Penn, who’d been a soldier, was now a bit of a dandy, and at the time dandies like soldiers wore swords. Penn was converting to Quakerism. He asked Fox what he should do with his sword.
Fox told him to “wear it as long as thou canst.” Fox thought Penn should decide for himself.
As the story goes, Penn did lay down his sword.
Quakers nowadays don’t think the story is true. But it gets told often, a pacifist message of laying down arms and a spiritual message about following an inner light as opposed to social dictates.
I’m struck (and embarrassed) by how often I look over my shoulder to see if others approve of me and my behavior. How much energy do I expend anticipating what I cannot know?
Of course, being human, a social creature, it makes sense that I care what others think. We wouldn’t be a society – there wouldn’t be a Society of Friends – if we consistently disregarded others’ views.
Indeed, Quakers are famously intolerant of carrying armaments, despite our joy in repeating the apocryphal story about Penn’s sword. Quakers believe in social force, collective will.
I don’t think the story is about the sword. Or even about going one’s own way, regardless of the group.
It expresses a Quaker value in discernment: not following or not not-following forms mindlessly, but mindfully choosing what one does and doesn’t do. And for Quakers that is not entirely an individual process.
Humans are social and individual, conforming and creative, collective and individual. The story about Fox and Penn speaks more to the latter side of our natures than the former.
The story emboldens us to think for ourselves. The story also concludes with Penn laying down his sword and thus conforming with Quaker practices.
I’ve never carried a sword. I’ve only ever seen swords in museum cases.
When I was a kid I wanted to carry and use a gun and hunt with my grandfather and father. I owned and even hunted with an air rifle.
I belong to a growing number of people who believe guns should be regulated – not banned or eliminated, but controlled and monitored. We monitor births and deaths, why not do at least the same for guns?
Guns are the swords of today. But I don’t think the story about Penn and Fox speaks to gun control, not anyway to public policy about swords or guns.
It speaks to the importance of being personally mindful about the swords we carry (whatever form they take) and not carrying them simply because others do, and not laying them down simply because others do.
The story urges us to be aware and awake and conscious of what we do.
(Photo above of a painting of William Penn at 22.)