Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

100 Baptist Pacifists (1-25)

I was having a conversation this week about Christian pacifism or, as I prefer to say, gospel nonviolence.  The Christian Church was pacifist from its beginnings for 3 1/2 centuries–and majority pacifist for another half -century.  But for 16 centuries now, pacifism has been a “minority report” among Christians and, in the United States (for some time a particularly violent and militaristic culture) many of the majority who call themselves Christian have never even heard of gospel nonviolence or knowingly met a Christian pacifist.  Studies by the Pew Center and others have shown that among conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals in the U.S., the more frequently one attends church, the more likely one is to support torture, the death penalty, and war (and, yet, these same people constantly proclaim Christianity to be a “religion of love and peace” and demonize all Muslims as terrorists!).  So, Christian pacifists like myself often have these kinds of conversations where we try to explain Christian pacifism to dumbfounded persons who have never heard of it. It was one of those conversations.  Suddenly my interlocutor realized that I belong to the Baptist tradition. It shouldn’t have struck him as unusual–although my particular denomination, the Alliance of Baptists, is quite small, Baptists taken as a whole comprise the largest Protestant group in the U.S. and are especially strong in the U.S. South (though we entered North America and first took root in New England, especially Rhode Island).  But my interlocutor had never heard of a Baptist pacifist!

Why, he asked, aren’t Baptists the most pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro-gun, pro-militarism, group of Christians ever? I could think of some rivals, but admitted that in recent years in the U.S., Baptists had that reputation–especially because of the size and influence of the Southern Baptist Convention which, since the 1980s, has been all of those things.  But, I replied, this hasn’t always been the case historically, nor is it true even today all over the world.  Although never one of the “historic peace churches,” pacifism has always been a significant minority report among Baptists and we have been involved in campaigns for peace, justice, and human rights throughout our 400 years as a distinct Christian movement. (Unfortunately, it’s also true that Baptists have been on the other side of those movements, too.  But this could be said by MOST Christian groups, sadly.)  He didn’t believe me.  He was a well-informed student of U.S. religious movements and challenged me to name 10 Baptist pacifists whose names he, or most well-informed observers of American religion, would know. I did so.  So, he upped the ante: Could I name ONE HUNDRED Baptist pacifists?  That took more time.  Here are my results in roughly chronological order.  I may profile many in this list in future posts.

The number of Baptist women who are pacifists is probably far larger than with men, both historically and now. But because of the silencing of women’s voices in most of history, I know of fewer examples. (There are others I suspect, but cannot document. They wrote mainly on other subjects.) Likewise, my knowledge of Baptist life outside North America and the UK is limited, though I keep seeking to broaden it.  Readers who have other examples are encouraged to send them to me in the comments, so that this list becomes more multicultural than at present.

Some names I would like to have included, but, while I am sure they were strongly pro-peace and anti-militaristic, I cannot be sure they were complete pacifists. For example, the famous 19th C. British evangelist, Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), a hero to many conservative Baptists, especially Calvinistic conservative Baptists, was a strong opponent of both the Boer War and the Crimean War and openly admired the Quakers’ Peace Testimony–longing for the day when all Christians would adopt the Quaker view on violence. I strongly suspect Spurgeon to be a pacifist, but he never used the term, and his words are not definite enough to know whether his admiration for the Quaker peace testimony led him to completely embrace it.  Wherever I have encountered such ambiguities–and this was pretty often–I erred on the side of caution and left said person out of this list of Baptist pacifists. (If I had included “near pacifist” Baptist peacemakers, I could have provided 500 to a thousand names without much difficulty.)

I do not reproduce this list in order to brag on Baptists. I think our current reputation for militarism and violence (at least in North America) is well deserved and shameful. And I think that all Christians should be pacifists as part of being followers of the Prince of Peace.  But I want to help recover this subversive minority report in my tradition–and hope it spreads like wildfire.  Peace is at the heart of the gospel and evangelism without peacemaking is a false gospel.

