Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019

The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.

Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.

I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.

One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed.

The early generations

From colonial times, the population of North American has always included significant numbers of people who by conviction believed they could not participate in war. These pacifists varied in how they believed those convictions should be applied to public policy, some actively engaged in seeking for governments to repudiate warfare, others focusing their energies primarily on encouraging those within their own faith communities to refuse to participate.

Pacifism established itself in the North American colonies when the British government granted William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a charter to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682 (see Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony, 1660-1914). The Friends had emerged as a distinct movement in Britain in the mid-1650s under the leadership of George Fox. Fox combined a close adherence to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a mystical sense of the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer’s heart, in the hearts of all other human beings, and in the broader creation.

The combination of placing the highest priority on the message of Jesus with the belief in the active work of the Spirit throughout the world inspired many Friends to affirm at the core of their faith the belief that all human relationships should be characterized by compassion, respect, and mutuality. This belief led them to repudiate warfare as a way for human beings to settle their differences.

In its early years, the colony of Pennsylvania operated under the leadership of people who were part of the Society of Friends. The colony sought to establish peaceable relationships with the Natives who were living within its borders. The colony also saw itself as a haven for other religious dissenters who shared similar values as the Friends, thereby becoming a pioneering political community that practiced genuine religious freedom and did not center its policies on the sword.

From the start, the colony of Pennsylvania lived with significant tensions between the ideals of its Quaker leadership and the realities of the broader colonial enterprise in North America not shaped by those values. In time, the numbers of colony residents who were not Quakers (or those of similar convictions) grew much larger than the population of Friends. In the face of growing conflicts with Natives in the western part of the colony, the Friends relinquish their leadership role by 1756.

During these 75 years, though, Pennsylvania became home not only for Quakers, but also a haven for a few other sizeable pacifist groups, most notably Mennonites and Brethren. The Mennonite tradition actually predated the Quakers by about 130 years. Its origins lay in the Swiss Reformation, specifically in Zurich. In 1525, a group of supporters of the early Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli set off on their own due to differences with Zwingli over the place of secular government in determining the types of reforms the church would pursue. The issue that came to the surface in this split was baptism—the “Brethren” became known as “Anabaptists” (re-baptizers) due to their rejection of infant baptism. To reject infant baptism was also to reject the entire institution of the state church and the assumption that church membership equaled national citizenship.

Presaging key Quaker convictions, the early Anabaptists took Jesus’ direct teachings as the center focus for their beliefs and practices, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. From very early, for most of the Anabaptists, the teaching of Jesus concerning love of enemies and turning from the sword led to a principled pacifism (see Gerald J. Mast and J. Denny Weaver, Defenseless Christianity: Anabaptism for a Nonviolent Church). Over the next several decades following the first Anabaptist baptisms in 1525, the beliefs about non-participation in war became one of the convictional pillars for these radical Christians. As the movement gained a strong foothold in Holland, a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons became an important leader, and ultimately most of the various Anabaptist groups took his name—“Mennonites.”

The Mennonites faced generations of harsh persecution in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Though Mennonite groups remain in those countries, many communities and individuals migrated to locales that offered them safety—including the Pennsylvania colony beginning in 1683. The state of Pennsylvania remains today the home of the largest concentration of Mennonite communities in the United States.

Early in the 18th century, a new movement arose in Germany, deeply influenced by Anabaptist convictions but remaining a distinct fellowship. Members of this emerging movement, numbering only in the dozens, migrated en masse to Pennsylvania not long after their emergence and in North America took the name Church of the Brethren. The Brethren, like the Mennonites and Quakers, had as one of their defining characteristics belief in non-participation in war. During the last few decades of Quaker rule in Pennsylvania, the Brethren and Mennonites offered what support they could—and welcomed the freedom to practice their faith (including the open commitment to pacifism).

Members of all three groups (sometimes called the Historic Peace Churches) in time moved to the west and south from Pennsylvania, establishing communities in other colonies. The war that marked the American colonies effort to break free from British control proved difficult for Peace Church members, and a number migrated to Canada to avoid the conflict. By and large, though, the pacifism of Peace Church members was respected by government and they were allowed to avoid military involvement. Their presence was significant enough that James Madison, in an early draft of the Bill of Rights following the Revolution, included a provision establishing the constitutional right for conscientious objection in the face of war. Ultimately, this right was not granted. As a consequence, those seeking provisions of conscientious objection in face of the military draft have continually needed to request that Congress include provisions for COs in the draft legislation.

The 19th century: The first peace societies and total war

In the early 19th century, the United States, the world’s pioneering democracy, became the home of numerous citizens’ groups, established for numerous reasons—some having to do with social justice, some with education, some with various other civic issues. In this ferment of activity, the world’s first non-denominational peace societies were formed (see Peter Brock, Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America).

