Chapter 6

World War I: THE crucial turning point

After the Civil War, Garrisonian nonresistance survived in the Universal Peace Union (UPU), founded in 1866 by Alfred Love. Women like Lucretia Mott and Belva Ann Lockwood were especially dedicated and influential members of the UPU. Of course the abolition of slavery was no longer an issue. The UPU focused on the ultimate nonviolent reform: the abolition of war. Yet it struggled against powerful odds. There was little interest in any kind of reform movements in the post-Civil War era. Nonviolence never had much appeal in the South, and the Union victory in the Civil War led most Northerners to believe that war could be justified. Moreover, war hardly seemed worth worrying about. The U.S. was involved in very few international conflicts, and those were quite small. Most Americans assumed that the oceans would protect them not only from war but from the need to think about international involvements.

The 1890s saw a new upsurge of interest in international affairs and therefore in issues of war and peace. The annual conferences of the UPU began to attract several thousand people each year. Although the UPU was bringing a new internationalist perspective to the nonviolence tradition, it was still dominated by traditional moral reformers, who saw war primarily as a product of individual sinful behavior. By the 1890s, though, the idea of ending war by persuading individuals to be more virtuous was rapidly becoming old-fashioned. So the UPU soon found itself on the margins of the peace movement.


The new approach to peace was the Progressive approach. To the Progressives, the 19th century idea of moral reform looked like an oversimplifying effort to avoid facing the fact of change. The Progressives prided themselves on embracing technological, economic, social, and political change. But they wanted it to be rationally controlled change, guided by highly educated experts. These experts studied the makeup of public institutions like schools, factories, corporations and legislatures. They were confident that they could find ways to reorganize all these institutions, to adapt them to constantly changing conditions, so that they would all serve the greater public good.

By and large, the Progressives were optimists who believed that once the causes of a problem are analyzed, a cure will soon follow. They had little doubt that cures would soon be found for every problem, leading to unlimited social progress. But they were upper- and middle-class people who had little sympathy with the discontented workers on the assembly lines in the new, huge industrial plants. Nor did they have great sympathy with the newly rich capitalists who were building those plants and becoming millionaires. They assumed that, if both workers and capitalists would abide by rational middle-class values, they could resolve all economic and social conflicts reasonably, peacefully, and easily. In retrospect, it appears that the Progressives generally ignored, or misunderstood, the new sources of domestic social violence in their day.

When Progressives turned to international conflict, they applied the same kind of thinking. War, too, is a public institution. But it struck most Progressives as an irrational institution that serves no public good. They created a large and influential peace movement, built on rational arguments against war and rational efforts to reorganize international affairs, so that conflicts would be resolved reasonably and peaceably. Education was the key to peace, they argued. Since all people are rational, all can learn to see the folly of war and therefore move to end it. Their practical efforts for peace focused on new institutions: international conferences to resolve disputes, arbitration treaties between nations, disarmament agreements, legal institutions like a League of Nations and a World Court, and other programs to promote peaceful relations among nations. Progressives were especially enthusiastic about the power of free trade to end war, since they believed that trading partners would not run the risk of destroying each other.

Few Progressives advocated principled nonviolence. Their peace movements differed from movements for principled nonviolence in at least three ways. First, most Progressives allowed that there might be situations in which violence was unfortunate yet necessary. These situations would be evidence that one party to a conflict had failed to be reasonable. Second, the Progressive peace movements focused only on war itself. As long as nations were not fighting with each other, they would count their efforts successful. The nonviolence proponents held a higher standard of success, since they wanted to end all kinds of violence and coercion. Third, the Progressives rejected the the UPU’s focus on individual sin and virtue. They believed that society’s problems arose from flaws in institutions and systems, not from individuals’ immoral choices. Therefore the Progressives looked to institutional reform, imposed from the top down, to cure the ills of society.

Although Progressivism departed from the Christian moralism of the UPU, it helped to spawn a new mode of Christianity: the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel preached that it is a Christian's duty to feed the hungry and minister to the material as well as spiritual needs of the poor. That means changing the economic and social structures responsible for poverty. The Social Gospel saw sin manifest less in individual misbehavior than in unjust and degrading social conditions, which lead individuals to antisocial behavior. It was heavily influenced by the Progressives' faith in progress through human reason, teaching that education is the way to get people to change their institutions and themselves. Everyone can learn, they assumed, because all people are innately rational and can be educated to change their behavior. There is no original sin blocking the path to improvement.