  1. John Smyth (c.1570-1612).  Puritan pastor and exile to Holland who, under influence by Waterlander Mennonites, founded the modern Baptist movement. Becoming convinced of nonviolence, he and most of his exiled English congregation merged with the Amsterdam congregation of Waterlander Mennonites.
  2. John Murton (c. 1585-1621).  In 1611 a small group of Smyth’s congregation refused to merge with the Mennonites. Led by lawyer Thomas Helwys, they returned to England and founded the first Baptist congregation on English soil in Spitalfields, a suburb of London with Helwys serving as pastor.  Helwys was not a pacifist, but several of his congregation were. When he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for speaking out for religious liberty, John Murton took over as pastor until he, too, was imprisoned and died there.  Murton was a pacifist and, upon his death, his wife returned to Amsterdam and was accepted by the Mennonites “without further baptism,” meaning that they accepted her as “of like faith and order” including on nonviolence.
  3. Richard Overton (c. 1599-1664).  English Puritan, briefly a member of the Amsterdam Waterlander Mennonites, then an English General Baptist and a leader of the Leveller movement in the days of the English Civil War. Overton coined the term, “human rights” and both he and his wife practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to the authorities for the cause of religious liberty.  Many have denied that Overton was a pacifist because some of the Leveller tracts he co-authored allowed for minimal militias to replace standing armies–but these were jointly authored political manifestos, not sermons. On no document solely authored by Overton is violence ever justified.
  4. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), General  Baptist layperson and leader of the nonviolent movement for agrarian reform known as the “Diggers” or “True Levellers.” After the Digger movement collapsed and General Baptists became more conservative, Winstanley, toward the end of his life, became a Quaker.
  5. John Rogers (1648-1721) a Baptist minister who came to pacifist principles and refused to swear an oath to defend the colonies or crown by force. His followers, who blended the Baptist and Quaker traditions, became known as “Rogerenes.”
  6. Shubal Stearns (1706-1771), early leader of the “Separate” or “New Light” revivalist Baptists who planted the “Sandy Creek” Baptist tradition in the U.S. South, along with his brother-in-law, John Marshall, and his sister, Martha Stearns Marshall (who were also probably pacifists, but I can’t be sure).  In 1770, Stearns threatened to excommunicate anyone in the Sandy Creek Baptist church who took up arms against the governing authorities.
  7. George Liele (also spelled “Lisle”) (c. 1750-1828).  Born a slave in Georgia, Liele was manumitted by his master when he was called to the Baptist ministry. He started many of the oldest African-American Baptist congregations in North America.  When, after his former master’s death, the man’s children tried to re-enslave Liele, he left for Jamaica and founded the first Baptist congregation in the Caribbean among the slaves there–anticipating William Carey and the modern mission movement by a decade.  In the church covenant Liele drew up for the Jamaican Baptists we find these words, “We hold not to the shedding of blood. . .”
  8. William Carey (1761-1834) illiterate shoe cobbler turned Baptist minister–and an autodidact who taught himself Hebrew, Greek, and several languages spoken in India. Carey helped to launch the modern missions movement by founding the Baptist Mission Society (BMS–Today known as Baptist World Mission) and becoming its first missionary–to India.  In India, Carey preached for 10 years before his first convert, while learning to translate the Scriptures into Hindi, Punjabi, Gujurat and other Indian languages.  He also worked for social justice, including opposition to war.
  9. Henry Holcombe (1762-1824)  an officer in the U.S. Revolutionary War, Holcombe renounced his commission and war upon his conversion.  Serving Baptist pastorates in both New England and the deep South, Holcombe was a tireless champion of social reform–including advocating the end of slavery, for the education of women, prison reform, labor rights, and peace. He helped to found the oldest peace society in the United States.
  10. Adonirom Judson (1788-1850), the first and one of the most famous Baptist missionaries from North America.  Baptist missionary to Burma (Myanmar), Judson was widowed twice and married 3 times–to three remarkable women. (The 3 “Mrs. Judsons” may have also been pacifists. They were certainly strong workers for human rights and peacemaking.) Judson was imprisoned by the British during their war with Burma and his wife got him released. Upon his release, Judson became a pacifist and confessed his shame on waiting so long to speak out against war and Christian participation in war.
  11. George Dana Boardman (1828-1903), son-in-law of Judson and a famous New York Baptist pastor, Boardman was a pacifist who was heavily involved in the 19th C. Peace Movement.
  12. Joanna P. Moore (1832-1916).  Northern Baptist missionary to freed slaves following the Civil War–who believed that racism, war, and the exploitation of women and children (the term “sexism” had not yet been coined) to be the greatest of crimes against humanity.
  13. Frederick Brotherton [F. B.] Meyer (1847-1929) Baptist evangelist in both the United Kingdom and South Africa, Meyer was not only a pacifist and social reformer, but a major influence on Mohandas K. Gandhi during Gandhi’s South Africa campaigns.
  14. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918).  Baptist pastor in NYC’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and later church history professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, Rauschenbusch was the most important theologian of the Social Gospel movement.  Through much of his life, he did not consider or write on issues of war or violence, but as  WWI began–and the U.S. geared up to fight in it–Rauschenbusch became a pacifist and joined the newly organized Fellowship of Reconciliation.
