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.
Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy died last night of brain cancer just before midnight EDT. He was 77. He was flawed: At least at one point in his life, he drank too much and, allegedly, he was a womanizer for some time. It is certain that he left the scene of the car accident in Chappequidick where a female aide drowned. Pride led him to challenge a sitting president of his own party (Jimmy Carter) for president in 1980–taking the fight into the Convention and leaving the Democratic Party divided–at least CONTRIBUTING to Ronald Reagan’s victory. He walked away from a healthcare bill in ’72 that Nixon would have signed that was arguably stronger than anything now on the table because he didn’t think it was good enough.
But Ted Kennedy, whose family saw such grief and tragedy, was also a strong champion of the weak. He who was raised in wealth, constantly fought for the poor. He championed civil rights. Though he, like his brothers, had served in the military, he struggled constantly for peace, to end nuclear and biological and chemical weapons, to cut military budgets in order to pay for things for the common good. He championed the rights of women and of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered folk. He stood up for civil liberties. He constantly fought for universal healthcare–and the absence of his voice in the senate this year has been greatly obvious. He fought for teachers and unions and the elderly.
Ted Kennedy was the “liberal lion” who accomplished great things even when his party was out of power because he worked VERY hard.
He also took care of all his many nieces and nephews of slain brothers Jack and Bobby and showed up at nearly every family function.
He was a devout, if very imperfect, Catholic Christian–who understood the “preferential option for the poor,” long before that phrase was coined.
Rest in peace, Ted Kennedy, you will be missed. Who now will take up the torch of the Liberal Lion of the Senate?
The Texas board that determines textbook content (always trying to remove any mention of evolution) is now deciding that children may not learn about Cesar Chavez (inappropriate role model) or Thurgood Marshall (inappropriate historical figure)! If you live in the U.S. but outside the Lone Star State, still be alarmed. Because, for reasons that escape me, public school textbook publishers often use the Texas market to determine content for what they publish for the REST of the nation, too! So, they could be dumbing down ALL our children. Time to make a stink about this. Our children would not learn about the first African-American on the Supreme Court (who also argued the winning case in the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated the schools)–somehow he’s “historically inappropriate.” And they would be deprived of learning about Cesar Chavez, leader (along with the still struggling Dolores Huerta) of the United Farmworkers union and an apostle of nonviolent protest–an “inappropriate role model.” Do I detect a bias among Texans deciding on textbook context that favors oppressors–or are they just racist bigots?!
They are trying to disappear down the memory hole the heroes of the ’60s who changed this country for the better. As George Orwell knew, he who controls the past, controls the future. In an era of a rightwing court dominated by the semi-fascists Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts, remembering Thurgood Marshall is a dangerous, subversive memory. In an age of agribusiness and of workers deprived of ever more of their rights and of increasing white fears of Mexican-Americans, remembering Cesar Chavez–who was a key figure in turning Bobby Kennedy from a Cold Warrior to a candidate for president who campaigned for the poor and for peace–is a dangerous, subversive act. We don’t want to, I don’t know, INSPIRE new generations, now do we?
Update: A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong. I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword to my copy of On Civil Disobedience. I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars. Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.
Happy Birthday, Thoreau. Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA, Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class. He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.
Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.
Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs, but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.] He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine. Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience. By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil. One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws. Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.
Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists. Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways. Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience. So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.] These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.
We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness. We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.
We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.
Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.
UPDATE: It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway. Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten. Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]
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.
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.
This is a difficult book to review for several reasons: 1) I know many of the “Shapers” personally as teachers. 2) I know both the editors and many of the contributors. 3) This is my field of academic expertise and these are mostly my frieds. 4) The figures included in this collection represent what I consider to be some of the best of my denominational or theological tradition–rather than the images more often associated with Baptists as narrow bigots and hypocrites, uncritical warmongers and lovers of money. The individuals profiled in this book, and many of the profilers, are among the strongest reasons why I continue to identify with the Baptist tradition. 5) I was initially invited by one of the editors to contribute to the volume, but Mercer University Press was already complaining about the length of the book (343 pp.). None of this makes objectivity easy.
Let me say it clearly: I liked this book and all the chapters included. My criticisms are those of an insider and perfectionist who would be trying to get a profile and analysis better. I did not find any chapter that was fundamentally off in characterization, although I did have some differences of emphasis and some differences on who should be included.
