A History of Lost Peace

The history of the church can be told as a process which starts with nonviolent peace as central and which is then lost. This is the historical reality of the church, not just in its first 400 years, but often repeated wherever the attempt has been made to restore New Testament Christianity. The pattern is one of return to the centrality of peace and nonviolence in the teachings of Jesus, an initial acceptance of this teaching and an attempt to live up to this reality, and then a gradual obfuscation, fudging, and loss of commitment to nonviolence. This can be demonstrated not only with the Restoration Movement (as I showed last week here), but with a host of restorationist movements in which restoration of the original church and the authentic teaching of Jesus entails focus on nonviolent peace, and then a weakening of this commitment. So, if the Constantinian shift and the acceptance of violence is the “fall of the church,” the church can be said to have fallen many times.

Of course, this is a conclusion Christian “realists” of every brand would resist. Violence and war loom too large, in this estimate, to be defeated publicly and corporately by the church and it is doubtful that even the private individual can make much headway in overcoming personal self-directed violence. Masochism, neurosis, sadism, violence, and war are the given reality, and not even the intervention of God in Christ can be expected to defeat this evil, except in some future estate wiped clean of the present reality. The problem is taken to be so intractable that there seems to be a relinquishing of peace as any sort of real possibility, corporately or individually. Realism, history as we know it, the muck and mess that is the human condition, all weigh too much. To call commitment to peace a rediscovery of the gospel (the depiction peace groups attribute to themselves) will, of course, irritate those weighed down by the heavy robes of tradition and institution. Everyone knows peace is there in the Bible, but some are savvy enough, world-wise enough, grounded enough in history and institutions, to have concluded to the inevitable nature of violence.

Which explains when and where there are renewals of commitment to the peace of the gospel. As John Howard Yoder has noted, “Pacifism arises where people are trying to be Christian without too much rootage in history.” The North American frontier provides a sample proof of the case that wherever there is a frontier culture (Yoder provides exhaustive proofs with worldwide peace movements) or wherever there is a fresh reading of scripture, there is a conclusion that pacifism is central to the gospel and then a commitment to live in this peace.[1]

There is no particular hermeneutic that is rediscovered, but simply an opening, a renewal, or what might be disparagingly referred to as naivety or ignorance. Some situations allow for a fresh start or at least a fresh reading. Maybe every child, like I did, encounters the nonviolence of the teachings of Jesus as raw datum. Then, through education, acquaintance with more sophisticated doctrine and history, one learns better. What is clear is that where a fresh reading is a possibility, the presumption is that violence and war are not part of the authentic Christian life.

In North America, this was not simply the conclusion of an anti-intellectualism, as the age of John Locke gave the sophisticated the sense that, being part of the age of reason, they certainly need not return to the dark ages of medieval theology or the encrusted obscurities of tradition. The Bible is clear and people can reason out its meaning without the aid of priest or church.

On the other hand, revivalism, pietism, Pentecostalism, and just the sense of being on the edges of a new frontier would foster the same confident approach to the biblical text. The United States afforded the rediscovery of nonviolence, or what, as part of a newly founded peace society Adin Ballou (1803-90) would call “nonresistance.” As I described it, part of the impetus for peace was combined with the drive to abolish slavery. David Lipscomb and Barton W. Stone, in their advocacy of nonviolence and the abolition of slavery were following the same course as William Lloyd Garrison, who founded both an abolitionist society and a peace society, each with their own journal.

However, as I also noted in regard to the Restoration Movement, this was not an enduring phenomenon. There was a rediscovery of the words of Jesus, but not usually a deep-seated willingness, as with the Anabaptists, to die for this cause. As Yoder notes, “they lacked a deep sense of the problem’s long history. They did not have an awareness of a suffering community through the ages or of a peace church tradition.”[2]

Maybe for that same reason, the fresh non-threatening condition, there was a mass rediscovery of peaceful nonviolence. The new world was so rife with peace movements, peace societies, peace churches, and utopian communities, that Ralph Waldo Emerson could forecast that “War is on its last legs: a universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism, of liberal governments over feudal forms. The question for us is only How soon.”[3]

Starting with the late developing Pentecostals and working our way backward, we find both those groups indigenous to the United States and those groups that started over in the United States initially embrace doctrines of nonviolence. Though Pentecostalism develops in the 20th century it is the culmination of 19th century Wesleyan revivalism, which had shown Pentecostal-like manifestations at the Cane Ridge Revival in the previous century. Where Cane Ridge, hosted by Presbyterian Barton Stone’s church (but including Methodists and Baptists), would feed into the headier movement of Stone and Campbell, 20th century Pentecostalism was free of the rationalizing tendency and was geared toward a literal interpretation and obedience inclusive of the obedience of pacifism. As Yoder describes it, “In the first generation it became rather directly and simply pacifist, for the simple reason that adherents took the whole Bible straight.”[4]

Though there was a strong sense of being against the world, the world was not anything as complicated as American Nationalism. In my experience in the Assemblies of God, I remember a Philippine national describing his encounters with demons among the headhunters. He gave me a name card in which he described his long list of spiritual gifts, including exorcism, discernment, and other means of dealing with the devil. The demons were always hovering nearby, it seemed. The preacher would sometimes preach, not from preparation but through a directly inspired message. It was more intense and entertaining than the worship at my Disciples church, if a bit confusing for a teenage boy. The reigniting of the gift of the Holy Spirit is a rebeginning of the church, so as with their restorationist cohorts, what happened between the first Pentecost and new Pentecost is irrelevant. History, theology, and Church structure are of little importance in light of the movement of the Spirit.

