Pacifism, although absolutely opposed to war, never has been confined to antiwar movements. It has been a way of life for individuals and religious sects, and it has characterized peace organizations founded in the wake of wars. Thus, pacifism contributed to the formation of the first peace groups after the Napoleonic wars, notably the American Peace Society (1828). It was the basis of the Garrisonian New England Non-Resistance Society, founded in 1838 by abolitionists and others dissatisfied with the moderate position of the American Peace Society, and of the Universal Peace Union, founded in 1866 by Alfred A. Love following the collapse of peace societies during the Civil War.
The modern conceptualization of pacifism draws upon the doctrinal sacredness of life and abrogation of violence in the Christian religion, strains of philosophical anarchism and socialism, nineteenth-century internationalism, and a religious principle of social responsibility. These were the basic elements that were brought together in the context of World War I.
The oldest element of modern pacifism is the tradition of religious nonresistance that was formed in the first three centuries of the Christian church, under Roman rule. Abandoned for the concept of just war, in fact by the time of Constantine I and in theory Saint Augustine, nonresistance pacifism appeared again with Christian sects in the medieval era. It emerged in the Protestant Reformation, notably under Peter Chelčick´y and the Unity of the Brethren (Bohemian Brethren) in the fifteenth century and among the Anabaptists. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, it was institutionalized in the writings and practice of so-called peace churches: the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Brethren.
Nonresistance characterized the thought of leaders in the early-nineteenth-century peace societies of the United States. It was officially recognized as ground for exemption under the conscription systems of the Civil War and World War I. Many of the Mennonites and Brethren who immigrated to the United States late in the nineteenth century at least partly sought to escape conscription abroad. Traditional nonresistance implied not only the repudiation of violence and warfare but, frequently, dissociation from government, based as it seemed to be on physical force.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, traditional nonresistance was supplemented by anarchism deriving from the religious inspiration of Leo Tolstoy and from those philosophical anarchists who repudiated violence. In addition, some leading European socialists took the position that national wars were instruments of class action that should be boycotted by workers. In the United States during World War I these elements of pacifism brought objectors into conflict with American law, which provided for conscientious objection based only on religious opposition to fighting and not that which derived from secular or political principles or was directed against conscription itself. Furthermore, the majority position of the Socialist Party then condemned American involvement, thus bringing socialists to the antiwar cause.
Also during the second half of the nineteenth century, nonresistance as a force motivating peace advocacy was supplemented by organized internationalism. In some measure this derived from the humanistic traditions of Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant, and it evolved into programs for international law, international arbitration, and even international organization. In some measure, too, internationalism derived from classical economists who, like Jeremy Bentham, repudiated mercantilism and advocated free trade. In the United States, internationalism was buttressed by Americans' tendency to assume that their institutions would produce harmonious progress if written on a world scale, and it garnered enthusiastic support from men of means and prestige in the years before World War I. It is important in the development of modern pacifism because its institutional and world views, and even some of its programs, were incorporated into the encompassing policy platforms of pacifists.
A fourth element of modern pacifism was the sense of social responsibility that derived from antebellum evangelical religion and especially from religious analyses of industrialism and urbanism about the turn of the century. The reform spirit, the transnational outlook, and the political philosophy of liberal pacifism were rooted in two decades of Social Gospel and Progressive activity that preceded World War I.
Upon the outbreak of that conflict, most traditional internationalists supported the Allied cause and became reconciled to American intervention. When the United States entered the war, they viewed the crusade as the vehicle of international organization and tried to write their views into the Allied war aims, notably in the case of the League of Nations.
Meanwhile, between 1914 and 1917 several organizations were formed to oppose Woodrow Wilson's preparedness program and intervention, and to support conscientious objectors: the American Union Against Militarism (1915–1921), which was succeeded by the National Council for Prevention of War; the Women's Peace Party (1915), which was succeeded by the United States Section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; the Fellowship of Reconciliation (1915), which was supplemented in 1923 by the War Resisters' League; and the American Friends Service Committee (1917). In wartime these groups were sifted of nearly all but pacifists, and they became the institutional base of modern pacifism in the United States.
The leaders of these and other wartime pacifist organizations were predominantly Progressives, often women, and with few exceptions were religious. They included Jane Addams and Emily Balch, directors of Hull House and Denison House settlements; Crystal Eastman, an ardent suffragist and expert on the legal aspects of industrial accidents; her brother Max Eastman, who edited two radical literary journals, Masses and Liberator; Norman Thomas, later the leader of the Socialist Party; Roger Baldwin, longtime director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Rufus Jones, a Quaker historian; Paul Jones, an Episcopal bishop; Jessie Wallace Hughan, founder of the War Resisters' League; John Nevin Sayre, interwar stalwart of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; and John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian pastor. They identified with transnational ideologies, whether religious, humanitarian, or socialist; but politically they were pragmatists in the Progressive tradition. They believed in the ultimate worth of the individual, but they appreciated the influence of social institutions upon personal development.
They associated with antiwar radicals, with whom they were often persecuted. Indeed, pacifists formed the American Civil Liberties Bureau in 1917 for the defense of conscientious objectors and radicals during the war. Leading pacifists identified force as an instrument of social control and associated violence with authoritarianism. They therefore associated their own quest for peace with a commitment to social justice, so that they combined complete opposition to war with the spirit of reform and internationalism. Their organized expression of this belief during World War I marks the beginning of modern liberal pacifism and the development of an activist core of the peace movements in recent American history.
Traditional religious pacifism as documented by Peter Brock and colleagues has been a vital, often poignant part of the twentieth-century experience in Europe and North America. It was the liberal and activist strand of pacifism, however, that became most relevant to American foreign relations.