The Social Gospel advocates were so optimistic that they believed the Kingdom of God on earth to be quite near. Yet they paid relatively little attention to issues of war and peace. Before World War I, there was little in the way of a distinctly Christian Progressive peace movement. Social Gospel Christians joined in the general Progressive trend toward pacifism. But they did not necessarily embrace principled nonviolence. (Because the mainstream Progressive peace movements were all called "pacifist," it is useful to avoid that word when speaking of those committed to principled nonviolence.)

One noteworthy link between U.S. Christianity and the U.S. peace movement in the Progressive era came through the writings of a Russian, Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910). Renowned as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy committed himself to a peasant-style life of manual labor and a Christ-like life of absolute nonviolence. Christ’s teachings "have now become identified with human conscience," he wrote. To be a Christian is to follow the inner voice of conscience, which is also the voice of reason. And the message of this voice is always an "intuition of love" for all of God's creation. Therefore "the mutual interaction of rational beings upon each other should consist not in violence but in rational persuasion."

All social problems are caused by violence and coercion; the only way to make social progress is to renounce coercion. On this, reason and Christianity agree: "Christianity is meekness, nonresistance, love." This was not an original insight, in Tolstoy's opinion; it was just saying in simple words what was obviously true, right, and well known. Ordinary people in all nations "have reached the period of reasonableness, have no animosity toward one another, and might decide their differences in a peaceful fashion." The Kingdom of God is already beginning¾ if people choose it: "Its approach depends on us. We must do it. The Kingdom of God is within us."

The real problem, Tolstoy insisted, is with the leaders of society. Professors, journalists, aristocrats, and industrialists have largely forgotten the simple Christian truths. So have the priests. Christianity as practiced in the modern world, he argued, is nothing like what its founder intended. But Tolstoy reserved his greatest scorn for government officials. Since the government's function is to rule, he argued, it will inevitably use force and never voluntarily give up either power or violence. The state is, in short, legalized robbery and murder. Therefore true Christians, bound to love their enemies and renounce all violence, can have nothing to do with the state: "The words ‘Christian State’ resemble the words ‘hot ice.’ The thing is either not a State using violence, or it is not Christian." Most importantly, "a Christian, whose doctrine enjoins upon him humility, nonresistance to evil, love to all (even to the most malicious), cannot be a soldier; that is, he cannot join a class of men whose business is to kill their fellow-men." Therefore a true Christian, and a truly rational person, must live life wholly apart from the state and its killing apparatus. The state might try to compel participation, especially through military conscription. Tolstoy's advice was resist, regardless of the consequences.

Tolstoy first developed these thoughts on his own. But he was overjoyed when he discovered the writings of Garrison and Ballou and learned that there were people in the United States still trying to perpetuate those ideals. He, in turn, passed them on through his writings and through conversations with the many visitors who sought him out in his farm retreat at Yasnaya Polyana. Among these were some of the greatest names in U.S. Progressivism. This indirect route helped to keep Garrisonian ideals alive in Garrison's native land.


However, the greatest spur to the idea of nonviolence proved to be an outbreak of massive violence. In April, 1917, the United States entered World War I. A new generation was forced to deal with issues of war and violence. Most Progressives supported the war effort. They accepted President Woodrow Wilson's claim that the U.S. was fighting a "war to end all war," to "make the world safe for democracy." They interpreted the war as one more Progressive reform movement, a rational way to use violence to improve the world.

However there was significant opposition to the war. Some of it came from older peace activists who were skeptical of the president's claim. In the first years of the war, before the U.S. entered, many of them thought that American virtue and moral reform would put an end to this European sin. Once the U.S. entered the war, they were forced to think through their own views more carefully and to distinguish themselves from the pro-war Progressives. Therefore they tended to take a more radically antiwar stand, which led many to reject all forms of violence. Some among them were devotees of the Social Gospel, so that this Christian movement was linked directly to nonviolence for the first time.

