#whitefeather diaries

Freedom of conscience

Monday 29 February 2016

On the centenary of the Military Service Act 1916 receiving royal assent, Jennifer Kavanagh, a London Quaker, presented BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day. The Act introduced conscription for the first time in modern British history and also recognised the right to conscientiously object to military service. 

As heard on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day on 26 January 2016.

Good morning. Tomorrow is the centenary of The Military Service Act which brought conscription into the First World War. Many people listening will have had relatives who fought in one of the World Wars. Some, like my grandfather, were exempted for medical reasons, or because they worked in a reserved occupation. A smaller number will have applied to a military tribunal for exemption not for anything so tangible as poor sight or providing food for the nation, but as a matter of conscience.

For the first time, the addition of a special clause allowed exemption to military service on the grounds of conscience. Some felt it was an easy way out, a "shirkers' charter". But why would anyone expose themselves to death threats, and the life-threatening conditions of hard labour except for something that really mattered? For the thousands of conscientious objectors, then and now, what really matters is listening to their moral sense, their voice of conscience.

Any of us who have struggled with our conscience knows it isn't easy. How far am I prepared to go? Where will you draw the line? Until we're 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 wasn't just about their own right not to fight. What they were opposing was the right of any government to compel its subjects to take life. Indeed, as Quakers drafted the "conscience clause", they 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. 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. Quakers will mark tomorrow's centenary in Holyrood and Westminster, as a reminder that freedom of conscience is at the heart of what it means to be human.

Related Materials

Front page of newspaper 1916 Fellowship of fainthearts
Monday 29 February 2016

On the introduction of conscription Howard Marten sought exemption as a conscientious objector. He went before a local tribunal to argue his case.

Shall Britons be conscripts? advert
Monday 29 February 2016

Peace activists made a last-ditch attempt to resist the introduction of conscription as it was being debated by Parliament. A strongly worded leaflet produced by the No-Conscription Fellowship was attacked in the press at the beginning of 1916. Here it is.


Fellow Citizens,—

The time has come to appeal to all those who value our traditional British freedom.