Prophet and Peacemaker: A.J. Muste, Christian Pacifism, and the A-Bomb

Leilah Danielson

I will make the argument today that millennialism shaped how A.J. Muste — a clergyman who was an important figure in twentieth-century peace, labor, and civil rights struggles - responded to the exploding of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Americans, as Paul Boyer has shown, recognized that the advent of nuclear weapons meant that things would never be the same again. Few, however, were driven by the sense of millennial urgency that characterized Muste’s response to the bomb. Indeed, a specific cosmology informed the unique way in which he and other Christian pacifists interpreted the bomb’s meaning. On the one hand, the bomb inspired in them a premillennial vision of doom and imminent nuclear apocalypse. At the same time, however, this vision inspired them to redouble their efforts to rebuild a new world. A.J. Muste clearly articulated this mixture of post and premillennialism in a 1947 sermon when he asserted that the atomic bomb was a sign that "the day of the Lord is here and it is a day of judgment - a great and very terrible day, and who shall abide it?" Insisting that fatalism in the face of this possible apocalypse was "blasphemy, a denial of God," Muste called on Americans to repent for the sin of developing and using nuclear weapons and unilaterally disarm.

I will also argue that this was a "transformational millennialism," to use the language of this conference's call for papers. Muste and other Christian pacifists assumed personal responsibility for the bomb by sending repentant letters to Japan, by engaging in penitential fasts, and other similar activities. In their attempt to convince Americans to renounce nuclear weapons and war-making in general, they also intensified their opposition to the state through Gandhian nonviolent direct action, a method that appealed to them because of its emphasis on truth, its respect for the 'personality' of all people, and its expressed desire to convert opponents. Their activism became the seedbed for the modern civil rights, peace and antinuclear movements that started in the mid-1950s.

A.J. Muste was a radical clergyman who provided much of the intellectual substance and spiritual leadership for the pacifist community before, during, and after World War II. Long active on the radical left, Muste abandoned his pacifism in the early 1930s and espoused violent labor confrontation. In 1936, however, a religious experience convinced him that radicalism without a spiritual element was doomed to failure. He re-entered the Christian pacifist fold, becoming co-secretary of the Christian pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation (hereafter referred to as the FOR).

Muste placed Christianity in the context of the Jewish prophetic tradition, which he interpreted to mean that human beings had a purposive, creative role in history. Indeed, it was of utmost importance to him that the Hebrew Bible was incorporated into the Christian canon.

It was the recognition of the fact that there were actual historical events, things which had happened in time, which had eternal significance. As a matter of fact, you could not separate time and eternity. Just as in this life view you cannot separate the body and the spirit, the secular and the sacred, the actual and the ideal, action and contemplation, and man and God. Any dualism of that kind is contrary to the truth and to a sound religious view according to the prophetic faith and world view.... From the standpoint of prophetic religion Christianity had to originate as it did and its origin was of the essence.... Christianity is life, is history. It is an action of God in the history of man..

The centrality of the prophetic tradition in Muste's thinking helps account for his rejection of the premillennialist notion that the Second Coming would initiate the 1000 year period of righteousness. Muste argued that such thinking was "contrary to any fundamental prophetic world view." He interpreted 'Take no thought for the morrow. Seek you first the Kingdom of God' as "a reiteration of the prophetic world view that the future is…an actual event in time…The goal of history is the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth." The message of Christ, Muste argued, is that "He will be today. He will be for ever…Jesus said, 'The Kingdom of God is here. Repent.' The Revolution is here. Repent and believe the good news. Repent --that is to say if you want a revolution you must be a revolutionist."

Muste interpreted the meaning of the atomic bomb in two interrelated ways, both of which expressed his prophetic world view. On the one hand, he saw the bomb as the logical outcome of war in the modern era. He believed that modern society was characterized by conformity, by a reduction of personal responsibility and individual conscience to a deified nation-state. In this sense, modern war, with its separation of the individual from the act of killing through machine guns and bombs, and its failure to distinguish between civilians and soldiers, was an expression of this subordination of the individual to what Muste referred to as the "mass-will." In an article he wrote for Fellowship magazine in December 1945, for example, he argued that the atomic bomb was the expression of the conformity of the modern age; it was the "end-product of an age of mechanism, of power, of mass-action, of totalitarianism, an age which looked down upon the individual and placed its faith in systems". For Muste, this meant that the only hope for "salvation" was in "the individual conscience," in the individual who was willing to make a decision regardless of whether others agreed with it. Muste believed that if God was behind a decision creative power was "released into human life, into history. God himself acts through men whose integrity is complete, who are prepared to act alone, who bow the knee to God and therefore will not bow the knee to any man or institution." Thus Muste viewed the bomb as yet another challenge to humanity to live up to its obligation to obey God rather than man.

