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  • The Religion of Democracy in Wartime: Jane Addams, Pragmatism, and the Appeal of Horizontal Mysticism
  • John Pettegrew (bio)

The doctrine of Democracy, like any other of the living faiths of men, is so essentially mystical that it continually demands new formulation.

Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets1

In a 1914 report to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Jane Addams remembered how Chicago’s clubs came together two decades earlier around social issues that had been in the air for some time but which took on sudden immediacy amidst the women’s new collective “feeling and thought” and, with that key happening, called the groups to deliberate action. “The newly moralized issue, almost as if by accident,” as Addams described the phenomenon, “suddenly takes fire and sets whole communities in a blaze, lighting up human relationships and public duty with new meaning, and transforms abstract social idealism into violent practical demands, although still entangled with the widest human aspiration.” This fiery social sensibility, rather than distracting concerted attention, could clear pathways for amelioration and progressive change. It worked instrumentally. “When that blaze actually starts,” Addams continued, “when the theme is heated, molten as it were with human passion and desire, it can best be used as a weapon in that marvelous kulturekampf in which [we] are engaged.”2 Writing just days before the beginning of World War I, Addams may have been priming herself for the battles against war in the months and years ahead, as her strategy for advancing the cause of peace would wrest on sparking the intense and spontaneous emotional circuitry that she recalled among women’s club members.

That Addams’s considerable emotional intelligence drove Hull-House and the many other enterprises in her career as activist, reformer, and public intellectual [End Page 224] has been well established.3 I want to develop this understanding while examining her opposition to World War I through what amounted to an ecstatic embrace of demos, a democratic mystical humanism that provided the ideational and emotional basis for Addams’s push for peace. Addams’s religion of democracy should be taken seriously. It turns intellectual history toward the spiritual content of modern liberalism and progressive social movements. It keeps open the question of whether or not religious feeling has a place within pragmatism. Indeed, as a founder of classical American pragmatism, Addams reminds us that the philosophy has long privileged decidedly open modes of perception and feeling. Closely attuned to the emotional bonds between women—and men—Addams constructed a type of teleological loop between attending to her own intense fellow feelings and publicly articulating the qualities of those sensations, which in turn would serve as a prompt for others to experience and galvanize around them.

This essay examines Addams’s fierce opposition to war and equally intense organization for peace by way of mysticism. More specifically, the notion of Addams as a type of mystic medium can be taken literally while studying what she tried to accomplish at the 1915 women’s peace conferences in Washington D.C. and at The Hague. Through words, emotion, and democratic affection and spirituality, Addams emitted that which she thought crucial for positive peace to happen and check war in its growth. If mysticism involves new wedges of perception, then such wedges could come from affection for those one has joined in moving against war. It’s an impression prone to strengthen the imperative to protect the species as a whole. A closely related perception is profound realization that at least the current war is wrong and must be stopped. Dependent on neither vertical transcendence nor even traditional religious faith, both perceptions involve humanist revelation and knowledge powerful enough to motivate resistance to military might and high-minded appeals to nationhood, patriotism, and sacrifice. To emphasize, a causal loop emerges here between commitment to peace and coming together, in real place and time, against war: close emotionally charged interaction with like-minded individuals escalates an ineffable regard for fellow human beings, which is the ideational and social psychological core of pacifism. [End Page 225]

I. Democracy, Unity, and a Continuum of Mysticism

Was Jane Addams a mystic...


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pp. 224-244
Launched on MUSE
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