There was also a group of young adults who were thinking about issues of war and violence for first time. Their names would soon become the "Who's Who" of the U.S. nonviolence movement: A.J. Muste, Kirby Page, Norman Thomas, Roger Baldwin, John Haynes Holmes, John Nevin Sayre, Devere Allen, Frederick Libby. The list also includes eminent women like Jane Adams, Carrie Chapman Catt, Dorothy Day, Emily Greene Balch, Jessie Wallace Hugan, Tracy Mygatt, Frances Witherspoon, and Dorothy Detzer. Women had certainly supported the peace movement before. But the World War I era was different because women were gaining a new level of political influence through the successes of the suffrage movement. (They would gain the right to vote just a few years later.) World War I saw the first U.S. peace groups led by, and sometimes consisting wholly of, women. The first antiwar march in New York City, within weeks of the outbreak of the war, was led by female suffragists. Jane Addams (the most famous of them) convened a meeting to organize the American Union Against Militarism. In early 1915 she became leader of the Women’s Peace Party and led the U.S. delegation to the Women’s Peace Conference at The Hague. Upon her returned, this once revered icon of progressive reform endured intense criticism. But she stuck firmly to her antiwar views.

Unlike Jane Addams, most of the antiwar activists, male and female, were too young to have participated in the heyday of Progressive reforms. They articulated their values mainly in terms of love and the supreme value of each individual personality. Through love, they believed, all humans can fulfill their highest potential. Love means each person helping all others to develop fully. One of their leading voices, Norman Thomas, said: "The central law of all wholesome life is reciprocity, mutuality.…[But] the group is valuable only as it permits personalities, not automatons, to emerge." Although they advocated democracy, they worried that the majority might rule over the individual conscience.

One of their main reasons for opposing war was the likelihood that war would trample on individual freedoms. They saw this happening most clearly in the military draft. The expression of conscience they stressed most was the right to be a conscientious objector (CO). When COs were persecuted, they and their supporters became more convinced that war violates freedom of conscience and the worth of the individual personality. Many read the writings of social critic Randolph Bourne, who said famously that "war is the health of state." The state always wants to use authoritarian measures to enhance its power, Bourne argued, and war gives it the best opportunity. War allows even democratic governments to demand conformity, which enhances the state's authority. As evidence, he pointed to the U.S. government's massive public relations (some would call it propaganda) effort to foster public support for the war. To Bourne and his readers, this demonstrated the inevitable link between military violence and violence to individual freedom of conscience.

The young war critics were coming to maturity just as the war was putting an end to the Progressive era. Yet its influence was so strong and lasting that none could escape so. When they asked how love can help every individual to develop freely, they generally answered that love will lead us to change the world in which every person lives. The crucial thing is to change social conditions by improving societal institutions. Morality must be a social process. Because humans are social creatures, true progress means making the world a single mutual society. The ideal of love should be a practical means of reform.

The Progressive influence included a marked tendency to pragmatism, the view that ideals should be judged by their practical results. The antiwar movement had no doubt that war does more harm than good. It prevents the growth of global humanistic values. It creates a more authoritarian state. And, far from ending all war, it only leads to more war, because violence always begets more violence. According to pragmatists, the way to put ideals into practice is to study how political, economic, and social processes work. Knowing how the processes works is a necessary first step to changing them effectively. The war seemed to offer a great laboratory experiment. If experts could figure out how and why the prevailing systems had led to war, they could then figure out how to change those systems to prevent another war. For the younger generation, it would no longer do to blame war on sin and immorality. They were more inclined to see war as the logical outgrowth of a maladjusted social order.

