A Brief History of Denominational Peace Fellowships (U.S.)
People connect to the work of peace and justice, if they do, at the heart of their personal identities. For most people, throughout history, the heart of their identities is intimately connected to their religious convictions. Even for the non-religious, some controlling philosophy or ideology substitutes for a religious identity. So, denominational peace fellowships developed early in the 20th C. as ways for people to connect their faiths to their work for peace. Many of these denominational peace fellowships are directly connected to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and others have informal connections. This history is for the U.S. scene, although there are denominational peace fellowships around the world..
The “historic peace churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren/Dunkers) have been normatively pacifist for centuries,but they were actually slower to develop peace fellowships than other denominations. Further, because each had strands of tradition that included “separation from the world,” they were often hesitant to join ecumenical or interfaith peace groups. Thus, the beginning of peace fellowships in the U.S. came from groups whose majorities were not pacifist–and could even be hostile to peacemaking activities. The peace fellowships of Protestant denominations came first. In the aftermath of World War I, a huge revulsion toward war swept through the U.S. and its churches, especially, but not only through its mainline liberal Protestant churches. It is safe to say that the years 1919-1940 constitute the period in which Christian pacifism came the closest to being the majority view of U.S. Christians. (Non-Christians in the U.S. also adopted anti-war views in larger numbers than at any time since the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1830s. Pacifists and near-pacifists would not be in the U.S. in anywhere close to the numbers between the World Wars until thel late 1960s as the Vietnam War dragged on seemingly forever.) One strong motivation for the formation of denominational peace fellowships was the protection of the rights of conscientious objectors. Most conscientious objectors to World War I were imprisoned for the length of the U.S. involvement in the war and the peace fellowships wanted to protect the rights of conscientious objectors if and when another war came. If you are not a member of one of the “Historic Peace Churches” (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, Brethren), then participation in a denominational peace fellowship was one of the ways to show a military draft board that one objected to participation in war as a matter of religious conviction.
The earliest denominational peace fellowship was the Methodist Peace Fellowship which formed in the 1920s. The founder of Methodism in 18th C. Britain, John Wesley, was not a pacifist (because he was too much a supporter of the Church of England as a state church), but he came close–considering war to be the most visible sign of human falleness and sinfulness. American Methodists, however, had been strong supporters of the American Revolutionary War and the influence of Wesley’s views on war and slavery (which he condemned in the strongest terms) was slim in the years when American Methodism strove to prove itself as a truly AMERICAN denomination. But the recovery of a Christian peace witness began with Methodist participation in the Abolitionist movement–thanks to the huge leadership of Quakers in that movement. After the Civil War, many Methodists saw pacifism as a natural outgrowth of Wesleyan emphasis on “holiness” or “entire sanctification.” (Indeed, numerous Wesleyan Holiness denominations split off from mainline Methodism out of a sense that the latter was losing this emphasis. Many of these Holiness offshoot groups, e.g., Free Methodists, the Church of God [non-Pentecostal], the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Brethren-in-Christ[a denomination that combined influences from Anabaptism and from Wesleyan Pietism], and the Evangelical United Brethren [a group that would, in the 1950s, merge with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church], were pacifist–at least at their beginnings.) The rise of the Boston Personalist movement in theology, and the Social Gospel, increased the rise of Christian pacifism among American Methodists until, by World War I, pacifism was ALMOST a majority view in American Methodism and the Methodist Episcopal Church was recognized as a “peace church” by the U.S. military. (The Methodist Episcopal Church–South, formed as a split in American Methodism over slavery, had fewer pacifists, but it was still a sizable minority.) The strength of the pacifist witness in American Methodism waned beginning with World War II, although numerous Methodist pacifists continue to this day. Still, the Methodist Peace Fellowship itself became increasingly weaker in the 1980s and died out altogether in the 1990s. Organizationally, the witness of gospel nonviolence in the United Methodist Church has been maintained by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, but many of the more evangelical United Methodist pacifists avoid joining MFSA because of its perceived theological liberalism–especially its strongly inclusive stance toward LGBT folks and its support for legal and accessible abortion as part of its commitment to women’s procreative choice. (Both are stands largely rejected by evangelical Protestants, including evangelical United Methodists.) A “Pan-Wesleyan” peace fellowship began in the 1980s to fill the gap left by the death of the MPF. Methodists United for Peace with Justice began in 1987 as a response to the United Methodist Bishops’ pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, which condemned nuclear weapons and called for the development of theologies of “just peace.” Membership is open not only to United Methodists, but to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Church-Zion (AMEZ), the Christian Methodist Church (CMC), the Free Methodist Church, and the Free Methodist Church. Because MUPJ takes no stand on LGBT issues or abortion, evangelical pacifists among these branches of the Methodist family are more likely to join it.
