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Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Brief History of the Fellowship of Reconciliation

In between my posts on a biblical case for Christian pacifism, I am going to write some brief historical sketches of the major grassroots, contemporary peace organizations–with special concentration on religious, especially Christian, organizations and especially those in North America (because I know them best).  The “modern” peace movement began in Europe and North America in the 19th C.  In North America, a major root was the largely Christian movement to abolish slavery with its stronghold in the Northern United States, but also with Canadian participants, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act meant that runaway slaves were not safe until the reached Canada.  Although 19th  C. North America  had a Christian peace witness from Mennonites, Dunkers (now called the Church of the Brethren) and some smaller sects such as the Universalists, and the Shakers, the major Christian peace witness to the larger, ecumenical church at this time was by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) who made up a disproportionate amount of the leadership of the Abolitionist movement.

Because of the Quaker peace witness, many non-Quaker abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison (a white newspaper editor raised as a New England Baptist) and Frederick Douglass (a former slave, editor of The North Star, and lay-preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and Sojourner Truth (former slave and traveling preacher) were pacifists who hoped that slavery could be abolished without war–though some later, reluctantly endorsed the Civil War after Lincoln added the abolition of slavery to his war aims.  The evangelical preachers of the Second Great Awakening, including Charles Finney, Timothy Dwight Weld, Jonathan Blanchard, Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Stone-Campbell movement that today is divided into the Churches of Christ, (Independent) Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ) and others were also pacifists and crusaders against slavery, child labor, and for the rights of women.

Opposition to Pres. James Polk’s War on Mexico (1845-1848), which was a thinly disguised ploy to gain territory and to break the Missouri Compromise and spread slave states all the way to the West Coast, was found across the religious and political spectrum–not until the Vietnam War would an American War have such widespread opposition from the American people themselves.  That opposition produced the first U.S. peace societies, the beginnings of a widespread anti-war movement–one that grew again following the U.S. Civil War and which united political conservatives and liberals at the end of the 19th C. in opposition to the Spanish-American War (in which the U.S. took over the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico) and the Philippine-American War (in which the U.S. gained colonies in the Philippines, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Samoa).

In Europe, similar movements were growing in response to numerous 19th C. wars, including the British war in Burma, the revolutions against the Spanish throughout Latin America,  the Crimean War, the Savoy Revolt in India, the Boer War in South Africa, the British War in Afghanistan.  The beginnings of discontent with these long series of wars probably began with the 18th C. Napoleanic conquests.   In addition to Christian influences, the European peace movement drew from the growing body of international law in the 19th C. (with more institutions for international arbitration and law), and from two rival economic philosophies–the global free trade movement (wars disrupt business) and the various labor and socialist movements–both Marxist and non-Marxist versions (labor was likely to see most wars as exploitations of the poor by international capital).

Alfred Nobel, capitalist with a guilty conscience after inventing dynamite and making his fortune on munitions, was convinced at the turn of the century by his secretary Bertha Suttner (an author and activist in the peace movement) to make one of his Nobel Prizes in his will dedicated to peacemakers, bringing new prestige to the movement. 

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) was birthed with the First World War.   In the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia, and the quick choosing of sides by the European alliances, peace activists, especially Christian peace activists realized that a pan-European (and beyond that to Europe’s colonies around the world) could erupt.  In August of 1914 an international group of church leaders, clergy and laity, gathered in Switzerland to make a last ditch attempt to stop the war.  The conference had barely begun when word came that the fighting had begun–they were too late.  Conference attendants raced to rail stations to return to their home countries before the borders would be closed.  At a railway station in Germany, two of the conferees, a British Quaker named Henry Hodgkins (who taught philosophy at Queens College, Cambridge University) and a Lutheran minister named Friedrich Sigmund-Schulz (who was, astonishingly, chaplain to the Kaiser!) clasped hands and pledged that because they were Christian brothers they, personally, could never be at war and they would seek to work for peace between their nations, regardless of the policies of their respective governments!