  15. Isabel Crawford (1867-1961). Northern (American) Baptist missionary to Native Americans in Oklahoma’s “Indian Territory,” Crawford often acted as an unordained pastor.  A pacifist, she understood the anger and outrage among the Native Americans. So, she showed them how to use the courts to stand up for their rights without violence–actions which landed her in trouble with the mission agency.
  16. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969).  Famous liberal Baptist minister and founder of Riverside Church in the City of New York.  A follower of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, Fosdick did not notice Rauschenbusch’s move to embrace pacifism. Like most other pastors in the U.S. when America entered WWI, Fosdick waved the flag and cheered the troops from the pulpit.  He even went over to minister to frontline troops in France under the auspices of the YMCA (which was, at the time, an actual Christian mission organization and not a sports club). In letters and articles written from the front, Fosdick worried more about the sexual temptations of “our boys in uniform” than the morality of killing.  But the horrors of war changed him. When he returned, Fosdick became a pacifist and never again preached chavenistic nationalism or militarism. He continued to preach his pacifist convictions even during World War II.
  17. Muriel Lester (1883-1968) Born to wealth in British “Strict and Particular” Baptist circles, Muriel Lester founded a combination church and settlement house in the London slum known as Bow and became a social worker, pastor, self-taught theologian, socialist Member of Parliament, and pacifist. She was one of the Founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1914, pledging “no moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” during World War I. Later a global traveling secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and a friend of Gandhi.
  18. Dores Sharp (1885-1981).  Baptist minister, student of Walter Rauschenbusch and Rauschenbusch’s first biographer.  An early leader of the U.S. chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Pacifist and conscientious objector.
  19. Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987).  African-American educator and civil rights activist. After being fired from the public schools in Columbia, SC for refusing to give up her membership in the NAACP in 1956, Septima Clark was hired by the Highland Folk School (now Highland Education Center) in Monteagle, TN to teach adult literacy and citizenship classes to African Americans. She also learned and taught Gandhian nonviolent methods and tactics to the Nashville students who would lead its Sit-In movement in 1960.  There she perfected her “Freedom School” methods that she used to help lead voter education classes throughout the Civil Rights movementClark was later to successfully sue the Columbia, SC schools for wrongful termination and receive back pay as a teacher. In 1979, Pres. Jimmy Carter presented her with a Living Legacy Award.
  20. Howard Thurman (1900-1981). African American Baptist theologian, mystic, and pastor. A major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.  Thurman was a pacifist, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who knew Muriel Lester, and was influenced by both Gandhi and the Quaker mystic, Rufus Jones.
  21. George Lee (1903-1955).  African-American Baptist minister and nonviolent activist in Belzoni, Mississippi–and martyr of the civil rights movement.  After being denied the chance to register to vote, Rev. Lee started a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Belzoni in 1953.  Lee led the NAACP promptly to begin a voteer registration drive.  White resistance to this move was massive and violent.  On the Saturday prior to Mother’s Day, 1955, Rev. Lee was driving home from voter registration work when he was hit by gunfire from a passing car. With half his face blown off, Lee pulled himself out of his car and made his way to a cab stand. Two black drivers took him to the hospital where he died quickly.  The local sheriff refused to examine the body and ruled that Lee died in a fatal traffic accident.  Even after the coroner pointed to the bullets taken from Lee’s head and face, the sheriff called them “dental fillings” and refused to investigate.  Rev. George Lee’s murder remains unsolved.
  22. J. Martin England (1901-1989).  American (Northern) Baptist minister born in the South; missionary to Burmal; co-founder of Koinonia Farms (see below); adviser to the fledgling Civil Rights movement and Christian pacifist.
  23. Clarence Jordan (1912-1969) Baptist minister from Georgia who earned a Ph.D. in New Testament from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before co-founding Koinonia Farm (now Koinonia Partners) , an interracial Christian farming community South Georgia in 1942.  Worked for racial and economic justice, translated the NT into colloquial English (in order to capture the emotional “punch” of the New Testament for Southern Christians who hid from its radical social message behind the King James Version’s Elizabethan English), interacted with the Civil Rights movement, and denounced war and violence.
  24. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) Former Mississippi sharecropper and granddaughter of slaves, beginning in 1962 (when she was 42 years old), Hamer became a nonviolent activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) and was the leading speaker at the public testimony of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  She was severely beaten while trying to register to vote and beaten nearly to death in jail. In later years she worked with the National Women’s Political Caucus.
  25. Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990).  African-American Baptist pastor and civil rights leader.  Although he served in WWII, Abernathy later came to pacifist convictions.  Co-founder of the Montgomery Improvement Association and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  After King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy led the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. and in 1969 protested the launch of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon while millions starved at home.  In later years he addressed the United Nations on World Peace (1971) and served as President of the World Peace Council, headquartered in Helsinki, Finland.
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February 6, 2011 - Posted by | Baptists, church history, pacifism, peacemakers