After an introductory chapter by the editors, the volume includes chapters that profile Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester, Nannie Helen Burroughs, T. B. Maston, Henlee Hulix Barnette, James
Wm. McClendon, Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, Paul D. Simmons (since Simmons’ focus has been on biomedical ethics and sexual ethics, it is not clear that he has been a shaper of Baptist social ethics, despite a Ph.D. dissertation on Just War Theory and Selective Conscientious Objection and many writings on religious liberty and church-state separation), Clarence Jordan, Martin England, Millard Fuller and Koinonia Farm, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, C. Anne Davis, Glen Harold Stassen, Tony Campolo, J. M. Dawson and James Dunn, and Foy Dan Valentine. It is part of my mindset that I first notice who is omitted in collections like this: This collection focuses almost entirely on the U.S. scene (with the exception of Muriel Lester, an English Baptist), although it includes more African-Americans and women than most similar collections. Nonetheless, I thought immediately of Tommy Douglass, the Canadian Baptist minister-turned-politician who was a product of the Social Gospel and who created Canada’s publicly funded healthcare system–and was recently voted by Canadians as “The Greatest Canadian.” Or Britain’s John Clifford, the U.K.’s answer to Rauschenbusch or Australia’s maverick Baptist, Athol Gill. And, if one were to include Baptists from the Global South, the book would look very different.
Even in the U.S., I wondered at some omissions: Where are Howard Thurman, C. René Padilla, Orlando Costas, Will D. Campbell, Culbert Rutenber, Dorothy Cotton, Marian Wright Edelman, Peter Paris, Cornel West, Peter Gomes, Ken Sehested and Nancy Hastings Sehested, W. W. Finlator, Stanley Grenz, Diana Garland, or Carlyle Marney? Needless to say, a sequel or companion volume would be easy to fill. In a future volume, many of the current volumes contributing authors will probably find a place, including Paul Lewis (author of the chapter on Rauschenbusch), William Tillman, Jr. (T. B. Maston), David Emmanuel Goatley (J. Deotis Roberts), T. Laine Scales (C. Anne Davis), David P. Gushee (Glen Harold Stassen), Michelle Tooley (Tony Campolo), J. Brent Walker (J. M. Dawson and James Dunn), and, perhaps others. I agree with the editors that a volume on Twenty-FIRST Century “shapers of Baptist social ethics” would include far more women, be far more racially/ethnically diverse, and probably be dominated by voices from the Global South. More Christians now live South of the equator than North of it and more Christians live in Africa and Latin America than in Europe or North America–a trend that is likely to continue. African and Asian Christians have begun to send missionaries to post-Christian Europe and to North America (where U.S. Christians who vote for war and torture seem to have completely misunderstood the gospel in DROVES!).
But given the limits of any volume like this in size and scope, this is an excellent work and I highly recommend it. Sections Two and Three are divided between “Thinkers and Teachers” (section two) and “Activists: Dreamers of a New World Order.” But the division should not be seen as airtight. Many of the activists (e.g., Tony Campolo, C. Anne Davis and Glen Stassen) have spent most of their careers in the classroom and have pioneered in various academic areas. Some of the other activists (e.g., Jimmy Carter, James Dunn, Foy Valentine) have also had teaching responsibilities for parts of their careers. Also, many of the teachers and thinkers (e.g., Henlee Barnette, Deotis Roberts, and James Wm. McClendon) have all engaged in action for social justice, especially Barnette.
In fact, one major thread connecting all these different Baptist social ethicists is a refusal to divide theory and practice, faith and discipleship, salvation and social reform. Though most of the figures profiled herein have high christologies and orthodox theologies, they have not exhibited (with Luther) any desire to remove the Epistle of James from their working canon. In differing ways, each has incarnational faith that must be lived out in the world.
Because of the price ($45!), I am hoping MUP puts out a paperback edition of this volume soon. I recommend it for church libraries, for those seeking to understand the 20th C. history of one major Christian tradition, and for those of us in the Baptist (or, more broadly, Believers’ Church) tradition who seek to learn from guides in previous generations as we try to be faithful disciples in our own contexts in this 21st C.
- Childhood Heroes
- Richard Overton, pt. 1
- Richard Overton, pt. 2
- Menno Simons on “Evangelical Faith”
- Jerry & Sis Levin: Middle East Peacemakers
- Where Have You Gone, Ralph Bunche?
- Helen Barrett Montgomery, 1
- Helen Barrett Montgomery, 2
- Walter Rauschenbusch
- Henlee H. Barnette
- Dorothy Cotton
- Howard Thurman: Mystic as Prophet
- Tommy Douglass: “Greatest Canadian“
- William Knibb: Missionary and Social Prophet
- Martin Luther King, Jr. 1, 2, 3.
- Letty M. Russell
- James Farmer
- Will D. Campbell
- John Smyth
- Al Gore
- Oscar Arias Sanchez
- Dorothy Day
- Muriel Lester
- Desmond Tutu, 1
- Desmond Tutu, 2
- Jewish defenses of Jimmy Carter 1 & 2