Forged in the Fire

Norman Morrison and the Link between Liberal Quakerism and Radical Action 

Isaac May, Master of Theological Studies Candidate, Harvard Divinity School

Abstract: This article considers the self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison in 1965, which was a protest against the American war in Vietnam. It suggests that Morrison’s death is best understood in the context of the changing Quaker theology and doctrine of the twentieth century, rather than as simply an imitation of Buddhist practices. Specifically it indicates that the writings of Thomas Kelly, a prominent Quaker scholar, may have been influential in Morrison’s act of protest. Finally, it argues that Morrison’s death in turn affected Quakerism and cemented a growing link between radical politics and liberal Quaker faith. 

In the twilight of November 2, 1965, Quaker Norman Morrison walked towards the Pentagon, intent on stopping American involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. Cradling his baby daughter Emily in one arm, Morrison carried a jug of kerosene with his other hand. He had already soaked himself in the substance, so when he lit a match, he became, as one witness at the scene put it, “a torch.” The exact sequence of events after Morrison lit himself on fire is uncertain, but at some point Morrison handed off Emily, setting her down or dropping her; she was physically unharmed from the ordeal. Despite the efforts of onlookers to put out the flames, by the time medical personnel arrived Morrison was dead.[1] 

In the hours following his death, Morrison’s wife Anne, who had not known of his actions prior to learning about them from reporters, released a statement.  She said, “Norman Morrison has given his life today to express his concern over the great loss of life and human suffering caused by the war in Vietnam.”[2] Morrison’s intentions were confirmed when a letter he addressed before his self-immolation was delivered to his wife. “Know that I love thee but I must act,” Morrison wrote, using the plain language of “thee” and “thou” that had once been common among Quakers.[3] His wife later revealed that Morrison had acted particularly out of a desire to stop the conflict in Vietnam from escalating and turning into a nuclear war, which he felt was likely.[4]

Morrison’s death raises many questions, both for his contemporaries and for scholars who continue to study the Vietnam conflict long after its end. How should we regard his actions?  Were they a form of protest, an act of martyrdom, or simply a suicide? Was his choice to end his own life a moral one? Above all, what lead him to such extremes?  This paper cannot, due to the limits of historical inquiry, offer a definitive psychological or personal motive for Morrison’s actions. Such things are perhaps better left to the many poets that have dealt with Morrison’s life.[5] Instead, this article seeks to situate Morrison’s actions in their appropriate religious context. To grapple with the reasons for and consequences of what happened on that November day, it is essential to understand them as part of the story of the changing nature of liberal Quakerism in the twentieth century. The evaluation of the ethics, morality or rationality of the act cannot be disentangled from the question of its Quaker character.

Morrison, in life and death, was part of theological debates over the meaning of Quakerism, and he went to the Pentagon inspired by Quaker theology and teachings. His burning would forge a stronger link between Quakerism and radical politics in the Vietnam era. It became an important catalyst for changing how liberal Quakers thought about Quakerism’s historic “Peace Testimony.” What had once been a somewhat limited doctrine of contentious objection to war, with the occasional rhetorical attack on war, shifted after Morrison’s death to include physical protest and direct action, and even self-destruction. Morrison would join William Penn, John Woolman, Elias Hicks and John Joseph Gurney as a figure that fundamentally altered Quaker practice.

Morrison’s Quakerism was immediately part of the public response to his act; in fact, newspapers harped upon it, as if it provided a sort of explanation. Reporters treated his faith haphazardly, however.  News stories did not consider how Morrison’s actions might be linked to Quaker practice, and the fact that he belonged to this seemingly strange group appeared to be enough to effectively explain his death.[6] Later scholars of American history and the Vietnam War have not offered substantially more nuanced analysis.  His death is typically mentioned with the eight other self-immolations that occurred during the same period.[7]Certainly all these deaths were significant, and most of them, like the self-immolation of Catholic Worker Roger LaPorte a mere week after Morrison’s death, involved religion as a major motivating factor, but that should not diminish the need to examine Morrison’s death individually or in its particular religious context.[8] 

James Madison University Professor Sallie B. King, perhaps the only academic to address the theological underpinning of Morrison’s act, related it to Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Quang Duc’s famous 1963 self-immolation in Saigon and chose to largely ignore the contexts of Quaker history. Like most Americans, Morrison was aware of Thich Quang Duc's symbolic suicide, but there is little to indicate that his actions were an attempt at imitation, except perhaps in the most general sense that Quang Duc’s death demonstrated how self-immolation could be a form of extreme protest.[9] The only specifically Quaker precedents King mentions in her account of Morrison’s actions are the Boston martyrs, who were killed by the Puritans for trying to enter Massachusetts in the 1660s.[10]

The suggestion that Morrison drew inspiration from such distant Quaker history overlooks important precedents in the liberal Quakerism of the twentieth century. Certainly martyrdom was of great consequence to early Quakers in the seventeenth century, and they zealously recorded their suffering, influenced in part by the popularity of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs among Protestants.  Quaker culture prized “holy martyrdom” into the nineteenth century, and Quakers extolled the idea of suffering when receiving a “leading” from God.[11] But if Morrison was inspired by this history, there is little direct evidence of it. Although Morrison would have been aware of this tradition, he did little to portray himself as part of a long line of Quaker martyrs. His Quakerism was a new strain, one that had emerged only in the twentieth century.       

