Historical strands of peace activism

Review of Soldiers of Peace: Civil War Pacifism and the Postwar Radical Peace Movement, by Thomas F. Curran (228 p, Fordham, 2003).

Review by Edward Agro

I’d long been anxious to read Soldiers of Peace, hoping it might shed light on successes as well as missteps in the current-day antiwar movement. And so it has.

Soldiers of Peace by Thomas F. CurranThe main character in Soldiers of Peace is Alfred H. Love, who was possessed of the idée fixe that the only way to peace before, during, and after the Civil War was to rebuild government and civil society on a Biblical model.

Reading the story of Love and the Universal Peace Union (UPU) he founded leads to an understanding of several strands of American civic culture and activism of 150 and more years ago that contribute substantially to perspectives we bring to peace and social change work today.

Curran’s evidence persuasively shows how doctrinal rigidity within the UPU and its secular twin, the American Peace Society, most likely lessened the positive things both groups could have accomplished. On the other hand, enough people, including Love as he aged, were able to get far enough ahead of their preconceptions to lay the groundwork for many of the progressive campaigns and organizations of the 20th century.

This review doesn’t do justice to Curran’s contribution to the untangling of the many threads that led to present-day activist consciousness, or his evidence regarding the practice of war tax refusal.

I don’t want to oversell the book; it probably won’t be much help to activists on the barricades on behalf of one or another immediate campaign. But for those whose street-fighting days are perhaps over, who have the luxury of trying to understand where we come from and where we might be going, it’s a treasure.

Ed Agro is a long-time peace activist whose autobiographical statement was published in Forbes.

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6 Responses to Historical strands of peace activism

  1. Kerry says:

    Rather than a series of comments on this blog, I find myself with a series of questions. What does Alfred Love mean by rebuilding government and civil society on a Biblical model? From what I know about the Bible and the political system they had in place for many pages, it’s very… well, antiquated. While I applaud Thomas Curran on writing a book on such a controversial subject, I wonder how he plans on explaining Love’s ideas to the reader. As soon as people see the world “Bible” or “religion” in conjunction with “government” or “politics” there is an almost immediate negative reaction. “Separation of church and state!” they might exclaim. And while I have not read Curran’s book, I can see why the reader might be hesitant to read about such a radical approach to achieving peace in our society.
    On the other hand, from the Christian perspective I can absolutely understand how this could work. Jesus, after all, is the human embodiment of peace and forgiveness. What better person to model our society after if we are trying to achieve peace?

  2. ed agro says:

    Hi Kerry, thanks for your thoughtful note. The necessity of abridging my review may have led you a little astray. Curran’s book isn’t polemical. Rather it’s an attempt to understand what Love actually meant to say and do, and then to give the historical evidence to allow us to decide for ourselves how well he succeeded. Love, who in his youth was influenced by the “Great Awakenings” and millennial movements of the 1840s, was indeed considered to be one of the main spokespersons of the “radical” pacifists of 1860-1900, a time when, very much as today, the peace movement was made up of many strands, religious and secular. Then as now the trick was for all of these strands to come together to work toward a pacific, humane civil society, not to insist that society be utopian, even, if I may risk an argument, one under God. There was great tension in the peace movement of the time between those who spoke of comity coming under “God’s army” (Love’s earlier understanding of scripture) and those who followed the Sermon on the Mount. Add in the secular humanists (Mark Twain was a contemporary), and you have a prefiguring of what’s going on in America today. Studying the period may help us understand how we might transcend some of today’s “unbridgable” divides.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you, Ed, for your further enrichment of our understanding of the provocative ideas in Curran’s book, with its reminders of the importance of finding ways to bring together different strands of anti-war, anti-violence movements in order to achieve peace. It seems that one or two people working alone can cause a lot of harm, but the achievement of peace and social justice advances most efficiently and effectively when undertaken by united communities of dedicated people.

  3. Gold Dust Twin says:

    Thank you, Ed, for your fascinating review of Soldiers of Peace. What an apt name for Mr. Love.
    I have read a lot about the violence the European settlers brought to our shores with their guns and gunpowder, and found it very heartening to learn that there were activists who opposed violence as early as the Civil War.

  4. ed agro says:

    Well, there were also people during the Revolution who thought that there could be better, nonviolent ways to gain independence from England. Many of them ended up in Canada. And before that there were people such as William Penn, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Mary Dyer, in all of whom pacifism was part of their religious dissidence. As usual, these people of religious-pacifist conviction were in the minority. We should remember also that at the beginning of the European settlement of the continent, the indigenous peoples were pretty much worn out by their own internecine battle and inter-tribal conquests. A case can be made that the native Americans’ disunity was a large element in their loss of the ensuing battles. I say all this to point out that the bloody history of America can’t be understood simply as due to the importation of belligerency from Europe. I’m sure you didn’t mean that, but it got me thinking along the above lines.

  5. Jenna Hassan says:

    In terms of achieving the ultimate goal of peace, it is impossible to bring two perspectives together when the individual goals supersede. Thus, the notion of “doctrinal rigidity” defeats the entire purpose of creating a peaceful state. Any necessary reconciliation on the path towards peace must involve the willingness of both sides to see from one another’s viewpoint. The standards placed in the development of peace cannot be established with the preliminary conditions of one side or the other. They must be created on mutual grounds. As Schwebel (2005) has indicated, “before people become activists they must first transcend internal resistance to a changed perspective”. This is perhaps the most difficult battle to face in the struggle toward peace. The doubt of one’s inner conviction is enough to stifle the strongest desire for change. Once one truly believes in a cause, the only impediment in the path toward peace is the means. If you want to change others who have their own rigid ideas, it does not help to approach the situation with a close-minded attitude. If you refuse to speak one another’s language, effective communication is unlikely. Ultimately, one of the most significant steps toward peace involves “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins”.

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