- early christians
- peace societies
- socialists
- fellowship of reconciliation
- no conscription fellowship
- no more war movement
- war resisters' international
- peace pledge union


We know little of the moral code of our early ancestors, but there is considerable evidence that war, in the sense of organised conflict between groups of people trained for that purpose, developed relatively late in human history. It coincided in fact both with the rise of private property in land and other primary sources of wealth, and in the division of society into classes differing in their privileges and possessions. Tools rather than weapons are found in remains of the earliest human settlements, and there still exist 'primitive' societies in which war is unknown.

Since the beginning of recorded history we have been troubled by wars; but the longing for peace has also been part of that record. At the heart of pacifist belief is personal responsibility - the individual decision to withhold co-operation in the waging of war. The rise of pacifism in the Roman world may be attributed to the strong element of personal responsibility in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This may also explain the absence of pacifism, in its stricter sense, in the early history of China and India, despite the significant aspiration to nonviolence in Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Pacifism based on non-religious concepts is a recent and, with the waning significance of traditional religion, growing trend.

The early Christians, following Christ's Sermon on the Mount, were wholly opposed to warfare and violence. They were certainly not cowards, for they refused to serve in the Roman army and apparently did not flinch from lions in the arena, or being beheaded, rather than kill a fellow human being. Tertullian in the second century was one of the first among the early Church Fathers emphatically to condemn the soldier's profession: 'Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword'.

Two centuries later, with the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine, the Church ceased officially to reject war. Nevertheless, even a supporter of the Christian empire, Lactantius, was moved to write, 'No exception ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be a sacrosanct creature'.

The attempt to reconcile the original Christian rejection of war with the demands of political power led to the formulation in the fifth century by St Augustine of the doctrine of the 'just war', to be waged 'only for the purpose of peace'.

As the official Church departed from pacifism, individuals and groups of Christians began to take it up. Between the second and the seventeenth centuries there was an unbroken succession of so-called 'heresies'. The chain stretched from Tertullian to George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, named after their belief in the relationship between themselves and others based on their appeal to 'that of God in every man'.

The Quakers, as they became more commonly known, were one of the smallest nonconformist bodies. Their following the 'inward guide' led them to a position in which their Peace Testimony of 1661 - 'the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight war against any man with outward weapons' - was seen as a threat to the government. Fox and thousands of his followers suffered long terms of imprisonment, yet throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there was a steady refusal in Britain and America (where the influence of William Penn was notable) to join in armed rebellion or take part in war.

Despite this long and brave tradition of witness, which was directly related to parallel movements for social reform such as abolition of slavery and capital punishment and achieving more humane living and working conditions for the poor, the 19th century opened with an unprecedented escalation of warfare. The Napoleonic wars brought conscript armies of millions, rather than the traditional thousands, into the battlefield, and the industrial revolution provided machinery for wider slaughter.

In direct reaction to this, the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace was founded in London in 1816, and similar peace societies were formed across Europe and in America. Though not exclusively pacifist, these societies were greatly influenced by Quakers and other pacifists, as were the series of international peace congresses which the societies began to hold from 1843. The main emphasis was on arbitration between states as an alternative to war, but there was increasing concern about militarist influences on the young tending towards acceptance of war as not merely unavoidable but even 'noble'.

The peace societies were broadly the product of the liberal-minded middle class. Alongside, there developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the idea of pacifism as an expression of socialism. If, as the language of the day put it, there was an essential brotherhood of man, then men had no business fighting one another. Wars were imposed by the ruling class, and working people were regarded as cannon fodder. The most notable British exponents of these views found their home in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and their attitude was summed up by Keir Hardie in 1913: 'All forms of militarism belong to the past...Militarism and democracy cannot be blended. The workers of the world have nothing to fight each other about...They have no country. Patriotism is for them a term of no meaning'.

In the event, only a handful of socialists tried to communicate 'across the roar of the guns' in 1914, but a group of Christians also did.

'We are one in Christ and can never be at war.' With these words a German Lutheran and a British Quaker, Friedrich Siegmund-Schulze and Henry Hodgkin, shook hands as they parted on Cologne station in August 1914. As a result of their initiative some 130 Christians of many denominations met in Cambridge the following December and formed a continuing group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Members believe that, as Christians, they are forbidden to wage war, and are called to work and witness for the enthronement of Love in personal and national life.

In 1919 over fifty men and women from different countries met in the Netherlands and exchanged experience of the war. It is significant that one of them wrote: 'No effort was made to achieve unity, for unity was the central fact of experience...We met as strangers, we parted a fellowship'. So was born the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, which today embraces people of other faiths.

In 1914, also, Fenner Brockway, editor of the ILP's Labour Leader, invited enrolment in a Fellowship of all men who would refuse conscription, should it come. Names poured in and the No-Conscription Fellowship was launched. Its Statement of Faith declared it an organisation of men 'who will refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms, because they consider human life to be sacred and cannot therefore assume the responsibility of inflicting death'.

The No-Conscription Fellowship embraced all men of military age who were prepared to resist service in the armed forces, and was therefore not a fully pacifist organisation in the sense that all its members were opposed to all wars. Nevertheless, by including people from a wide variety of backgrounds and religious, ethical and political views it brought together the older Christian tradition and the newer socialist humanitarian ideal. Although it did not prevent conscription, it was successful in ensuring that from the passage of the first Military Service Act in 1916 conscientious objection was recognised in principle, if by no means always in practice.