In the 1960s, Quakerism was not a monolithic entity, and there was no single Quaker theology or practice. To understand Norman Morrison in a Quaker context requires making sense of these divisions.  In the nineteenth century, Quakerism divided into the Hicksites and the Orthodox, which in turn gave rise to a bewildering array of other divisions within the faith.[12]  In the twentieth century these divisions would begin to give way to three large Quaker organizations, Friends United Meeting (FUM), Friends General Conference (FGC) and a collection of Yearly Meetings which would later form the Evangelical Friends Alliance (EFA). While making generalizations about all the Meetings in these groups is difficult, typically FUM was “programmed,” meaning that it utilized paid ministers, and theologically resembled a mainline Protestant denomination.  Evangelicals were also programmed but obviously were more evangelical in their theology, while FGC and some independent unaffiliated Meetings had silent “unprogrammed” worship and were theologically liberal.

Scholar Guy Aiken has pointed out that liberal Quakers were united by a commitment to social activism. [13] Much of this activism would be associated with the ideals of Social Gospel rather than political radicalism.  The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which included Quakers from all of the denomination’s divisions, was helmed by perhaps the leading force in liberal Quakerism, Haverford professor Rufus Jones.  The AFSC and Jones engaged in activities such as providing food aid to Europe, securing home heating assistance to Americans and trying to relieve the suffering of German Jews. While the AFSC stood against war, it was largely viewed as nonpolitical, which meant that Jones could remain friends with people such as fellow Quaker Herbert Hoover, who was conservative in many of his political and social views.[14]

Further, as religious studies Professor Gary Dorrien has noted, Jones had kept his charitable and political activism very separate from his writing on Quakerism (to the dismay of some of his non-Quaker associates).[15] This meant that while Jones may have had political stands and even acted as a Quaker, he almost never used the theology of the faith to justify political action directly. Morrison’s radicalism would challenge this kind of separation between theology and activism.

It is true that liberal Quakerism did have its share of political activists. Indeed, Patricia Appelbaum in her study of Protestant Pacifist culture Kingdom to Commune insists on “the centrality of liberal Quakerism to pacifist culture.”[16] In particular, Quakers had worked to help found the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a key Protestant peace group, and Quakers occupied many of the organization’s leadership roles.[17] Nonetheless, the organization was not really representative of any strand of Quakerism.

A connection between liberal Quakerism and radicalism was also not inevitable. In World War I, despite Quaker rhetoric about pacifism, many Quakers got caught up in the war fever. Quaker colleges trained their students for military service. Professor Henry Cadbury was dismissed from his teaching position at Haverford College because of his pacifism, amid threats by Quaker alumni to burn down his house.[18]  In World War II Quakers assisted the federal government with setting up the Civilian Public Service (CPS), a form of alternative service for contentious objectors. Even during that war, many pointed out that Quakers running the CPS directly assisted the federal government in making the military service system function. Essentially, Quakers and mainstream Protestant pacifists were in agreement until after the Second World War, as each advocated for pacifism through reform and institutional means.[19]

During the early Cold War, many Quakers became hawks. One Quaker theologian in FUM told his readers that “the Quaker, providing he is sincere about wanting peace, will not try to undermine the deterrent power of the West, as [a] few misguided ones now do.”[20] During the American war in Vietnam, a sizable number of Quakers in the moderate and evangelical branches of the denomination supported the conflict throughout its duration. Liberal Quakers could have backed the war or chosen to continue the kind of respectable middle class opposition they had engaged in during World War II. Yet many would become radicalized. Morrison’s death was one of the central events that polarized these divisions within Quakerism.[21]

As a “convinced” or converted Quaker, rather than a “birthright” Quaker, Morrison had come by choice into the liberal Quaker milieu that he would eventually do so much to transform.  His joining the Quakers was a conscious and thoughtful decision. This is apparent because Morrison suffered hardship because of this convincement. From his early life Morrison had wanted to be a minister. After graduating from the College of Wooster in Ohio, he attended Western Theological Seminary (now called Pittsburg Theological Seminary), with the goal of entering into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church.  Despite his Presbyterianism, Morrison had been involved with Quakerism since his student days at Wooster.[22] Hence he was faced with an important life choice; if he stayed a Presbyterian or joined the moderate or evangelical branch of Quakerism he could put his ministry degree to use and earn a living. On the other hand, to accept liberal Quakerism, with its unprogrammed meetings and its literal belief in the notion of the ministry of all believers, meant rejecting the possibility of ever working as paid minister.

He chose liberal Quakerism. When Morrison married in 1957, the ceremony was done in the care of Durham Friends Meeting, which his wife, Anne, then a student at Duke University, attended.  He and his wife joined Pittsburg Friends Meeting in 1959.[23] During this period Morrison applied for a position with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), stating he desired to leave the Presbyterian ministry because of “Christian conviction” and thought that working with the Quaker lobbying group would “[present] an unusual opportunity to relate one’s faith to the field of social and political action.”[24] Morrison’s theological education was a rarity within liberal Quakerism, which did not require any sort of religious training for its members. It also meant that he had a more sophisticated notion of the religion’s differences from other Christian groups than most Quakers.

