Epistle to Quakers
Philip Foner's introduction:
On January 20, 1776, at a general meeting of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Quakers, a document was adopted and address issued to the people of America which placed the Quakers squarely on the Tory side. It was against this stand that Paine wrote his Epistle to the Quakers in which he accused that "factional and fractional part" of the whole body of Quakers which had published the address, of being traitors to their own principles. He did not, however, condemn all Quakers, for he was quite aware that many Quakers supported the American cause. For an analysis of the background leading to the writing of the Epistle, see Robert P. Falk, "Thomas Paine and the Attitude of the Quakers to the American Revolution," in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. LXIII, July, 1939, pp. 302-310. Paine's Epistle was part of the Appendix to the third edition of Common Sense.
TO THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF THE PEOPLE CALLED QUAKERS, OR TO SO MANY OF THEM AS WERE CONCERNED IN PUBLISHING A LATE PIECE, ENTITLED "The Ancient Testimony and Principles OF THE PEOPLE CALLED Quakers RENEWED, WITH RESPECT TO THE King AND Government, AND TOUCHING THE Commotions NOW PREVAILING IN THESE AND OTHER PARTS OF America, ADDRESSED TO THE People in General."
THE writer of this is one of those few who never dishonors religion either by ridiculing or cavilling at any denomination whatsoever. To God, and not to man, are all men accountable on the score of religion. Wherefore, this epistle is not so properly addressed to you as a religious, but as a political body, dabbling in matters which the professed quietude of your principles instruct you not to meddle with. As you have, without a proper authority for so doing, put yourselves in the place of the whole body of the Quakers, so the writer of this, in order to be in an equal rank with yourselves, is under the necessity of putting himself in the place of all those who approve the very writings and principles against which your testimony is directed: And he hath chosen this singular situation, in order that you might discover in him that presumption of character which you cannot see in yourselves. For neither he nor you have any claim or title to political representation.
When men have departed from the right way, it is no wonder that they stumble and fall. And it is evident from the manner in which you have managed your testimony, that politics (as a religious body of men) is not your proper walk; for however well adapted it might appear to you, it is, nevertheless, a jumble of good and bad unwisely put together, and the conclusion drawn therefrom both unnatural and unjust.
The first two pages (and the whole makes but four) we give you credit for, and expect the same civility from you, because the love and desire of peace is not confined to Quakerism, it is the natural as well as the religious wish of all denominations of men. And on this ground, as men laboring to establish an independent Constitution of our own, do we exceed all others in our hope, end, and aim. Our plan is peace for ever. We are tired of contention with Britain, and can see no real end to it but in a final separation. We act consistently, because for the sake of introducing an endless and uninterrupted peace, do we bear the evils and the burdens of the present day. We are endeavoring, and will steadily continue to endeavor, to separate and dissolve a connection which has already filled our land with blood; and which, while the name of it remains, will be the fatal cause of future mischiefs to both countries.
We fight neither for revenge nor conquest; neither from pride nor passion; we are not insulting the world with our fleets and armies, nor ravaging the globe for plunder. Beneath the shade of our own vines are we attacked; in our own houses, and on our own lands, is the violence committed against us. We view our enemies in the characters of highwaymen and housebreakers, and having no defence for ourselves in the civil law, are obliged to punish them by the military one, and apply the sword, in the very case where you have before now applied the halter. Perhaps we feel for the ruined and insulted sufferers in all and every part of the continent, with a degree of tenderness which hath not yet made its way into some of your bosoms. But be ye sure that ye mistake not the cause and ground of your testimony. Call not coldness; of soul, religion; nor put the bigot in the place of the Christian.
O ye partial ministers of your own acknowledged principles. If the bearing arms be sinful, the first going to war must be more so, by all the difference between willful attack and unavoidable defence. Wherefore, if you really preach from conscience, and mean not to make a political hobby-horse of your religion, convince the world thereof, by proclaiming your doctrine to our enemies, for they likewise bear ARMS. Give us proof of your sincerity, by publishing it at St. James's, to the commanders in chief at Boston, to the admirals and captains who are piratically ravaging our coasts, and to all the murdering miscreants who are acting in authority under HIM whom ye profess to serve. Had ye the honest soul of Barclay1 ye would preach repentance to your king: ye would tell the royal wretch his sins, and warn him of eternal ruin. Ye would not spend your partial invectives against the injured and insulted only, but, like faithful ministers, would cry aloud and spare none. Say not that ye are persecuted, neither endeavor to make us the authors of that reproach which ye are bringing upon yourselves; for we testify unto all men, that we do not complain against you because ye are Quakers, but because ye pretend to be and are not Quakers.
Alas! it seems by the particular tendency of some part of your testimony, and other parts of your conduct, as if all sin was reduced to, and comprehended in, the act of bearing arms, and that by the people only. Ye appear to us to have mistaken party for conscience; because the general tenor of your actions wants uniformity. And it is exceedingly difficult for us to give credit to many of your pretended scruples; because we see them made by the same men, who, in the very instant that they are exclaiming against the mammon of this world, are nevertheless hunting after it with a step as steady as time, and an appetite as keen as death.
