Nobel Lecture*, December 12, 1947
Quakers and Peace
Before I give my address, I want to express on behalf of Miss Backhouse and myself a word of gratitude for the very warm hospitality we have received here this week. This September I crossed the Atlantic together with one hundred Americans who had been here in Oslo either at the summer school or at the Youth Conference and I knew then what the hospitality of the Norwegians was like from the warm words of appreciation that those young people gave as I talked to them.
Near my home in Massachusetts – perhaps a quarter of a mile from my house – there is a marble stone, and on this stone there is an inscription which says that near this spot Leif Eiriksson landed in Vineland in the year 10001. This may not be the exact place nor does anyone know how the American natives, if there were any, treated your fellow countryman in the year 1000. But I know that 947 years later I have returned his visit from Massachusetts. I know where I am today and how the natives have treated me here. One hundred years and more ago there were a few Quakers in parts of Norway that were not treated this way. They were imprisoned, they were driven out, they were persecuted. About half of them began to migrate to America and they were the leaders, the first of a long procession of Norwegian settlers in America, beginning with the famous sloop “Restaurationen” in 1825, and continuing with other ships in 1836-1837. They have supplied perhaps two million of the most respected inhabitants of our country. Today you have atoned for that persecution of the Quakers.
My address is to be on the subject of Quakers and peace.
In the last two or three weeks, I have been reading all I could about the views of Mr. Alfred Nobel on the subject of war and peace. His ideas were not completely consistent and unchanging. He seems to have had several views on this subject. Sometimes he thought that war would be stopped by the invention of more terrible weapons, though he did not dream of some of the weapons which are in existence today. Sometimes he thought it would be stopped by collective force, by arbitration, or by international law, and sometimes he mentioned international friendship. These divergent views of Nobel stress the fact that the struggle against war is a struggle which – if I may use a military metaphor – may be carried on on many fronts.
Under these circumstances, it is most appropriate that the successive recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize should explain what their particular approach is. So I speak to you today of the Quaker way and illustrate it not only from examples of the present time but from three centuries of Quaker history. Sometimes people say in America: You Quakers with your experience must know what all the answers are (that is an American phrase). No, we do not know all the answers, but at least we know what most of the questions are. We have pursued this aim long enough to know what some of the problems are in the search for peace.
As Miss Backhouse has said, our approach to this question is a religious approach. Perhaps, in early days, our pacifism was largely based upon texts of the New Testament, upon the words of Jesus, upon examples from the Bible. But as our religious perspective has changed, our views in this matter have still remained the same. As our religion has become more philosophical, or has grown with education and knowledge of sociology and history, we still with good conscience cling to our traditional renunciation of war. We are not impressed by the prestige of war as an ancient institution any more than we were impressed by the holding of slaves. Both these customs date back before the dawn of history, but within a few generations we found it possible to lead to complete success the struggle for the elimination of slavery in the lands where Friends lived.
So we believe that war is merely a convention of social habit and we believe that these conventions of social habit are subject to change, as much as we believe in the transformation of individuals. Christianity and experience teach us that men and customs can be transformed. We believe that war is a habit, a curious habit, a somewhat accidental habit that men have adopted, although in other areas they have found different means for pursuing similar ends. In your city you have order and custom and not anarchy, but between nations law does not exist, and war, so far from settling differences, is an extreme expression of anarchy.
That does not mean that wars are not waged for just ends. It means that we do not believe that it is the only way to achieve those just ends. We believe the means are not consistent with the ends, and the better the ends for which men fight, the less moral, the less effective is the method of war. In this particular area, mankind falls behind the standard we have accepted elsewhere. So on this point the Quaker is not an unrealistic perfectionist, but a practical moralist. He believes that this problem can be solved by other means. He believes this problem of war is a moral problem and that the force of religion is essential to its solution. The nature of religion on the one hand and the task of abolishing war on the other seem to us to fit perfectly with each other as task and tool should fit. Religion is concerned with the spiritual life of man. The elimination of war is a spiritual problem and so no wonder we cling in all stages of our religious development to this viewpoint.
