- Soldiers of Peace: Civil War Pacifism and the Postwar Radical Peace Movement
Thomas F. Curran's monograph, a recent addition to Fordham University's "The North's Civil War series," traces the activities of so-called "perfectionist pacifists" from their roots in the rich milieu of antebellum social reform to their waning influence in the years prior to the "Great War" in Europe. Perfectionist pacifists, Curran explains, adhered to a belief system that combined the teachings of Jesus (as exemplified by the early Christian Church) with a faith in the attainability of human perfection on earth. Perfectionist pacifists believed that those who, like themselves, adhered to God's laws would achieve Christian perfection and therefore gain immediate entrance to God's millennial kingdom. These perfectionists strove to convince others to join them as citizens of God's earthly realm.
To the perfectionist pacifists, nonresistance was a cornerstone of Jesus' teachings. They would continually point to His injunction in Matthew 5 to "resist not evil." Therefore, Curran notes, "under no circumstances should one sinful act be met with another, even if good may result" (xii). Thus, these antebellum non-resistants refused to sanction violence, even to eliminate slavery.
The Civil War presented a potent challenge to the perfectionist pacifists' adherence to nonresistance. The perfectionists maintained that warfare, even when waged to eradicate an evil such as slavery, was a violation of God's commands. As a result, perfectionist pacifists like Philadelphia merchant Alfred Love refused to fight, even though many were hauled before and grilled by enrollment boards. Perfectionists insisted that governments had no right to compel people to commit acts prohibited by God's laws, and they refused to recognize worldly institutions that deviated from God's precepts.
Curran devotes a substantial part of his study to the postwar radical peace movement as exemplified by the Universal Peace Union (UPU). The author argues that the Civil War "reaffirmed the perfectionist pacifists' values, stimulated them to declare with vigor their views on nonresistance and Christian perfection, and united them in their commitment to realize a world in which the laws of God ruled supreme" (108). The UPU became the vehicle through which perfectionist pacifists hoped to convince Americans and the rest of the world that "true peace" could be attained only when all nations agreed to recognize God's law as the ultimate authority in all cases. Toward this end, the UPU sought universal support for disarmament, arbitration, and an international court. The group did not limit itself to promoting these [End Page 108] mechanisms, however. Believing that "true peace" meant more than merely the absence of war, the UPU strove to achieve social and economic justice for all people. Indeed, the UPU was convinced that injustice or evil anywhere undermined social harmony and hindered the establishment of a universal kingdom based on God's laws. Consequently, the organization immersed itself in issues as varied as poverty, civil rights for blacks, Native American affairs, labor disputes, women's rights, and domestic violence.
While Curran paints a vivid picture of the UPU's American activities, the organization's international reach remains shrouded in mystery. What impact, if any, did the group's 1868 merger with the French organization L'Union de la paix have on the UPU's overseas activities? Did the French group share the UPU's perfectionist pacifist philosophy? Did the UPU work with other international peace organizations to achieve its goals? The book remains largely silent on these questions.
The author's treatment of the UPU's demise also leaves several unanswered questions. Curran offers a brief explanation of the organization's decline in the years following the Spanish-American War, but he doesn't address the final seven years of the UPU's existence. Who assumed leadership of the UPU after the 1913 death of Alfred Love, the group's long-time guiding light? How did the UPU respond to World War I? Under what circumstances did the organization close its doors for good? Did the...