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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter XIV. — Bell Fights for the Quakers

page 122

Chapter XIV.
Bell Fights for the Quakers.

The National Register—Conscription—Religions objectorsConscientious objectors—Is there a distinction?—Bell's victory and further difficulties with the Quakers.


On the question of conscription, as on several other questions, public opinion was in advance of either Parliament or the Government. The heavy casualties suffered by the New Zealand Army, and the injustice of the voluntary system in distributing the burden inequitably, made it increasingly obvious that the only fair method was conscription. But the members of Cabinet were slow to recognize the change going on in public opinion. As late as August 30, 1915, Sir James Allen, the Minister of Defence, said:

"We have no idea of conscription in our minds. I hope we shall never give it a thought. The spirit of the people is such that there will never be any need for conscription."

And even when Parliament called for the taking of a "National Register" in September, 1915, to ascertain the military strength of the nation, Massey declared that he was not a believer in compulsory service. But he added that, if it were a question of compulsory service page 123or defeat, "I do not believe there are many people who would hesitate. It would be compulsory service every time."

The result of the taking of the register showed that about 110,000 men were willing to enlist, but also that 34,386 declined to serve under any conditions.

"Up to this time there had been no difficulty in sending every two months the 1,800 men required to keep up the strength of the Main Force, but just before the end of the session the War Office requested that this number should be raised to 2,500. On October 12, 1915, the last day of the session, Allen announced that this request would be acceded to, and that the age of military service would be raised from forty to forty-five, and the minimum height reduced from 5 ft. 4 in. to 5 ft. 2 in."*

But the growing demand for conscription arose not so much from any shortage of volunteers, as from the realization that the burden was unfairly distributed.

Finally, a Bill to enforce conscription as being "the most just, the most democratic, the most scientific and the surest way to secure the necessary men and to win the War" was introduced in May, 1916. The only opposition came from the small Labour group, who said that over 60,000 men had enlisted under the voluntary system, and that New Zealand had done more in proportion to her population than any other Dominion. They also argued that there had been no proper conscription of wealth.

The Bill passed the Lower House by an overwhelming majority. In the Committee stages, Allen had proposed to allow a man to appeal on the ground page 124that military service was contrary to his religious belief, but this was rejected by the House.

However, the matter was not allowed to rest there. Bell seems to have held much stronger convictions on this question than any of his colleagues. The mere fact that public opinion and Parliamentary votes were hostile to the religious objectors, and impatient of their claim for exemption, only caused him to fight more strongly on their behalf.

In the Legislative Council, member after member of the chief religious sects denounced the religious objector as a coward and a shirker. It seems paradoxical that Bell, who openly disclaimed any religious faith, should be the champion of exemption. But whether he was right or wrong, it was characteristic of his indifference to popular opinion and his independence of thought. He proposed to the Legislative Council to allow a religious objector to appeal for exemption on the ground:

"That he was on August 4, 1914, and has since continuously been, a member of a religious body, the tenets and doctrines of which religious body declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any military service to be contrary to Divine revelation; and also that, according to his own conscientious religious belief, the bearing of arms and the performance of any military service is unlawful by reason of being contrary to Divine revelation. But the appellant must be willing to perform non-military work in New Zealand as required by the Government.

"I sincerely and honestly, and with all the force that I am able to give to it, support the clause which page 125I have drafted," said Bell. "I believe in it. I believe that it is right and just and I believe that the refusal of some such concession is a form of bigotry which those who use it are not conscious of, but which, if applied in other ways, would meet with their very deepest detestation."

In words of great eloquence which I have quoted in part elsewhere, but which are worth requoting more fully, Bell said:

"The people whom this clause invites Parliament to consider and excuse are people who are governed not by opinions in respect of which the majority of men can have any effect—they are guided—and let me say with deep regret that I am not one of those who can accept or be guided even in other matters by that which governs the men of whom I speak—but they for centuries have been guided by what they feel to be their Master's Word, and it is not the voice of men, or the ruling of men, or the majority of men, that can weigh with them against that conviction."

He insisted that there was a difference—"so great that the two subjects are not comparable"—between religious conviction and conscientious opinion. He appealed for the men

"who since the beginning of the seventeenth century have in evil times and good times consistently maintained the one and single position, who have suffered imprisonment and torture, and who, through all that, held, and now hold, the respect of the men who have tried to coerce them."

"I should be happy enough," he said, "to have the same guide or the same aid to my life as they have. They have, and hold by, and recognize their Master's page 126Word, and whatever laws we may make, and however we may require that the minority shall yield to the majority in matters mundane, we cannot, we are unable to compel men, morally or physically, who earnestly believe that their Divine Master has directed them to the contrary."

