Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July

The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives
in United States History
by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter,
 (2004) discusses the nonviolent approach of the Quakers
during the American Revolution
As a child, I loved the Fourth of July and look forward each year to going to the fireworks display at Nassau Stadium in Princeton. But when I grew up and became a Quaker, I began to question  the pervasive violence of July 4th--the orgy of fireworks that makes some parts of our cities seem like war zones. When I hear the line "Bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there," I don't think of the British attacking Washington, DC; I think of Hiroshima, Dresden, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, and the drones that now are permitted to kill anyone, anywhere in the world, as long as our President gives his imperial seal of approval. That's why I never stand up for the National Anthem.

As the Fourth of July approaches, it is worth noting that Quakers did not celebrate this holiday, and it cost them dearly:

"The First official Fourth of July celebration did not happen until 1781, but on July 4th, 1776 there was some celebration in Philadelphia (Wood 121-122). In 1777 there were more celebrations than that of the first year (122). That day was also marked by violence. That year some homes of the Quakers were vandalized because others believed the Quakers were not patriotic because they did not celebrate the Fourth of July (122). The Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July because of their religious beliefs (122). Quakers did not “celebrate holidays that commemorated military victories” (122).

We are a nation that imagines itself to be peaceful, yet is the "largest purveyor of war in the world," as Martin Luther King once said, referring to the US arms trade (where we are still number 1). Americans believe passionantely in the myth of redemptive violence, and equate freedom with violence, because we imagine our nation could not have become free without a bloody revolution.

The Quakers in Philadelphia believed otherwise. They sent emissaries to negotiate with the British. They refused to accept tea that had been taxed, but instead of throwing it into the Delaware River, they quietly paid the British merchants to take it back to England. They did what they could to avoid war, and I believe the Quakers were right.

The example of Canada and Australia show that it was possible to achieve independence without bloodshed. It took time and patience, and I'm sure, a bit of cunning, but think of all the lives that were saved.

The Quaker historian and theologian Howard Brinton once wrote an article called "What If," imagining what might have happened if the Quaker emissaries had been successful and the Americans hadn't fought the British. We cannot know for sure how history might have unfolded absent "the shot heard round the world," but Brinton imagines the world might have been more peaceful if the Americans and British had stayed on more congenial terms. Perhaps slavery could have been abolished without a Civil War. And perhaps the Germans would not have launched the Great War if the English and Americans were more closely allied. One thing I know for certain: Francis Scott Key would never have written a national anthem about "bombs bursting in air."

Another thing I know for certain: my fellow countrymen have strayed far from the teachings of the one who said,  "The truth will set you free."

I am grateful to Lowell Noble, author of "From Oppression to Jubilee Justice," who recently wrote a meditation on the Fourth of July that speaks to me as a Quaker. I make it a practice never to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" or sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" because I have already pledged allegiance to a higher authority, the Prince of Peace.

 A Fourth of July Meditation on the Pledge of Allegiance

by Lowell Noble

What does "one nation, under God" do? It provides "liberty and justice for all" its citizens. This remarkable phrase "with liberty and justice for all" is a concise and precise summary of both the Jubilee/Sabbatical laws (Lev. 25) and the New Testament kingdom of God (Isa. 9:6-7; 61:1-4; and Luke 4:18-19).

 The famous cracked Liberty Bell has this biblical inscription: "Proclaim liberty through all the land unto all the inhabitants." The full message of the Jubilee ties liberty (freedom for the poor and oppressed) with doing justice (restoring land to the poor). The Liberty Bell precedes the Pledge by 140 years. Both the Liberty Bell (1752) and the Pledge (1892) emphasize the same point---liberty---, as does the Declaration of Independence (1776)---"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." But only the Pledge specifically ties liberty and justice together. If I were given permission to change one word in the Declaration, I would make the following change: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Justice."

 What would the priorities be of one nation, under God, that pursues justice; the needs of the poor and oppressed, widows and orphans, immigrants and ethnic groups (our equivalent to the despised Samaritans and Gentiles). Pure religion, according to James, is reaching out to oppressed and neglected widows and orphans. Contrary to the practice of the Pharisees, one nation, under God, does not "neglect justice and the love of God." (Luke 11).

 Are we, as Americans "neglecting justice and the love of God" or are we pursuing "justice and the love of God" as Job did (Job 29:12-17; NIV and Noble paraphrase):

I rescued the poor who cried for help
and the fatherless who had none to assist him;
The man who was dying blessed me;
I made the widows heart to sing
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and turban.
I took up the case of the immigrant
I broke the fangs of the oppressor.

If Job were living today, he might add:

I will stop unjust mass incarceration.
I will organize the church to close the racial wealth gap.

A nation of Pharisees would emphasize justice and the law of God---a legalistic justice. A nation under God would emphasize justice and the love of God---a loving justice.


  1. Thank you so much for your post! I googled 4th of July for pacifists on my iPad, and NOTHING came up!? :( So I googled 4th of July Quakers because I knew I could count on the Quakers. :) I will share this post with my other Catholic pacifist friends, and most importantly with our children.

  2. Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. Be Peace.

  3. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting admonished Friends to remain loyal to the Crown. To do otherwise would mean taking up arms. I suspect the fact that the British pound was more reliable than the Continental dollar was a consideration for the Quaker merchants in Philadelphia. Other Yearly Meetings followed suit. Of course there were Quakers like General Nathaniel Greene (the fighting Quaker) as well.

  4. Do I detect a note of debunking in Gene's reply? I won't discount mercenary motives or even the fighting Quakers, but that isn't what is distinctive about the Quaker response to British oppression. I highly recommend the study "The Missing Peace: the Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in US History" by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter. They document the efforts of Quakers and others to resolve the conflicts between the Crown and the Colonists nonviolently, and without simply going along with injustice. See, for example, the story of Joseph Galloway, a friend of Ben Franklin, who proposed a bold plan to change the constitution of the empire so it would be more equitable. Or the merchants of Philadelphia who paid the merchants of England to the transportation costs of their tea, and sent it back and refused to buy it. These nonviolent, non-confrontational tactics were not successful because other colonists preferred war. I believe Quakers had a better way (even when their motives were not always pure).

  5. I kinda thought we avoiding celebrating any holidays. In other words, no day was more sacred or special than any other.