The oldest denominational peace fellowship in the U.S. in continual existence is the Disciples Peace Fellowship, founded in 1935 as the peace fellowship of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the more mainline liberal branch of the Stone-Campbell movement that grew out of the Second Great Awakening in 19th C. America. Many early leaders in this movement, such as Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and David Lipscomb (1831-1917) were pacifist. As the movement splintered along both cultural and theological lines into the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), pacifism was strong among all branches until World War II, though only the Disciples formed a denominational peace fellowship or took part in ecumenical efforts to end war or make peace. (Note, outside the U.S., denominations related to the Stone-Campbell movement are not divided along a liberal-conservative axis. In the UK and Australia, for instance, the Churches of Christ relate to the U.S. Disciples, as does the Evangelical Christian Church of Canada.) After World War II, pacifism declined sharply in all branches of the Stone-Campbell movement, though a strong pacifist minority remains in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). By contrast, the independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ have become some of the most militarist of all U.S. Christians, with few remembering the pacifist roots of many of their early leaders. (There HAS been an effort by Stone-Campbell movement historians to recover this early witness, the major result of which has been the beginnings of a peace studies program at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN (related to the Churches of Christ), though most of the professors teaching in the Institute for Conflict Resolution do not share the pacifism of David Lipscomb.) One strength of the Disciples Peace Fellowship is its program of “peace interns” who spread gospel nonviolence to youth at church camps.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship began in 1939 and today connects with the global Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
The denominational peace fellowship I know best, of course, is also the peace organization with which I have been most deeply involved:The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. In its current form, BPFNA was founded in Louisville, KY in 1984 out of a meeting of Southern Baptist peacemakers with American (Northern) Baptists who belonged to the (Northern) Baptist Peace Fellowship which was founded in 1940. The BPFNA is a grassroots Baptist peace fellowship that has members in at least 15 different Baptist denominations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It also has strong ties to the British Baptist Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) and similar groups around the world. One does not need to be a pacifist to be a member of the BPFNA, just committed to the call on all Christians to be peacemakers, but it is safe to say that BPFNA gathers together more Christian pacifists in Baptist life than any other organization. BPFNA has ties to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and is represented on the boards of Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.
Other Christian peace fellowships include: Adventist Peace Fellowship (formed in October 2001 as a recovery of earlier–mostly lost–pacifist convictions among Seventh Day Adventists and in response to American militarism following the attacks of 11 September 2001), Brethren Peace Fellowship (1946, the ecumenical and interfaith peace witness of the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches), The Catholic Peace Fellowship (1965, renewed in 2001, with a primary focus on protecting and spreading conscientious objection to all war among U.S. Catholics), Church of God Peace Fellowship (1964 with roots in the Interracial Fellowship founded in the 1930s and deeper roots going back to the initial pacifist witness of the Church of God [Anderson, IN–Non-Pentecostal] in the 19th C.), Lutheran Peace Fellowship (1994–members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the USA), Orthodox Peace Fellowship (founded during the Vietnam War and re-launched in 1984; connects Orthodox Christians globally in peacemaking. Pacifism is not required, but active work for peace is seen as “not optional” for Christians), Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice (founded in 2002 as The Pentecostal Peace Fellowship and quickly expanding to the Pentecostal and Charismatic Peace Fellowship, the current name was adopted to stress both the essential connection of peace and justice in the gospel, and to avoid confusion with another peace group listed below; early Pentecostals were pacifist but this witness was progressively lost after World War I. PCPWJ attempts to recover, deepen, and expand the radical nonviolence of early Pentecostalism.), Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (1940s).
Noticeably missing (considering the peace witness of their roots) is any peace fellowship of Moravians, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or the Evangelical Free Church, or the Church of the Nazarene. Also noticeably missing (considering its many pacifists) is a peace fellowship related to the United Church of Christ.
Of the Historic Peace Churches, only the Church of the Brethren has a Brethren Peace Fellowship, but it is small these days and has no website. The peace witness of the Church of the Brethren is most strongly expressed organizationally in On Earth Peace, the official peacemaking program of the Church of the Brethren. Likewise the Mennonite Central Committee (founded in 1920), which unites many different Mennonite and Amish groups in the U.S. and Canada on matters of missions, hunger and disaster relief, development aid, and peacebuilding, performs many of the functions of a grassroots peace fellowship in traditions that are not rooted in a historic peace witness throughout all parts of the Mennonite identity. In the largest of these groups, the Mennonite Church, USA, there is also a Mennonite Peace & Justice Support Network, linking and supporting the peace work of Mennonite congregations, much like peace fellowships do in other traditions. Among Friends/Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee , whose history I sketched briefly in an earlier post in this series, acts as a peace fellowship and is an official affiliate of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
After World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust (with its roots in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism) awakened ecumenical Christian pacifists to the need for interfaith peace work. The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) broadened its identity and membership basis from Christian pacifists to interfaith pacifists–as did several of IFOR’s national branches such as the U.S. FOR. (Other branches, such as in the UK, remained specifically Christian.) This led to “denominational” peace fellowships connected to the FOR (USA) from other world religions, beginning with the Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941 to support Jewish conscientious objectors). Today, such peace fellowships in other faiths include The Buddhist Peace Fellowship (1968), The Muslim Peace Fellowship (Ansar as-Salam, founded in 1994), and the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship. (Both Unitarians and Universalists began in the 19th C. as liberal Christian denominations and several prominent Unitarians were among the founders of the U. S. branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But UUs today do not widely consider themselves to be Christian, but an interfaith collection of “free congregations” with Christian roots. So, I list the UUPF in this interfaith section and not among the Christian denominational peace fellowships.) To date, I know of no Hindu peace fellowship, no Jain or Sikh peace fellowship, no Ba’hai peace fellowship, Other interfaith peace groups with less connection to the FOR and Christian denominational peace fellowships will be profiled in future posts.
No comments yet.