It’s time for another installment in my series of historical sketches of major grassroots peace and justice organizations, especially those with religious foundations (and, of those, especially 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 Peace and Freedom (WILPF). This time around, I’ll highlight the history of Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). (In future installments in this series, I plan to cover the Brethren-related On Earth Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee, denominational peace fellowships (especially where I have membership or a direct connection such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice, the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network and Methodists United for Peace with Justice), Pax Christi International (the Catholic peace movement), Witness for Peace (where I first put my new-found pacifism into practice in ’84), Christian Peacemaker Teams, Every Church a Peace Church (my employer for 3 years), Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Holy Land Trust, Black Voices for Peace (now defunct). Of the peace groups related to military veterans, I will highlight only Veterans for Peace since it’s members specifically commit themselves to nonviolence. Some other vocational or occupational groups I plan to highlight include Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and Human Concern. I’d also like to sketch a few faith-based groups from non-Christian religions, especially the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Muslim Peace Fellowship, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
For now, we turn to the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). As with groups in our previous installments (F.O.R. and WILPF), the AFSC began as a specific response to World War I. The Religious Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers) began as a Christian movement out of radical Puritanism in the mid to late 17th C. Although it’s founder, George Fox, seems to have been a pacifist since his conversion, the Friends as a whole did not adopt the Peace Testimony as a defining characteristic until 1660. Since that time, Friends have been a powerful force for peace and justice–making an impact well beyond their numbers. (There are less than 1 million Friends/Quakers worldwide–the majority in Africa.)
Especially in the U.S., the 19th C. was a troubling one for Friends–leading to several schisms between various Yearly Meetings. This fragmented the peace witness after the Civil War, but numerous Friends played key roles in the development of the international peace movement in the late 19th and early 20th C. When the U.S. decided to enter World War I, Quaker Meetings formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in order to give young Quaker men an alternative form of national service to war. During AFSC’s very first year of existence, it sent women and men to France (along with British Friends) where they worked and cared for children who were refugees because of the war. They also founded a maternity hospital, repaired and rebuilt homes destroyed by the war, and provided returning refugees with the necessities to rebuild their lives.
Over the years, AFSC has been open to hiring non-Quakers, but everyone associated with AFSC must share the Quaker belief in nonviolence and peacemaking rooted deep Quaker convictions about the dignity and worth of all persons (Quaker evangelists–called Publishers of Truth–were instructed to answer “that of God in every person”), in the power of love, service, and nonviolence, and in the ability of the Light (a biblical symbol of God) to speak to all people. Quakers see their responsibility in opposing war, militarism, and other systems of domination as a calling to “Speak Truth to Power.”
The AFSC continued its work after the end of WWI. Some major highlights from the early years (1917-1938) include:
- Feeding 1 million starving children in Germany and Austria in 1919.
- Feeding and reconstruction work in Poland, including buying 1000 horses from the Polish army to lend to farmers for plowing in 1920.
- Distributed food, milk, and clothing in famine relief in Russia in 1920-1921. (This work in famine relief saw the rise in leadership of a Friend in business named Herbert Hoover who went on to become U.S. president–and then see his famine relief experience prove fruitless during the Great Depression–though he remained convinced that the New Deal’s programs were the wrong answer.)
- 1925-1934, helped with poverty relief among Native Americans, African-Americans and immigrants in the inner cities, and poor whites in Appalachia.
- 1937, provided relief to both sides of the Spanish civil war.
- 1938, sent a delegation to Germany to rebuke the new Nazi government for its treatment of Jews and worked to get it to allow Jews to leave the country.
As WWII loomed near, Friends, along with Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, managed to get Congress to pass exemptions to the draft for conscientious objectors to war (although the law limited this to those whose pacifism was “based on religious instruction”) and for COs to perform “alternative service of national importance” in work camps run by the peace churches. Many other WWII -era Conscientious Objectors, religious and otherwise, went to prison, instead. During these years, the AFSC worked to try to maintain a consistent peace witness around the world in the midst of war.
- 1941, provided medical help to civilians on both sides of China’s civil war.
- 1942, provided alternative service for conscientious objectors to war in mental hospitals, conservation programs, and training schools. Provided relocation help for Japanese-Americans and worked to protect the property of Japanese-Americans interred for the duration of the war.
- 1943, sent food to relieve severe famine in India.
- 1944, led the reconstruction efforts in post-war Europe and Asia.
In 1947 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to both the AFSC and the British Friends Service Council on behalf of Quakers everywhere.
- As the Cold War began, the AFSC published Speak Truth to Power(1955) as a pacifist alternative to the arms race.
- 1961, sent volunteers to work in developing countries. This began earlier and, along with similar programs run by Brethren and Mennonites, was the inspiration for John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps program.
- Following the 1962 ceasefire between France and Algeria, AFSC worked in Algeria to develop garden and poultry projects, milk stations, and clinics to fight poverty-related diseases.
- 1965 –worked to place 7, 000 African-American children in previously all-white Southern public schools and pushed to keep school desegregation a front burner issue. (Friends had pioneered here. Even during the days of slavery, Friends schools were open to everyone. When segregation laws in many Southern states forbade teaching white and black children together, Friends founded numerous private schools for African-Americans because of the horrible quality of the state-run “Negro schools.” Rosa Parks attended such a Quaker primary school.)
- 1966, provided free medical aid to civilians in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and areas held by the NLF. (This led to official investigations of the AFSC by the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, no longer exists.)
And on and on it goes.