Back in the U. K., Hodgkins quickly acted on his promise. He convened an ecumenical Christian conference at Queens College from which about 20 individuals declared that they could not conceive of God as a nationalist and that they would not agree to a moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount for the length of the war. From this meeting the British chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was born. 

Travel during wartime is uncertain, but a year later Hodgkins came to New York City and convened a meeting of interested pacifists at Union Theological Seminary in NYC that included some of the most influential theologians and ministers and laypeople of the day including Reinhold Niebuhr (who would, in the ’30s, break with the F.O.R. and forever after be a severely harsh critic of Christian pacifism), Ernest Lefevre (who followed Niebuhr’s break and then went further and became a neoconservative!), John Haynes Holmes (prominent Unitarian minister), Jesse Wallace Hughes (prominent labor leader who would later found the more secular War Resisters’ League), and others. 

In Germany, Rev. Sigmund-Schultz’s opposition to war and the Kaiser’s war aims quickly led to loss of his position as the Kaiser’s personal chaplain.  He was soon imprisoned until 1917.  Upon release from prison, Rev. Sigmund-Schultz founded the German chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Internationaler Versöhnungsbund, which is a thriving branch of the F.O.R. today.  After Hitler’s rise to power in the ’30s, Sigmund-Schultz was an early outspoken critic and died in a concentration camp.

In 1919, after the war ended, the F.O.R. created an International branch (IFOR), headquartered first in Switzerland and today in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.  There are today 85 national branches of IFOR, on every continent on the globe.  The International Fellowship of Reconciliation and some of its national member branches (including the U.S. branch) have broadened from being ecumenical Christian organizations to interfaith pacifist organizations (but still religiously based).  Other branches, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation in England (F.o.R. E.) are still specifically Christian, perhaps in reaction to the strong secularization of that nation.

The F.O.R. and its various branches have been involved in nonviolent struggles for justice and peace throughout the twentieth century until today.  They were early supporters of Gandhi’s work in South Africa and then India and helped to plant FOR branches among the Gandhians while learning Gandhian nonviolence theory and adding it to their religiously based pacifism.  Six (6) prominent members of the IFOR have won the Nobel Peace Prize (Jane Addams, USA, 1931; Emily Green Balch, USA, 1946; Chief Albert Luthuli, South Africa, 1960; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., USA, 1964; Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Northern Ireland, 1976; Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentina, 1980) and literally hundreds of others have been nominated for it and hundreds of its members have won other peace and human rights prizes.  IFOR has nongovernmental status at the United Nations as it works to create a culture of nonviolence, peace, and justice.

In the U.S. branch of IFOR, as well as in the British branch and, perhaps others, many members also belong to religious peace fellowships specific to their faith or denomination, some more organically connected to the F.O.R. than others (e.g., the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Disciples Peace Fellowship, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, etc.)  There are also regional branches of the U.S. F.O.R.–I have served on the board of the Louisville Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation which meets monthly on the campus of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The U.S. branch of the F.O.R. has often spun-off other organizations during its various campaigns.  For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began when F.O.R. board member Roger Baldwin sought to protect civil liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution that were being trampled during World War I–especially the rights of conscientious objectors to war.  Likewise, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was founded by staff members of the F.O.R. during the 1940s, especially James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and George Houser–beginning with students at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  The F.O.R. was involved in the Civil Rights movment, the movement against nuclear weapons, to stop the Vietnam War (and every war thereafter), work to end the death penalty and work for prison reform, to end apartheid in South Africa, to free Burma from military rule, to end U.S. support of dictatorships, to work for women’s rights, labor rights, and, since the 1990s, the rights and equality of LGBT persons.  F.O.R. workshops on nonviolence in the Philippines laid the groundwork for the nonviolent people power revolution in the ’80s–and similar stories can be repeated around the world.

