The Original Peaceniks

Acts of Conscience
Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy
Joseph Kip Kosek
Columbia University Press, $50, 376 pp.

In his new history of Christian nonviolence from World War I to Vietnam, Joseph Kip Kosek asks what this movement has offered American democracy, and how much of the offer has been accepted. The book is largely about a single organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), founded in the first months of World War I by European and American liberal Protestant pacifists. The quietism of the historic peace churches—Mennonites, Quakers, and the Brethren—keeps them on the margins of Kosek’s story. Acts of Conscience follows the Fellowship through its resistance to two world wars, skillfully explains its complex ties with labor during the interwar period, and ends with the triumph of the civil-rights movement.

Many of the men who founded the Fellowship had been missionaries overseas, and their experiences made them question the nationalistic fervor that had led to a devastating war in Europe. Their international experience also made them attentive to racial injustice in the United States, well before the civil-rights struggle captured national attention. They spread their pacifist convictions through other Christian groups such as the YMCA, as well as in military camps for conscientious objectors. Before long they had a considerable presence at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where many of the FOR leaders had been students. Personal uprightness—no to alcohol, yes to family—was prized as much as...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.