Book Write-Up: The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America

Valarie H. Ziegler.  The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Valarie Ziegler was my academic adviser when I attended DePauw University, but she actually wrote this book when she was teaching at Rhodes College, before she came to DePauw.  I one time saw her book in her office, and I was asking her what it was about.  She said (as I recall) that it was about pacifist abolitionists in America’s pre-Civil War days, and how a number of them faced a dilemma when the Civil War arrived: Would they continue their policy of opposing war, or would they support a war that had the potential of ending slavery?  I have been wanting to read this book for years, but I either did not have the time to do so, or I simply could not find the book.  The book was not in any nearby libraries, and it was very, very expensive on Amazon.  Well, times have changed!  I found the book at a local library, and the book is more widely available now, and at a good price.  See here for Amazon’s page about it.

The book was excellent, but, if I had a favorite part, it was in the Foreword, which was written by the series’ editors, Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein.  They state that Dr. Ziegler “succeeds by, as it were, getting inside each position and looking at the world from the stance of its presuppositions.”  I found that to be true when I had her as a teacher: that she was good at conveying where theologians were coming from, whether she agreed with them or not.

Did I find that to be so in this book?  Overall, I would say “yes,” for I could understand why people were pacifists.  One person in the book almost killed someone with the belief that he was defending himself, and he concluded that such a policy was not the way to go.  Someone else in the book said that, if a person smites you on the cheek, that shows that the person has problems, and thus you should feel compassion for that person rather than retaliating and possibly sending him to hell by killing him!  But does not non-resistance put one in danger of losing his own life and the lives and well-being of his or her loved ones?  In that case, many pacifists argued, one should trust in God.  Many pacifists did not believe that pacifism was just an individual Christian duty, however, but they held that it should apply to societies as well.  They could point to the disaster that war brought, and they did not feel that war was necessary.  One prominent politician became controversial when he remarked in a speech that the American Revolutionary War was not even necessary, and that America’s disputes with Britain could have been resolved peacefully!

And yet, according to Dr. Ziegler, there were different kinds of pacifists.  Some were against offensive wars, but they were open to defensive wars.  Many were Christians, basing their pacifism on the Sermon on the Mount, but William Lloyd Garrison came to move away a bit from Christianity.  Garrison was no longer satisfied with the idea that God was a war-mongering deity of wrath and violence in the Old Testament but changed into a God of peace in the New Testament, and he became receptive to the idea that the truth of moral values does not depend on whether or not they are a part of Christian revelation, for they are eternal.  Many pacifists came to support the American Civil War as a way to end slavery, an institution that a number of pacifists opposed because it entailed the use of force and violence that went against their pacifism.  Some did not fight in the Civil War themselves but decided to be tolerant of how the non-regenerates went about solving the slavery problem: through war.  Some did not even label the Civil War a war, but considered it to be the state putting down domestic rebellion and keeping order, in accordance with Romans 13.  There were some pacifists who opposed the American Civil War, however.  One view was that the North should simply allow the South to secede, and this would lead to the end of slavery because the North would no longer be dependent on Southern slave labor.  Moreover, there were British pacifists who were criticizing American pacifists for supporting the Civil War.

There were not only different kinds of pacifists, but many of the pacifists themselves could feel conflicted.  They were pacifists, yet they could identify with the slaves who rebelled against their masters, or they rooted for Mexico rather than the U.S. in the war with Mexico, which they believed was unnecessary, and which they feared would expand slavery if the U.S. won.  While there was some attempt on the part of pacifist abolitionists to love and to acknowledge the humanity of slave masters, the masters were deemed to be so vicious and lacking in restraint that there was question of whether they even could be redeemed, or whether peace was indeed enough to redress the problem of slavery.  In addition, Dr. Ziegler argues that the conflicted way in which many pacifist abolitionists approached pacifism may have opened them up to supporting the American Civil War.  On the one hand, they were for non-resistance, period, and they argued that people should follow this path even if it may lead to their harm, as Christ did when he submitted to death.  On the other hand, they contended that pacifism could bring about a just and a peaceful society, meaning that they believed it could be successful in attaining a goal.  What happened, however, when it did not appear that pacifism would lead to a just and peaceful society?  Well, a number of them backtracked a bit from their pacifism, seeing war as a necessary path to peace.

If there was a position in the book that I had a difficult time understanding, it was that of the non-resistants, the more radical among the pacifists.  They tended to be against engagement with government.  They did not take this policy to an absolute, for they did sometimes exhort the government to act a certain way, on the Fugitive Slave Law, for example.  But they were not too keen on running for office, for they thought that the government was evil in its compliance with slavery.  They seemed also to have been rather critical of the nature of government itself, for, while there apparently were indications that they acknowledged Romans 13 and regarded the government as a necessary evil, they still recognized that the state rested on coercion and force, even violence, which went against their pacifism.  Their approach was to try to convert people to Christianity and their way of thinking, in the hope that this would lead to a peaceful society.  And their eschatology played a role in their mindset: they believed that they were in the millennium then, and that Christ had actually returned (in some manner) in the first century.  I admire their integrity, but their approach strikes me as unrealistic and overly optimistic, plus I am unclear as to their view of government: Did they see it as necessary, or not?  (UPDATE: I should also note that, according to Dr. Ziegler, a war in Europe was challenging certain pacifist tenets.  There were pacifists who actually were optimistic that a Christian society could accept pacifism.  For one, a society that is predisposed towards Christianity would be more open to Jesus’ teaching on non-violence.  Second, there was a pacifist belief that most people did not support war, and that war was primarily supported by powers-that-be.  In Christian Europe, however, there was popular support for a particular war, and that influenced some pacifists to re-examine their convictions.)

I am glad that I finally got to read this book!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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