written in their hearts to do so.”

And more:

“I speak not this against any magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders (for this the present estate of things may and doth require, and a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly to that end, and its use will be honorable; and while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not suffer that government, or those governors, to want fitting instruments under then for the managing thereof…); but yet there is a better state, which the Lord hath already brought some into, and which nations are to expect and to travel towards. Yea, it is far better to know the Lord to be the defender, and to wait on him daily, and see the need of his strength, wisdom and preservation, than to be ever so strong and skilful in weapons of war.”

Penington’s argument seems to be this: the Peaceable Kingdom, signs of which have already appeared, must begin in a small way, in individuals. While those individuals spread the word (so to speak), they are to be protected by civil government and must not be required to join in the violence such protection involves. Eventually, their witness will change the nation, the nation’s witness will change other nations, and finally the world will change into the Kingdom.

As that day approaches, the nation (England) will come “to have the God of heaven engaged by his power to defend that power and magistracy which defends righteousness in general….”

Until then, the nation is to continue in its duty to protect its citizens from evil persons within and without and to excuse the “saints” from participating in that violence. Like every other apocalyptic Christian group, Friends have found their expectations of the eschaton dashed against the rocks of history. Can we still believe that our pacific witness is kindling a spiritual fire that will cover the earth? That the Peaceable Kingdom is a real possibility in our lifetime, or in the lifetimes of our children?

This Friend can’t. Nevertheless, while I accept the protection of the “magistracy,” I continue in the conviction that if my life is to be put at risk, it must be risked in the service of peace and not of destruction. The harder question, however, is what to do when my life is not at risk: that is, given my acceptance of the state’s protection and my acknowledgement that we cannot expect our non-violence to bring in the Peaceable Kingdom, what is my everyday response to violence – in its many forms — and to the call to violence on both personal and national levels? To what does my life witness now, and how can I learn to witness effectively to that “better state” of peace? I continue to wrestle with that.

George Amoss