Morrison would ultimately decide not to take a job he was offered at the FCNL or another offer to teach religious education at a Quaker meeting in Richmond, Indiana.  Instead he took up a position offered by the North Carolina Yearly Meeting to organize a monthly meeting in Charlotte.[25] He disparagingly described the work as being a “paid Quaker,” a rather harsh description, as Quakers had traditionally disparaged “hireling ministers.” From that point on, Morrison was immersed in all the institutions of liberal Quakerism. He and his wife headed a Friends Summer camp in South China, Maine, which was not coincidently the hometown of Rufus Jones. Morrison was connected to Pendle Hill, a Quaker conference center and spiritual retreat that was a hub of Quaker theological writing and reflection.[26]   

Following his work in North Carolina, Morrison took a job as a paid executive secretary with the Stony Run Meeting in Maryland. This meeting sat uneasily between the divides of older nineteenth century Quakerism and those of the twentieth century Quaker organizations. Stony Run was unprogrammed and a part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which made it part of FGC, but there were also still two Baltimore Yearly Meetings, a relic of the Hicksite/Orthodox split of 1827. Stony Run remained a part of the Hicksite body. There had been some attempt at rapprochement between the two Yearly Meetings since the 1940s, and discussion of reunification had led Homeward Monthly Meeting, the leading Monthly Meeting in the Orthodox body, to suggest total consolidation in 1960. However, Stony Run was reluctant to take this step, and it would take until 1968, nearly three years after Morrison’s death, for them to agree to a consolidation of some administrative functions of both meetings.[27] As Nicholas and Helen Fessenden, who have written about the history of Stony Run Monthly Meeting, explain:

Frequently the question was discussed in Monthly Meeting … the sense of the Meeting was that ‘reunion is not our goal,’ but certainly cooperation and affiliation should be maintained and strengthened. There were differences in faith. Compared with Stony Run Friends, Homeward [Monthly Meeting] members tended to focus more on Jesus, and more involved in missions work. While these religious differences were significant, many Stony Run members sought to maintain their identity, which involved preserving a community that had historically been separate from Homeward.[28]

Morrison, as the only employee of Stony Run Meeting, would have been in the center of this theological controversy about what it meant to be a Quaker.  Although there is no extent record of his response, Morrison clearly knew of the efforts of these liberal Quakers to contrast their beliefs against those of more mainline elements in Homeward, as they argued that Jesus and evangelism did not deserve a pride of place in Quakerism over revelation and social justice.

What led Morrison and the Friends at Stony Run Meeting to feel uncomfortable with the Christocentric faith of Homeward was a new liberal Quaker theology created largely by Rufus Jones starting in the 1920s.  Jones was a lifelong Quaker who began a project of reinterpreting the foundations of Quakerism. He argued that Quakerism was “a fresh movement essentially aiming to realize a universal religion of the spirit.”[29] He revised Quaker history to emphasize the “mystical and non-ecclesiastical type of piety.”[30] For Jones, the appeal of Quakerism at its core was its ability to tap into a universal mystical experience.  With his students and colleagues, such as Quaker academics Thomas Kelly and Douglas Steere, Jones pioneered what Princeton professor Leigh Eric Schmidt has described as a culture of “seekers.”[31]

Morrison and the Friends of Stony Run were part of this seeker culture.  We know Morrison was familiar with Jones’ work; his wife instantly recognized a quotation from Jones when a friend sent it to her after her husband’s death, and Morrison’s own ideas echoed many of Jones’s themes.[32]  More important in Morrison’s development, however, was the work of Jones’s student, Thomas Kelly. Kelly’s ideas are key to understanding how Morrison’s actions fit into a Quaker context. But Kelly’s work is not understandable without first considering it in light of historical Quaker developments and Morrison’s existing views.

Early Quaker thought retained a tension between the idea of scripture and the importance of revelation. Of particular concern was the potential that individual revelation could lead to religious anarchy or lead members astray. Meetings served in part to police the “leadings” of its members, something that in the nineteenth century became one of the reasons for “disownments,” or expulsion from membership in a Meeting.[33] Throughout much of Quaker history, the question of religious authority has generated conflict. FGC for the most part favored revelation over scriptural literalism.

Like most liberal Quakers, Morrison felt that revelation had primacy. He thought that his life was defined by a philosophy that he called “guided drift,” which his widow Anne Morrison Welsh would later describe as “being open to a direction by God, staying in tune in case a message came from the Divine.” She notes that “Norm used to sometimes confess, ‘It is sometimes more drift than guide.’”[34]  At other points Morrison apparently referred to this in specifically Quaker terms, calling it the “inner light“ or speaking of the “indwelling spirit of Christ in every soul.”[35] Anne Morrison Welsh, writing about her husband, observed that he believed that he was engaging in “Holy Obedience,” a concept from Thomas Kelly.

As scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt explains, Kelly, following Jones’s lead, began to see Quakerism “as a mystical leaven rather than as a tiny denominational organization.” [36] Kelly’s most important work, the one that outlined “Holy Obedience,” was a book published only after his 1941 death, Testament of Devotion. In the book Kelly wrote of following a leading from God at great cost to one’s self.  Kelly nonetheless praised this type of religious deference to divine guidance, telling readers, “The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness.” Kelly asserted the need for human beings to fully “surrender” to God, and informed readers that “totalitarian are the claims of Christ.”  He warned that obedience may not be a wholly pleasant encounter.[37]  If Morrison had seen his desire to self-immolate as a divine leading, then the notion of being “wholly submissive” would have meant he was obligated to obey.

Divine obedience, Kelly explained, might mean rejecting middle class norms. He urged his readers, “Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me.” For Morrison, for whom family served as a check against extreme action, Kelly’s remarks could have been read as provocation.  In this view, the responsibilities and comforts of life mattered less than a higher call to service, and surrender to religious obedience provided a context for Morrison’s choice to burn himself to death. Kelly’s instance that “war and imperialism” would fall under the purview of God might also have lead Morrison to perceive God as demanding explicitly political action from him.[38]

The fact that Kelly described God in metaphors about fire also may have influenced Morrison. Searching for a term to describe what it was to be possessed by God, Kelly quoted Pascal and remarked simply, “Fire.” God, Kelly believed, “inflames the soul with a burning craving for absolute purity,” a statement he liked so much that he repeated it verbatim twice. An individual who is in God’s grasp supposedly “burns for complete innocency and holiness of personal life.” God’s love was a “flame” and God’s spiritual gifts “touches us to flame.”[39] Kelly had not been speaking literally, but a reader such as Morrison might easily read Kelly’s injunctions that way.

It was not Kelly’s invocation of the idea of fire that weighed most on Morrison’s mind, however. Instead he would likely have been moved by Kelly’s most powerful statement:

In this day when the burdens of humanity press so heavily upon us I would begin not first with techniques of service but with the most "Serious Call to a Devout Life," a life of such humble obedience to the Inner Voice as we have scarcely dared to dream. Hasten unto Him who calls you in the silences of your heart. The Hound of Heaven is ever near us, the voice of the Shepherd is calling us home…. Hasten unto Him who is the chief actor of the drama of time and Eternity. It is not too late to love Him utterly and obey Him implicitly and be baptized with the power of the apostolic life.[40]

The command “hasten unto him” here is a call for the individual to be closer to God, but read in the context of Morrison’s belief that he was being lead to a self-destructive witness, it could be seen as an endorsement of following God’s will unto death. This is not to say that Kelly intended to advocate an extreme action, but an individual seeking validation for radical protest could easily read Kelly’s admonition in that light. Not only could Kelly’s writing be seen as endorsing self-destructive action if done at God’s behest, but now it was being redirected towards a political aim.  It is possible to view Kelly as urging Morrison to be a Prophet, or even act as a Christ figure, called by God to commit the most extreme action either as a warning or to expiate the nation’s sin.

At least a few Quakers at the time picked up on the connection between Morrison’s actions and the theology of Thomas Kelly. At a memorial service for Morrison held at the Florida Avenue Meetinghouse in Washington D.C., Quaker peace activist Lawrence Scott, one of the founders of the Committee on Nonviolent Action (CVNA), delivered a vocal “meditation,” noting that when he heard about Morrison’s actions, he “thought of Thomas Kelly and his section on suffering in Testament of Devotion.” However, most of Scott’s discourse actually came from Kelly’s section on Holy Obedience, and Scott chose to end his tribute to Morrison’s life by quoting a snippet of from that chapter:

By inner persuasions He draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God's burdened heart particularizing His burdens in us. And He gives us the royal blindness of faith, and the seeing eye of the sensitized soul, and the grace of unflinching obedience. Then we see that nothing matters, and that everything matters, and that this my task matters for me and for my fellow men and for Eternity. And if we be utterly humble we may be given strength to be obedient even unto death, yea the death of the Cross.[41]

Scott’s implication, in using the quote, was that Morrison, like Jesus, accepted his duty to God even though it led to his death. For Scott, Morrison’s death was not difficult to understand; it was the very fulfillment of proper Quaker and Christian practice.

In addition to his interest in Kelly’s theology, Morrison was clearly also immersed in the wider currents of liberal Quaker thought. This was made apparent in the notes he made for a class he was teaching on Quakerism at Stoney Rune Meetinghouse The morning before his death Morrison wrote, "Quakers seek to begin with life, not with theory or report. The life is mightier than the book that reports it. The most important thing in the world is that our faith becomes living experience and deed of life."[42] Here Morrison seems to be expressing his notion of inner light, seeing it as an explicitly Quaker practice.  He appears convinced that one must follow God’s revelation at the expense of all other considerations, and he expressed this thought in a mystical language. These were all the hallmarks of Quaker liberalism and represented a major departure from the theology of Holiness-centered Friends. If Morrison went to his death with the same thoughts on his mind that he had written out in the morning, he was dying for distinctly liberal Quaker values.  