Analyzing the problem rationally, they quickly recognized that the social order of the enemy was very similar to, and increasingly interlocked with, the social order of the United States and its allies. Since all the nations in the war were parts of the same system, all were equally responsible for the war. So it made no sense to view war as a fight of good nations against bad nations. Since the same moral conflicts are found within every nation, they concluded, war always creates a single global struggle of the good again the evil. As they learned to think in terms of a single international system, the war critics reinforced their desire for a single global society, fostering humanistic values that transcend all national boundaries. Their ideal of peace was more than just individual moral purity. It was an ideal of institutionalized processes for nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

How could this ideal be realized? As pragmatists, they looked as deeply as they could into the system that had produced the war. What they saw was, above all, capitalism. This was no accident. The strongest organized opposition to the U.S. war effort came from the socialists. They argued that violence is always a product of social injustice. They saw their own society founded on the injustice of economic exploitation. Workers labored for long hours, often in dangerous conditions, for little pay and fewer benefits, so that their employers could get rich. The same exploitation was acted out on a global scale through imperialism. The war, they argued, was primarily a battle of imperial titans vying for economic and political power. Both sides were fueled by producers of weapons and military supplies, who were making fortunes. So the same forces that produced domestic social conflict were now producing an international war. Wherever you turn, they argued, capitalism must rely on, and increase, coercion and violence. The only way to peace would be economic justice, an equitable distribution of goods and resources, in which every worker would receive the fruits of his or her labor. This argument received quite a hearing in the U.S. In the November, 1917, municipal elections, while thousands of young Americans fought in Europe, the Socialist Party earned its biggest vote ever. In 15 Northeast cities it averaged 22%, and in Midwest cities like Chicago and Toledo it ran over one-third.

Among the young pacifists who championed love and the freely developing individual, many feared socialism because it seemed to promote state power and conformity. But many were drawn to socialism. It offered them the most convincing rational explanation of why the global system had produced such a horrific war. And it offered them a vision of a humane society that was pragmatic and hard-headed, yet also utopian.

Socialism, pragmatism, Progressivism, and the ideal of individual self-fulfillment were all powerful influences on the young antiwar movement. But most of its adherents were still Christians. Almost 90% of the COs in World War I based their claim on religious beliefs; virtually all were Christian and most were from the historic peace churches. As they reflected on why they would not fight, some drew on the teachings of the Social Gospel. They argued that, because the political and economic system was unjust, it was also un-Christian. They were an important factor in bringing the Social Gospel and peace movements together for the first time. Even some in the historic peace churches, particularly the Quakers and the Brethren, began to show interest in the Social Gospel ideas. One very practical and enduring result was the Quakers' founding of the American Friends Service Committee. To this day, AFSC is active around the world helping people overcome the problems of hunger, disease, and poverty as well as war and violence.

The new Christian war critics who were not based in the historic peace churches also founded an organization that is still active today: the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The founding principle of FOR was a Christian interpretation of the desire to build a society based on love. FOR members took Jesus as the model of perfect love. They looked forward to the coming Kingdom of God, in which the whole society would follow that model and be guided by love. This was not merely utopian dreaming for them. They took it as a pragmatic criterion by which to judge the present. Clearly, the present would be found lacking. And that would motivate efforts to improve it. FOR was "a fellowship of those who, by the method of love, seek the triumph of justice and the establishment of a social order based upon the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ."

The young Christians in FOR blended a religious appeal to the individual conscience with the Social Gospel's concern for reforming institutions. Their important innovation was to treat those two approaches as two sides of a single coin. The structures of society would be improved when individuals obeyed the voice of conscience and acted with moral virtue. But individuals would be far more likely to obey conscience if they lived within rational, humane, and just social structures. For many in the FOR, that meant structures rebuilt along the lines of socialism (though there was no clear agreement on precisely how to implement socialism). The FOR became the primary organization uniting Christian pacifism and socialism.

FOR members devoted much of their energy to traditional Christian practices of preaching and exhortation, directed at the individual soul. But their desire to change society sent them into the political arena, too. They had to strengthen their organization. They also had to ally with other organizations, both religious and secular. The persecution of antiwar activists made them feel isolated and thus drove them to organize for mutual support. In addition to AFSC and FOR, two other groups arose that endure and remain very active today. Women created the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Supporters of the rights of individual conscience formed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These are only the most long-lived, and thus the best known today, of many such organizations that emerged out of World War I. All were imbued by an optimistic hope that, once the war was over, their movement would lead U.S. society toward ever greater heights of social justice.

