The Church of Christ's pacifist history

By Christina Littlefield
Graduate Assistant 

A strong current of pacifism ran through the Churches of Christ in the 19th century primarily because it was a church on the margins of society. The restoration movement rose out of an early American Presbyterian background through Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, and for much of its early years the church avoided all interaction with the state. Some members, such as David Lipscomb, even advocated that church members not run for political office, participate in government affairs or even vote. This vision was based on the idea that the “Kingdom of God was separate from, and would eventually place, human government” and “all human governments were corrupt,” according to Pepperdine professor Dr. Michael Casey.

Stone and Campbell were as committed to pacifism as they were to their mission of restoring the New Testament Church. However, as the Church of Christ acculturated more and more into the surrounding community in the contemporary South, “the pacifist anti-establishment rhetoric was replaced by a nationalistic, militaristic, establishment rhetoric,” Casey wrote in a Journal of Church and Sate article on pacifism in the church.

Through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I, many within the Churches of Christ petitioned the government for conscientious objector status of draft age men within the congregation, as well as protesting the war in church publications and by other means. During World War I, one Church of Christ leader was arrested and others threatened under the Espionage Act for protesting the war. Objectors who were drafted could either take non-combatant duty or face jail time. Within the course of war, pro-war members of the church began to pressure the pacifists. Although the Church of Christ had “the sixth largest number of conscientious objectors of all religious traditions in the United States,” according to Casey, most draft-age church members fought for their country.

“Pacifism became a minority position during the war and most members began to seek to be part of the establishment in society,” Casey wrote.

A segment within the Churches of Christ, known also for its refusal to offer Sunday school classes, established itself as peace churches with the War department and have for the most part maintained their outsider pacifism.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jolted several members of the Church of Christ who were still pacifist into switching their views. The majority of Church of Christ members joined the war effort under the banner of promoting democracy, free enterprise and patriotism.

Although the shift in thinking after World War I was permanent, many individuals within the Churches of Christ, most notably Corbett Bishop, continued to protest war and maintain a strict pacifist stance. Today, some members of the Churches of Christ are still pacifists.

The Church of the Nazarene and some Adventist and Pentecostal churches also began as pacifists and later changed their ways. Other churches, such as the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren, maintained their historical status as peace churches.