Today, the AFSC has programs seeking economic justice both globally and in the USA, programs on immigration rights, equality for LGBT persons, the Wage Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq and rebuild Iraq justly, a program to combat the militarization of American Youth (including counter-recruitment), work for fairer patterns of international trade, programs to end weapons build ups and the international weapons trade (especially work to end nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and work against weapons that mostly harm civilians, such as landmines), programs for debt cancellation and debt relief in Africa, a program for a just two-state peace in Israel-Palestine, reforming the U.S. criminal justice system (including abolishing the death penalty and ending police abuse).
A glance at these many programs shows that the AFSC’s peace witness is not just a negative peace (the absence of war or armed conflict), but a positive peace built on the presence of justice and human reconciliation.
UPDATE: For some reason I felt like reposting this appreciation of the Niebuhrs before writing the next section of my biblical case for Christian pacifism. I know, I know. A pacifist is not supposed to have good things to say about the ardent opponent of Christian pacifism, Reinhold Niebuhr. And someone influenced by an Anabaptist view of the church and its relation to wider cultures is not supposed to have much good to say about H. Richard Niebuhr, who (mis)labeled this perspective as “Christ against culture,” and helped so many write off Anabaptists off as “sectarians.” I share these and numerous other critiques of the Niebuhr family.
But as I was thinking about the history of 20th C. North American Christianity today, I realized what an amazing family the Niebuhrs were–and what a gift they were to the Church, flaws and all. Very few Christian families had so many members contributing so much to the Church and the world. ( The Wesleys come quickly to mind–including the parallel of the smarter younger brother overshadowed by the dominant older one–; the Booth family in the Salvation Army; father and son Thomas and Alexander Campbell; the Judson-Boardman family among American Baptists; the King family in National/Progressive National Baptist circles; the Poteat family among progressive white Baptists in the South–but only the Wesleys even approached the influence of the Niebuhrs.)
So, here is an appreciation of the Family Niebuhr by an Anabaptist-influenced Christian pacifist. Although I look forward to saying, “I told you so” about many things when meeting them in the Coming Kingdom (or not–presumably I’ll be cured of that sin), I would be foolish not to recognize the gifts God gave them for the Church universal and the way even their errors clarified terms of debate–a gift in itself.
Rev. Gustav Niebuhr (1863-1913). A minister and church planter for the German Evangelical Synod (today absorbed by the United Church of Christ), an American immigrant denomination created by the 1817 union of Reformed and Lutheran churches in Prussia (using the mediating Heidelberg Catechism), who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1881 at the age of 18. Gustav’s faith combined pietist evangelical commitments with openess to the new liberalism. He read Schleiermacher and Harnack, voted for Teddy Roosevelt, and studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. He was a vigorous leader in his denomination, planting churches in the West and Mid-west, pushing the small denomination to hold services in English (though the Niebuhrs spoke German at home) and to support a liberal arts college (Elmhurst) and a theological seminary (Eden) for an educated, progressive ministry. His influence on his family must have been profound since 3 of his 4 children went into the ministry. Gustav had his faults: He shared the patriarchal views of his era & he discouraged his daughter, Hulda, from pursuing higher education. (She did anyway.) He also played favorites with his children, driving the oldest son, Walter, away, favoring middle son, Reinhold, and being very cold to youngest son, H. Richard. And he treated his wife, Lydia, as a combination of unpaid co-pastor and domestic servant. But, despite these serious flaws, theology, music, learning, and service were values that flourished in his home and seem never to have left the family that bears his name. In 1902, Gustav took up his final parish, St. John’s Evangelical Church (now UCC) in Lincoln, IL, where Gustav also became an administrator of Deaconess Hospital. (See this article on the Deaconess Movement in 19th C. American Christianity.) He died unexpectedly in 1913 at age 50.
Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr (1869-1961). Little is known of her private life, but she served in numerous unpaid church positions throughout her husband, Gustav’s, ministry, and became the de facto unpaid co-pastor of the Detroit parish of her (then-bachelor) son, Reinhold. I think her influence was probably strongest on Hulda and H. Richard, but it was clear that she also influenced Gustav’s favorite, “Reinie.” The “Susannah Wesley” of the Niebuhrs, I wish I knew more about her. I suspect she was an amazing person and I would probably have liked her better than her husband. Unfortunately, like most women throughout history, she barely peaks out of the shadows of her husband and her famous sons. Lydia’s sister, Adele Hosto, was a consecrated Deaconess in the German Evangelical Synod and her father, Edward Hosto, was a missionary with the German Evangelical Synod.
Hulda Niebuhr (1889-1959). The oldest of the Niebuhr children and the only daughter, Clara Augusta Hulda Niebuhr was a pioneer far beyond the expectations of her father, who shared his generation’s views about women’s education and limited sphere beyond the home. Although Hulda was very bright, her father discouraged her from seeking education beyond high school since she “obviously wouldn’t need it.” When she graduated high school in 1906 (near the top of her class), she, at first, respected her father’s wishes. She followed her mother’s example and did unpaid church work in both her home church in Lincoln, IL (St. John’s Evangelical Church) and, later, her brother, Reinhold’s Detroit parish. But when her father died in 1913, Hulda decided to apply for college work. She earned an A.B. and M. A. at Boston University, and became one of the first 3 female assistant professors at B.U. in 1927. In 1928, she moved to New York City and began work on a Ph.D. at Columbia Teacher’s College (now part of Columbia University). She never completed her Ph.D., but became one of the earliest “Ministers of Education,” (actual title, Director of Religious Education) in the nation in 1930, serving in that capacity from 1930-1945 at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC. This was, as Hulda put it, the “practical work of the church.” During the years at Madison Avenue PC, Hulda wrote creative materials for use in Sunday School and published two books on how drama and story might be used in the education ministries of the churches. In 1945, the Presbyterian College of Education (associated with and now part of, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago) hired Hulda as Associate Professor of Religious Education. In 1953, Hulda Niebuhr became the first woman to hold the rank of full professor at McCormick Theological Seminary. She continued to pioneer in the field of religious education. She died in 1959 at age 70, having never married. She deserves to be more widely known, especially by advocates for women in ministry and by religious educators.