At the same time, however, Muste believed that the atomic bomb had ushered in a "new era in human history," one that contained millennial possibility. He warned that if the United States continued to keep the secret of the atomic bomb to itself, other nations would grow suspicious and begin to develop their own atomic bomb. The resultant arms race would lead to "Armageddon". "It will be the end of our civilization and perhaps even the end of mankind…." People throughout the world, Muste argued, are asking whether Uncle Sam is "the incarnation of Satan, or is he indeed the symbol of Everyman, the Common People, who by the grace of God may at last inherit the Kingdom?" The choice was up to United States. "Never in all history has a people been faced with such a responsibility and such an opportunity as the present generation in the United States. It may well be that, no matter how long man's stay on earth, no crisis of the same magnitude will ever again confront a people. Are we going to be Pioneers, leading mankind into the day of peace and brotherhood, or are we going to use this terrible weapon to push the race backward into 'complete destruction in one burst of universal fury?'"

For Muste, only the state's willingness to relinquish its military power unilaterally could adequately meet the "spiritual crisis" engendered by the bomb.

It is clear that [calling for unilateral disarmament] is asking the nation to act upon the principle that he who would save his life must be willing to lose it, and to undertake a redemptive mission based on the faith that goodwill, or love, is the ultimate force in the universe. I believe that there is a very real possibility that a nation which had power and renounced it in this spirit, becoming instead the 'servant of all', would by God's grace open a new and blessed era in human history. But I am certain that even if the United States should be attacked and crucified after having undertaken such a mission, it would still be better to disarm unilaterally…. To suffer terribly, and perhaps even to perish as a nation, after having undertaken a spiritual mission. No one who professes any belief in the Judeo-Christian tradition can doubt that the ultimate verdict of God and history would be with that nation.

Muste was indeed suggesting that the nation imitate Christ on the cross. Of course, he knew that there was very little possibility that the United States would do such a thing, especially given its trend toward totalitarianism. The goal then was for individuals to demonstrate that there were higher values than patriotism, collective security, and national interest. That there was, in other words, another way: the way of the cross.

Since the bomb was a manifestation of the trend toward reducing the individual human being to the "mass-will," Muste believed that the first step in a campaign toward unilateral disarmament was for the expression of the individual conscience over and above the state. In true prophetic fashion, Muste attempted to garner scientists, clergy, pacifists and other Americans to his point of view. Atomic scientists especially attracted his attention since, following the war, they had begun to organize themselves to press for the international control of nuclear energy. In letters to Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and others, Muste argued that their demands for international control and assertions such as "one cannot prepare for war and expect peace" were moot so long as scientists continued to cooperate in any form with the production of atomic weapons. In a letter to Albert Einstein, for example, Muste contended that the scientists’ emphasis on educating the public about the dangers of atomic war was "not the proper first step in such a campaign. It is indeed, in the absence of a prior personal and moral act on the part of scientists, a trivial and…a dishonest thing to do." Real leadership, he argued, would begin with conscientious objection to the production of nuclear weapons in the form of a work strike by atomic scientists; indeed, this would be a redemptive act for the sin of having participated in the production of the bombs in the first place. "There is…a deep cleavage in our souls and in our society because our moral and social development has not kept pace with technological advance. That cleavage must be healed first and basically within the morally responsible human being. It will be healed in the scientist who becomes a prophet, that is, a man who assumes responsibility for what he creates and what is done with it, a man whose words and actions are in true accord." Muste also argued that the focus on international control was too narrow, that scientists' agenda should also include disarmament and opposition to peace time conscription. In other words, he hoped the scientists would recognize, as he did, that the atomic bomb was a manifestation of a larger issue of growing state power, nationalism, and power politics.

