Foundational Stories: Quaker Faith

Recently a Quaker friend challenged us to consider what our foundational stories are, how they began, how they changed over time, and what they are now. I’ve been writing about my foundational stories, which are related to the intersections between my Quaker faith, protecting Mother Earth, and photography.

This challenge comes at a time when I’m considering changes in those three things. Thus far my blog posts have been about how these stories began and have evolved.

I’m at the point of considering what those stories are now. A couple of days ago I wrote about the current state of how I care for Mother Earth.

Now I’ll try to express the current state of my Quaker faith, which will be the most difficult of the three parts of my foundational stories to write.

Part of what I was taught is we should not call attention to ourselves. But I have been led, as part of my faith, to share stories about my experiences and faith. The way we live our lives is how we express our faith. We share our faith by telling stories about these faith-based actions. The main reason photography is such a large part of my foundational stories is because photos can be a way to share my spiritual experiences.

I often think about what Noah Baker Merrill, a Quaker, wrote about this.

“We need to be careful when we talk about humility. The kind of humility this work brings isn’t the kind that would have us reject or repress our gifts. This kind of false humility leads us to oppress each other in the name of preventing pridefulness. This happens far too often.”

Noah Baker Merrill, “Prophets, Midwives, and Thieves: Reclaiming the Ministry of the Whole.”

Or as my friend Ronnie James, another storyteller says, “anyways, brag, brag, blah, blah”.

Religious faith is a matter of beliefs and, sometimes, spiritual experiences. I’ve heard not everyone has had, or at least not recognized, spiritual experience(s). I find it very interesting that those Friends (Quakers) who have said they had spiritual experience(s), have all said something like “and that’s all I’ll say about that”. That’s understandable because we don’t have the language to express this. Which makes it difficult to write about faith. Also, there is something about protecting something that is so intimate and profound in our lives.

My first spiritual experience was when I was about ten years old during meeting for worship at the Bear Creek meetinghouse. “And that’s all I’ll say about that”. Except to say I had no doubt about the presence of the Spirit in the world from that day on. I know I am blessed to have had that, and subsequent spiritual experiences.

Another Friend said his first spiritual experience came when he was about that age. This makes me realize we should pay attention to what young people experience. I love the native concept of children as sacred beings.

The concrete expression of our faith is seen in our actions in this world. This might mean we are led to act in ways contrary to the laws or conventions of the society we live in. Which is often not easy to do. Peer pressure can be a powerful force. There might be significant monetary costs and/or legal penalties. Quakers were once (still?) known as “peculiar people”. When there are conflicts between our spiritual beliefs and the laws of the government, people of faith try to obey the creator. Unfortunately, many times it is apparent that people who identify themselves as religious do not act according to the beliefs they profess. This lack of spiritual integrity results in many people rejecting organized religion.

The first time I was confronted with a situation where my beliefs were contrary to the laws of the land related to registration for the Selective Service System. I attended Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker boarding high school, during the time of the Vietnam War (1960’s). A military draft was being used to conscript young men into the armed forces. Quakers do not believe in war nor in participating in the military. Those with religious objections to serving in the military could apply for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, which if granted, would allow them to do two years of alternative service, such as working in a hospital instead of military service.

My Quaker friend and mentor, Don Laughlin, collected these stories of Quakers who opposed war and conscription.

I turned eighteen years of age while a Senior at Scattergood (1969). Young men were required to register for the Selective Service System at that age. The choices were either to do so, or apply for Conscientious Objector status, or do neither and face imprisonment.

I really struggled with whether I should accept alternative service, or not cooperate with the Selective Service System. I studied and prayed a great deal. I was convinced that alternative service was going along with the system. The question was whether to take the safer path of conscientious objection, or risk prison by resisting the draft.

I recognized this decision would set the course for the rest of my life. Which is why this is part of my foundational stories. If I compromised about this, I would likely do so in similar circumstances for the rest of my life. I would always be aware that I had not acted according to my beliefs.

The following Epistle, and the examples of the men who refused to cooperate with the military, many of whom did serve time in prison, showed me there were those who acted according to their beliefs despite the consequences.

The following is an excerpt from a statement by a group of Quaker young men at that time, including Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) Quakers Don Laughlin and Roy Knight.

Those of us who are joining in this epistle believe that cooperating with the draft, even as a recognized conscientious objector, makes one part of the power which forces our brothers into the military and into war.  If we Friends believe that we are special beings and alone deserve to be exempted from war, we find that doing civilian service with conscription or keeping deferments as we pursue our professional careers are acceptable courses of action.   But if we Friends really believe that war is wrong, that no man should become the executioner or victim of his brothers, then we will find it impossible to collaborate with the Selective Service System.  We will risk being put in prison before we help turn men into murderers.