More than being the act of a liberal Quaker, however, self-immolation was also a radical act. It violated law, challenged the fundamental order of the state, and was an aggressive and public display of principle that violated social decorum.  Morrison would become the most visible of a small but growing group of people who wedded explicitly radical left-wing politics to the mystical vision of Jones and the other liberal Quakers. 

Morrison was less adverse to argument and conflict than most Quakers, which meant he did not have to shift much to become radical.  Morrison’s views sometimes brought him into direct conflict with the more conservative elements of Quakerism.  He saw undertaking controversial political action as a part of his faith. He had come to Quakerism in large part because of its stance on pacifism; writing to Quaker activist Samuel R. Levering as he and his wife were leaving the Presbyterian fold, Morrison observed, “I have never had the privilege of talking with a Presbyterian who is a pacifist, and the more we hear them talk the more Quaker we become.”[43]  

In her memoir about Morrison’s life, his wife Anne expressly remembered him returning exasperated from dealing with the North Carolina Yearly Meeting when he had lived in its jurisdiction, having argued with them about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (presumably, like most liberal Quakers,  arguing against it).[44]  Morrison’s firm support for Civil Rights and the Freedom Riders also earned the ire from some in the North Carolina Yearly Meeting.[45] While there is no direct evidence of his involvement, it also seems likely from his sentiments that Morrison was one of the people that helped convince Stony Run Meeting to put out a statement officially condemning the Vietnam War in March of 1965.[46] Norman Morrison’s faith was by all evidences one that required action.

Like past generations of Quakers, Morrison organized peace vigils and spoke out against war. Where Morrison would differ from the tradition of Quakerism was in his wholehearted acceptance of direct action, protest and civil disobedience as methods that should be used in the pursuit of the Peace Testimony. Morrison also became part of an aggressive letter-writing campaign, arguing publicly against the war. Like Henry David Thoreau in the nineteenth century, Morrison engaged in tax resistance as a mean to protest the war.[47]

Morrison was at home among activists. Among his friends Morrison counted fellow Quaker Staughton Lynd, who was already working with Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society. [48]   Morrison had hoped to demonstrate with Lynd, David Dellinger and Robert Moses during an August 9, 1965 march, though he could not attend due to commitments to attend Yearly Meeting (which was not only a religious consideration but also connected to his job). [49] Supporting the demonstration was a more controversial stand than many Quakers were willing to take.

Thus, when Morrison went to the Pentagon and burned himself, he was fusing different ideas. His death expressed belief in Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly’s new Quaker theology, and it was the start of direct action that violated law in the name of the Peace Testimony. Morrison’s decision also resulted from his personal journey, and an expression of liberal Quaker tradition.

Shortly after Morrison’s death, Quaker Life, the periodical of FUM (and moderate Quakerism), made their only reference to Morrison’s act. Predictably the moderates of FUM had little patience for Morrison’s actions. On the editorial page, editor Xen Worden Harvey expressed concern about what any discussion of self-immolation might do to “people whose mental health is marginal.”  Harvey asked, “what will the advertising of self-immolation, either through condemnation or praise, do to these people?” He concluded by stating that the periodical “would like to let discussion of such fade away.”[50] Quaker Life would not mention Morrison again.

The viewpoint from Friends Journal, the periodical of FGC (who were liberal Quakers), was different. While they were not uncritical of Morrison’s actions, they saw it as an act of great theological significance.  In the first issue after Morrison died, the front page quoted peace advocate Norman Cousins in reference to both Morrison’s act and theologian Paul Tillich’s death, saying that:

Although a man may have no jurisdiction over the fact of his existence, he can hold supreme command over the meaning of existence for him. Thus, no man need fear death; he need fear only that he may die without having known his greatest power- the power of his free will to give his life for others.[51]

The issue devoted most of its coverage to portraying Morrison positively.  In introducing the articles in the issue, the editors admitted some Friends were angry with Morrison for the finality of his self-immolation and for exposing the Religious Society of Friends to outside scrutiny.  They concluded that, “In general, however, Norman Morrison's sacrifice of his life in support of his beliefs seems to have stirred many to an agonizing reappraisal of their own concerns [about Peace and American policy in Vietnam].” The editors implied that Morrison’s death was a call for Quakers to rethink how they were “living for peace.”[52]

The praise was not unanimous, as the periodical did feature a single letter to the editor that suggested Morrison’s action was immoral because he did not consult with his Meeting for Worship, as the writer suggested a proper Quaker should, and because his action began secretly. Yet almost everything else in the issue portrayed Morrison with a degree of veneration. Among other content, Friends Journal published a poem about Morrison’s death, a list of religiously minded queries that the death had raised in the mind of one Quaker, and a brief biography of him authored by Morrison’s widow, which seemed to aim at inspiring its audience.[53]