For the first time since the early Christians, and then the Quakers, a government at war had to face direct disobedience, followed by stoical endurance of every kind of hardship and even the threat of execution (the memorial to 73 conscientious objectors who died from ill treatment is in the PPU offices).

A regulation in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act prohibited all literature dealing 'with war or the making of peace' unless passed by the censor. Two Quakers went to prison because the Society of Friends published a leaflet called A Challenge to Militarism. It became clear that not only military service had to be resisted; the whole of society was embroiled in war. Despite such attempts at suppression, the No-Conscription Fellowship continued its opposition to war and assisted those victimised until its final convention in 1919.

Out of that experience and the determination that the new popular slogan 'No More War' should be realised, the No More War Movement was formed in 1921. Each member signed a declaration not to take part in any war, international or civil, and to work for the removal of all causes of war and for a new social order based on the pacifist principle of co-operation for the common good.

Following a series of demonstrations in many parts of Europe, the NMWM participated in the founding of the War Resisters' International. It also took part in developing an alternative to the official commemoration of Armistice Day, which was seen as glorifying, rather than rejecting, the horrors of war.

Alone in a prison cell during WW1 Herbert Runham-Brown dreamed of a day when barriers would come down all over the world and war resisters would unite. Later he remembered the sense of isolation until he discovered that he shared the prison with 30 other war resisters and 3,000 more in prisons around the country. His vision of all war resisters uniting in one movement led to a meeting of people from four countries in the Netherlands in 1921, where PACO was formed. In 1923 PACO was re-organised as the War Resisters' International, based on the declaration: 'War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war'.

Under the totalitarian regimes throughout Europe in the 1930s, under Nazi occupation, and in the Soviet Union and its satellites, WRI sections were banned. However, despite long and brutal imprisonments and even executions, individuals continued to resist war and militarism. New sections emerged after the end of Nazi tyranny and new ones formed after the revolutions of 1989.

The four original sections from Europe have grown to over 70 sections and associated organisations around the world today. Over the years the WRI has engaged in a number of international actions, including simultaneous demonstrations in four East European capitals to protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In October 1934, when people were beginning to feel the threat of another war, Canon Dick Sheppard, well known for broadcast sermons, who had been an Army Chaplain in WW1, wrote a letter to the Press: 'The main reason for this letter, primarily addressed to men, is the urgency of the present international situation, and the almost universally acknowledged lunacy of the manner in which nations are pursuing peace...It seems essential to discover whether or not it be true, as we are told, that the majority of thoughtful men in this country are now convinced that war of every kind, or for any cause, is not only a denial of Christianity, but a crime against humanity, which is no longer to be permitted by civilised people...Would those of my sex who, so far, have been silent, but are of this mind, send a postcard to me within the next fortnight, to say if they are willing to be called together in the near future in support of a resolution as uncompromising as...'We renounce war, and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another'.

The response was beyond all expectations - 2,500 postcards arrived in the first two days! Following a packed Albert Hall meeting in 1935, Dick Sheppard called together a number of well-known people as sponsors of the new movement, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). In 1937 the No More War Movement, sharing the same aims as the newer and by then more active organisation, merged with the PPU. From its beginning, despite being started by a convinced Christian, the PPU's membership embraced a wide spectrum of belief - agnostics, atheists, anarchists, socialists and members of all religions. With the admission of women in 1936, the PPU brought together people who had struggled against WW1, people who regretted their part in it, and a new generation yearning for a future without war.

In a thousand groups around the country, the PPU campaigned tirelessly against a war it dreaded coming. When, despite all, war came, a decline in membership was compensated by even more activity. The Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, working from the PPU offices, helped COs through tribunals, advised on alternative service and befriended those in prison, who, towards the end of the war, included women. Offsetting this waste of human potential was the establishment of the Pacifist Service Bureau to assist Conscientious Objectors in finding socially useful paid or voluntary work.

Protests against the war in general and against particular aspects of the war, such as the intensive bombing of German cities, grew, as did the regular publishing and distribution of the weekly Peace News. In 1942 a Food Relief Campaign was started to lift the blockade against food being imported to the starving peoples of occupied Europe.

After WW2 campaigning against conscription continued throughout wars in Malaya, Korea and Suez until compulsory military service was ended in 1960.

In the early 1950s the PPU initiated discussions on nonviolent resistance, out of which grew the direct action wing of the nuclear disarmament movement, whilst the PPU never wavered from opposing all wars and all kinds of war: Vietnam in the 1960s, Falklands in the 1980s, and the Gulf in the 1990s, have dominated the PPU's work, and throughout these years there has also been a major concern for Northern Ireland.

Beyond unambiguous opposition to all wars, the PPU works on exposing and changing the institutions in society which seem to make wars inevitable. Challenging militarism, together with offering alternatives, continues to be the PPU's main task.

White Poppies are available from the PPU from the beginning of October each year. More and more schools choose to make the White Poppies available to students side by side with the red ones.




 Mon, Jul 2, 2001


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