A member interjected: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Sir Francis Bell: "I do not agree with them or hold their faith. I do not believe that it is really the desire of any member of the Council to compel a man who in himself believes that he is guided and governed by a Divine revelation which requires him to disobey. If I am the author of this clause, I am the author of it because of that which I have already informed the Council."

By his earnestness and eloquence Bell induced an unwilling and reluctant Council to accept this clause. It is clear that his colleagues had no sympathy with his proposal and no belief in its merits, but they were over-borne by Bell's persistence and dominating personality.

But his next difficulty was that his own Ministerial colleague now recommended the House of Representatives to disagree with the proposal and the clause was rejected. Thereafter although repeated conferences were held between Managers from both Houses, and agreement appeared impossible, nevertheless Bell knew that, if he could only hold his Council firm to the decision he had imposed on it, the Government and the House must yield, as they dare not wreck a Bill of such importance. Finally, the clause became law, with a page 127modification which required any exempted religious objector to do "non-combatant" service (instead of non-military service), either in New Zealand or elsewhere, and including service in the Medical Corps or the Army Service Corps. Some exasperated members expressed the hope that non-combatant service would include building wire entanglements in "no-man's land," and other equally dangerous classes of work.

However, he had every reason to be proud of his dialectical triumph, for he had not only imposed his will on the Legislative Council, but successfully overrode his own colleagues and a hostile House of Representatives.

The reader may find it difficult to share Bell's view that there is any real logical distinction between the views of those who refused military service on religious grounds, and those who refused merely on grounds of conscience. Bell claimed that the difference is so great that "the two subjects are not comparable," but he did not elaborate the point. Are not all the arguments he advanced for the Quakers equally applicable to the conscientious objector? Both classes refuse to be governed by the opinion of the majority of men. Both are willing to suffer imprisonment and torture. There seems no reason why the religious objector should be considered more meritorious than the conscientious objector. As a matter of practical administration it might be more difficult for the conscientious objector to prove that his scruples had existed before the War broke out; whereas the Quaker could show his church membership as at the outbreak of the War or earlier. One is driven to assume that Bell was the unconscious but page 128successful advocate of long generations of Quaker ancestors, and that the call of the blood was too strong for him.


It is amusing to find that some years later another conflict arose with the Quakers in which even Bell questioned their good faith. The issue arose in a curious way. New Zealand in common with other countries was disturbed by a post-War influx of revolutionary extremists. Their numbers were not large, but they were very active and their language was violent.

As a means of affording some check to the activities of these emissaries certain provisions were inserted in the Immigration Restriction Bill, 1920. It was provided in the first place that every subject of the King should be required to take the oath of allegiance as a condition of his landing in New Zealand, whether as a visitor or otherwise, if he were over the age of fifteen. It was also provided that every person who was not a subject of the King should take an oath that he would observe the laws of New Zealand and do nothing which would be regarded as seditious if he were a subject of His Majesty.

The proposals aroused what Bell called "a great deal of fuss." There were three objections raised, and although only one of them emanated from the Quakers, the reader will be interested in Bell's reply to them all. "One objection," said Bell," is that a person should not be asked to say that he is going to be a loyal subject, and that we have no business to make such a requisition upon him. Well, any honourable member who remains of that opinion after the ex-page 129perience of recent years must be allowed to have it, as I am afraid it is almost hopeless to argue with him. "The second objection is that it will not do any good because we all know that people are ready to take the oath and then break it. With regard to a foreigner we have taken power if he breaks it to turn him out. But we cannot under this Bill turn out a subject of the King who does not abide by his oath of allegiance.

"A third objection is raised, oddly enough, by the Quakers. It is the first time I think that they have raised any objection in this country, and it for the first time raises a question of the good faith of the Society of Friends, for I should not have thought it was really raised for the purpose suggested on this occasion. I think all honourable members have had a copy of the circular which quotes the doctrine of some members of the Society of Friends, published in 1820, under which they were advised not to promise allegiance to anybody, because there might be another form of Government in power on the morrow, and what they had promised they had to abide by. All I can say is that the original difficulty of the Society of Friends throughout the Empire and here was that they were required to take an oath, and they were quite justified in their objection to an oath—that was upheld and provision was made for affirmation in lieu of oath. After that, John Bright and many other Quakers sat in the Imperial Parliament, and there are several who have also sat in our House here, from whom there has not been the slightest question as to their allegiance when they were required to affirm under the Constitution. Therefore I trust page 130that no one will take seriously the objection on the part of the Society of Friends in this case, although I have always for many reasons been ready to accept and act upon propositions put forward by that Society."

* Webb, Rise of Reform Party, p. 154.