Walter Niebuhr, second child and firstborn boy, was a slight rebel, becoming the only surviving Niebuhr child not to become involved in church work. Although he remained a faithful Christian, he became a journalist and businessman–and was the financial savior of the family when Gustav died.
A second son and third child, name unknown, died in infancy–an all too common pattern in those days.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, 4th Niebuhr child and 3rd son, was father Gustav’s favorite and destined to become the most famous (and, for pacifists, infamous!) member of the Niebuhr clan. He was clearly, for both good and ill, among the handful of most influential theologians in 20th C. America. Born in Wright City, MO, Reinie emulated his father and decided early to follow him into the ministry. He was intellectually bright (but not brilliant like his younger brother), but more passionate than disciplined and he struggled with school. He was educated at Elmhurst College, the denominational college, not then qualified to give out baccalaureate degrees, functioning more like a German gymnasium (U.S. high school and first year college level) or what would later become a junior college level. From there, he attended Eden Seminary, which was, at the time, unaccredited and functioning more as a pastoral and missionary finishing school than a post-baccalaureate seminary. Reinie’s grades were good, but uneven, and he was surprised to find himself accepted at Yale Divinity School. He was intimidated by the cultured elite students at Yale, but he had an advantage over many: he was fluent in German. (In fact, he was more fluent in German than in English!) He finished his B.D. (equivalent to a modern Masters of Divinity) in 2 years and his professors encouraged him to pursue doctoral work, but Reinie was out of money.
In 1915, Reinie was ordained by his father’s church, St. John’s Evangelical Church, Lincoln and called as the pastor of a small mission, Bethel Evangelical Church–in the Detroit of Henry Ford. Bethel had 65 members when Reinie arrived and over 700 when he left in 1928. Thanks to his mother, Lydia, living with him and assuming domestic duties, plus serving in much of the routine work of the congregation, Reinie was able to become a very active, Social Gospel style pastor, even involving himself in the politics of the city. This experience was to shape the rest of his life and ministry. He became convinced that sermons telling rich bosses to love their workers more were ineffective. Justice would need stronger weapons. Although at this time a pacifist, he threw himself into the Labor struggle, though the labor movement was considered “violent” by most pacifists of that day. (They did not just view those labor actions which degenerated into riots as violent; most Christians, pacifist or not, saw the very act of striking or work slowdowns, etc. as violent. No wonder Reinie considered them naive.) He also, unlike many of the white Social Gospel ministers of the time, spoke out against racism and became partly influenced by Karl Marx (without the atheism and materialism). During this period of time, Reinie wrote one of his most famous (and most Marxist) books, Moral Man and Immoral Society which began his break from the Social Gospel and the formation of his school of “Christian Realism.” It also brought him to the attention of Henry Sloan Coffin, Presbyterian minister and President of the (once Presbyterian, then independent) Union Theological Seminary.
Coffin wanted to hire Reinie as Professor of Christian Ethics, but the faculty balked since he had no earned doctorate. So, Coffin raised Reinie’s salary from private donations and brought him on anyway. From 1928 until his retirement in 1960, Reinie taught at Union. Union became his base of operations from which he launched a flurry of writings (books, articles, newspaper articles, etc.), preached in pulpits across the nation and overseas, spoke at universities and in public fora and became one of America’s few public intellectuals. He broke with pacifism and the Fellowship of Reconciliation over Hitler’s rise to power and urged American entry into the War long before Pearl Harbor. But, unlike some militarists who claim his mantle today, Reinie remained profoundly aware of the limits of military power and the temptations of all nations, the U.S. definitely included, to idolatry and self-delusion. He wrote nearly a book a year, founded the Liberal Party of New York, was a Time “Man of the Year,” and founded two journals, Christianity and Society, and Christianity and Crisis. He has been considered the bane of theological liberals (though he admitted in old age to sharing more liberalism than he previously thought), pacifists of all stripes, fundamentalists and most conservative evangelicals, and “sectarians” (in his view) who took the church, rather than the nation-state, as the primary locus of the redeeming work of God. He has deserved at least 75% of the criticisms directed at him–but I admit to trusting post-Niebuhr pacifists or pacifists who have wrestled with Niebuhr’s challenge more than knee-jerk anti-Niebuhrians. He died in 1971. Union Theological Seminary has endowed a Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Theology and Christian Ethics and today, one of the cross-streets on which Union sits at the edge of Harlem is known as Reinhold Niebuhr Place.
H(elmut). Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), the last of the Niebuhr children was the most brilliant and is often overshadowed by Reinie. Born in Wright City, MO, the shy and quiet youngest son had a much more difficult relationship with his father than did his older brother, Reinie. In his old age, Reinie was surprised to find that Richard considered their father cold and tyrannical.
HRN would begin life in the family tradition, but he learned from his elder brother’s pathbreaking. He graduated Elmhurst College in 1912 and Eden Seminary in 1915. Knowing the difficulties Reinie had faced with inadequate preparation, HRN obtained an M.A. in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, MO in 1918 before earning his B.D. & Ph.D. from Yale in 1923 & 1924 respectively–the only member of the family to finish a doctorate.