The story of the upward mobility, success with the implementation of Donald McGavran’s Church Growth theory, and a reversal of integration (Pentecostalism started with poor whites and blacks mixing freely), marks the demise of the commitment to peace. The website of the Assemblies of God, though it is not providing a sequence of this demise, captures an intense, initial focus on peace and then it is rendered irrelevant with provisos. Historically, the need for a seminary degree for qualified chaplains leads to greater focus on education and eventually to a quelling of the strong sentiment of peace. Then in 1967 they relinquished their formal opposition to Christian participation in war, and they gave up their status as a peace church. I assume it would be hard to reduplicate my teenage experiences with the Pentecostals. On my last visit to an Assemblies of God Church, they were indiscernible from other evangelicals.

Methodism in the United States follows a similar pattern of initial embrace of a strong pacifist stance and then a relinquishing of this position (as in the statement put out by the United Methodists allowing for participation in war). Methodism is in many ways the predominant cultural influence on the American frontier. The revivalism of Dwight L. Moody, and his pacifism (little talked about now), were typical of the ethos of the times and a by-product of a long history. Moody was fostered by the Chicago department store magnate, John Farwell, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Farwell would organize the largest corporate ranch in the world, the XIT ranch, and it was run along strict Methodist lines. No guns, no swearing, no drinking, and no private horse ownership for the cowboys on the ranch.

American Methodism, true or not to Wesley, came to emphasize a full-sanctification or ability to keep the ethical commands of Jesus, inclusive of nonviolence. The impetus behind temperance, abolition, and women’s rights was connected to an embodied notion of nonviolent peace. Moody’s description of himself would fit early American Methodism: “There has never been a time in my life when I felt that I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow being. In this respect I am a Quaker.” Instead of joining the Union to fight, Moody would spend the war preaching to both Union and Confederate troops.

Contemporary with Moody, Methodist General Ulysses S. Grant represents the versatility of Methodism in regard to violence. Ironically, Wesley’s most famous namesake in the United States is the most prolific killer of the West. The son of a Methodist minister, and himself a Sunday school teacher to his fellow inmates, John Wesley Hardin killed at least 21 men. The pacifism of American Methodism always contained an unstable element.

The restorationism of Churches of God closely resembles that of Christian Churches in their non-denominationalism and camp meetings in place of a denominational headquarters. They began with a strong pacifist stance and statement: “She [the Church] believes that all civil wars are unholy and sinful, and in which the saints of the Most High ought never to participate.” [5] This stance lasts through the Mexican War and the American Civil War but by WWI it had mostly relinquished nonviolence. The one Church of God minister I knew was also one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. During a tennis game, when the local high school played the National Anthem on a field we were well removed from, he halted the game to hold his hand over his heart.

So too Seventh Day Adventists, who maintained their pacifism through the Second World War and Korean War but now hold loosely to this stance. A Seventh Day Adventist minister and friend depicted to me a church in contention with its own history on both pacifism and the role of women.

My conclusion in this brief informal survey, is that no peace church with its roots in the United States has maintained its peace stance. I would be happy to hear that I am wrong and to hear of the exception. The closest exception, which my daughter pointed out, is the Catholic Worker. It is indigenous to this country and has maintained a strong pacifist ethic. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin may have generated suffering and persecution enough to mold their own unique culture, which survives in the Catholic Worker Movement. Peter, in his Easy Essays sounds very much like a restorationist, but of course they had the sense of simply being true to Catholic social teaching and never considered themselves a church.

Traditional Anabaptist groups and various groups of Brethren, perhaps due to their long history and persecution have been more faithful to pacifism. Their rootedness in history, the example held up of pacifist martyrs, their often distinctive culture, and their sense of long suffering, has surely played a role. Those Mennonite churches I have visited and the short time I spent at one of their seminaries confronted me with a distinctive sense of culture and mission. Though, even among these groups the North American experience has created a rift. The problem for Mennonites, for example, is no longer persecution but acceptance into mainstream culture, which has proven more corrosive than persecution. As long as the world demonstrably hated them there was no problem remaining separate from the world. Subsequent to WWII the peace stance has become not only accepted but admired, so that some Mennonites would now attempt to influence government and there has been a shift in the understanding of the church/world relationship. Meanwhile, some Mennonite churches have been lured by Church Growth Theory and evangelical like success.[6]

By the original standard of these groups, that violence is sin, peace groups indigenous to this country now meet their own criterion for fallenness. If violence is indeed sin, if it is the sin that that Christ came to defeat, then they demonstrate a Constantinian-like failure. The inaccessible nature of this reality, its implausibility, may be an effect of the temptation to violence. We could extrapolate from the notion that “the first casualty of war is truth” to conclusions about the inherent falsehood human violence entails. “Violence is our surest means of securing ourselves. Subduing, suppressing, oppressing, the other is the way in which we obtain safety.” The commitment to making things right through violence and war is already deceived. As in war, truth is already a casualty in commitment to violence. Those who turn to violence have come upon the scene too late, as the course is already determined and the path of violence is already set. Too much water under the bridge or roots already set have predetermined how things must be settled. This is a historical reality but also a psychological reality, which if drawn together can provide explanation as to why peace is a frontier condition – a place of supposed naiveté or a place outside the city gates – continually threatened with realism and settlement.


[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 269). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yoder, 254-255.

[3] “War” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; quoted in Yoder, 275-276.

[4] Yoder, 262.

[5] Churches of God in North America [Winebrenner] From The Faith and Practice of the Church of God, 1829. http://www.pentecostalpacifism.com/home/services/holiness-pacifist-groups/church-of-god-gc/

[6] See the Mennonite publication Direction and the long lack of unity as regards nonresistance. https://directionjournal.org/47/2/complicated-history-of-anabaptist.html.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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