meaning and origin of the phrase ‘peaceable kingdom’



one of the versions of The Peaceable Kingdom (circa 1834), by Edward Hicks
image: National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)



The expression peaceable kingdom, in the sense of a state of harmony among all creatures as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, 11:1-9, first appeared in the King James Version (1611):

                                                                    CHAP. XI.
          I The peaceable kingdome of the Branch out of the root of Iesse. […]
1 And there shall come foorth a rod out of the stemme of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his rootes.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest vpon him, the spirit of wisedome and vnderstanding, the spirit of counsell and might, the spirit of knowledge, and of the feare of the Lord:
3 And shal make him of quicke vnderstanding in the feare of the Lord, and he shall not iudge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprooue after the hearing of his eares.
4 But with righteousnesse shall he iudge the poore, and reprooue with equitie, for the meeke of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rodde of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
5 And righteousnesse shalbe the girdle of his loynes, and faithfulnesse the girdle of his reines.
6 The wolfe also shall dwell with the lambe, and the leopard shall lie downe with the kid: and the calfe and the yong lyon, and the fatling together, and a litle child shall leade them.
7 And the cow and the beare shall feed, their yong ones shall lie downe together: and the lyon shal eate straw like the oxe.
8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the aspe, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice denne.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountaine: for the earth shall bee full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters couer the sea.

However, in Fennes frutes, published in 1590, Thomas Fenne had used peaceable kingdom without reference to the Bible:

The miserable calamities, and lamentable distresses of bloudie Battaile and ruinous Warre, with the vnspeakable mischiefes that consequently followeth disdainfull enuie.
The olde prouerbe saith, ‘Dulce bellum inexpertis, sed acerbum experientibus.’ ‘Warre is sweete and pleasant to the vnskilfull and ignorant, but bitter and vnsauerie to the skilful.’ Yet notwithstanding, although war be most fierce and cruell, yet is it stoutly to be maintained against the vnsatiable and inuading enemie, and with might and maine to be folowed, to the beating downe and suppressing of such spitefull foes, as are euer ready prest and bent to disturbe a quiet and peaceable kingdome, & being blinded with auarice, doe right soone consent to lamentable slaughters and effusion of bloud.

In any case, peaceable kingdom came to designate a realisation of the state of harmony prophesied in the Bible, as posited in utopian theologies, particularly that of the Religious Society of Friends, known as the Quakers. In Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century (2001), Meredith Baldwin Weddle quotes the following:

   A Testimony From Us (in Scorn Called Quakers, But Are) the Children of the Light
From our mens-Meeting att Rhode-Island att Joshua Coggeshalls the Day above dated.

This is our Testimony unto all people, that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is come near in us, & we brought near in Measure to God in it, being reconciled (therein) to God, walking in the Light with him, in unity where our fellowship one with another is, & the Blood of Jesus Christ Sprinckleth our Consciences dayly, & preserveth us from dead Works, that we serve our God, (even the Liveing God) in newness of Life, & in this his peaceable Kingdom we live, where Strife, Envy, Pride, Covetousness, are not; Fighting, Killing Blood-shed Murther with Carnall Weapons, rendering Evil for Evil, are not; Revenge, Robbing for Conscience sake; watching with Guns or Swords to kill the Bodys of Men, though Enemies; Offending, or defending with Carnal weapons of what sort soever to preserve att Liberty Body or Estate are not: for all these things are in the Darkness, Satans Kingdom, which already is past, & Ended; & Humility, Charity, Brotherly Kindness, Peace, & Love are: Faith, Hope, watching for the good of all, & good will towards all, both Friends & Enemies are: Wisdom, & Life Eternall, with the peaceable Fruits of Righteousness, are by all of us possest, who walk in the Light, & are led by Gods Spirit into Obedience to Christ Jesus our Lord & King, in whom wee have believed to the Salvation of our Souls, & by whom we have been Kept & preserved, clean & Liveing to God, in many great Tryalls inwardly & outwardly, & through whose Power we hope to be upheld to the End, Liveing & true Witnesses to the Life of Innocency, to the Gospel, & Kingdom of Peace, & Christ Jesus the Prince of Peace: but against the Murthering hurtful Spirit, Blood-shed, warrs outward, killing men or women; Gods workmanship, Death & him which hath the power thereof the Divel: & in the End, lay down our Heads with God, injoying the fullness of Peace in his blessed Presence, for ever, and evermore.

The expression has become a name for Canada. This originally referred to the discussion by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye (1912-91) of The Peaceable Kingdom, a painting by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), an American member of the Religious Society of Friends. This discussion appeared in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English (1965), edited by the Canadian literary historian Carl Frederick Klinck (1908-90). In the introduction to Canada: A Guide to the Peaceable Kingdom (1970), the Canadian historian William Kilbourn (1926-95) writes:

To identify that which is most essentially Canadian in our literature, Frye recalls a painting, ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’, which depicts a treaty between Indians and Quakers, and a group of animals – lions, bears, oxen – illustrating the prophecy of Isaiah; it is a haunting and serene vision of the reconciliation of man with man and man with nature. Frye suggests the Canadian tradition as revealed in literature might well be called a quest for the peaceable kingdom.

The following is the beginning of The Myth of the “Peaceable Kingdom”: Interpretations of Violence in Canadian History, by J. A. Frank, Michael J. Kelly and Thomas H. Mitchell, published in Peace Research (Canadian Mennonite University – September 1983):

If there has been any consistent theme in Canadian traditions it is that the country has been spared significant social conflict and violence due to its unique political culture. The idea has been promoted that Canada has always been a tranquil and pacific society – through a process of compromise and peaceful debate. Contrary to the tumultuous republic to the south, Canada is a counter-revolutionary society and a “peaceable kingdom.” ¹
¹ Seymour Martin Lipset, Revolution and Counterevolution: Change and Persistance [sic] in Social Structures, New York, 1968.

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