This Day in History: General George Washington vs. pacifist Quakers

On this day in 1778, General George Washington writes a letter to Brigadier General John Lacey. He wanted Lacey to prevent Quakers from entering the City of Philadelphia. These Quakers were traveling to their religious meeting—and Washington wanted to put a stop to it.

But why would Washington take exception to a religious meeting?!

Washington was emphatic about it, too. He wrote Lacey: “This is an intercourse that we should by all means endeavour to interrupt, as the plans setled at these meetings are of the pernicious tendency.” He authorized Lacey to seize the Quakers’ horses. Washington repeated his instructions to another Brigadier General the very next day.

He wasn’t messing around!

How odd, though. Washington had been quite kind to the Quakers earlier in the war. During the siege of Boston, he helped a group of Quakers to get into the city so they could assist the poor and needy. He also once helped some Quakers’ wives who wanted to visit their husbands, then suspected of being British spies. Moreover, he routinely exempted pacifist Quakers from the draft, assuming they were “really conscientiously scrupulous.”

Washington genuinely wanted to respect the Quakers’ differing religious beliefs. It had to have been difficult for him—not only a soldier, but the commander of the soldiers—to respect a group so adamantly opposed to fighting. Yet he did it.

Or, at least, he usually did it. At other times, he found himself in conflict with the Quakers—especially the Pennsylvania Quakers.

That group was especially uncompromising in their beliefs. All Quakers were (at least supposed to be) pacifists. But the Pennsylvania Quakers took matters a step further: They not only refused to fight, but they refused to participate in the new government in any form or fashion. They wouldn’t pay American taxes. They wouldn’t hold American offices. They wouldn’t use American money.

Washington seems to have concluded that some of these Quakers secretly wanted the British to win. So, yes, he stifled at least one religious meeting. But if he thought that meeting was a front for spies, perhaps we should be amazed that he did nothing more than to undermine a meeting and take some horses.

A decade later, when Washington was elected President, the Society of Quakers wrote Washington a letter. The Quakers assured Washington of their loyalty to him and the new country: “[B]ut as we are a People whose Principles and Conduct have been misrepresented and traduced, we take the Liberty to assure thee, that we feel our Hearts affectionately drawn towards thee, and those in Authority over us.”

For his part, Washington’s opinion of the Quakers seems to have improved. He responded to their letter with one of his own. His letter emphasized that, in America, religious liberty is more than a blessing. It is a right. He wrote:

“The liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights—While men perform their social Duties faithfully, they do all that Society or the State can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for the Religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or profess.”

So said the soldier to the religious group that refused to fight.

How wonderfully AMERICAN.

More information on George Washington’s views on church and state can
be found in my book with Joseph C. Smith, Jr., HERE.