HRN was dedicated to the church and his ecclesiology, while having problems (from my own Yoder/McClendon/Hauerwas viewpoint), was far stronger than Reinie’s. Richard was ordained by the Evangelical Synod in 1916 and from 1916-1918, he was pastor of an Evangelical Synod congregation in St. Louis, MO. While pursuing his Ph.D., HRN served as pastor of a Congregationalist church in New Haven, CT. In 1934, the Evangelical Synod merged with the German Reformed Church in the United States, another denomination of German immigrants based on the Heidelberg Catechism, becoming the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregationalists (most of them) to form the United Church of Christ. The Niebuhrs all approved of these unions, but HRN was instrumental in each step.
The education of ministers was a primary concern for HRN. He served as President of his denomination’s Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1931 (upgrading its faculty and teaching standards and leading it to be able to offer truly post-baccalaureate theological education) with a four year leave of absence to serve as interim president of Elmhurst College (1924-1927), bringing the latter up to full accreditation as well. From 1931 until his death in 1962, HRN taught at Yale Divinity School rising to the rank of full professor and eventually serving in the endowed chair, Stirling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics. But his concern for ministerial education did not stop there because in 1954-55, HRN chaired a task force studying and recommending changes in theological education across the United States, editing its report and leading to his book, The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry.
HRN wrote much less than Reinie, but he remains an enormously influential theologian to this day. He helped to found the sociological study of church life with his The Social Sources of Denominationalism. He has influenced the “theocentric” approach of James Gustafson and others with his The Responsible Self and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (his most problematic book in my view) and helped to found the “narrative theology” of the “Yale School” (even influencing his critic Stanley Hauerwas in this way) through The Meaning of Revelation. His most influential work, with great strengths and glaring flaws, Christ and Culture remains a standard textbook in Christian ethics in seminaries and divinity schools throughout North America, over 50 years since its publication.
Ursula Niebuhr (1908-1997), born in Southampten, UK (as Ursula Kessel-Compton), she became one of the first female Anglican theologians, graduating from Oxford and earning a fellowship to study for a post-graduate year at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She met and married (1931) the much older, Reinie, and was overshadowed by him–as was nearly everyone in Reinie’s orbit! But Ursula founded the religion department of Bernard College in the 1940s and was its chairwoman for years. She curtailed her career after Reinie’s stroke and edited collections of his shorter writings after his death. She remained a committed Anglican/Episcopalian, never agreeing with the congregational and pietist ecclesiology of her husband. She pushed him to work harder for women’s rights in church and society, too. Together, they raised a son (Christopher) and 3 daughters. I have been unable to find the names of the other two daughters, but the youngest, Elizabeth Sifton, is a book publisher and has written a book on her father’s most famous prayer, the Serenity Prayer, used so much by Alcoholics Anonymous groups.
Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (no dates found) is the son of H. Richard Niebuhr. He taught for years at Harvard Divinity School and is now Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard. Although he published little, he edited some of his father’s unpublished works as Faith on Earth and has become a well-known expert on F.D.E. Schleiermacher. He has also sought to recover a way to affirm Christ’s resurrection in a world governed by Troeltschian historical forces. In 2006, a gift by an alumnus allowed HDS to create the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Divinity and, in June of this year, Mark D. Jordan leaves Emory University (where he has been Asa Griggs Candler Professor since 1999) to become the first Richard Reinhold Niebuhr professor of Divinity.
Finally, R. Gustav Niebuhr (no dates found) continues in both family traditions by combining careers in journalism and religion. A longtime religion editor for the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, today R. Gustav Niebuhr has dual appointments at Syracuse University: Associate Professor of Newspaper Journalism in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Education and Associate Professor of Religion and the Media in the Religion Department.
All that from one family–with maybe more to come. Whatever our personal theologies, all Christians ought to give God thanks for the gift bestowed on the Church universal in the form of the Family Niebuhr.
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.
As Disciples pastor, fellow blogger, and church historian Bob Cornwall notes, the video has a Protestant and U.S. bias. I noticed nothing on the African church past Augustine and nothing on Asia or Latin America at all. But this is still cool to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
UPDATE: Janet of Quoth the Maven created this video in honor of her pastor, Mark Brewer, who preached a 21 week sermon series on church history. She gives the lyrics here:
http://quoththemaven.blogspot.com/2009/10/church-history-in-4-minutes-lyrics.html She admits to changing the order of a couple of events to make lyrics that rhyme. One niggling tidbit from my professor side: The Swiss Reformer’s name was Huldyich or Ulrich Zwingli, not Erlich Zwingle. But this is amazing and quite the treat. I am going to send it to my old church history professor, Bill Leonard, because he is a big advocate of preaching using church history and even wrote The Word of God Across the Ages to help facilitate that process.
I love people and movements who break stereotypes. The stereotype that people have about Pentecostals (and Charismatics) is that they are always ignorant fundamentalists, racist, sexist, heterosexist, and extremely militaristic. Well, it’s a rare Pentacostal who is pro-GLBT (those I’ve know about have had to leave for other Christian communities) , but that could be said about MANY Christian denominations or faith traditions. But the other stereotypes, while having some basis on the current U.S. scene, are absolutely false about early Pentecostal history. During the early days of the movement, Pentecostals were strong for racial justice and reconciliation (even though this was at the height of Jim Crow segregation). They also had many women ministers during a period when few mainline denominations did (although they still preached male “headship” in the home). And most early Pentecostals were PACIFISTS.