THE 1920s

World War I put an end to the Progressive era. Most people in the United States soon decided that their nation had made a mistake entering the war. Pacifism reached new heights of influence. This culminated in 1928, when the U.S. negotiated and signed the Kellog-Briand Treaty, officially outlawing war as a way to resolve international differences. Although the peace movement was rooted in Progressive thinking, Progressivism as an organized movement actually lost much of its influence. Many people blamed the Progressives, with their optimism about changing the world, for leading the U.S. into war. Voters chose a succession of conservative Republican presidents who pledged to restore "normalcy."

However, many of the young people who had committed themselves to nonviolence during World War I retained that commitment. Now their views stood out more clearly from the mainstream of public opinion. So they were motivated to define their views more distinctly and affirm them more strongly. The nonviolence proponents wanted to see more than just an end to war. They wanted to end all kinds of violence and coercion. They were intent on building a society where social order and progress would arise not from coercion but from cooperation. They were convinced that reciprocity was the key to order and progress: each individual could fulfill him or herself only by participating in cooperative efforts that helped other to fulfill themselves, too. Their favorite word to denote the ideal of reciprocal cooperation was "fellowship" (enshrined in the name of their leading organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation). Coercion of any kind would lead society away from fellowship.

During the 1920s, FOR members and other nonviolence advocates saw little movement toward a society of fellowship. They wondered why the growing influence of pacifism was not leading in that direction. Their answer grew out of the line of thinking begun during World War I. Since violence and war are produced by the structures of society, violence and war will not end until those structures are radically transformed. During the '20s, they deepened their analysis of the links between capitalism and violence. By the decade's end, most members of nonviolence movements were convinced that capitalism is the major obstacle in the path to a nonviolent society, and they were prepared to explain why.

The principal argument was that capitalism divides people into conflicting classes and dehumanizes the largest class, the working class. Workers have no power and therefore no individual dignity. They suffer from the economic downturns that capitalism always brings, while capitalists insulate themselves from personal suffering. So capitalism both causes and disregards human suffering. This is a form of coercion, hence violence. Inevitably and justifiably, it generates resentment among the workers which leads to a cycle of violence and counterviolence. The only way to rid society of violence is to transform the economic and political system so that power is equally distributed among all.

This critique was now extended beyond economic structures to the emerging mass culture of Hollywood and radio. Socialists saw these as insidious new ways for bourgeois capitalism to discipline and pacify the masses. They also recognized that nationalism could be used in the same way. This argument was especially powerful in Germany, as fascism spread its popular appeal, but it was also heard in the U.S. In general, socialists made the case that capitalism is always more concerned with social order than social justice.

The socialist analysis also reinforced the new understanding of war that had emerged during World War I. The powerful industrial nations still needed to compete with each other for control of international markets and raw materials. So another war was inevitable, they predicted. That would bring more waste of human life and material resources. In a war-torn world, there can be neither the morality nor the morale to create a socialist society. For all these reasons, war and capitalism are linked together; neither one can be ended unless both are ended together. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking was that nonviolence requires social change. It cannot be reduced to a merely passive abstention from violence.

The next logical question was: Must nonviolence wait for that social change to happen? Or can it be the means to social change? In other words, is it possible to end capitalism and its attendant ills without violence? This was a crucial question because the world's only example of a socialist society was the Soviet Union, which had been born in a violent revolution and justified that violence as a necessary means. On the other hand, nonviolence advocates in the U.S. were beginning to hear about the great successes of a nonviolent anticolonial movement in India, led by a man named Gandhi. This gave them a contemporary example of nonviolent means that might achieve a nonviolent end. In the U.S., the idea began to catch on that nonviolence should be valued not only as an ideal goal but also as a concrete means to attaining ideal goals. This meant that nonviolence movements would be judged by their ability to change society.

In particular, since no war was being fought at the time, they would be judged by their ability to resolve domestic conflicts between capitalists and workers. For most members of nonviolence groups, resolving conflict did not mean capitulating or compromising on workers' rights. It meant securing those rights nonviolently. U.S. workers in the 1920s were not as militant as they had been before World War I. After the Red Scare of 1919, the socialism that had given much of the passion to labor organizing was widely seen as dangerous and un-American. Indeed any kind of labor organizing could easily be discredited by associating it (rightly or wrongly) with socialism. Yet there were still unions, and there were still organized efforts, including strikes, to get a better deal for workers. As nonviolence was more and more closely linked to efforts for social change, the natural place to express that commitment was in support of nonviolent strikes and other organized labor actions. That became a focus for many who judged nonviolence by its ability to improve the lot of workers as they stood up against the bosses.