It matters little what men say they believe when their actions are inconsistent with their words. Thus we Friends may say that all war is wrong, but as long as Friends continue to collaborate in a system that forces men into war, our Peace Testimony will fail to speak to mankind.

Let our lives speak for our convictions. Let our lives show that we oppose not only our own participation in war, but any man’s participation in it.
In our early history we Friends were known for our courage in living according to our convictions. At times during the 1600’s thousands of Quakers were in jails for refusing to pay any special respect to those in power, for worshiping in their own way, and for following the leadings of conscience.

We may not be able to change our government’s terrifying policy in Vietnam.  But we can try to change our own lives.  We must be ready to accept the sacrifices involved if we hope to make a real testimony for Peace.  We must make Pacifism a way of life in a violent world.

We remain, in love of the Spirit, your Friends and brothers,

An Epistle to Friends Concerning Military Conscription

This story would not be complete without including another important part of this decision, which was the tensions with my parents. They were against the war but wanted me to accept Conscientious Objector status. They were very upset when I said I couldn’t do that. I understood they didn’t want me to face prison and life as a felon, but they didn’t understand why I knew I must resist. I felt betrayed by their lack of support. Looking back from this time, it is easier to accept what they were doing out of love.

I mailed the following to the draft board today (2/6/1972), along with my registration certificate and classification (1-0) card: 


Dear members and clerk of the draft board:    

I have received an order to report for civilian work February 1, 1972. 

I want to thank you for your concerned questions at my personal appearance, when we were considering my position as a conscientious objector.  I have appreciated Mrs. Landon’s kindness and consideration, even when I returned my draft cards.  Thank you for giving me more time to consider this decision.  I hadn’t realized what a powerful affect that action would have on some people.  The extra time gave them, and me, a chance to come to grips with the decision and its consequences.  However, my beliefs have remained basically the same and the time has come to act accordingly.    

I am sure none of us really want war.  Many are convinced that was is a ‘necessary evil’—the only way to achieve peace.  I think I can understand that, and I do respect those who sincerely believe it—their sacrifice has been very great.    

But I do not believe war is the way to peace.  True peace is a personal, internal, spiritual matter.  When we come to know and love ourselves and our God, then and only then do we have peace.  From this point, peace and love will flow from us and should engulf those we live and work with.  This is the only way to find and promote peace. 

In this matter, war has no place.    

The enclosed attempts to illustrate my beliefs in relation to the Selective Service System.  I hope this will help you to understand why I feel I cannot cooperate with the Selective Service System.  I want it to be clearly understood that I am not doing alternative service.  It is not my choice.  There is nothing else I can do. 

Jeff Kisling 

Letter to my draft board 

I write concerning my relationship with the Selective Service System.  There are many alternatives.  In fact, someone once said the only alternative not open to a young man facing the draft is that of being left alone.  I explored several of these.  I applied for and was granted conscientious objector status (1-0).  Then I had a student deferment, which made me very uneasy.  I am now doing work which should qualify as alternative service, but for reasons I will attempt to explain herein, I find this alternative to be unacceptable. 

I find it difficult to understand why one young man must explain his decision to do civilian work for a non-profit organization while another need make no explanation, indeed is encouraged to fight and perhaps kill other human beings.  But it is one’s duty to explain one’s actions in order that others might understand, and perhaps follow.  Noncooperation is less understood than conscientious objection, so I feel all the more compelled to try to present an explanation.  I must try to explain, to spare my family the burden of doing so, for they neither clearly understand nor agree with my decision.  (Note:  they fully supported alternative service, but didn’t want to see me imprisoned). 

This decision grew out of my experience as a member of the Society of Friends.  Meetings of the Society of Friends can be a source of strength and guidance as one begins and continues to search for meaning in life.  Quakers have always believed that there is that of God in every man, that each of us has the ability to communicate with that of God in us, and the responsibility to respond to that of God in everyone.  It is evident that Jesus had communion with God—evident in the actions of his life and in his teachings—culminating in “not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching—that God’s will can be discerned and should be obeyed even at the cost of doubt and persecution.  Quakers readily accept Jesus as an exceptional person and try to live up to the principles he gave us to live by.  But we are even more concerned that we obey that Inner Light to which He was so sensitive, so we and have personal contact with and guidance from God.  Thus, Quakers try to minimize distractions from “this (secular) world” in order to discern the will of God in their hearts and His presence in their midst.  They gather together in a simple room and settle down together, searching in silence—each contributing to the spirit of the meeting as a whole.  There are times when a member feels he has been ‘moved by the spirit’ to share with the group, in which case the meeting considers the message in further silence. 

