Ira Chernus  






  1. The Anabaptists
  2. The Quakers
  3. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists
  4. Henry David Thoreau
  5. The Anarchists
  6. World War I: The Crucial Turning Point
  7. Mahatma Gandhi
  8. Reinhold Niebuhr
  9. A. J. Muste
  10. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker
  11. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  12. Barbara Deming
  13. Thich Nhat Hanh





People commit themselves to nonviolence for many reasons. Some have no objection to violence in principle. They just believe that violence will not succeed in gaining their goals. They may be too few, too poor, or too poorly armed to win a victory by violent means. Some avoid violence for tactical reasons, because they want to embarrass their opponents and get public sympathy for their cause. Some are afraid of getting hurt, or they are too squeamish to see others hurt. Some reject violence because it takes too much energy, or because they do not know how to persuade others to join them in violence. All these people would do violence, if circumstances were different. Their nonviolence may be called the nonviolence of convenience or pragmatic nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi called it the nonviolence of the weak.

This book is not about those people. It is about people who have committed themselves to principled nonviolence. These are people who might have had the reason, the means, the courage, and the physical and emotional strength to do violence. Yet they freely decided not to do violence, under any circumstances. Gandhi called this the nonviolence of the strong.

People commit themselves to principled nonviolence of the strong for many reasons, too. They may be inspired by the courageous example of others. If those others are their friends, the effect is even stronger. If someone is part of a group that commits to nonviolence, group support and the emotional satisfaction it brings can play a big role. Emotions are always part of nonviolence. Sometimes intuition is part of it, too. Some people can not explain why they are strictly nonviolent; it just feels right to them. Some people just seem naturally inclined to nonviolence.

Then there are people who commit themselves to nonviolence because they think it is reasonable. They consider all sides of the issue, analyze all the alternatives, and conclude that the logical arguments for principled nonviolence are persuasive. This book is about those logical arguments. It is about the most prominent ideas advanced by nonviolence adherents throughout U.S. history.

It would be a mistake to classify people’s motives as solely social, or emotional, or intuitive, or rational. All these factors play a part in every person who commits to nonviolence. Perhaps no one can ever say for sure which is predominant. Ideas always play some part, even for those who do not come to nonviolence primarily through logical thought. Everyone in the U.S. nonviolence movement partakes of a rich intellectual tradition. This book offers an introduction to that tradition.

The ideas and ideals of nonviolence cannot be understood as timeless disembodied abstractions. Ideas are products of their time and place. As the following chapters will show, ideas of nonviolence are always embedded in a very concrete historical context, and they must be studied in their context. However, since these chapters focus on ideas, they do not give a full picture of the practical impact nonviolent movements have had on U.S. history.

Nonviolence runs, like a thread of alternative thinking and acting, through the fabric of U.S. history. It played a significant role in the Abolitionist movement, the struggle for women’s rights, the debates about imperialism and about entering the two world wars, the rise of unions and the struggles for workers’ rights, the civil rights movements of African-Americans and other minority groups, the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, the antinuclear movement, the environmental movement, and other historical episodes. From the 1820s to the 1950s, scarcely a decade went by that a nonviolent movement did not play some significant role in the practical outcome of political, social, and economic events. Since the 1960s, scarcely a day has gone by that a nonviolent movement did not play a significant role.

The heritage of U.S. nonviolence thought is actually a heritage for the whole world. Its roots go back to the Anabaptist Protestants in central Europe (beginning in the 16th century) and to the Quakers in England. But the United States can claim credit for leading the world to a new idea: society can be permanently improved when people band together in organized groups to work actively and nonviolently for social change. Nonviolent social and political movements emerged first among the Quakers in colonial North America and then among the Abolitionists before the Civil War. The idea gradually spread around the world. The great novelist and Christian nonviolence writer, Leo Tolstoy, was inspired by the writings of the Abolitionists. So was the greatest of all nonviolent activists, Gandhi. The ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi came back here to the U.S., where they inspired many others, who often did not know that ideas they ascribed to Tolstoy and Gandhi had their origin in this country.