These early peace societies were notable for a couple of reasons. They signaled the spread of explicit convictions about rejection of warfare beyond the Peace Churches (a significant potion of those engaged with the peace societies were Quakers, but many were not). These may be the first organizations in the world with the specific purpose of furthering political opposition to war as an instrument of state policy. As well, some elements of this small peace movement connected with some elements of the much larger anti-slavery movement. Prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was an outspoken pacifist as well and sought to hold the two movements together.

The peace societies remained small. As the abolitionist movement grew in strength and conflicts over the issue of slavery increased, the peace societies shrank even more and eventually more or less died out. Garrison himself struggled with the growing tensions between his desire for an end to slavery and his opposition to warfare. In the end, he never explicitly endorsed the Civil War, but his abolitionist convictions led him tacitly to accept the Civil War as an appropriate tool for achieving the end of slavery.

During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy imitated practices Napoleon had initiated half a century earlier and formally conscripted young males into their militaries. In the Union, the prominence of the Quakers especially led Congress to make provisions for conscientious objection. These provisions were somewhat ad hoc, the process did not satisfy either the Peace Church communities nor those who opposed conscientious objection altogether. However, those whose convictions led them to reject participation in warfare in principle were generally able to avoid fighting (see Lillian Schlissel, ed., Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967). And precedents were set that would inform future confrontations between principled pacifists and a warring American government.

The turn toward warism and the pacifist response

Following the Civil War the United States government did not decide put together a large military for about half a century. During that time, pacifist beliefs, especially among the Peace Churches, continued to be taught. However, without the test of actually facing the challenge of wars, the strength of the convictions likely weakened. In the broader society, some peace interests found expression in the emerging awareness of the need for strengthened international safeguards to provide alternatives for overt warfare, such as mediation and arbitration. This awareness was not generally linked with full pacifism.

The U. S., in general, continued to have the self-image of remaining aloof from “foreign military entanglements”—with the key exception of the decision by the McKinley administration at the end of the 19th century to enter the imperial age via the Spanish-American War and the subsequent annexation of several pieces in the former Spanish Empire, most notably the Philippines (which involved a clandestine war that left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and as many as 30,000 Americans dead). The Spanish-American War and its aftermath did lead to the emergence of anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States, sentiment that shortly would help fuel opposition to American participation in what came to be known as World War I.

As the nations of Europe started moving toward major conflicts, engendered in part by greatly expanded military spending, Americans tended to assume that the U.S. would remain neutral. Americans had a long tradition of noninvolvement in European wars. However, President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, had strong connections with Great Britain. After the formal war in Europe began in 1914, Wilson moved ever closer to a commitment to join the British and French. Finally, in 1917, the Americans took the big step and for the first time entered into a war in Europe as a formal belligerent.

The American entry into the war came after three long years of mostly devastating impasse between the two warring sides in Europe. Historians still don’t fully agree on the significance of the American involvement. Certainly, this involvement was brief, since the war ended in November 1918. The general consensus now seems to be that the American entry actually did play a major role, certainly at the least helping the Germans see that they simply did not have the resources to continue the war of attrition that the conflict had evolved into.

This brief experience with such a massive war served as a wake-up call for many peace-oriented Americans. As with the Civil War, draft legislation was passed and did make allowance for conscientious objectors, but in ways that were highly objectionable for many Peace Church people and other pacifists. Around 50,000 draftees claimed CO status. However, the policy required all those inducted to go into the military. Only then, as members the military, could the prospective COs seek to make their case. Their fate would be determined by military officials. Not surprisingly under these circumstances, over 80% of those who had originally sought CO status gave up and became regular soldiers.

The immensity of the war led to the formation of several important pacifist organizations during the war years or the time shortly after the end of the war. Four in particular will play major roles in the story of war resistance during the century to follow. Two of these groups were linked with specific peace church denominations—the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee. The other two sought a much wider membership—the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was formed just as the United States entered the war in 1917 (see Marvin R. Weisbord, Some Form of Peace: True Stories of the American Friends Service Committee at Home and Abroad). With the draft legislation, the Quakers desperately sought to find alternative forms of service that pacifist young men could perform as an alternative to going to war. By this time, the devastation in Europe was clear and so there was no lack of need for food distribution and medical care.

The AFSC sought to communicate to potential COs and inform them of the possibilities for alternative service and to garner the military’s acceptance of these alternatives. As the war ended fairly soon after the Americans joined, the AFSC programs barely got started. The most successful program was service in war zones as medics and ambulance drivers.

With the end of the war, American Quakers concluded that the work of AFSC would continue to be needed, especially immediately in postwar repair work. AFSC played a major role in the distribution of food in many parts of Europe, saving millions of lives. The AFSC also understood that part of their needed work would be to seek to revive awareness of the Quaker peace testimony for younger people. Many Quakers believed they had not been as prepared as they should have been for responding to the war when it arose. They saw a need to help their young men understand the Quaker peace testimony and respond to the war in light of it.