That heritage has been buried, its true, but younger Pentecostals are trying to recover it. So, even though I am not a Pentecostal (I might be considered a semi-charismatic Baptist!), I cheer such efforts. Friday, my copy of Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God arrived. This book by my friend, Paul Alexander (co-founder of the Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship), is a revision and popularization of his Ph.D. dissertation (at, of all places, Baylor University!). My mentor, Glen H. Stassen, wrote the forward. I cannot wait to finally read this important work.
It builds on the earlier book by Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals. The forward to that work is by the late Mennonite John Howard Yoder, another of my mentors.
I also recommend, Proclaim Peace: Christian Pacifism from Unexpected Quarters, ed. Theron Schlabach and Richard Hughes, which includes 3 chapters on Pentecostal pacifism, chapters on the Churches of Christ (one section of the Stone-Campbell movement), the Church of God, Adventism, Mormonism, Liberal Christian pacifism between the World Wars, Methodist COs during Vietnam, Catholic pacifism and the seduction of Reformed Just War theorists into blind Christian nationalists.
All of this reinforces my claim that Christian pacifism is not, per se, a theologically liberal position. Sure, many Christian pacifists have been theological liberals or political liberals. But many more have been theologically conservative and either politically conservative or apolitical. Christian pacifism (or, as I prefer to say, Gospel Nonviolence) is simply biblically faithful and while not every theology will support it (some definitely will NOT), several different theological approaches do yield strong pacifists.
This is a new series that will eventually become a booklet. I began writing these essays in 2004 when working for Every Church a Peace Church. Women have been the backbone of most movements for peace, justice, and human rights–but usually they have not been as visible to historians. As one example of this notice that out of over 100 years of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (since 1901) only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel–despite the huge leadership of women in creating the modern peace movement that led Alfred Nobel to create the prize! So, I will lead off these “random chapters” by profiling several women peacemakers before profiling any male leaders.
This blog is dedicated to Richard Overton, General Baptist leader of the 17th C. Levellers. So I begin with the story of his life partner. Ironically, Mrs. Overton’s name is lost to us! But her story is not –even though it needs to be more widely known.
We know little about “Mrs. Overton.” We do not know when or where she was born or to whom. We do not know when she met and married Richard Overton. Was she with him in his youth when he travelled from England to Germany and witnessed the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War? (Was this the origin of the Overtons’ deep conviction that wars over religion were evil incarnate? Was it the origin of Richard’s defense of liberty of conscience? Of conscientious objection to war? Of his convictions about nonviolence?) Was she with Richard when he left Germany and moved to Amsterdam in 1615 to join John Smyth’s “se-Baptist” congregation just after it merged with the Amsterdam Waterlander Mennonites? Or did Richard only meet his life partner after he returned to England (sometime between 1615 and 1642) ? Was she already a member of the General Baptist congregation that Richard joined? (For the first 50 years of their existence the English General Baptists were in frequent communication with the Amsterdam Mennonites. The two groups considered themselves “of like faith and order” and exchanged members without either group requiring rebaptism of the other. Mennonite-style pacifism was widespread, though not universal, among General Baptists at this time.) We simply do not know.
What we do know is this: Mrs. Overton apparently shared her husband’s faith convictions, including his commitments to liberty of conscience and pacifism. In 1647, Overton, as leader of the Levellers (a Christian-motivated political movement for political and economic equality at the time of the English Civil War), was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for printing pamphlets without submitting them to the censor for approval. He was dragged to jail clutching a copy of the Magna Carta to his breast. (Remember that the 13th C. Magna Carta was the first English document that limited the rights of monarchs in English common law. It began the tradition of limited government with checks and balances–though initially limited to the aristocracy–a tradition that would lead inevitably to democratic rule.) On 10 February 1647, in The Commoner’s Complaint, which he wrote from prison, Overton described not only his arrest, but the even more dramatic arrest of his wife that followed.
Mrs. Overton demonstrated her own commitment to human rights (a term coined by Richard), rooted, like his, in her deep Christian faith, by continuing to print and publish his pamphlets after his arrest when it would have been safer to lay low. So, the authorities came to arrest her as well. Mrs. Overton’s conscience would not allow her to cooperate with the arresting authorities. So, she practiced nonviolent resistance, going limp, and refusing to walk to jail. The arresting marshall threatened to drag her by the axle of a cart. She replied that he must “do as it seemed good to him for she was resolved on her course.” (Overton, The Commoner’s Complaint.) Her husband, Richard, describes the scene with great sarcasm and ridicule of the arresting authorities. Contemporary feminists might complain that he reinforces the view of women as “the weaker sex,” but he uses these prejudices subversively to undermine the authority of the arresting marshall and all governments that would so treat their citizens.
The marshall, says Richard, “strutted in fury, as if he would have forthwith levied whole armies and droves of porters and cartmen to advance this poor little innocent woman and her tender babe” to Bridewell prison. The marshall orders his deputies to drag her from the room, but they refuse. When the marshall is defeated, the authorities have to draft soldiers from the wars from the frontlines to come and arrest Mrs. Overton. She goes limp and they drag her “babe at the breast” according to Overton, down the road while she denounces them to the crowd and they jeer the soldiers and throw rotten fruit at them!
In prison, the Overtons have to be smuggled food by friends. They began by being concerned with the rights of conscience for religious minorities and political rights–but in prison they meet the poor and their concept of human rights broadens to include economic rights.