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  3. Another interesting note on Fosdick: According to his autobiography, he offered to step down from his pastorate at Riverside when WWII began because he didn’t agree with the war and knew he would have to speak out against it if he stayed in the pulpit. The leadership at Riverside told him to stay.

    Comment by haitianministries | February 6, 2011 | Reply

    • That’s cool,Daniel.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 7, 2011 | Reply

  4. Interesting comments. However I cannot quite get a grip on what you mean by pacifist. I have always assumed it was someone who thought that all war is wrong. And yet God used wars to establish his people Israel in their land 4000 years ago, and indeed used the second world war to being about the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in our time – an essential part of prophecy fulfillment which has to precede the second coming. So I am not so sure that Christians can or should call themselves pacifists.

    Conscientious objection, however, is a different matter. I would have no desire to fight in any warfare, as it seems to me to be wrong to take up arms against fellow believers, and also because there are perhaps limits as to how much we should involve ourselves in the political affairs of this world. So I would consider myself a CO but not a pacifist.

    I suspect that if you were to add Co’s to your list it would be much longer.

    Comment by Michael Newbold | February 8, 2011 | Reply

    • “Pacifism” is not a perfect term, but it is the most commonly used term for the belief that one must never kill.h God can use all things for good purposes as Rom. 8 declares, but this does not make them good in themeselves. The fact that God may use war (an evil) for God’s good purposes, does not invalidate the claim that it is always wrong. My list is not done and is meant to be only illustrative rather than exhaustive. However, although I call myself both a conscientious objector (I was discharged from the U.S. Army as a CO in 1983) and a pacifist, I certainly recognize the uncertainties of all labels. My wife is more naturally peaceful than I am and rejects all war–but refuses to call herself a pacifist. 🙂

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 8, 2011 | Reply

  5. I stumbled upon these lists by accident, and find them fascinating. I am especially interested in the pre-1900 crowd. Is there a sourced pool of quotes, or a bibliography of some sort that could help me locate citations from these Baptist leaders?

    Comment by Jon Henry | February 8, 2011 | Reply

    • No, I culled these from several sources. But I will list bibliographic entries at the end of these entries.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 8, 2011 | Reply

  6. Thanks for the good list and citations of biographical material.

    I don’t split hairs on any of these and it is good to know Baptists who aren’t racists or imperialists!!

    Comment by Gene Scarborough | February 17, 2011 | Reply

  7. William Carey preached for 7 years before he baptized the first convert, one Krishna Pal who responded to the witness of a man who had been in India for 14 years, the first missionary, Dr. John Thomas, who has been called a hyper-calvinist. He went insane with elation.

    Comment by Dr. James Willingham | February 17, 2011 | Reply

    • Agreed. But some Calvinistic Baptists were pacifists, too.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 18, 2011 | Reply


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