Perhaps most telling was the fact that the Friends Journal chose to publish some of Morrison’s own brief writing on Quakerism. Entitled “Two Drops of Water,” the piece discussed German mystic Jacob Bochme, in whose writing the titular drops, “though small,” were “members of a vast ocean, and there is no life for them unless they spend it to get back to the vast ocean through the tiny rivulet of their present existence.” Morrison used this example to illustrate the foolishness of self-interest; he observed, “no religion could long endure a hero whose goal was the personal satisfaction of his cause.”  It remained unclear in the piece whether the hero that Morrison was referring to was himself or Jesus Christ.[54]

Morrison’s comment suggests that he viewed a call to protest as a mystical as well as political experience, one tied to a rational and coherent system of Divine. By publishing the piece, Friends Journal validated Morrison’s act, effectively asserting that Morrison was not mentally ill when he killed himself.  Rather, Friends Journal’s response cast Morrison as a man willing to fully express his faith, a Quaker with important theological guidance for readers. It is difficult to state the enormity of this choice.  Unlike the Quakers of the nineteenth century, who risked disownment for political action, Morrison was perceived by liberal Quakers as theologically important precisely because of his extreme political actions.[55]  

After Morrison’s death, Quaker political action would become more confrontational, and liberal Quakers became a visible presence in the anti-war movement.  Quakers increasingly drew connections between Morrison’s death, Quaker spirituality and antiwar activism. At his memorial service at Stony Run Meeting House Henry E. Niles, a Quaker active with the AFSC, announced “It is a Quaker tradition to follow the Inner Light and do what one truly believes is right for him to do even in the face of misunderstanding. Norman followed this tradition.” Niles then declared that Morrison’s example showed Quakers that they should devote their lives to challenging the immorality of the American government. In a press release for the CNVA A.J. Muste, chairman of the Committee and himself a Quaker, called Morrison a “Quaker leader” and demanded Americans “heed the call issued by Robert LaPorte, Norman Morrison and Alice Herz, and put away lethargy and conformity” to resist the war in Vietnam.  When Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd wrote a book about a controversial visit to North Vietnam in 1966, they prefaced it with quotes from Morrison about spirituality.[56]  

That same year, A Quaker Action Group (AQAG) was formed, designed to provide a more radical counterpart to the AFSC.  Some of its members attracted a great deal of attention by sailing a ship filled with medical supplies to North Vietnam. Many of AQAG’s members would go on to be involved in the Movement for a New Society (MNS), a Quaker-inspired pacifist communitarian movement.  Monthly Meetings sheltered draft resisters. The Cambridge Meeting held a Meeting for Worship lasting eighteen days to protest the arrest of an AWOL solider, an event in which they were aided by the activist organization, the New England Resistance. [57] Even AFSC flirted with direct action and demanded an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam.[58] Morrison’s death had opened the door to radical action. 

Of course Morrison’s self-immolation was not the only factor in the shift to direct political action. Obviously, escalation of American military activity in Vietnam promoted protests, and other denominations also were becoming radicalized. But Morrison’s death was hard for liberal Quakers to ignore.  It unleashed powerful sentiments that otherwise may never have surfaced.

Morrison has been overlooked by scholars of Quakerism until now for many reasons. For Quakers, the sentiments surrounding his death could be painful.  In 1998, a group of Friends convened a conference at Pendle Hill to discuss these old wounds, a discussion that revealed that some still have not quite healed from the shock of Morrison’s protest. Anne Morrison Welsh’s 2008 memoir, Held in the Light, was another step in this healing process. As memories of Morrison’s act of protest are shared, scholars must start the serious work of understanding how Morrison’s self-immolation, and reactions to it, were profound moments of transformation in Quaker history.

The Hebrew Scripture speaks of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, thrown into the fiery furnace and surviving due to their faith. Unlike the figures of scripture, Norman Morrison did not live through the fiery trial to which he had subjected himself, but his faith did emerge from the flames. Liberal Quakers took notice of Morrison’s witness. They believed that Morrison’s life had shown the truth of Thomas Kelly’s famous paraphrase of the Book of Hebrews, “it is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of a living God.”[59]


[1] Richard Lundquist quoted in “War Critic Burns Himself To Death Outside Pentagon,”New York Times, November 3, 1965.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sallie B. King, “They Who Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist Self-Immolators during the Vietnam War,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (January 1, 2000): 127–150.

[4] Anne Morrison Welsh and Joyce Hollyday, Held in the Light : Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and His Family’s Journey of Healing (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008), 41.

The anxiety over the threat of nuclear war was not uncommon during this period. This was only two years removed from the Cuban missile crisis. American fiction on television, in cinema and in print in works such as The Twilight Zone, Alas Baylon, A Canticle for Leibowitzand On the Beach, portrayed such a conflict as not only likely, but cataclysmic.See: Tom W. Smith, “A Report: Nuclear Anxiety,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 52, no. 4 (December 1, 1988): 559; Rick Worland, “Sign-Posts up Ahead: ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘The Outer Limits,’ and TV Political Fantasy 1959-1965,” Science Fiction Studies 23, no. 1 (March 1, 1996): 108–110.

[5] Morrison’s death has been a particularly fruitful source of poetry. Probably the best known poem about his death is “Emily, My Child” by Vietnamese poet To Huu, written shortly after Morrison’s death. Anne Morrison Welsh in her memoir provides a translation of this poem and a number of other notable poems. See: Anne Morrison Welsh and Joyce Hollyday, Held in the light : Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and his Family’s Journey of Healing (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008), 101-105; Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 360.