There is a spirit which comes from the silence which gives direction to life.  The spirit is often difficult to discern because of our ties to ‘this world.’  We are afraid or too proud to give up our desire to ‘reason through’ decisions.  Thus we develop a system of beliefs and guidelines composed of traditional beliefs, our own reasoning, and as much guidance from the Inner Light as we are willing to seek and accept.  Thus our decisions, being not entirely grounded upon our faith, may not always be ‘right’.  But we can do no more, nor should we do less, than follow our conscience as occasions arise—always seeking to become more attuned to the spirit.    

Adolescence is that period when one begins to seriously consider ‘who he is’ and his purpose in the world.  It is a time when one has so many question and so few answers.  The extent to which a young person searches for, and finds answers to these questions is dependent upon guidance given by parents, peers, school and church; the degree to which this guidance corresponds to his own experience and needs; and his own self-discipline and desire to continue the search.  Too often the leadership and resources are not available; he is ‘turned off’ by inconsistencies or shallowness or insincerity on the part of those he looks to for guidance and example; or materialistic demands distract from the search. 

The draft requires fundamental moral decisions at this time in life.  This may not be bad in itself, but tremendous pressure is brought to bear to influence the decision—tradition, parental and peer pressure, the law, etc.  The Selective Service System tries to attract men to the armed forces by relying on these pressures and by not making alternatives widely known.  The pressures in this case are for action which is contrary to the experience and desires of most young men—frustrating, anguishing when one is searching for truth, honesty and integrity.  This type of experience stifles personal growth and leads to the loss of a spirit of idealism and faith in the goodness of men.  Can there be a graver crime than that of destroying the spirit and dreams of the young?  Only that of destroying life itself, and the Selective Service System is directly implicated in both.    

Most of us agree that conscription and war are unjust-evil.  The question is, how do we deal with evil?  ‘Resist not evil’—a phrase widely known but little understood and less obeyed.  ‘Do not set yourself against one who wrongs you’ (NEB) is a better way to put it, I think.  In setting ourselves against those who harm us, we look, to some extent, for some way to hurt, or at least hinder them.  We look for the worst in others and play upon their weaknesses rather than looking for the best and trying to fortify it.  Out task is to overcome evil by doing good.    

The time we spend ‘resisting evil’ could be better spent in trying to find out where we can do better ourselves.  You do not change others by opposing them—rather, by respecting and trying to understand and learn from them, you can both benefit and move nearer the truth.  A life of example—showing the possibilities and fruits of a life lived in love and concern for others, is the only way to overcome evil. 

I do not want my example to be alliance with evil.  Thus, I cannot serve with the Selective Service System.  However, I will not set myself against it.  I will break my ties with Selective Service, and concentrate on the difficult task of working for peace in whatever way I can.    

The conclusion to my draft story is that I was drafted at a time when men were not being drafted for the armed forces. A Supreme Court case declared this to be illegal, so my order to report for civilian service was invalidated and I wasn’t prosecuted.  I did finish my two years with Friends Volunteer Service Mission in Indianapolis. 

Letters to and from Bear Creek Monthly Meeting 

Homer Moffitt, Clerk 
Bear Creek Monthly Meeting 

Dear Friends, 

I am thankful for your kind letters and encouragement concerning my work in Indianapolis.  I am learning much about love, and as I respond to the love of others, and they to mine, we are all amazed at how it grows. 

I am enclosing a statement I have written concerning conscription, and my decision not to cooperate with the Selective Service System any more.  I sent a copy of that statement, along with my draft cards, to my draft board. 

Again, I tried very hard to follow the leading of the inner light.  If I alone were making the decision, this would probably not be my choice.  Thomas a’ Beckett, torn between his obligations to the Church and those to the State, was searching for guidance.  When he realized all the forces that influence him—selfish desires for power and personal gain, fear of punishment or displeasing people, etc., he said. “I am loathsome.”  But then he heard what he believed to be the voice of God saying, “Nevertheless, I love.” 

I, too, feel shamed when I realize the factors that often influence my decisions and actions.  On this matter, I have tried very hard to be sensitive to the will of God, and hope to do so in the times to come.  Still somewhat uncertain that my choice is right, I am comforted in knowing that He still loves. 

Jeff Kisling 

In reply: 

Dear Jeff, 

We have found your statement explaining your relationship to the Selective Service System very moving.  Several of us are aware that your decision on this has been a difficult and lonely one.  We want to assure you of our love and support as you meet the events which result from your courageous stand. 

On behalf of the Peace Committee of Bear Creek Monthly Meeting 

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