Muste's conviction that the world was facing a profound "spiritual crisis " that called for drastic change and dramatic action such as unilateral disarmament only intensified with the onset of the Cold War, and he worked to theorize and develop a pacifism equal to the task. In a position paper he wrote in early 1948, he called on individuals to build a nonviolent revolutionary movement. Individuals involved in the movement would engage in "holy disobedience to the state and to the atomic war-machine" in the form of absolute conscientious objection and refusal to pay taxes. The reason he called this disobedience "holy" was that he believed such resistance should grow out of the recognition that "the great sin and curse of mankind is precisely the habit of subservience and obedience to the war-making and conscripting state mechanism." He also suggested that these individuals build a party characterized by group discipline and a shared commitment to "live by spiritual and not material values, for spiritual and not material ends. They would be committed to the way of non-violence and truth in their inner life and in all relationships..." Each member of the party would be part of a cell, a small group of people who would work out a discipline for members that would include meditation and prayer, sharing economic resources and simplifying their lives with the goal of achieving an "inner revolution." Strengthened by the "soul force" that would come out of such introspection, each member would go forth into "the world as an evangel of the good news." He believed this movement would be "truly revolutionary" because it began with the individual in an age of nationalism and conformity, and he hoped that it would eventually become international in scope.

Muste envisioned the FOR as the vehicle for revolutionary pacifism, but by 1948 it was clear that this was not going to happen. Many FOR members felt that placing nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience at the center of the organization’s program would alienate the public, and they believed that traditional pressure politics remained a viable mechanism for pushing the pacifist agenda. Moreover, many remained unconvinced by Muste's argument for unilateral disarmament, arguing that it was unrealistic and utopian. Instead, they placed their hopes in a pragmatic alliance with non-pacifists to achieve federal world government and universal disarmament through the treaty process.

Muste was not the only member of the F. O. R. who had hoped the organization would become more radical. Many of the F. O. R. members who had been conscientious objectors during World War II had been radicalized by the experience and they developed an analysis of the world situation and their role in it that was remarkably similar to Muste’s, albeit often without his explicitly millennial tone. Absolutist COs who had been sent to prison for refusing to register for the draft linked conscription to the growing power of the state, and many of them moved toward an anarchist politics. For example, a CO wrote to the F. O. R. magazine Fellowship that imprisoning men for expressing their conscience "puts the nationalistic state in the place of God." Indeed, this argument that the individual’s duty was to God over and above the state was a major theme of pacifist thought and a justification for the protest activities they engaged in while in prison. In jail, these COs gained valuable experience in nonviolent direct action through protests against racial segregation, censorship, and other issues.

Many of the COs who had been sent to do alternative service in Civilian Public Service camps were similarly radicalized. These COs had expected to do work of national importance in the camps and instead found themselves digging ditches and chopping firewood. To make matters worse, they received no pay and no allowance for dependents. Convinced that this was a form of slave labor symptomatic of the state's totalitarian tendencies, they criticized the F. O. R. for supporting the agreement between Selective Service and the Historic Peace Churches that the latter would administer the camps. COs argued that the F. O. R. and the Historic Peace Churches had struck a Faustian bargain in which pacifists had become tools of the conscripting modern state. Some men walked out of the camps, subjecting themselves to arrest and imprisonment. Others participated in work slowdowns and work strikes. Thus, like A.J. Muste, a significant minority of COs, whether in prison or in CPS camps, believed that the power of the state was growing at the expense of the individual conscience.

Also like Muste, COs were convinced that the atomic bomb placed the trend toward totalitarianism in the United States in stark relief, and demanded a radical change in human behavior. To give a couple of examples: Bent Andersen decided to go AWOL from a CPS camp in California when he learned that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Japan. In true prophetic fashion, Andersen hitch-hiked across the country distributing 4000 flyers which stated: "Nearly half a million people were obliterated recently in a mere matter of seconds…Now is the time for the people of America to cry out that the first atomic bombs in history shall be the last! That war be waged no more! Anything less is moral and physical suicide." COs at a CPS camp in Oregon wrote to Muste that "Upon hearing of the introduction of atomic bombing, we were shocked to action geared to stopping the present conflict and aiming to eliminate all war…this moment may be the crucial time for us to speak." They went on to call on men in CPS camps to go AWOL and for all pacifists to unite and engage in strikes, fasts, and protests at factories producing nuclear weapons and at government offices.