Neither Mrs. Overton nor the Levellers were successful in the short run. But her witness lives on. Whenever any nonviolent witness for truth practices nonviolent resistance, they expose the injustice of the Powers and Authorities. And the Thrones and Kingdoms tremble. The walls begin to shake.
For all the Mrs. Overtons, named and unnamed, I pray, O Lord, knowing that Your Spirit works through them to topple injustice and sow the seeds of your justice, your peace, your Rule. Amen.
Robert T. Handy (1918-2009) has died in his NJ retirement community at age 90. An American Baptist historian, Handy taught at Union Theological Seminary in NY (an ecumenical seminary) from 1950 until retirement in 1986. A prolific author, Handy was known for his writings on Baptist history and the history of Christianity in North America, as well defending church-state separation and debunking popular myths of a bygone era of “Christian America.”
Handy was a graduate of Brown University (B.A.), still a Baptist-related institution at the time, with a degree in European history. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, was ordained and served Baptist churches in Illinois. After a stint as a chaplain in the U.S. army, he earned a Ph.D. in Church History at the University of Chicago (also then still related to American Baptists, though already an ecumenical institution).
Handy was a primary example for how to be true to one’s own tradition while also being very ecumenical. He was a firm champion of religious liberty, church-state separation, and liberty of conscience. For these reasons, although his personal theology was fairly traditional, he was often a target of the theocrats and Christian nationalists. (Sometimes the best compliment is to have the right enemies.)
Rest in peace, servant of a Servant Lord.
I know that Aaron Weaver, at least, is glad I am resuming my series on each of the substantive chapters of this book. The third and final chapter in Part I, Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern, is Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961): A Voice for Social Justice and Reform by Karen E. Smith. Since I knew little about Burroughs before reading this chapter, this was one of the most informative chapters for me, personally. The author was briefly one of my church history teachers in seminary. Karen Smith was raised in Georgia from a long line of Southern Baptist leaders. She earned a B.A. from Mercer University and an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before heading off to Regent’s Park College, Oxford and earning her D.Phil. in Church History from Oxford, concentrating on 18th C. Baptist life in the U.K. (When she returned to the states, the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC had begun and she quickly found out how hostile the new environment was to ordained women. Plus, she had married a Brit and the Immigration and Naturalization Service kept giving him visa hassles. So, Karen returned to the UK.) Today, Karen Smith is Pastor of Orchard Place Baptist Church, Neath (Wales) and Tutor in Church History and Christian Spirituality at South Wales Baptist College and the University of Wales (Cardiff). She brings a historian’s eye to this chapter rather than that of a social ethicist or a theologian.
Nannie Helen Burroughs was a major figure in National Baptist (i.e., African-American Baptist) life for two-thirds, at least, of the 20th C. Born less than 20 years after the Civil War, Nannie’s father was a former slave who, as a freedman, farmed his own small plot of land. He was also an itinerant Baptist preacher. Her mother was a domestic servant. Little is known of her early childhood apart from the fact that, at age 5, she moved with her mother to Washington, D.C. She would grow to become a pioneer educator and social reformer–and a reformer within Black Baptist circles, too.
As a child, Nannie suffered from typhoid fever and kept out of school for nearly two years. Apparently this gap did hurt her much as she later went to the M Street High School, which was segregated (as nearly all schools in the U.S. were in the U.S. South at the time–and even many in the North and West!) but very highly regarded. The M School boasted some of the finest principals of any black high schools of the era, including Mary Patterson, the first black woman to receive a college degree in the U.S. At the M School, Nannie excelled, honing oratorical and debating skills and forming the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society. She left school prepared to be a teacher. Smith mentions that part of her studies included “domestic science,” that is, home economics skills. These courses were very practical for a newly freed people whose family lives had been destroyed under slavery: They included courses in handling money, in child care, cooking, sewing, etc. Smith does not comment much on this, but I will. It is clear that these courses reflected the legacy of slavery and the segregation of the day, as well as the patriarchal assumptions that women/wives would be responsible for all these facets of “domestic science.” I doubt those assumptions were challenged much and I doubt that courses for boys, of any race, included “domestic science.” But they were also highly practical:–Even if one plans to challenge an oppressive system, one needs to the skills to survive in it at the same time. Personal note: By the time I was in Junior High, in the system where I went, both boys and girls took “home economics” as well as “shop.” I learned to cook more than my mother had taught me, to darn (sew) socks, and repair clothing (though not to make my own) and many other skills that served me well–both in bachelorhood and since marriage. I am sure many of the girls were thankful for the “fix it” and auto repair skills they learned, too. I am saddened that today’s schools no longer teach such skills to either sex.
When Burroughs applied to teaching positions in the D.C. area she ran into class and racial prejudices–among D.C. African-Americans. One of the legacies of slavery (with us to this day, I’m afraid) is that many African-Americans judge darker skinned members of their race more harshly than lighter skinned ones. Light skinned women are considered more beautiful–a clear reflection of a racist society. Nannie was dark skinned and she came from a poor family, not the “old” black families of D.C. So, she was denied a teaching post. This was an emotional blow, but she recovered and wrote to Booker T. Washington (one of the most famous African-Americans of his day) to see if she could teach at his Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. (Today, Tuskeegee is a famous university for African-Americans. Originally, it was an agricultural and industrial school. More on this, later.) Washington could not find her a post.
