Blessed Are The Peacemakers

Adapted from Jailed for Peace*
by Stephen M. Kohn

Originally published in
The Christian Informer
August, 1997


The roots of the modern anti-draft movement are buried deep within the early American colonial experience. Although the New World was stained with blood from innumerable battles battles between competing European powers, battles between colonists and Indians, and battles over religious toleration it was not warriors alone who carved out the New World in America. Peacemakers also settled America. These settlers refused to appropriate land from or fight with the Indians. Many would not own slaves. And, when called into military service for the King, they refused to be conscripted. They did not fight for peace, but they stood quietly against war.

There are numerous stories of settlers who, in the face of great risk, would not arm themselves against the Indians. One incident occurred on the frontier of western New York and Pennsylvania in the early 1600s. During the period of "Indian hostilities," local authorities urged a community of Quakers to enter the local army fort. Considering this a retreat behind arms, the Quakers maintained their religious commitment to nonviolence by continuing their normal activities:

One day while sitting in silent devotion in their rude meeting house, a party of Indians suddenly approached the place, painted and armed for the work of slaughter. They passed to and fro by the open door of the house, looking inquisitively within and about the building, till having sufficiently reconnoitered the quiet worshipers, they at length respectfully entered and joined them. They were met by the principal Friends with the outstretched hand of peace, and shown to such seats as the house afforded, which they occupied in reverent silence till the meeting was regularly dissolved. They were then invited to one of the nearest dwellings by the leading men of the Society, and hospitably refreshed. On their departure the Indian chief took his host aside, and pledged him and his people perfect security from all depredations of the red man. Said he, "when Indian come to his place, Indian meant to tomahawk every white man he found. But Indian found white man with no guns, no fighting weapons, so still, so peaceable, worshiping Great Spirit, the Great Spirit say in the Indian's heart no hurt them, no hurt them."
The first recorded instance of pacifist resistance to military conscription in America was in the province of Maryland in 1658. For "refusing to be trained as a soldier," Richard Keene was fined and "abused by the sheriff, who drew his sutlass and therewith made a pass at the breast of the said Richard, and struck him on the shoulders, saying: 'You dog, I could find it in my heart to split your brains.'" Pacifists were ill-treated in other colonies as well. For example, disgruntlement over friendship with "heathen" Indians led colonial officials to lambast the "monstrous" doctrine of pacifism. A militia law was passed requiring citizens to arm and train in order to fight Indians. The colonial records of the North Carolina colony reveal that "lazy" and "cowardly" pacifists were subject to "fines and penalties" for refusing to comply with this draft law.

In response to the militia laws, pacifists engaged in "passive resistance," an early form of civil disobedience. The first occurrence of mass noncompliance to the draft took place in an area called West New Jersey in 1704. Quakers had purchased the deed to West New Jersey in 1676. They settled on the land, established a pacifist military policy, and wrote one of the first colonial charters to guarantee freedom of religion and conscience. But in 1703, West New Jersey merged with East New Jersey, and an anti-Quaker governor was appointed. The following year, the governor passed a broad militia act that provided heavy fines and property confiscation for those people who refused military training. New Jersey residents condemned the law as an anti-Quaker measure, and local constables declined to enforce it. When the attorney general attempted to prosecute the rebellious constables, a sympathetic jury refused to convict. Within a year the Crown disallowed the law, and the legislature failed to reenact the measure. All subsequent colonial New Jersey militia laws contained liberal provisions that allowed Quakers to escape compulsory service.

In 1673, fearing attack by both Dutch settlers and hostile Indians, the colonial government passed an emergency militia bill. But because it considered conscientious objection part of the fundamental laws of "liberty of conscience," the legislature passed one of the New World's earliest conscientious objector exemptions. It proved to be the broadest exemption to the active-duty combat in American history. The law exempted from active military duty all those who for reasons of conscience could not "train, arm, rally to fight, to kill." The law read:

Noe person nor persons [within this colony], that is or hereafter shall be persuaded in his, their conscience, or consciences [and by him or them declared], that he nor they cannot nor ought nor to trayne, to learned to fight, nor to war, nor kill any person or persons. . . nor shall suffer any punishment, fine, distraint, penalty nor imprisonment.
From the early days of colonial America, there were settlers who rejected violence in resolving disputes and refused to cooperate with the local militia system. These settlers were often instrumental in establishing freedom of conscience and civil rights in the New World. They also insured that new state governments, and ultimately the federal government, protected the rights of conscientious objectors.1

But these early pacifists were not war resisters in the modern understanding of that concept. Although they boldly refused to train or serve in the military despite laws and public pressure, they did not collectively protest the waging of war itself. Nor did they mobilize mass political resistance to the draft. When offered a legal exemption, they politely accepted. Their intent was not to stop war through collective action or public civil disobedience. Rather, their pacifism was an example and a personal religious statement for peace.

Notes p.13

27. 2 J. Cont. Cong. 189 (July 18, 1775). The statute read:
As there are some people, who from religious principles, cannot bear arms in any case, this Congress intends no violence to their consciences, but earnestly recommends it to them to contribute liberally in time of universal calamity, to the relief of their distressed brethren in the several colonies, and do all other services to their religious principles.

* Adapted from Jailed for Peace, by Stephen M. Kohn, Praeger, 1987, pp. 5-13.