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REBELLION: 1775-1776

5. The Pacifists


While religious pacifists strove to live peacefully and often separately in the American colonies—as depicted in the pastoral scene at right of a Moravian settlement in Pennsylvania—their principled opposition to war would be harshly challenged during the Revolution. As the colonies mobilized for war, they required able-bodied men to serve in the militias, allowing them to hire substitutes (who would still have to fulfill their own service). But to the pacifist churches, hiring substitutes was still contributing to war and thus unacceptable to God. And beyond direct military service, they struggled to define just what constituted support for the war effort. Could one repair equipment for the army? pay the fine for refusing to join a militia unit? close one's business as required on official days of prayer for the war? use the state's paper money issued to fund the war? The answer often was no, and they supported each other in maintaining fidelity to their beliefs. "Members of the historic peace churches," concludes historian Richard MacMaster, "refused to accept military service, to hire substitutes, or to provide weapons for others to use with a degree of unanimity that would never be matched again in any American war."1

Another mandate opposed by many peace churches was taking oaths of allegiance. Allegiance was not the issue, oaths were the issue. Oath taking involves swearing to the truthfulness of one's words and intentions, which implies that one might not be truthful unless taking an oath. For Quakers, Mennonites and other sects, the scriptural command "Do not swear" (not referring to cursing) is clear—"let your Yes be Yes, and your No, No," i.e., be truthful, period, without the need for oaths.2 When they refused to sign the required oaths of allegiance to the United States, pacifists were fined, imprisoned, and condemned as Loyalists and traitors.

    Pacifists' appeals for tolerance in the first years of the Revolution, 1775-1778 PDF file
  • Pacifists' appeals for tolerance in the first years of the Revolution, 1775-1778. Colonial archives are replete with heartfelt appeals from pacifists to their state assemblies, town committees of safety, and other civil authorities, beseeching them to acknowledge their religious scruples and to recognize alternative forms of support such as prayer and aid for the sick and hungry. Here we read a selection of these appeals from Quakers, Mennonites, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, and German Baptists (Dunkers) in Pennsylvania, and Sandemanians in New Hampshire. Also included are internal Quaker documents that highlight the challenge of specifying the actions that contribute "to the promotion of war." What decisions were thrust upon religious pacifists as the revolution began? How did they work within their churches to define their political stance? How did they attempt to persuade civil officials for official tolerance of their views? (7 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the religious basis for pacifists' opposition to war, bearing arms, and, for some groups, taking oaths?
  2. In the Revolution, how did peace churches explain their refusal to contribute to the war effort?
  3. What actions did they offer as alternatives that would not violate their beliefs?
  4. How did they formulate their appeals to the civil authorities for tolerance and understanding?
  5. How did they differentiate themselves from Loyalists, even though their religious precepts required obedience to God-given civil authority, i.e., the British government?
  6. From what you can learn from these documents (and further research), how did civil authorities respond to the pacifists' appeals, especially in Pennsylvania?
  7. What evidence do you find in the documents to support or refute historian Richard MacMaster's conclusion that a high degree of unanimity existed among the peace churches in maintaining their pacifist stand? [There is evidence for both.]
  8. Evaluate the appeals for their potential effectiveness, e.g., compare the private letters with the public declarations. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  9. What internal struggle is revealed in the minutes of the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting? How did Quaker leaders strive to define what constituted "the promotion of war"?

Framing Questions

  • What rebellions and "civil wars" occurred within the colonies as war approached in the mid 1770s?
  • How did colonists express and debate their differing opinions?
  • How did they deal with political opponents?
  • What caused the moderate voice to fade from the political arena?
  • What led Americans to support or oppose the ultimate goal of independence?


Pacifists' appeals in the Revolution
 7 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Pennsylvania Quakers in the Revolution, primary sources ( Overviews of Christian pacifist sects (The Religious Movements Homepage, University of Virginia; archived) Schwenkfelders, overview (United Church of Christ)

Sandemanians, called Glasites in England and America (Wikipedia)

Religion and the American Revolution (Divining America: Religion in American History, National Humanities Center)

Religion and the American Revolution (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1Richard K. MacMaster with S. L. Horst & R. F. Ulle, Conscience in Crisis: Mennonites and Other Peace Churches in America, 1739-1789 (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1979), p. 300.
2Matthew 5:34-37: "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." (New King James Version).
– James 5:12: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No,' lest you fall into judgment." (New King James Version).
By law, Quakers, Mennonites, and others may affirm rather than swear when legal oaths are required, as when testifying in court.

Image: A View of Bethlem [Bethlehem], The Great Moravian Settlement in the Province of Pennsylvania, original sketch by Gov. Thomas Pownall, painted and engraved by Paul Sandby, London, 1761 (details). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-04087.

Banner image: Original Declaration of Independence, parchment, 1776 (detail); on exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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