The quotation which ye have made from Proverbs, in the third page of your testimony, that "when a man's way please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him"; is very unwisely chosen on your part; because it amounts to a proof that the king's ways (whom ye are so desirous of supporting) do not please the Lord, otherwise his reign would be in peace.
I now proceed to the latter part of your testimony, and that for which all the foregoing seems only an introduction, viz.
"It hath ever been our judgment and principle, since we were called to profess the light of Christ Jesus, manifested in our consciences unto this day, that the setting up and putting down king's and governments, is God's peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And that it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein; nor to be busy bodies above our station, much less to plot and contrive the ruin, or overturn of any of them, but to pray for the king, and safety of our nation, and good of all men: That we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty; under the government which God is pleased to set over us."
If these are really your principles why do ye not abide by them? Why do ye not leave that, which ye call God's work, to be managed by himself? These very principles instruct you to wait with patience and humility, for the event of all public measures, and to receive that event as the divine will towards you. Wherefore, what occasion is there for your political testimony, if you fully believe what it contains? And the very publishing it proves that either you do not believe what you profess, or have not virtue enough to practice what you believe.
The principles of Quakerism have a direct tendency to make a man the quiet and inoffensive subject of any, and every government which is set over him. And if the setting up and putting down of kings and governments is God's peculiar prerogative, he most certainly will not be robbed thereof by us; wherefore, the principle itself leads you to approve of every thing which ever happened, or may happen to kings, as being his work. Oliver Cromwell thanks you. Charles, then, died not by the hands of man; and should the present proud imitator of him come to the same untimely end, the writers and publishers of the testimony are bound, by the doctrine it contains, to applaud the fact. Kings are not taken away by miracles, neither are changes in governments brought about by any other means than such as are common and human; and such as we now are using. Even the dispersing of the Jews, though foretold by our Saviour, was effected by arms. Wherefore, as ye refuse to be the means on one side, ye ought not to be meddlers on the other; but to wait the issue in silence; and, unless you can produce divine authority to prove that the Almighty, who hath created and placed this new world at the greatest distance it could possibly stand, east and west, from every part of the old, doth, nevertheless, disapprove of its being independent of the corrupt and abandoned court of Britain; unless, I say, ye can show this, how can ye, on the ground of your principles, justify the exciting and stirring up the people "firmly to unite in the abhorrence of all such writings, and measures, as evidence a desire and design to break off the happy connection we have hitherto enjoyed with the kingdom of Great Britain, and our just and necessary subordination to the king, and those who are lawfully placed in authority under him." What a slap in the face is here! The men, who, in the very paragraph before, have quietly and passively resigned up the ordering, altering and disposal of kings and governments, into the hands of God, are now recalling their principles, and putting in for a share of the business. Is it possible, that the conclusion, which is here justly quoted, can any ways follow from the doctrine laid down! The inconsistency is too glaring not to be seen; the absurdity too great not to be laughed at; and such as could only have been made by those whose understandings were darkened by the narrow and crabbed spirit of a despairing political party; for ye are not to be considered as the whole body of the Quakers, but only as a factional and fractional part thereof.
Here ends the examination of your Testimony; (which I call upon no man to abhor, as ye have done, but only to read and judge of fairly;) to which I subjoin the following remark "That the setting up and putting down of kings" must certainly mean, the making him a king who is yet not so, and the making him no king who is already one. And pray what hath this to do in the present case? We neither mean to set up nor to pull down, neither to make nor to unmake, but to have nothing to do with them. Wherefore, your testimony, in whatever light it is viewed, serves only to dishonor your judgment, and for many other reasons had better have been let alone than published.
First, Because it tends to the decrease and reproach of all religion whatever, and is of the utmost danger to society, to make it a party in political disputes.
Secondly, Because it exhibits a body of men, numbers of whom disavow the publishing of political testimonies, as being concerned therein and approvers thereof.
Thirdly, Because it hath a tendency to undo that continental harmony and friendship which yourselves, by your late liberal and charitable do- nations, hath lent a hand to establish; and the preservation of which is of the utmost consequence to us all.
And here, without anger or resentment, I bid you farewell. Sincerely wishing, that as men and Christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right, and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of AMERICA.
- "Thou hast tasted of prosperity and adversity; thou knowest what it is to be banished thy native country, to be over-ruled as well as to rule, and sit upon the throne: and being oppressed thou hast reason to know how hateful the oppressor is both to God and man; If after all these warnings and advertisements, thou dost not turn unto the Lord with alt thy heart, but forget him who remembered thee in thy distress, and give up thyself to. follow lust and vanity, surely, great will be thy condemnation.-Against which snare, as well as the temptation of those who may or do feed thee, and prompt thee to evil, the most excellent and prevalent remedy will be, to apply thyself to that light of Christ which shineth in thy conscience, and which neither can nor will flatter thee, nor suffer thee to be at ease in thy sins."-Barclay's Address to Charles II.-Author.