The Decline of Pacifism in Churches of Christ

OK, so I was wrong. Wrong with a capital R. I know that surprises no one, but it’s frustrating to me because I wasn’t wrong so much out of ignorance (like normal), but wrong out of forgetfulness.

I forgot about Cordell Christian College. And World War I. OK, maybe I didn’t forget about WWI, but when I said that the churches of Christ were predominantly pacifistic up until WWII, I was forgetting the first world war. (Which wasn’t really the first world war, but they’re not going to change the history books now)

On my shelves, I have the book Decades of Destiny: A History of Churches of Christ from 1900-2000. I’ve read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. So how could I forget that Lynn McMillon’s chapter on 1910-1920 is titled “The End of Pacifism”?

So let’s back up a bit. During the Civil War, the Restoration Movement found itself divided, both geographically and philosophically. Generally speaking, the churches in the North supported the war, while those in the South discouraged their members from fighting. (I’m painting with broad strokes, I know) More than doctrine, this is what led to the split between the Disciples of Christ and the churches of Christ (a scenario which played out in many other religious groups).

Leaders like David Lipscomb took strong stands against Christians joining the military. When the Spanish-American War came, it wasn’t hard for Christians to see through the pretenses behind the war and refuse to get involved. But then came World War I.

By the time World War I arrived, churches of Christ no longer found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. [You might read Mike Casey’s article “From religious outsiders to insiders: the rise and fall of pacifism in the Churches of Christ.” Not sure how long that link will be valid, but you can read the article there for now.] Now an accepted part of society, they felt a stake in the preservation of that society.

What’s more, the government saw to it to persecute Christians who dared use their influence to discourage others from participating in the war. Two large targets were attacked directly. One was the Gospel Advocate, a publication long known for its pacifist views. During the Spanish-American War, the magazine had republished a letter presented to the governor of Tennessee during the Civil War which declared that the churches of Christ “believe that all Military Service or connexion with Military Service is entirely incompatible with the Spirit and requirements of the Christian religion.” During World War I, Caesar, err, the government threatened to arrest J.C. McQuiddy under the Espionage Act if he didn’t stop publishing pieces promoting pacifism. In July 1917, the Advocate stopped publishing peace articles for the rest of the war. McQuiddy also helped the government persuade preacher Price Billingsley to stop denouncing pro-war Christians.

Tomorrow I’ll do my best to retell the story of Cordell Christian College. Those who know it better than I can be prepared to chime in. And you’re always more than welcome to offer comments and corrections on the story thus far.

25 thoughts on “The Decline of Pacifism in Churches of Christ

  1. K. Rex Butts

    I think there’s credibility to claim of social factors, rather than doctrinal, effectuating the split between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. That’s not to deny the role that doctrine has and continues to play in the division but to acknowledge the impact of social factors in the division raises another question pertaining to the question of war. Namely, what, if any, influence did the socio-economic conditions have on the various positions regarding the support of war?

    Grace and Peace,


  2. Danny Holman

    I was thinking that Ben Franklin and his publication also refused to participate in the civil war. In my mind I always had this image that Franklin and Lipscomb, with their two publications, kept the cofc from splitting during the war. After the war, however, several factors, including the missionary society blaming the south for the war, strained relations to the point people were looking for a reason to separate… any issue would have done just fine.
    I appreciate your articles. I appreciate you. Hope all your family is doing fabulously.

  3. Randall

    The link to the article by Michael Casey was wonderful. It was the most extensive coverage of pacifism and the CofC I have read anywhere.
    Thanks for sharing it,

  4. Tim Archer Post author

    Interestingly enough, Brian, from what I’ve read the first arguments against the instrument were on the grounds that it was immoral to spend so much on organs when there were brothers with such desperate financial need following the war.

  5. Warren Baldwin

    I don’t think I caught the WW2 in your earlier article; I read it as WW1.

    You would enjoy “The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation.” About preachers promoting WW1 as the means to achieve international peace and righteousness.

    We now know one of the main reasons for our involvement is that financiers in the U.S. loaned Britain some 200 million dollars, and if German and Britain negotiated a peace (which some were trying to do), there was no guarantee of repayment. As American General Smedley Butler wrote, “Where the dollar goes, the flag goes, and where the flag goes, the servicemen do, too.”

  6. heavenbound

    Tim: What makes a dye in the wool Church of Christ member? I have been a CCCU member, a Baptist church member, a methodist church member, a Grace church member, and finally a graduate of a Mennonite College. I was told the other day by a friend who is a lay preacher and I quote, “If you don’t like the church your in, change it” I guess I have been around the block a few times in my life, so why have you stayed in one place? Curious for a thoughtful answer. Peace and grace, HB.

  7. Bobby Valentine

    How could you forget about Cordell?? There is a whole chapter on it in Kingdom Come!!? ;-) I know that is the book by your night stand for your evening read!! LOL! Casey’s article is just one of several he has written I will forward my article published in the Casey memorial volume published last year.


  8. Allan

    Looking for some information on this topic from the pacifist perspective, please. If someone has a good starting point for me, let me know.

    Here’s where I’m confused – we know the scriptures teach “turn the other cheek,” though that can easily be interpreted as pertaining to only personal or spiritual “warfare.” We also know that the scriptures teach that officials are servants of God and that they reward and bear the sword for punishment, etc. So what is the pacifist angle in this…that Christians should obey their government leaders but not participate in the government (because to do so would be, in one way or another, bearing the sword)? Is a Christian ever justified in any government-sanctioned violence?

    I would appreciate any good articles or books on this.

  9. Tim Archer Post author

    Hi Allan,

    I’ve become one who abstains from participation in government to the greatest degree that I can. I don’t feel that I can serve two masters, and my allegiance is to the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Others will have better resources to offer than I do, but I’ll offer a few things I’ve read, in no particular order:

    As for books, you’d do well to read some of John Howard Yoder’s works, as well as Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship. Resident Aliens could also be considered. On my “I wanna read” list is a book called What About HItler?, which is supposed to be an excellent defense of pacifism.

    You might also root about on this blog, looking at the categories of “Citizens of Heaven” and “Romans 13” particularly.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  10. Phil Wood

    Hi Tim, I was glad to come across this piece. I’m a UK based Mennonite with substantial links with the United Reformed Church, which included some Churches of Christ congregations. Without being a pacifist entity it’s certainly my impression that the URC is a friendly peacemaking environment. Whether atmosphere of openness has anything to do with some Churches of Christ leaven in the Congregational/Presbyterian lump I’m not sure. I am very interested though, in maintaining creative connections with pacifist heritage tradition, in particular focused on renewal of nonviolent commitments.

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  12. Jeremy

    Good post. I’ve recently become more interesting in chasing down the various positions of pacifism in the COC. My starting point has been WWII, looking at the writings of Foy Wallace, Jr., Bennie Lee Fudge and John T. Lewis. This will give me some more resources to consider. Thanks!

  13. Jenny

    Thanks for mentioning Decades of Destiny: A History of Churches of Christ from 1900-2000. I’m not familiar with it, but I recently read Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State by Craig M. Watts (Disciples of Christ). I’m interested in learning more about pacifism in the Restoration Movement churches and why it’s essentially disappeared.

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  15. Phillip Swank

    I grew up in a northern Church of Christ and am a Christian Pacifist looking for a fellowship. Are there Christian pacifist churches or fellowships beyond Quakers and Anabaptists?

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