The focus on social change and organized labor raised a new question. The goal of a strike is to get more economic justice by changing the behavior of the bosses, But the bosses are not likely to change unless the strike forces them, by depriving them of profits. Doesn’t that make a strike a form of coercion? If so, can a strike really be called a form of nonviolence? This question engendered many debates, and every imaginable answer was offered, with no consensus ever achieved.


Most nonviolence adherents during the '20s were still Christians, centered in the FOR. For them, this new turn to energetic social change brought new perspectives on their religion. They explained their concern for social change as obedience to God. They believed that the moral order He has created can fulfill the fullest potential of every creature. This shows that God directs His love to every individual and wants every individual's greatest well-being. Since God is the Creator of all and cares about all, there is a spiritual unity binding all creation. A Christian must recognize this unity and feel responsible for the well-being of all other people. This leads directly to the ideal of fellowship. Individual fulfillment requires reciprocity and cooperation. When God’s moral order is followed, it promotes individual fulfillment by fostering a humane, just, and life-enhancing society for all. Doing God’s will means creating that kind of society—a genuine fellowship.

The duty of all Christians is to follow God's moral order and to enact it in fellowship. True Christians do that because they love God, his moral order, and all his creatures. They want to promote the well-being of all creatures by promoting the divine order. The loving acts of Jesus are an authoritative model for every Christian's life. Each must be willing to sacrifice for others. Each can fulfill his or her own potential only by serving others.

Since all people are children of God (their argument continued) all are capable of choosing to follow God's moral order. Why do so many fail to make that choice? Because they live in sinful¾ i.e., unjust and inhumane¾ environments. The divine moral order commands us to improve the social environment, so that all individuals can fulfill their potential for living good and productive lives. Therefore, obedience to God requires us to understand and respond to social problems. This directs our attention to history. The effects of one's environment are the accumulated effects of the past, acting themselves out in the present. Every social problem is a product of history.

FOR members assumed that God is acting in history to make human life better. But human freedom means that it is up to human beings to do God's work on earth. So they concluded that history is not a story of smooth progress toward an inevitable happy ending. There is no guarantee that we will soon, or ever, live in a Kingdom of God on earth. Rather, history is an endless struggle for love and justice against the continuing resistance of injustice and sin. Every social problem is a site of a power struggle. The unjust are always striving to concentrate their power in institutions that will oppress individuals. Inevitably, they use violence to achieve their goals. Just as inevitably, that violence exacerbates the conflict, creates more injustice, and leads to more violence. That, too, is part of God's moral order.

The FOR’s vision led to a new understanding of Christian nonviolence. It was no longer merely a "counsel of perfection," directed to individuals who wanted to live a heavenly life on earth. It was now seen as a method, indeed the best method, for improving life on earth for everyone. Christian nonviolence movements had been inching in this direction ever since the Quaker colonists had made the treatment of Indians and slaves a test of one's true Christian faith. But the decade beginning in 1917 accelerated that process tremendously. By the late '20s, Christian nonviolence in the U.S. had taken on a new pragmatic and this-worldly tone. It denied perfectionism and other modes of absolute thinking. It viewed life as an endless series of contests between competing values, with some truth on each side. Therefore every concrete situation is ambiguous. The Christian must always make subjective judgments about what to believe and how to act, with no absolute truth or rules to rely on, except the rule of love. So the individual conscience, the starting point of this approach to nonviolence, became the end point too; everything depended on the free decisions of a free and loving conscience.

Yet relativism had its limits. In fact, the FOR was split by debates between more and less compromising factions. Two questions were most divisive. First, can a Christian oppose war while living in and tolerating a sinful society? Or must a Christian opponent of war oppose all forms of sin and injustice? Members who tended more toward absolute thinking insisted that all forms of sin must be attacked. They offered the pragmatic argument that all forms of injustice generate violence, so it would be foolish to clip off a few branches and leave the root intact. They were probably also personalities more inclined to insist on total and absolute solutions. Others argued that it was foolish to make the best the enemy of the good. An all-out attack on the entire social structure might be desirable, but it would probably fail on all fronts, allowing violence to continue in all its forms. And it would alienate other pacifist groups who were not as radical in their view of capitalism and social problems. Did it not make more sense to join with other pacifists to end war, and then address others forms and causes of violence, one by one?

