Q & A Series: Quakers and the Civil War

By cmccune, posted on April 25th, 2011.
Filed under: News
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Quakers and the Civil War

Conducted by Sonja Koehler, Civil War 150 AmeriCorp member for Southwest Ohio

Stories of brave young men around Ohio eager to take up arms, fight for the Union, and achieve glory, during the Civil War, are told often.   Many towns proudly tell the tales of their hometown Civil War hero.   But what happens when one’s religious beliefs make the decision to be a soldier much less simple?   Ruth Brindle Dobyns is the Curator for the Meriam R. Hare Quaker Heritage Center at Wilmington College and also serves as an Adjunct Professor of History.   I sat down with Ruth to discuss the difficult dilemmas and decisions of Quakers during the Civil War.

* Note: Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian denomination. To members of this religion, the words “Quaker” and “Friend” mean the same thing.*

Sonja Koehler: Could you give a brief overview of some of the Quaker beliefs and teachings that caused some of the dilemmas regarding the Civil War?

Ruth Brindle Dobyns: The Peace Testimony has distinguished Friends for centuries.   It comes from early statements against the English Civil War, when Quakers said they would “utterly deny all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever…that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of the world.”

At the same time, Friends had been speaking out decisively against slavery since 1750. They explained that slavery harmed both the slave and the slaveholder, denying people the liberty to be obedient to the leadings of the Inward Light. It is no surprise, then, that Friends struggled with the Civil War.   Which was more important: bringing an end to slavery in the United States or remaining faithful to the truth of the Peace Testimony?


SK: What choice or choices did Quakers make in regards to fighting in the Civil War?

RBD: There was no one clear choice for the entire body of Quakers in the United States; individuals made choices based on their personal convictions.   Individual Friends from New England to the Midwest “set aside” their pacifism “in defense of the Union” by joining the military.   Others chose to have no part in the war, refusing even to pay draft fees to avoid fighting.

SK: What sort of attitudes did the monthly and yearly meetings have toward those who fought?

RBD: Some stuck hard to the Peace Testimony, disapproving of not only fighting but contributing to the war in other ways as well.   In Indiana, Quakers supported the war effort by donating money, food, clothing, and other supplies for the soldiers, actions that were not approved of by monthly meetings.   In Union Township (Wilmington), Ohio, the Quakers refused to help raise money with the township to pay off draft fees, leading the township to take property from the Quakers to cover the amount that they would not pay toward the war effort. On the other hand, some monthly meetings, like that in Dover, Ohio, banned together to pay non-combat fees for the members of their meeting who had been drafted.   There are many accounts of Quakers who took up arms acknowledging their failure to maintain the Peace Testimony to their meeting.   The attitude toward those who served differed depending upon the meeting: some Quakers were allowed to remain members and did not undergo any disciplinary action from their monthly or yearly meetings, while others were disowned.

Excerpt from "A House Divided: Quaker Responses to the Civil War," an exhibit at the Quaker Heritage Center.

SK: What further reading or upcoming programs would you recommend for individuals interested in learning more about Quakers and the Civil War?

RBD: The 7th Annual Quaker Genealogy and History Conference, held in April in Waynesville focused on Women and the Civil War, with a highlight on several Quaker women.   Past Quaker Genealogy and History Conferences have focused on Quakers and the Civil War or Civil War-related topics, and books published for each of those conferences are available through the Quaker Heritage Center.

The Quaker Heritage Center will also have an exhibit entitled,  “A House Divided: Quaker Responses to the Civil War,” on display for the duration of the Sesquicentennial.


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