It has come to us first as individuals – what shall I do, what is my duty? If an individual thinks that war is evil, we are so simpleminded, so naive, as to say: “If war is evil, then I do not take part in it”, just as one might say, if drunkenness is evil, then I do not drink; if slaveholding is evil, then I do not hold slaves. I know that sounds too simple – almost foolish. I admit that that is our point of view, and this means, of course, that in every war some Friends have suffered not only fines, torture, punishment, or exile, but even the threat of death which, of course, is no more than the soldier faces, but in a different cause. William Penn2 has described the Quaker position in these few words: “Not fighting but suffering”. Not all can follow this course, not all Quakers every time follow this course. We recognize that there are times when resistance appears at first to be a real virtue, and then only those most deeply rooted in religious pacifism can resist by other than physical means. We have learned that in the end only the spirit can conquer evil and we believe that in many recent situations those who have unwillingly employed force have learned this lesson at the last.
But in aiming to avoid any part in war, the Quaker meets an extremely difficult problem, especially with modern total war. Perhaps it will interest you to know what searchings of heart we Quakers have had, in order to discover what follows if one condemns war. Let me give a few illustrations.
In 1665 some English Quaker carpenters were building wooden ships on the Thames. They thought they were pacifists and had renounced war, and when there was danger of invasion by a Dutch fleet3, these carpenters were required to carry arms. Naturally, they refused to do so, but it never occurred to them that what they were building were warships. It comes slowly, this discovery. Before the First World War, military training was required of every young man in New Zealand. The young Quakers in New Zealand for the first time in their experience were faced with the problem of deciding whether, if war was wrong, training for war was equally wrong. A few years ago a promising young Quaker scientist was invited to take part in a government project, the purpose of which he knew very little. He suspected it was the creation of an atomic bomb and he refused, at sacrifice of great advancement in salary. A few years ago our Quaker boys had to choose whether they would engage in military service, whether, if they worked in the ambulance corps of the American Army, that was participation in war, or whether they would keep strictly out of uniform, serving as experiments for medical information or as nurses in insane hospitals, or foresters in remote camps.
My father was drafted for service in the American Civil War4. His choice was whether he would pay $350 to hire a substitute to fight for him or whether he would go to prison, and he had to decide whether paying for a substitute was much the same as taking part in war himself.
My great-grandfather, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars5, was a merchant. He had a share of ownership in a merchant ship. That ship turned privateer, without his knowledge, and captured a Dutch East Indiaman. His share of the prize was about £2,000. Now what would a Quaker do with £2,000 captured in war? He was a wise man, and the first thing he did was to insure his share of the ship with Lloyds of London. As a matter of fact, the ship was destroyed by a storm on its next trip – but he still had £2,000 that did not belong to him. Up to 1823 he and the Friends were still trying to find the owners of that Dutch ship because, as a Quaker, he could not keep those £2,000. In the end he found enough owners to pay them £3,345 principal and interest on that ship, and there were still over £2,000 that he could not dispose of. Although he advertised in the newspapers in Holland and tried to find the owners by the records and in every possible way, he was not able to do so. If you go to Amsterdam today, you will find a free school on Beerenstraat, with a picture on the top gable of the ship that was taken and my great-grandfather’s initials on a stone over the door. As final payment to the unknown enemies in that city the English Quakers gave this school.
If you are not a pacifist, you do not have to face these problems of avoiding war and war implications as the Quakers do in all parts of the world when the whole civilian population is mobilized into war service.
Today there are millions of men in nearly every great nation who have taken part in war and they still believe that that war, or their part in it, was justified. As long as they hold that view they seem to me to be a risk against world peace. Those people who have once believed that war is justified can readily be persuaded that it will be justified again. While I am not mentioning the names of any nations, whether victor or vanquished, I believe it is true that this tendency to believe that war is justified creates in itself a danger to peace, and it is not lessened by what men have learned or experienced of the terrible damage that war can do materially, morally, or spiritually, or by what we know now that another war could do. I believe the greatest risk of war is in the minds of men who have an unrepentant and unchanging view of the justification of past wars. So perhaps in a world like this there is room for a few thousand persons like Quakers who take the opposite view, who begin with the assumption that war is not and has not been and will not be justified, on either practical or moral grounds. Such persons may have time, interest, and desire to put their minds on alternative ways.
Of course, Friends have found it necessary to think through their position on this as on many awkward questions. For example, they have had to think whether this view is disloyalty to the state, and they have had to learn to distinguish loyalty to the policy of a government in power from loyalty to the true interests of a nation. Social responsibility to the community is a very similar question.
They have been met with the argument that war is the lesser of two evils. I will not admit the validity of that argument. We have heard time and time again for over three hundred years that “this war is different”, that this time it really is for a purpose which was not successful in the last war. In thinking this over, we have mostly learned that war could have been prevented. I feel it is true what a president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressed. In 1936 he said: “We can keep out of war, if those who watch and decide… make certain that the small decisions of each day do not lead toward war and if at the same time they possess the courage to say “no” to those who selfishly or unwisely would let us go to war6“.