Burroughs dreamed of one day starting her own school, but, in the meantime she went to Philadelphia, PA and became an associate editor of a black Baptist newspaper, The Christian Banner. She took and passed a U.S. civil service exam and returned to D.C., but was told there were no openings for “colored clerks.” She worked for awhile cleaning office buildings and then became a bookkeeper and editorial secretary for Rev. R. G. Jordan, then the Corresponding Secretary for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). Burroughs had been an active Baptist from her youth and flourished in this job. It proved to be a turning point not only for her, but for Baptists. When the NBC headquarters moved to Louisville, KY, so did Burroughs.
She worked to establish a Woman’s Convention in the NBC. As in white Baptist life at the time, women were hindered from positions of leadership in the NBC–though, as with their white sisters, the Baptist churches would dry up and blow away without the women. Addressing the NBC in 1900, Burroughs expressed the “righteous discontent” of Black Baptist women at not being able to use all their talents for the Kingdom of God. Because of her speech, the NBC established a Woman’s Convention and Burroughs became its Corresponding Secretary from 1900-1947 and President from 1948 until her death in 1961. She was successful in keeping the Woman’s Convention from answering to the men.
In 1909, Burroughs was finally able to start her National Training School for Women and Girls in D.C. Through this school and her work with the Women’s Convention, Burroughs worked for racial and gender equity in both church and society. She addressed the first meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905 in London. She constantly pushed for change while working within the system. For instance, she supported Booker T. Washington’s program of educating most African-Americans as mechanics and farmers, etc. It wasn’t that she didn’t want doors of higher education open or for a “talented 10th” (W.E.B. duBois’ term) to rise to the highest levels of society and compete with whites on their own terms. It was just that Burroughs knew that the majority of Blacks were not ready for that. A generation ago they were slaves who could be punished by death for even daring to learn to read. She wanted social advancement for the majority of her race–without ever losing sight of the goal of pure equality. But a majority of self-sufficient shopkeepers, mechanics, and small farmers would at least not be in poverty or prison, even if they were not yet in the finest universities, etc.
She was a member of the Urban League and, in 1924, founding president of the National League of Republican Colored Women. (Remember, until the mid-’60s, Republicans were the more racially progressive of the two major political parties. Even during those frequent times when Republican leadership was timid on racial justice, it was still better than most Democrats. Until the 1960s–especially ’64-’65–the Democratic Party was dominated by Southern segregationists and blatant racists. Now the Republicans are dominated by a slightly more polite generation of these same folk.) She embraced the Social Gospel and believed that any church which was not working actively to improve its neighborhood didn’t deserve to exist!
Significantly, Burroughs never challenged the exclusion of women from the pulpit–although she did on all other forms of leadership in church and society. She was part of a network of Black Church women who had a holistic approach to mission (educational and focused on social justice as well as evangelism), but which also worked for racial and gender equality in church and society.
The other two profiles in this first section (Walter Rauschenbusch and Muriel Lester) came from contexts of relative privilege, though they later identified with and worked with and for the poor. By contrast, Burroughs came from poverty and from a context of double marginalization: by race and sex. That double marginalization came in both church and society. But it did not seem to make her bitter or angry. She refused to accept it, but would take progress in stages. She was pragmatic in her “revolutionary patience” (Dorothee Soelle), but all compromises were temporary–stages to further gains, later.
I am glad this chapter was included in this book. I needed to learn more about Burroughs.
I cannot leave this section, however, without repeating that these are not the only people who could have been profiled in a section named “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern.” Other pioneers in shaping 20th C. Baptist social ethics would include: J0hn Clifford (1836-1923) whom I consider “Britain’s Rauschenbusch;” Jesse Burton (J.B.) Weatherspoon (1886-1964) who founded the discipline of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and also the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission (later renamed the Christian Life Commission and, after the fundamentalist takeover in the ’90s, the mis-named Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission); Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), Social Gospel theologian and Professor of Historical and Comparative Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School (then a Baptist institution); William Louis Poteat (1856-1938), a Social Gospel leader of Southern Baptists during the Progressive Era South; Howard Thurman (1899-1981), the great mystic, ecumenist, and social prophet produced by African-American Baptists; Olin T. Binkley(1908-1999). Others could be mentioned from many lands. In these days, when far too many people associate the term “Baptist” with bigotry and warmongering, it is well to remember how broad the foundations of social concern were among us in earlier periods.
The next section of this book profiles five (5) men under the heading of “Thinkers and Teachers.” The final section of the book contains eight (8) chapters profiling women and men as “Activists: Dreamers of a New World Order.” We must not see these categories as airtight. Many of those profiled as activists spent much of their time thinking and teaching (even in academic posts) and some of the “thinkers and teachers” were also activists. So, I am not sure that these categories hold up to close examination. Nevertheless, that is where our next installments shall take us.
The 2nd substantive chapter in Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry W. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008) is also the only chapter that is NOT an original composition for this work. Paul R. Dekar’s chapter on Muriel Lester is a slightly updated version of a chapter in his excellent book, For the Healing of the Nation: Baptist Peacemakers (Smyth & Helwys, 1993).
Paul R. DeKar has had an unusual academic career, having been employed to teach church history and evangelism and missiology. A dual-citizen of Canada and the United States, DeKar was educated at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary before earning a Ph.D. in history at Yale University. He taught both church history and missiology for over 20 years at Ontario’s McMaster University and McMaster Divinity School while founding the university’s peace studies center. DeKar, an ordained minister in the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, became a convinced pacifist and conscientious objector during the Vietnam War era and joined the interfaith pacifist group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He has also been an active participant (and unofficial historian for) in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America since its foundation. In 1995, he became Niswonger Professor of Evanngelism and Missions at Memphis Theological Seminary (the one seminary of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church). An author of books on church history, evangelism, missions, and peacemaking, DeKar is also a participant-chronicler of the current rediscovery by Protestants of the virtues of monasticism, becoming a Benedictine Oblate and a member of the only official Baptist monastery in the world (in Australia). DeKar is convinced that only such deep spiritual roots will enable Christians to be authentic and bold peacemakers and witnesses for the gospel.