The other divisive question was whether nonviolence must have a strictly Christian basis. Some in the FOR were staunch and pious enough to insist that only Christianity could create a truly nonviolent society. Others were pragmatic enough to say that social change was more important than Christianity, and social change would come more quickly if Christian and non-Christians allied together. The pragmatists were also more likely to see truth and value in non-religious, humanistic ideas. After 1924, they could point to the newly-founded War Resisters’ League (WRL), the first group founded to promote principled nonviolence without any explicitly religious basis. By 1930, this debate had polarized the FOR, and no resolution was in sight. So the organization issued an official compromise statement. It said that nonviolence needs a spiritual basis, but not necessarily a Christian basis. Non-Christian forms of spirituality were recognized as both valid and effective. Therefore, the FOR said, Christians should support non-Christians working for peaceful change.

This was another step toward moving the focus from personal religiosity to group action and political organizing, from individual salvation to practical strategies for concrete social and economic change. Of course most members of the FOR would have denied this dichotomy. They would have affirmed that individual religiosity and salvation cannot be separated from efforts to build a more just and humane society. But this affirmation was itself evidence of how far Christian nonviolence had come from its roots in the moralizing of the early 19th century spiritual revivals.

Another major change from the 19th century roots was the uncontested importance of women in the nonviolence movement. Women assumed that their maternal instinct naturally gave them greater concern about peace. Some also wanted to promote a distinctly feminine movement in order to demonstrate women’s new political power, once they had gained the right to vote (in 1920). With suffragism no longer the focal issue, peace offered a new and valuable focus. But the women’s peace movement soon found itself suffering from internal divisions. WILPF grew and developed into the main vehicle for women concerned about peace. But WILPF was as socially radical as its male-dominated counterparts, like FOR and WRL. A group of more conservative Christian women split off from WILPF. They were led by Fanny Garrison Villard, a descendant of William Lloyd Garrison who wanted to remain true to his values. These women found more congenial allies in the mainstream peace movements seeking international agreements to outlaw war.


It is understandable that some advocates of nonviolence, both male and female, would have become frustrated. As the '20s went on, they saw little reward for their efforts. The nation as a whole seemed to be staunchly conservative. The public was ready to support the more centrist and conservative peace efforts, but it paid little attention to movements influenced by a seemingly moribund socialist ideology. Organized labor fared little better. The '20s saw great economic expansion, but the gains went disproportionately to wealthy and middle-class citizens. Whether or not they were committed to nonviolence, unions were not able to close the gap between the prosperous and the working class.

These frustrations were difficult to bear for some nonviolence adherents. They began to wonder whether an overly strict commitment to nonviolence was preventing progress toward economic justice. The onset of the Depression in 1929 only made these questions more urgent. With the economic pie shrinking so fast, there seemed little hope that workers would improve their situation by strictly nonviolent means. Some began to think that organized labor would have to be more coercive in order to make significant gains. In fact some, like Norman Thomas and A. J. Muste, felt forced to choose between nonviolence and socialism, and they chose the latter.

By the early 1930s, these doubts were reinforced when the doubters looked abroad. They saw a coercive Soviet government apparently making progress. They saw a coercive fascism on the rise in Europe and militaristic Japanese imperialism on the march in East Asia. In the U.S., many thoughtful people were wondering whether the twin dangers of economic depression and political totalitarianism might squeeze the life out of American-style democratic capitalism. In the FOR, a few influential members began to ask whether strictly nonviolent responses were adequate to such an emergency. The best know among them were J. B. Matthews, the FOR's secretary, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who would soon be widely acclaimed as the nation's most influential theologian. The growing doubts sparked a major debate in the organization. Although the vast majority of members held to their commitment to nonviolence, they were forced to think through that commitment more thoroughly. Those whose nonviolence was based only on feeling had a difficult time. Those who had come to the commitment at least in large part through rational thought found it easier to maintain their beliefs.