Nonviolence movements in the U.S. have helped to spawn similar movements around the world. From Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe to Burma to the Philippines to central and south America, people have not only studied but implemented the concepts and techniques of nonviolence pioneered by Americans. Often, they have achieved major improvements in their conditions of life. In the long view of history, the United States is at the center of an ongoing global process of nonviolent social and political change.

This outstanding contribution to world culture is too little honored in its home country. Apart from Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., few of the great names of the nonviolence tradition are known even to well-educated Americans. How many of us today know anything about the Americans who kept alive the tradition that has inspired activists around the world: men like John Woolman, William Lloyd Garrison, A. J. Muste, and Norman Thomas; women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams, Barbara Deming, and Dorothy Day.

Nonviolence leaders are easily forgotten, perhaps because their contributions were rarely recorded in headlines in the mainstream press. Headlines are devoted to the most vivid, immediately arresting deeds of the day. These are often the most bloody deeds. (Journalism students still learn: "If it bleeds, it leads.") Headlines are devoted to the most obviously powerful leaders, those who most visibly shape events. These leaders are usually willing to shed blood to achieve their purposes. Headlines shape our view of the world. They tell us what seems worth remembering. They subtly define what counts as history. In recent years, historians have paid increasing attention to the social history of ordinary people’s lives. When it comes to political events and relations among nations, though, historians still tend to focus on the people and events that made headlines. Thus we know the remember the great presidents and generals, but not the great peacemakers.

The nonviolence tradition runs quietly, like an underground stream, through U.S. history. Its effects have been less visible than the tradition of war and violence. But its effects may some day prove to be more lasting. A Chinese leader was once asked to assess the effects of the French Revolution. Though it was nearly 200 years after the event, he wisely replied: "It is too soon to tell." The same may be true of the men and women who led America’s nonviolence movements.

The important role of women in the history of nonviolence raises a troubling issue. Nearly all the major figures discussed in this book are men. Women have made huge contributions to the history of nonviolence. The most outstanding among them are mentioned in the following chapters, but not discussed in any detail, with the exception of Dorothy Day and Barbara Deming. This reflects the book’s focus on the intellectual tradition. Throughout most of the history surveyed here, women were very actively organizing, supporting, and encouraging nonviolent movements and groups in all sorts of ways. However, they were often discouraged from, and sometimes actually barred from, making major contributions to public intellectual life. This is tragic, of course; had women been encouraged they surely could have enriched the tradition greatly. But the sad fact is that women’s intellectual efforts were done largely outside of the public limelight. In almost every case, it was men who publicly taught and promoted the leading ideas of nonviolence. Future research may show that these men were benefiting from, though not crediting, ideas developed by women. At present, though, the historical record indicates that women fostered the movement in many different ways, but only occasionally played a decisive role in shaping the intellectual tradition.

That situation is now changing rapidly. Women are increasingly sharing equally in every role within the nonviolence movement, including an intellectual role. As the idea of nonviolence continues to develop and grow, women are participating fully in fostering that growth. Feminist thought has enriched the idea of nonviolence already and surely will enrich it even more. Recognizing the limits placed on women’s influence in the past should challenge men to be more open to and appreciative of the important contributions women are making today and will continue to make in the future.

Most of the great nonviolence leaders in the U.S., both men and women, were people of deep religious and moral faith. Most of them came to nonviolence first through their faith, not cerebral analysis. They were preachers more than philosophers. They exhorted people, hoping to sway them by a combination of spiritual conviction, logical ideas, and passionate enthusiasm. They were generally not intellectual theorists who relied strictly on the power of logical ideas. So they usually presented their thinking in rather fragmentary and unsystematic ways, often containing sizeable amounts of contradiction. Their legacy of words allows for many different concepts and interpretations. That is why, in the history of the idea of nonviolence, no single theory has ever dominated. The history has been a process of endless debate and innovation. It has been, in Gandhi’s phrase, a continuing experiment with truth.

Even though these leaders did not rely primarily on ideas to lead them to nonviolence, they did have very complex ideas. Far from being fanatics or impulsive extremists (as popular imagination sometimes pictures them), they were people who thought deeply, carefully, and soberly about all the important issues of human life. They could explain patiently why nonviolence was the most reasonable, and perhaps the only, conclusion to be drawn from the facts of life. as they understood those facts. To see the full logic behind their ideas of nonviolence, it is necessary to understand their thinking and their view of life in all its complexity.