The F.O.R.’s role in various nonviolent campaigns and peace efforts has not usually been widely noted.  For instance, the role in the Civil Rights movment is mentioned in most history books, but seldom in any public celebrations of the achievements of that struggle.  But the FOR and its members have never been about getting “credit,” but about experimenting with the power of love and nonviolence and forgiveness as a force for personal and social change.

I have been a member since 1983.  Only recently returned from the U.S. army as a conscientious objector, I went twice to Nicaragua with the movement Witness for Peace, which aimed to stop the civil war and the Reagan-backed terrorists known as the Contras.  On my second trip unarmed into this war zone, most of the delegation happened to be members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which I had never heard. Upon my return to the states, I joined up and have counted my membership to be one of my deepest commitments.

The F.O.R. is not perfect and has made mistakes.  A major mistake, in my view, happened just after its birth.  As Paul Alexander shows in his Peace to War:  Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God, the early Pentecostals, especially the AoG, were pacifist and strongly opposed WWI. (They did not officially abandon pacifism until 1967.) But there was little contact with Pentecostals or other conservative Christian groups by the members of the F.O.R. at that time, who were mostly liberal, mainline Christians who looked askance at conservative groups.  That view has changed, but a major opportunity that would have strengthened both groups was lost.

Nevertheless, some of the strongest activists and theologians for peace have come from the ranks of the Fellowship of Reconciliation–and do so still.

Here is a partial list of famous members of IFOR or one of its branches:

  • Rev.  Paul Jones, Episcopal bishop removed from his diocese in Utah because of his pacifism and opposition to WWI.
  • Norman Thomas, Presbyterian minister turned union organizer and leader of the Socialist Party, USA.  Ran for U.S. president on a Socialist and  pacifist platform 5 times.
  • John Haynes Holmes, Unitarian minister.
  • Jane Addams.
  • Alfred Hassler, American Baptist leader.
  • Bayard Rustin, African-American Quaker, labor and civil rights leader–not as well known as others because he was gay in a time when that was literally illegal in most of the U.S.
  • James Farmer, Jr., African-American Methodist minister and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
  • Glenn Smiley, Methodist pastor and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • A. J. Muste, Congregationalist minister turned Quaker who led the F.O.R. through the middle of the 20th C.
  • Lillian Smith, Southern novelist.
  • G. H. C. MacGregor, Scottish New Testament scholar.
  • Andre Trocme, French Reformed pastor-theologian who led the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to hide 5,000 Jews from the Nazis, thus saving them from the Holocaust.
  • Dorothy Day, co-founder and motivating spirit of the Catholic Worker movement.
  • Clarence Jordan, radical white Baptist New Testament scholar who founded the interracial farming community known as Koinonia in South Georgia in 1942.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
  • John M. Swomley, Jr., Methodist theologian and ethicist.
  • Thomas Merton, Trappist monk.
  • Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Catholic priest, poet, biblical scholar, and radical anti-war activist.
  • Martin Niemöller, German Lutheran pastor who was held as Hitler’s personal prisoner during WWII.
  • Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher.
  • Maurice Friedman, Jewish philosopher, Buber scholar, and one of the founders of the Jewish Peace Fellowship.
  • Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentine sculpter, writer, and nonviolent activist who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Hildegard Goss-Mayer, German peace activist whose workshops on nonviolence in the Philippines sowed the seeds for its 1986 nonviolent revolution.
  • Elise Boulding, Quaker sociologist.
  • Howard Thurman, African-American mystical theologian.
  • Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Catholic laywoman and co-founder of the Irish peace movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
  • Cesar Chavez, Mexican-American labor and civil rights leader; co-founder of the United Farmworkers of America.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist priest, leader of the Buddhist nonviolent protest against the Vietnama war; nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Joseph Lowry, African American Methodist pastor and civil rights leader.
  • John Dear, S.J., Catholic priest, pastor, author, and nonviolent activist.
  • Rabia Terri Harris, founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship.
  • Walter Wink, United Methodist New Testament scholar.
  • John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian.
  • Vincent Harding, African American Mennonite historian.
  • Edwin Dahlberg, former president of the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches, USA) and the National Council of Churches, USA.
  • Walter Rauschenbusch, theologian of the Social Gospel (for the last year of his life).
  • Glen H. Stassen, Baptist ethicist.
  • George Edwards, Presbyterian New Testament scholar.
  • Jim Forest, founder of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
  • Barbra Deming, Quaker, feminist.
  • Albert Einstein, ‘Nuff said.
  • Rabbi Leo Beerman, rabbi of Temple Leo Baeck, Los Angeles.
  • Sami Awad, founder of Holy Land Trust and the Palestinian News Network
  • Rev. Rick Ufford-Chaise, Presbyterian minister, founder of BorderLinks, past-presiding officer of the Presbyterian Church, USA.
  • Rev. Glen Gersmehl, Executive Director of the Lutheran Peace Fellowship
  • Rev. Susan Mark Landis, Executive Director of the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network
  • Rev. Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce–using Gandhian and Kingian nonviolence to combat the spiritual oppression of LGBT folk in the church and society.
  • Charles Raven, Anglican theologian
  • H. H. Farmer, British NT scholar
  • Jean Lassere, French Reformed pastor and theologian and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
  • Danilo Dolci, the “Sicilian Gandhi” who faced Sicili’s Mafia with Gospel nonviolence.
  • Ibrahim Rainey, Imam and co-founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship
  • Joan Chittister, OSB, a Benedictine prioress.
  • Gene Sharp, Quaker and historian who has done more to analyze the “nuts and bolts” of nonviolence than anyone.

