As America joined World War I, the Rev. John Haynes Holmes addressed his congregation on how he would serve his country.
The Rev. John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964) was a staunch believer in nonviolence. (© The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of art, prints, & photographs, New York Public Library; Astor, Lenox, & Tilden Foundations)
Editor’s note: The vast majority of Unitarians and Universalists, both lay and ordained, supported the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917. The Rev. John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964), a leading advocate of the social gospel, did not. Just days before the declaration of war, he reaffirmed his pacifist commitment in a sermon to his congregation, then known as the Church of the Messiah in New York City. He also articulated his theology of ministry and made an eloquent case for what are now the Fifth and Sixth Unitarian Universalist Principles. Most of his congregants disagreed with his position on the war but supported his freedom of the pulpit. After Holmes resigned his Unitarian ministerial fellowship in protest of the denomination’s hostility to pacifist ministers, the congregation agreed to reorganize itself as the Community Church of New York, while remaining in fellowship with the American Unitarian Association. Decades later, Holmes agreed to be listed once again in the Unitarian yearbook. —Dan McKanan
And how shall I, a pacifist, serve my country in time of war?
When hostilities begin, it is universally assumed that there is but a single service which a loyal citizen can render to the state—that of bearing arms and killing the enemy. Will you understand me if I say, humbly and regretfully, that this I cannot, and will not, do. If any man or boy in this church answers the call to arms, I shall bless him as he marches to the front. When he lies in the trenches, or watches on the lonely sentinel-post, or fights in the charge, I shall follow him with my prayers. If he is brought back dead from hospital or battlefield, I shall bury him with all the honors not of war but of religion. He will have obeyed his conscience and thus performed his whole duty as a man. But I also have a conscience, and that conscience I also must obey. When, therefore, there comes a call for volunteers, I shall have to refuse to heed. When there is an enrollment of citizens for military purposes, I shall have to refuse to register. When, or if, the system of conscription is adopted, I shall have to decline to serve. If this means a fine, I will pay my fine. If this means imprisonment, I will serve my term. If this means persecution, I will carry my cross...
And this resolution applies, let me now be careful to state, quite as much to my professional as to my personal life. Once war is here, the churches will be called upon to enlist, as will every other social institution. Therefore would I make it plain that, so long as I am your minister, the Church of the Messiah will answer no military summons. Other pulpits may preach recruiting sermons; mine will not. Other parish houses may be turned into drill halls and rifle ranges; ours will not. Other clergymen may pray to God for victory for our arms; I will not. In this church, if nowhere else in all America, the Germans will still be included in the family of God’s children...
But if I will not, or cannot, either as man or minister, have part in the operations of war, how can I talk of such a thing as serving the nation? When the enemy is at the gates, what is there to do but to snatch up a sword, and fight? Let me tell you what there is to do. Let me specify at least four things which I propose to do.
First of all, I shall make it my duty to fulfill in word and deed the gracious tasks of what may be called the ministry of reconciliation. In a time of raging hate and brutal passion, I will keep alive that spirit of goodwill toward men, through which alone a durable peace on earth may some day be established...
Secondly, I will serve my country in war time by serving the ideals of democracy which constitute the soul and center of her being. War and democracy are incompatible. When war comes, democracy goes. England, fighting nobly to conquer Prussianism, is herself in process of being conquered by the Prussian spirit. Already in our own country, before the beginning of war, the dread work of militarism is under way. Already freedom of thought is being denied, and liberty of conscience challenged. Already we are in the midst of such an orgy of bigotry, intolerance, and persecution for opinion’s sake, as American has not seen since the days of the Salem witches... One such assault is now being made in the movement for universal military training. So long as I have breath to speak, or hand to lift a pen, I will oppose this monstrous thing. By conscription the autocracies of Europe have stood thus long...
Thirdly, I will serve my country at this time by preparing the way, so far as I am able, for the establishment of that peace which sooner or later must follow upon war...
Lastly, I will serve my country in war time, by serving the dream of international brotherhood. No nation is worthy the allegiance of even the meanest of her citizenry, which is not dedicated to the establishment of that larger and more inclusive life of universal association, which is the glad promise of mankind...
This is my service for the days of war—the ministry of reconciliation, the defence of democracy, the preparation of the gospel of peace, the quest of brotherhood...
That you will follow me upon this road of travail, I cannot command and will not ask. I reverence too deeply and cherish too tenderly not only my freedom but your own, to venture such an appeal to your good nature. But that you will be not unwilling to have your minister lead your church upon this road, I dare to hope. When confusion, death and terror are about us, I like to think that you will be glad to find in the refuge of this place, “those things which cannot be shaken.” When cries of hate and lust are burdening the air, I like to think that you will rejoice to hear within this sanctuary the words that tell of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
Excerpted with permission from A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Volume Two: From 1900 to the Present, ed. by Dan McKanan (Skinner House, 2017).
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The Rev. John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964) was a prominent Unitarian minister, outspoken peace activist, and co-founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He served congregations in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and New York City.
Daniel McKanan is the first Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press, 2011), among other books.
He and his family worship at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Massachusetts.
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