Part 4 Benjamin Franklin on Religion Quakers and Dunkers

Due to his long years serving the Assembly in Philadelphia both as a clerk and a member of the Assembly later Benjamin had a lot of insight and commentary on the Quaker sect as a whole. The assembly at that time was dominated by Quaker rule and it is amusing to read some of the creative ways Benjamin came up with to get progressive and community measures approved by them. Especially as it pertained to militia and any tax moneys going to fund anything with military or potential violence.

Benjamin Franklin Clerk of the Assembly

Benjamin Franklin Clerk of the Assembly

He made the observation a couple of times that it is easy for a religious structure to be anti-violence in it’s doctrines when the individuals and their families are not directly in harms way. He shares two stories to illustrate the difficulty of holding such a doctrine firm even by those who were firmly believe in the doctrines of no violence.

Since retelling what he took such pains to write seems an injustice the following will be in his own words.

The honorable and learned Mr. Logan, who had always been of that sect, was one who wrote an address to them, declaring his approbation of defensive war, and supporting his opinion by many strong arguments. He put into my h ands sixty pounds to be laid out in lottery tickets for the battery, with directions to apply what prizes might be drawn wholly to that service. He told me the following anecdote of his old master, William Penn, respecting defense. He came over from England, when a young man, with that proprietary and as his secretary.

It was war-time, and their ship was chas’d by an armed vessel, suppos’d to be an enemy. Their captain prepar’d for defense, but told William Penn and his company of Quakers, that he did not expect their assistance, and they might retire into the cabin, which they did, except James Logan, who chose to stay upon deck, and was quarter’d to a gun. The suppos’d enemy prov’d a friend, so there was no fighting; but when the secretary went down to communicate the intelligence, William Penn rebuk’d him severely for staying upon deck, and undertaking to assist in defending the vessel, contrary to the principles of Friends, especially as it had not been required by the captain. This reproof, being before all the company, piqu’d the secretary, who answer’d “I being thy servant, why did thee not order me to come down? But thee was willing enough that I should stay and help to fight the ship when thee thought there was danger.” 

My being many years in the Assembly, the majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarrassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. They were unwilling to offend the government, on the one hand, by a direct refusal; and their friends, the body of the Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles; hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying, and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable. 

The common mode at last was, to grant money under the phrase of its being for “The king’s use,” and never to inquire how it was applied. 

But, if the demand was not directly from the crown, that phrase was found not so proper, and some other was to be invented. As, when powder was wanting (I think it was for the garrison at Louisburg) and the government of New England solicited a grant of some from Pennsilvania, which was much urg’d on the House by GOvernor Thomas, they could not grant money to buy powder, because that was an ingredient of war; but they voted an aid to New England of three thousand pounds, to be put into the hands of the governor, and appropriated it for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain. Some of the council, desirous of giving the House still further embarrassment, advis’d the governor not to accept provision, as not being the thing he had demanded; but he reply’d, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder,” which he accordingly bought, and they never objected to it.

Later he summarizes his opinion of the Quakers position against war and shares a story about a religious sect called the Dunkers. Since I had never heard of the Dunkers before reading this I found it especially interesting. Hope you do as well!

These embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d from having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers.  I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appear’d. He complain’d to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg’d with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers.

I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that, to put a stop to such abuse, I imagin’d it might be well to publish the articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline.

He said that it had been propos’d among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: “When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.” 

 This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle. 

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