I know Paul DeKar from our mutual participation in both the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He approaches this chapter on Muriel Lester with a historian’s eye for detail and context and with the passion of one who admires his subject and shares many of her convictions and perspectives.
Muriel Lester (1883-1968) , though now forgotten by many, was a pioneer for Baptists and others and once one of the most influential of Christian voices in the world. She was born to wealth, but spent most of her life as a social worker with the urban poor–and even became a socialist politician in order to be a better advocate for the poor. Given more educational advantages than most women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time when the ancient British universities of Oxford and Cambridge were just opening their doors to women and “Nonconformists” (i.e., non-Anglicans such as Baptists), she considered pursuing a degree in literature at Cambridge, but turned her back on higher education in order to dedicate her life to helping the oppressed and downtrodden. By “accident,” she became an unordained pastor and an advocate for women’s ministry (See her 1935 b0ok Why Forbid Us?). A bestselling author on faith and spirituality and an apologist for Christianity, she was nevertheless a pioneer in interfaith dialogue–and a famous friend of Gandhi’s. A pacifist and global peacemaker, she was arrested by her own British government during WWII and, after being released, he passport was conviscated until after the war because, though NO ONE believed her to be a Nazi sympathizer, her peace efforts were deemed to undermine morale during wartime.
British Baptists began in the 17th C. as a persecuted sect that drew almost exclusively from the lower classes. But by the time of Lester’s birth in 1883, their lot had improved–though the Anglican Church’s establishment as the state religion still put considerable restrictions on the freedom of Baptists and other Nonconformists. Lester was raised in a wealthy shipbuilding family. Her father was also a Baptist laypreacher and a local magistrate.
As a teenager, this child of privilege, was exposed to the poverty and hardship of working classes in “Bow,” a London slum. This, along with reading the writings of Tolstoy, convinced her that Christians must work on the side of the poor. She took a “legacy” (Americans would say “inheritance”) and used it to transform an abandoned church in Bow ( a “Strict and Particular” hyper-Calvinist congregation) into a multi-purpose community center and settlement house which she called Kingsley Hall, after a beloved older brother who died young. Along with her sister, Doris, Muriel Lester moved into Kingsley Hall to share the lives of the poor and work to make them better.
The Hall became a settlement house for the homeless, an employment center for those out of work, a center for community organizing and much more. The Hall, led by the Lester sisters, held adult education classes, including of parenting and job skills. Eventually, it opened a Children’s Hall (alternative to the horrors of most contemporary orphanages) and a second settlement house in a different slum.
Kingsley Hall also became a de facto church congregation for many residents and neighbors. Most churches of the time looked down on the poor and would judge harshly those who came to worship without “Sunday best.” So, many residents who wanted to attend church had nowhere else to go. While the Lester sisters never forced residents to come to worship or made any aid dependent on such (as many Christian missions to the poor did), they did conduct services for those that wanted them. Since they could not attract any willing clergy, Muriel became the unordained, de facto pastor of the congregation that met at Kingsley Hall, even re-writing hymns and preaching and serving the Lord’s Supper. (She did not, however, baptize or perform weddings.)
When WWI broke out, Muriel Lester, a convinced pacifist, joined with other Christians in 1914 in forming the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. She announced that these Christians, including herself, would not pronounce a “moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” for the duration of the war! When the International FOR formed iin 1917, Muriel joined that, too. Later, after she turned the work of Kingsley Hall over to Doris, Muriel became the FOR’s first “Traveling Secretary,” sort of an “Ambassador for Peace” planting FOR chapters on all continents and risking much for the sake of peace. (For instance, after the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, Lester saw the Chinese suffering first hand and then confronted the Japanese government with their atrocities face-to-face! ) She became a guest of Gandhi’s in India and hosted him at Kingsley Hall when Gandhi came to Britain to negotiate Indian independence.
DeKar’s account shows how much Lester drew from her Baptist faith in her work as a social worker, pastor, socialist politician, and ambassador for peace. But he fails to ask critical questions of Lester as a guide for Baptist social ethics: What was the role of Scripture (other than the Sermon on the Mount) in her approach to moral and social issues? I find no account of this in the collections of Lester’s writings that survive, nor in DeKar’s account. Why is baptism of so little value to her as a pastor? What is her understanding of the nature of the church? What legislative accomplishments did Lester achieve during her time as a socialist politician? How did her faith concerns intersect these matters and how did she view religious liberty and the relation of church and state?
As a Christian pacifist, I am glad that this chapter joins the mini-revival of interest in Lester and her work. What a fantastic Christian peacemaker and justice-seeker! But in a book dedicated to shapers of Baptist social ethics, I wanted more critical analysis than DeKar offered. Of course, Muriel Lester was neither an academic theologian nor Christian ethicist–nor even a theologically trained pastor. She was a widely read practical mystic, but while it is clear that her Christian faith was a driving factor, it is not clear that she retained much specifically BAPTIST influence in her adult life. (If I am wrong about this, DeKar’s chapter does not show me where.)
I suspect that this chapter’s minimal analysis stems from its being lifted nearly unchanged from an earlier volume with a different purpose. Editors McSwain and Allen should have required more rewriting from DeKar for this volume’s purposes.