Therefore, the following chapters will reconstruct the logical arguments expressed or implied in each individual's or movement's words. Each chapter explains the individual’s or group’s basic worldview and values and then shows how they led logically to a commitment to nonviolence. Often this means explaining their logic in ways that they never wrote down or fully articulated. Sometimes, it means putting their ideas together in ways that they never quite achieved, or even attempted. This effort is worthwhile because it shows how the commitment to nonviolence grew from many different intellectual seeds, but always out of a deep soil of ideas. It shows the full richness of the intellectual tradition of nonviolence in the United States.

Although the practice of nonviolence involves far more than logically reasoned ideas, the study of ideas is always valuable. Its value depends on what the reader brings to it. This book is addressed to three kinds of readers. First, it is addressed to those who have no personal commitment to nonviolence and no interest in considering it. This study can broaden and deepen their knowledge of the American cultural heritage. They can also find it a useful intellectual exercise, a way to test and clarify their own ideas, not only about violence but about many other aspects of life. Studying ideas from the past can help us sharpen our thinking, reflect on the nature and bases of our commitments, and refine our goals, our means to them, and the links between means and ends.

This book is also addressed to people who already participate fully in the nonviolence movement. A better understanding of ideas in historical context can support, enhance, and deepen their practice of nonviolence. A focus on the intellectual side of the tradition can serve as a check upon excessive emotion that may lead us astray. It can help us understand and communicate with others. And it can help us discover new ideas. If the nonviolence movement is to move forward vigorously, it must have (among many other qualities) a sophisticated and durable intellectual foundation. No doubt, the idea of nonviolence in the future will be different from anything it has been in the past. But the thinking of the past is a valuable reservoir of ideas, some of which may prove surprisingly relevant in the present and the future.

As we try to clarify our views about violence and nonviolence, it is worth going back to those who have pondered the same issues before us. Reinventing the wheel is always wasted effort. Although none of our predecessors faced exactly the same problems we or our descendants will face, the problems of the past were often surprisingly similar to those of the present and future. If none of our predecessors came up with formulations that are fully satisfying to us, at least they have seen virtually all the problems that nonviolence thinking must deal with. They have left us a legacy of vigorous mental wrestling with those problems and some insightful, even inspired, solutions to those problems.

Finally, this book is addressed to readers who are not yet committed to nonviolence but are considering it and exploring the role it might play in their lives. They may find that logical reasoning, intellectual exploration, and historical understanding enhance the appeal of nonviolence. At least, it will help them to clarify their own thinking and reach a better informed judgment about it. But reading about the great thinkers of nonviolence is no substitute for reading their own words. Most of the following chapters cite extensive quotations from generally available collections of writings. I hope this book will encourage readers to go to the original sources, to read the quotations in their original context, and to gain a fuller understanding of their meaning.

In years to come, as in years gone by, a commitment to nonviolence will mean participating in the experiment with truth, carrying on the tradition by exploring and acting upon new ideas, no matter how unsystematic or even contradictory they may be. Those new ideas will be tested, and some will prove themselves worthy, in the lived reality of feeling and action. Although nonviolence needs ideas, it can never thrive on ideas alone. It needs example, community, emotion, and perhaps something more. To fully appreciate and evaluate the nonviolence tradition, one must get involved in groups and actions promoting social change by nonviolent means. That is the lived reality of the movement. So I also hope this book will encourage readers to go out and meet the nonviolence tradition, not only its original words, but in the flesh and blood of the people who live it from day to day.

I want to acknowledge help I received in writing this book from many students at the University of Colorado at Boulder who took my course in Religion and Nonviolence. I also had the help of two fine student assistants, Brian Keady and Alexs Thompson. My colleague Robert Lester offered copious helpful comments on the chapter on Gandhi. Robert Ellsberg was a supportive and perceptive editor. I dedicate this book to Ann, because the heart of nonviolence is love.