But they still had to find a way to act on their commitment, to show that nonviolent means could effect social change. They were helped by the resurgent strength of organized labor during the depression. They supported unions and workers' cooperatives, urging them to adhere strictly to nonviolence. Most importantly, they supported the new wave of strikes that spread in the late 1930s, encouraging workers to use new nonviolent techniques of direct action, like sit-ins and "lie-ins." (There were only a few, very limited, efforts to use nonviolence to promote racial justice during the '30s.)

The move toward direct action was aided by the growing awareness of Mahatma Gandhi and the movement he led in India. Among the most important influences on nonviolence in the '30s was Richard Gregg, who had gone to India to study Gandhi's movement. When he returned, he began to teach nonviolence as a very practical technique for social change. (He said little about the religious basis of Gandhi's nonviolence.) Gregg explained peace and social change as processes. He argued that, since a process has many steps, it would be right in some cases to use coercion as one step toward a larger reconciliation of opposing interests. He agreed with Gandhi that the means always determine the ends. But, as a pragmatist, he added that sometimes it is also necessary to let the ends have some say in determining the means.

Gregg's idea of peace as a process became very popular in nonviolence circles. For some, this showed a way to a sort of compromise on the question of coercive means. This was one more sign of the profound change that had come upon the movement in the two decades since World War I. The tendency was ever toward stress on economic justice, social change, and transforming the conditions in which workers and the underclass were forced to live. Nonviolence was increasingly judged by the pragmatic test of its ability to help bring about those changes. This is not to say that the pious and spiritual side of the movement disappeared. Far from it. The vast majority of adherents to nonviolence still based that commitment on Christian faith. But the shift in relative emphasis was plain for all to see.

By the late 1930s, the nonviolence movement in the U.S. was therefore an amalgamation of different and sometimes conflicting motives. It based itself on religious values, which were held to be absolute and unchanging. Yet it tried to judge each situation of conflict in its own particular context, pragmatically. In other words, all cases were the same, yet every case was different. This seeming contradiction was linked to several others. On the one hand, Christians had to credit revelation and religious tradition as unchanging sources of truth. On the other hand, as pragmatic activists, they judged every situation through the eyes of reason and promoted humanistic values. So it was never quite clear whether individual religious virtue or collective social change was the highest goal. This led to a more practical quandary: Should a group like the FOR form coalitions with nonreligious groups to gain specific goals, or should it work alone and guard its ideological purity?

There were other contradictions that were not directly related to religion. So they affected the minority in the movement whose nonviolence was not religiously based, too. The nonviolent response to World War I had emerged from an insistence on the value of free conscience and maximum individual freedom as the highest good. Yet the growing desire for social change put the focus on institutions and group behavior. The free individual might go off in any direction. But social justice required some sort of orderly coordination of everyone's behavior. So there was an implicit conflict between the ideal of freedom and the ideal of a more just social order.

To many in the FOR, these were not especially troubling issues, though. Many denied that there were any such conflicts in reality. They were convinced that absolute religious values and practical efforts for social change went hand in hand, that neither one could be meaningful without the other. They were quite sure that people of goodwill could always resolve their conflicts by rational compromises that would point the way to a consensus satisfying for all. So they believed it quite possible to harmonize all these apparent contradictions in their actual practice of nonviolence.

The nonviolent activists of the 1920s and 1930s laid down the fundamental structures that still shape the idea and the practice of nonviolence in the United States. In their discussions and debates, they explored the entire spectrum of options: from a focus strictly on individuals to a focus strictly on institutions; from a purely Christian nonviolence to an ecumenical or even totally secular nonviolence; from pure nonresistance to using outright coercion for social change. They, and their successors in the movement in later years, would wrestle with the same contradictions and ever-expanding range of options. There is little in the contemporary debates in nonviolence circles that was not already foreshadowed, and often fully fleshed out, in that formative era many decades ago. Their efforts, and their faith in the ultimate triumph of peaceful ways, paved the way for the nonviolence movement of the present day.

Notes to Chapter 6: World War I: The Crucial Turning Point