COs were not the only pacifists who felt that the atom bomb called for more dramatic, more revolutionary pacifist action. In October 1945, for example, two female members of the F. O. R. (one of whom was A.J. Muste’s secretary), wrote in Fellowship that "the time when we could dare to be timid ended on August 6-with the plunge of one bomb toward Hiroshima….That cosmic crash ended the era of our conscientious objection to war and cracked open an era that demands conscientious affirmation of the one power still secure on this trembling planet-the power locked in human hearts…." They asked: "How can we assert our belief in a love with eternal meaning? How can we bear witness to our conviction that man is bigger than masses? In a government that has slipped from democracy to directive, are there still some projects which we can ardently support? Are we men without a country-or is there still a place to which we can pledge allegiance?" They noted that pacifists throughout the country were searching for new ways of protest and new ways of living as a way to counteract the subordination of the individual to the militarized state. They imagined a series of decentralized communities that would serve as a basis for nonviolent action projects and provide support for pacifists when they faced persecution from the state. These communities would develop a level of self-sufficiency and practice interracial and cooperative living. The article ended with an appeal to the F. O. R. to discontinue its use of traditional pressure politics and instead become "the focus of these energies, bringing them together in one community, translating ideas into action-into a living witness to our faith."

As I stated earlier, the F. O. R. did not become the organization that these women envisioned, and they and a large number of COs joined A.J. Muste in forming the Peacemakers, a group that began with the assumption that total and radical commitment to one's ideals was necessary. For example, the call for the conference that led to the founding of Peacemakers signed by pacifists like Muste, Dave Dellinger, George Houser, Bayard Rustin, Dwight MacDonald, and Milton Mayer stated that "It is not enough to speak, write, vote and send letters to Congressmen against these evils. It is necessary to assume personal responsibility and, at whatever cost, to cut ourselves off at once so far as possible from any participation in these evils." This willingness to accept personal responsibility - to assert their individual conscience over and above the state - was, they asserted, "the revolutionary method." Similarly, in a letter to Muste, Bayard Rustin wrote that, "I believe our chances are not, then, to proceed only with letters and telegrams and public statements but through direct action by men who are prepared to make terrible sacrifices now, to look mad now, to give up all now if necessary…We must find some way to let people know that now we are prepared to go to jail or even to give up all--to get shot down if necessary--but to cry out…In this way we say to the American public and to the world: When do you begin to draw the line?"

When Peacemakers formed in 1948, members pledged to become "organs of a new kind of life which takes away the occasion for all war;" their membership in the organization was through cells rather than on an individual basis; they accepted nonviolence in all aspects of life "as the means for resisting totalitarianism and achieving basic social change;" they refused to serve in the Armed Forces or to register for the draft and vowed to counsel civil disobedience to war and the draft; they committed themselves to simple living and finding a means of livelihood compatible with the Peacemaker program and values; and they believed that inner transformation was the starting point in revolutionizing the social order, and attempting to bring others to their point of view.

Thus, although not all Peacemakers understood their activism in millennial terms, the structure of the organization and the nature of their activism operated within the framework conceived of by Muste, a framework that, as we have seen, was inspired by a millennial cosmology. Their social activism was postmillennial in the sense that they saw the possibility of redemption through human action in this world. Indeed, like Muste, most Peacemakers — especially early on in the group’s existence — defended their resistance to the state in explicitly religious terms. By taking personal responsibility for atomic warfare and other problems of the modern age, Muste and other Peacemakers were taking up the cross, hoping to convert the rest of the world to their vision of humanity linked across national borders and in obedience to God. At the same time, however, this activism rejected the faith in progress that has been a defining feature of postmillennialism. Inspired by a premillennialist vision of atomic apocalypse and totalitarian regimentation, these Peacemakers felt a profound sense of urgency about their mission. They intended that their use of nonviolent direct action in activities like collective fasts against nuclear testing and refusal to pay taxes would not create progress in a politically conventional way, but would rather inspire a thorough and total rejection of war and the modern state. Since these same men and women helped form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942, the Committee on Nonviolent Action against nuclear testing (CNVA) in 1956, Liberation magazine in 1956, and other institutions of the modern civil rights and anti-war movements, their influence on social reform and radicalism in the 20th century has been profound.