We have learned that few wars are justified by their results and that victory in war sometimes in itself makes difficult real peace.
We have learned that the line between aggression and defence is a very difficult division to draw. We are told by atomic scientists that defence will require aggression, that is, taking the first step, and we have also learned that even in defence the moral standards of the more virtuous nation tend to sink to those of the aggressor.
But I do not wish to give the impression that our Quaker pacifism is either passive or negative. It is part of a positive policy. The prevention of war is an essential part of that policy. It is our belief that we must work for the prevention of war by all means in our power, by influencing public opinion in peacetime, as we try to do, by interceding with governments, as we try to do, setting an example of a disarmed state as William Penn and the Quakers did in Pennsylvania, and by encouraging international organization, as again that great pioneer William Penn did in that most early statement of the principles of world government7, “An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe”.
Among those active and positive efforts must be included the international service of which Mr. Jahn and Miss Backhouse have spoken so extensively. This international service is not mere humanitarianism; it is not merely mopping up, cleaning up the world after war. It is aimed at creating peace by setting an example of a different way of international service. So our foreign relief is a means of rehabilitation and it is intended not merely to help the body but to help the spirit and to give men hope that there can be a peaceful world.
I do not know of any difficulty as great as trying to persuade governments to do what they do not intend to do. In the year 1941 in February, there were two American Quakers in the city of Oslo and two American Quakers in the city of London. What were they there for? To try to persuade both the British and the German governments to permit the sending of food and supplies to the children of the occupied countries. I myself was in London at that time, trying to get permission to go through the British blockade with food supplies for the children while my friends were here and in Berlin. We did not succeed. I sometimes think our purposes are best explained by our failures. But it is fun to try.
We are often baffled and frustrated. It took us eleven months to get into Hungary. But we got in and we have been working there for about a year now. A drunken soldier finally helped to get us in. And we are doing relief in Hungary today as we wish to do it. But we often have been baffled and frustrated. Sometimes we have been helped by people who did not intend to trust us. We have finally found governments helping us, imitating us, and extending our services. It always interests me to find a government taking over what we have done.
We cannot measure how far our service has affected the people involved. It is hard to judge how far-reaching the results of our efforts are. We do know, however, that there is in our country, in America, and also in England, a large store of goodwill for the people of Europe as well as most tangible expressions of that goodwill. In America there are people who are mindful of the suffering and needs of humanity. To elicit this from our fellow citizens has been for us Quakers a privilege, and so to give them a means of expressing ideals that they are half convinced are their own ideals too. We think that in doing so we may be rendering a greater service to America than to Europe and Asia.
But among those who need, we trust that our personal touch, the face to face contact of friendly American and British workers with those in need, is not only bringing food and clothing but bringing cheer and hope. It is very evident from the correspondence that we receive from Europe how much this means to many people. They say: It is not the food or the clothing that really affects us most. It is the confidence in man, the belief that somebody cares, that affects us most.
I may say that we find in governments too, that what cannot be done publicly can be done very intimately and privately with individuals, and that where you least expect it you will find help. We had some very extraordinary experiences with Nazi officials. When it comes to individuals, they usually understand what you are about. Perhaps some of those very officials had their lives saved in 1920-1924 by the same kind of efforts on our part. So it is our hope that our service will help to cool the passions of hate and fear and give faith in man and that the awards of the Nobel Committee to our Quaker service may enable us and our millions of friends throughout the world to persevere in meeting that deeper spiritual hunger and thus promote the cause of peace, as was the intention of the founder of the award.
* Henry Joel Cadbury delivered this lecture on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee (Philadelphia) in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. Dr. Cadbury (1883- ), American biblical scholar, writer, and active Quaker, was Hollis Professor of Divinity Harvard University (1934-1954), director of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library (1938-1954), and chairman (1928-1934; 1944-1960) of the American Friends Service Committee, which he had been instrumental in founding. The text of his lecture is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1947.
1. Leif Ericsson, Norse mariner who, according to Icelandic sagas, sailed west from Greenland about 1000, discovering “Vinland” which has been variously identified as Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New England.
7. Published in 1693, Penn’s “Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of a Diet, Parliament or Estate” proposed an international tribunal of European states, set up on a proportionally representative basis, to deal with international differences not settled by diplomatic means.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.