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Brethren in Christ Weren’t the Only “Holiness Pacifists” in the Early 20th Century

A new book by Jay Beaman and Brian K. Pipkin
A new book by Jay Beaman and Brian K. Pipkin

Quick poll: Raise your hand — digitally, of course — if you agree that most Brethren in Christ think of our “peace position” as a conviction emerging from our Anabaptist heritage alone.

Is your hand in the (online) air? If so, some recent books on Holiness and Pentecostal groups might challenge that assumption.

If you’re curious, check out historian David Swartz’s recent post at his blog, Moral Minority. (Readers might remember Swartz’s name as this year’s Schrag Lecturer for the Sider Institute at Messiah College.) In it, Swartz reviews a new edited collection from Jay Beaman and Brian K. Pipkin, Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (Wipf & Stock, 2013). The collection compiles numerous late nineteenth and early twentieth century statements on war, peace, and the church’s response from a variety of Holiness and Pentecostal denominations: the Wesleyan Methodists, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army, among others.

The result, of course, is conclusive proof that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various Holiness and Pentecostal denominations and groups espoused a Christian pacifism similar to the forms of pacifism espoused by Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and other groups tracing their roots to Anabaptism.

More on Pentecostal and Holiness peace positions, after the jump.

Here’s a taste of Swartz’s review:

The [Pentecostal and Holiness] statements are diverse, representing numbers of John Howard Yoder’s twenty-nine distinct types of pacifism as described in Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Some documents denounced any law that supported warfare, such as paying war taxes or working for war-related industries. Others drew the line at actual killing. Still others contended for “personal nonresistance,” citing Romans 13 and saying that the state had the authority to prosecute war, but that they couldn’t personally participate. Binding each of the statements together was biblicism, defined by Christian Smith as a “theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” In a very helpful introduction to the volume, Beaman describes the biblicist case for pacifism in great depth. In short, these holiness writers made a very serious attempt to “harmonize inconsistent passages across the Bible.”

Read the entirety of Swartz’s review here.

So what, if anything, might these Pentecostal and Holiness peace positions have to say about turn-of-the-century Brethren in Christ views on war and peace? Is there any “commonality” that might suggest that Brethren in Christ peace convictions were reinforced by embracing Wesleyan Holiness theology?

Perhaps. I’m particularly intrigued by Swartz’s insight (paraphrasing Beaman and Pipkin) that biblicism is the root of these Pentecostal and Holiness affirmations of peace. I’d contend the same for the Brethren in Christ. Even a cursory review of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brethren in Christ statements on war, peace, and military involvement shows that the community rooted its doctrinal positions in an authoritative reading of Scripture.

Consider, for instance, this statement on war, published in the 1915 Manual of the Brethren in Christ Church of the United States of America, Dominion of Canada, and Foreign Countries:

We believe in non-resistance in a qualified sense — that war, dueling, suicide and prenatal destruction of human life is murder, and all other forms of willful human life-taking. The last military command Jesus gave was, “Put up again thy sword into its place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Matt. 26-52. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; by whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. An whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” Matt 5-38, 39, 40.

There is no harm in seeking protection under a civil law that is in harmony with the gospel. But we must not take the law in our own hands and force an issue, but depend on civil authorities to execute it, as did Paul in Jerusalem, when in the hands of a violent mob, and also when transferred from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Act 21-30, 34; Act 22-24, 30; Ch. 23-16, 30.

“If any man sue thee at law and take away thy coat.” This suggests a regular court trial. A brother has the right to appear before the court and testify truthfully in respect to his garment or property, and if the final decision is against him, through false witness or bribe or any other unfair influence, he must submit cheerfully, and give more rather than seek revenge. The same principle holds good in being compelled to take some one a mile, etc. Jesus says: “Take him two,” and not seek revenge. God says: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” It is the “more” that will touch the enemy’s heart. “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.” I Pet. 3-17.

