Freedom of Conscience

The centenary of The Military Service Act on 27 January has brought into focus the whole question of conscription and conscientious objection. The Act included a special clause, drafted by Quakers, which for the first time allowed exemption to military service on the grounds of conscience, and thousands of men applied.

But there was little consistency or fairness in the way the tribunals operated, and several  thousand, including those prepared to do alternative service such as working for the Friends Ambulance Unit, were imprisoned. Conditions in prison were appalling, and some men died.

And public opinion was harsh. The “conscience clause” was considered by some to be a “shirkers’ charter” and conscientious objectors (COs) were vilified. There was an orchestrated campaign for young women to hand out white feathers to men they considered to be cowards. Some of the previously untold stories of these men can be found on www.whitefeatherdiaries.org.uk

What could matter so much that people were prepared  to undergo such ill-treatment? For the thousands of conscientious objectors, then and now, what really matters is listening to their moral sense, their voice of conscience. Until we are tested, none of us knows how we will respond. Many of the young men, opposed to violence but keen to serve their country, wrote about their struggles in prayer. In 1918, on being sentenced by a tribunal to two years in prison, the Quaker Corder Catchpool wrote: “May God steady me, and keep me faithful to a call I have heard above the roar of the guns“. Like him, many conscientious objectors risked their own lives to save others.

But it was not just about their own right not to fight. What Quakers and others opposed was the right of any government to compel its subjects to do anything against their conscience. Indeed, as they drafted the “conscience clause”, Quakers rejected any idea that they should get special treatment. Freedom of conscience, a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, applies to us all.

In our 360-year history, Quakers, believing all life is sacred, have always opposed the violent path. We have continued to campaign against conscription in various countries round the world. But we have to acknowledge that freedom of conscience means for some, including some Quakers, the right to fight, and our struggle as a community is to embrace that difference.

We can feel proud that Britain was the first country to give legal recognition to individual conscience. On 27 January Quakers marked the centenary in Holyrood and Westminster, as a reminder that freedom of conscience is at the heart of what it means to be human.