Far too many more to count.

November 8, 2009 - Posted by | church history, ethics, heroes, human rights., pacifism, peace, peacemaking

6 Comments

  1. A Universalist minister here. It would be hard to categorize the Universalists as a peace church, certain participants, like Adin Ballou notwithstanding, With respect to the Fugative Slave Act, academic Ann Lee Bressler makes a good case that the Universalist anti-slavery witness, while early, was not so deep as to distinguish it from other denominations. (We do distinguish ourselves in women’s rights.)

    Comment by Scott Wells | November 8, 2009

  2. Hi, Scott. I don’t think the Universalists were ever 100% pacifists (and certainly not after most of them merged with the Unitarians), but there were enough in the 19th C. that I think there were prominent Universalist influences in the emerging 19th C. peace movement–it’s been cited in several histories. Thanks for dropping by, Scott.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 8, 2009

  3. […] Because of the Quaker peace witness, many non-Quaker abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison (a white newspaper editor raised as a New England Baptist) and Frederick Douglass (a former slave, editor of The North Star, and lay-preacher … John Haynes Holmes (prominent Unitarian minister), Jesse Wallace Hughes (prominent labor leader who would later found the more secular War Resisters’ League), and others. In Germany, Rev. Sigmund-Schultz’s opposition to war and the …Next Page […]

    Pingback by Jamison’s Writing Blog » Blog Archive » A Brief History of the Fellowship of Reconciliation « Levellers | November 9, 2009

  4. Thanks for this, Michael. The lack of credit FOR has received is reflective of the general marginalization of pacifism in public discourse. Rarely has the breadth of pacifism at any point in history been noted, as the tendency is to see the official view of political and church leaders as the view of everyone. And even where some of those leaders have been pacifists, it is ignored. So, the more pacifist history like this that we can tell, the better.

    Comment by NJL | November 9, 2009

  5. Well, NJL, that is one of the missions of this blog. In fact, even before I started this blog in ’05, part of my work for Every Church a Peace Church was education in the history of pacifism. I wrote a series of columns known as Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence (which I hope to turn into a booklet). So, getting that out–telling marginalized stories, is one of my passions.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 10, 2009

  6. […] Christian peace groups).  In previous installments to this series, I sketched the history of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) (concentrating especially on the U.S. branch), and of the Women’s International League for […]

    Pingback by A Brief History of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) « Levellers | November 28, 2009


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