There is a lot we could unpack in this statement: the early condemnation of abortion, for instance, in the third paragraph, or the concluding paragraph’s assertion that Brethren in Christ convicted in court should not appeal but should give above and beyond the amount required by the ruling. But we’ll leave that, perhaps, for a future post.

What I want to focus on here is the use of the Bible. The biblicism of this statement is astounding. Each assertion is backed up by an appeal to a literal reading of some passage of Scripture. Modern readers might dismiss this technique as unsophisticated proof-texting — legalisim in its finest form. Indeed, the Brethren in Christ (particularly in the early 20th century) were pre-critical expositors of the Bible; they did not seek to understand the text’s literary, cultural, or political context and take such contexts into account when interpreting the text or applying it to present-day concerns.

Such criticism aside, the “proof-text” quality of this statement nevertheless underscores the fact that the Brethren in Christ were biblicists: people who acknowledge the Bible’s authority and sought to live their lives according to its commands.

Most crucially for this post, their high view of the Bible drove the church’s opposition to war and violence in all forms. And as such, this statement suggests that the Brethren in Christ engagement with the wider Wesleyan Holiness world might have actually reinforced our peace convictions, rather than undermining them.

Though technically a “sourcebook,” meaning that the volume largely consists of reprints of the statements themselves, Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace also devotes space to an analysis of the reality that current Pentecostal and Holiness groups do not embrace a peace position.

Here’s how Swartz treats that portion of the text:

Why the shift [away from pacifism]? Beaman contends that social pressure was probably most important. Most of the new statements, including the Wesleyan one from 1915, came in the midst of war, precisely when holiness pacifists felt most beleaguered by criticisms of bad citizenship. They were a minority group—7/10 of one percent of the draft pool for WWI registered a religious objection compared to two-thirds of the pool who declined to fight to instead support their family. Remarkably, almost 90% of the 4.9 million married men in the first draft received deferments.

Other explanations include a decrease in separatism and a rise in social mobility. Beaman draws on the Weberian argument that self-denying, ascetic groups experience upward social mobility, which eventually results in a more worldly and sophisticated orientation. This appears to be how worldly wise contemporary holiness and Pentecostal adherents typically dismiss the pacifism of their hayseed ancestors. Consider this quote from a third-generation Pentecostal: “Early day Pentecostals had all kinds of rules of what you couldn’t do. You couldn’t drink a coke or wear a tie or you would get kicked out of the church. Conscientious objection was one of those rules which over time Pentecostals gave up following, just like not drinking coke or wearing a tie.”

Early holiness pacifists would have objected to this narrative that equated pacifism to a soft drink. They would have invoked a sacred text. In 1898 on the eve of the Spanish-American War, Francis Brown wrote to the denominational magazine of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). He asked “Please answer through the Gospel Trumpet: Providing there should be War in the United States, would it be right for a holy man of God to go as a soldier?” The editors responded, “We answer no. Emphatically no. There is no place in the New Testament wherein Christ gave instruction to his followers to take the life of a fellowman.”

I’m wondering how much of Beaman’s analysis here is replicated in his earlier book, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief among the Pentecostals (Wipf & Stock, 2009). Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to adding both of Beaman’s books to my library soon — and digging in to see what other connections might be made between the Brethren in Christ and these Holiness/Pentecostal pacifists!

3 responses to “Brethren in Christ Weren’t the Only “Holiness Pacifists” in the Early 20th Century

  1. Fascinating point that holiness networks probably served to reinforce biblical pacifism rather than undermine it. I suspect that engagement with fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals in the interwar period is what really shifted things.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. I think that engagement with fundamentalism/neo-Evangelicalism certainly was a factor, but I tend to frame it more this way: The Brethren in Christ were becoming increasingly acculturated during the interwar period, and thus experienced a decreased emphasis on pacifist belief and practice. Fundamentalism/neo-Evangelicalism provided theological justification for that acculturation–and, by extension, for a weakened peace witness.

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