[6] Special to The New York Times, “Colleagues Stunned by Quaker’s Self-Immolation; Tactic ‘Unprecedented’ in the Society,” New York Times, November 4, 1965, h; “Pacifist, Tot in Arms, Dies by Fire Outside Pentagon,” Boston Globe, November 3, 1965; “Tells Why Quaker Burned Self: Mate Haunted by Priest’s Story, Widow Says,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1965; Ted Sell, “Man’s Fire Suicide Laid to Viet Civilian Deaths: Pacifist Concerned During His Last Hours Over War’s Toll, Quaker Friends Say Suicide,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1965; “Tells Why Quaker Burned Self”; “Quaker Holding Girl Dies as Human Torch,” Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1965.

[7] Charles DeBenedetti and Charles Chatfield, An American Ordeal : The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990); Melvin Small,Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith : Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); Paul Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead : Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

Perhaps the oddest approach is from Cheyney Ryan, who wrote an article in part to express her anger that there has been more attention paid to Morrison, than Alice Hertz, who self-immolated prior to Morrison. She states this is because Hertz was a woman. This conclusion is rather spurious, as Hertz burned herself in Detroit, a location far less in the public eye than the Pentagon for the anti-war movement. Hertz left very little record of her life. The limited and conflicting nature of the sources on Hertz life is demonstrated by Ryan’s scholarship, which incorrectly identifies her as a Quaker.  See: Cheyney Ryan, “The One Who Burns Herself for Peace,” Hypatia 9, no. 2 (April 1, 1994): 21–39.

[8] LaPorte’s self-immolation’s and it’s connection with Catholicism certainly merits further study. It is unclear exactly what influence Morrison’s actions had on LaPorte’s death or on the direct action of later Catholic activists like the Berrigan brothers and the Cantonsville Nine, which also used fire (in this case homemade napalm) as a tool to oppose the Vietnam war.

See: Jason Bivins, The Fracture of Good Order Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 115-151; Anne Klejment and Nancy L. Roberts, American Catholic Pacifism: The Influence of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), 161-162 .

[9] Welsh and Hollyday, Held in the light, 55.

[10] King,“They Who Burned Themselves for Peace.”

[11] Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism(Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2011), 34-39.

[12] The most significant of these other divisions was that the Orthodox split into Gurneyites and Wilburites, though often the term Orthodox was still used (especially to describe Gurneyite meetings). Gurneyites notably had an intense internal feud between Renewalist and Revivalist factions.  Other Quaker branches included the Progressive Friends, Conservatives, Beanites and a number of unaffiliated meetings. See: Thomas D. Hamm, The Quakers in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Hugh Barbour and Jerry William Frost, The Quakers, 2nd Edition (Richmond, IN: Friends United Meeting Press, 1988).

[13] Guy Aiken, “Beyond Liberalism: Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly and the History of Liberal Religion,” Quaker Theology 11, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 75.

[14]Sadly there is no coherent single volume history of the AFSC. Historian Allan W. Austin has rightfully pointed to the need for such a history.  See: J William Frost, “‘Our Deeds Carry Our Message’:  the Early History of the American Friends Service Committee,” Quaker History81, no. 1 (Spr 1992): 1–51; Allan W. Austin, Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950, 1st Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2012); Thomas D. Hamm, “The Elephant in the Room: The American Friends Service Committee and the Society of Friends in the Vietnam War Era,” (unpublished presentation paper, 2000); Larry H. Ingle, “The American Friends Service Committee, 1947-49: The Cold War’s Effect,” Peace and Change 23, no. 1 (January 1998): 27–48.

[15] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 370.

[16] Patricia Appelbaum, Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture Between World War I and the Vietnam Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 39.

[17] Nat Hentoff, Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste (New York: A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, 1982); Peter Brock and Nigel Young, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 24,31.

Perhaps the most known Quakers involved with the Fellowship of Reconciliation were Harry Hodgkins, who founded the British Fellowship of Reconciliation, A.J. Muste, who was executive director of the American branch, and Bayard Rustin, who eventually left the American branch after he was arrested for his homosexuality.

[18] Allan Kohrman, “Respectable Pacifists : Quaker Response to World War I,” Quaker History 75, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 35–53; Margaret Hope Bacon, Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 45.

[19] Guenter Lewy, Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 1-56.

[20] David Elton Trueblood, “Plain Speech- The Quaker Peace Testimony,” The American Friend, November 15, 1956, 361.

[21] Isaac May, “The President’s Friends and Foes: Richard Nixon and the Divisions of American Quakerism,” Quaker History 102, no. 1 (Spring 2013).

[22] Anne Morrison Welsh, “Norman Morrison: Deed of Death, Deed of Life,” in Friends and the Vietnam War, ed. Chuck Fager (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1998), 126–148, 137.To write about Morrison’s background requires making inferences based on his interaction with the surrounding religious culture. Other scholars have used similar inferences to draw conclusions about other historical figures, so this is not a departure from the standard methodology of a historian.  See, for example: Martha Hodes, The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006);Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Eerdmans Pub Co, 2003). 