Many Mennonites also felt they were unprepared for this massive war when it came. In the aftermath of the war, they began to seek ways to help some of those who suffered the most from the war’s consequences. Mennonites tended to focus their energies on their own communities. One large Mennonite community with ties to many North Americans was the Mennonite community in the newly established Soviet Union.

So, North American Mennonites created a new organization to bring together Mennonites from their various branches into one “Mennonite Central Committee” (MCC) for the purpose of offering aid to the severely traumatized Mennonites in Eastern Europe, especially Mennonites suffering famine in the Ukraine. After a burst of activity offering aid to the Russian Mennonites, MCC remained relatively dormant for a number of years. World War II provided the catalyst for the reinvigoration of MCC, both as the central agency that would work with the U.S. government in providing for alternative service for COs and, more importantly in the long run, as the arm for the North American communities to provide a wide range of relief, development, and peace education and advocacy work (see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America).

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) had its origins among British pacifists (mostly Quakers) during World War I who issued a public statement making an explicitly Christian case for rejection of warfare. The FOR was formed in Britain in December 1914. An American FOR began in November 1915, and the International FOR was formed in 1919 (see Paul R. Dekar, Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation).

In its early years, the FOR drew its membership from four groups—many Quakers, Protestant Christians influenced by the Social Gospel movement that had emerged at the turn of the century (and was not itself committed to pacifism), participants in another new organization called the Young Men’s Christian Association, and participants in the women’s movement that had coalesced around the voting issue (another parallel organization with many members in common with the FOR that was formed at this time was the Women’s League for International Peace and Freedom).

The FOR grew rapidly following World War I, becoming the gathering place for many people who became disillusioned with war because of the less than satisfactory outcome of the Great War. Many leaders in American Protestant denominations (especially Methodist, Congregational, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian) affiliated with the FOR, giving it a prominent place in ecumenical interactions (see Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy).

Many pacifists during World War I and its immediate aftermath found themselves desiring an organization that would be more open to non-Christians than the FOR was in its early years. With the FOR’s blessing, an FOR member, Jessie Wallace Hughan established a new organization in 1921 initially called the Committee for Enrollment Against War. Over the next few years, the term “War Resisters League” (WRL) came increasingly to be used, and by 1923 was the group’s official name.

The WRL focused on providing moral support and guidance for people who had come to reject warfare in principle—especially people who did not have strong connections with religious communities. From near its beginning, the WRL’s declaration stated, very briefly, its core conviction: “War is a crime against humanity. I, therefore, am determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive for the removal of all the causes of war” (see Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963).

The other pacifist group that will play a major role in the story of pacifism in America also began in the aftermath of World War I, but in quite a different milieu. This entity, the Catholic Worker Movement, essentially got its start with just two people, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. They were Catholic lay people, Day a young adult convert and Maurin a French immigrant. The two met in the early 1930s in New York City, found themselves to be kindred spirits—Day deeply influenced by Marxism, Maurin by Franciscan personalism—with a deep concern for caring for suffering people in the depths of the Great Depression.

They began publishing a newspaper called The Catholic Worker and established houses of hospitality modeled somewhat after rescue missions but without the coercive religiosity. Day became the main leader for the movement. She felt it was essential for the Catholic Church to be involved in caring ministries that would provide a basis for a nonviolent kind of revolution in a time with much ferment in favor of not so nonviolent revolutions. So she sought to work closely with the Church and always endeavored to remain in positive relationships with the hierarchy.

Day’s theology remained fairly simple. She drew most centrally on the gospels (much more so than from Catholic natural law moral philosophy). From the beginning of her work with the Catholic Worker, she articulated a strong gospels-centered pacifist commitment. She insisted that the Movement as a whole be pacifist—especially as represented in the newspaper. Because of the obvious fruitfulness of the Worker’s service-oriented ministry, many Catholics, including bishops and cardinals, provided support and the Movement expanded greatly during the 1930s (Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America).

During the difficult years of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the rise of the war clouds that were soon to burst forth, these various strands of pacifist conviction in the United States grew stronger. As it turned out, they ended up in largely a defensive mode during the years of World War II (1941-5), but though each one faced a great deal of stress they emerged strongly committed to the way of peace and ready for positive action.

[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

  1. The roots of war resistance
  2. Pacifism in face of the “good war”
  3. Making peace through service
  4. The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
  5. Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
  6. Civil society and peacebuilding
  7. A pacifist agenda

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

9 thoughts on “Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

  1. The all too apparent moral decline of American foreign policy and American politics generally, starring members of congress making a opulent living off the obvious ruse that American troops are fighting to defend our freedom, has stripped US sponsored war efforts of whatever honor they may have had before WWII. One certainly does not have to be a pacifist to oppose the global war efforts of the US and the associated gross military expenditures. I may come to opposing militarism and violence in every context in the face of Nature’s/Humanity’s Way upon the Earth and “God’s” complicity in it, but I am inclined to give situational consideration until I better understand the violence of the Situation.

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