[23] Anne Morrison Welsh and Joyce Hollyday, Held in the light : Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and his Family’s Journey of Healing (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008), 16, 22-23.

[24] “Friends Committee on National Legislation Personnel Experience Record for Norman Morrison,” February 23, 1959, Morrison, Norman R., 1933-1965, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

[25] Samuel R. Levering, “Samuel R. Levering to Norman Morrison,” January 20, 1959, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

[26] Ibid., 25-27.

[27] Nicholas Fassenden and Helen Fassenden, “A History of Stony Run, 1890-1992,” inMinute by Minute: A History of the Baltimore Monthly Meetings of Friends Homeward and Stony Run, ed. Barbara C. Mallonee, Jane Karkalits Bonny, and Nicholas B. Fessenden (Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, Homeward and Stony Run, 1992), 222-223.

[28] Ibid, 223.

[29] Rufus Jones quoted in  Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, 365.  For Jones’ view on early Quaker history and the ensuing historiographical controversy see: Carole Dale Spencer, Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism: An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2007); Melvin B. Endy, “The Interpretation of Quakerism : Rufus Jones and His Critics,” Quaker History 70, no. 1 (Spr 1981): 3–21; Pink Dandelion, The Creation of Quaker Theory : Insider Perspectives(Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

[30] Rufus Jones, The Faith and Practices of the Quakers (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2007), 20.

[31] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 227-268.

[32] Welsh and Hollyday, Held in the Light, 50.

[33] Ben Pink Dandelion’s book, despite its deceptive title, is probably the best compressive look at Quaker theology. Wilmer A. Cooper’s work on this subject, while valuable, is heavily influenced by his strong attachment to a Christ and scripture centered Quakerism.  See: Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith: An Historical and Comparative Study of Quaker Beliefs, 2nd ed. (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2000), 15-31.

[34] Anne Morrison Welsh with Joyce Hollyday, Held in the light : Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and his Family’s Journey of Healing (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008), 19.

[35]Norman Morrison quoted in Welsh, “Norman Morrison: Deed of Death, Deed of Life.”130, 138.

[36] Schmidt, Restless Souls, 244-245.

[37] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: HarperOne, 1941), 12, 14, 20, 28, 30.

[38] Ibid, 41, 37.

[39] Ibid, 40, 35,38, 46, 13.

[40] Ibid, 47.

[41] Thomas Kelly quoted in Lawrence Scott, “Nothing Matters, Everything Matters: A Meditation Spoken by Lawrence Scott at the Memorial Service for Norman Morrison,” November 21, 1965, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

[42] Norman Morrison quoted in Alice Steinbach, “The Sacrifice of Norman Morrison,” The Baltimore Sun, July 30, 1995, Accessed March 28, 2013.

[43] Norman Morrison, “Norman Morrison to Samuel R. Levering,” January 5, 1959, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

[44] Liberal Quakers were unlikely to believe in the Virgin Birth because they accepted the historical critical approach to reading the Bible.

See: Cooper, A Living Faith, 11-12.

[45] Ibid, 24, 27.

[46] Fassenden and Fassenden, “A History of Stony Run, 1890-1992,” 221.

[47] Welsh and Hollyday, Held in the Light, 41; Welsh, “Norman Morrison: Deed of Death, Deed of Life,”128.

[48] Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden, The Other Side (New York: New American Library, 1967), I, 5.

[49] Welsh, “Norman Morrison: Deed of Death, Deed of Life,” 128.

[50] Xen Worden Harvey, “Editorial- Self-Immolation,” Quaker Life VI, no. 12 (December 1965): 387.

[51] “Cover,” Friends Journal 11, no. 22 (December 1, 1965): 579.

[52] “Norman Morrison,” Friends Journal 11, no. 23 (December 1, 1965): 580.

[53] Jeanette S. Michener, “In Memoriam: Norman R. Morrison,” Friends Journal 11, no. 23 (December 1, 1965): 581; Anne Morrison, “Deaths: Norman R. Morrison,” Friends Journal11, no. 23 (December 1, 1965): 596.

[54] Norman R. Morrison, “Two Drops of Water,” Friends Journal 11, no. 23 (December 1, 1965): 582.

[55] Perhaps the most famous example of nineteenth century Quaker disownment for political action was when Indiana Yearly Meeting disowned many of its outspoken anti-slavery members for being overzealous and cooperating with non-Quakers in anti-slavery work.

[56] Henry E. Niles, “Norman R. Morrison: Remarks at Memorial Service,” November 6, 1965, Swarthmore College Peace Collection; A.J. Muste, “Statement on Self-Immolation,” 1965, Swarthmore College Peace Collection; Lynd and Hayden, The Other Side, I.

[57] Jeremy Mott, “Plenary Presentation: From Protest to Resistance- The Quaker Peace Testimony During the Vietnam War,” in Friends and the Vietnam War (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1998), 167–187.

[58] Guenter Lewy, Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 28-45.

[59] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, 30. This is of course drawn from Hebrews 10:31, where “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.” (KJV)