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Abraham Johannes Muste

Abraham Johannes Muste

Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967), American pacifist, led the movement for world peace and pioneered in developing nonviolent resistance as a means of securing social change.

On Jan. 8, 1885, A. J. Muste was born in Zierikzee, the Netherlands. His family emigrated to America 6 years later. He was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., and attended Hope College, a church-affiliated school. In 1906 he entered the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Brunswick, N.J., and was ordained in 1909. That same year he married Anna Huizenga.

While first minister of Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York City, Muste attended Union Theological Seminary, where he received a bachelor of divinity degree magna cum laude in 1913. Strongly influenced by liberal theological doctrines and shocked by the wretchedness of the urban poor, he became increasingly socially committed. In 1914 he gave up his conservative parish to become minister of the Central Congregational Church in Newtonville, Mass. Muste also became a pacifist, joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in 1916. With America's entry into World War I, he found this church post, too, untenable.

In early 1919 Muste was catapulted into the leadership of 30,000 striking textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. He became the general secretary of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America that same year. In 1921 he was named educational director of Brookwood Labor College, which provided advanced education for potential union leaders and organizers. But Muste was increasingly drawn toward organization of the mass-production industries and actively participated in the labor struggles of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), formed in 1929. In 1933 he left Brookwood to devote his energies to the newly formed American Workers party (which absorbed the CPLA), to an alliance with the American followers of Leon Trotsky, and to radical agitation. In 1936 he returned to the FOR and to Christian pacifism, convinced that "he who denies love betrays justice."

Muste now began his efforts to combine radicalism and pacifism in a direct action movement. Appointed industrial secretary of the FOR in 1936, he became director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York in 1937 and national secretary of the FOR in 1940. During World War II, he championed the rights of conscientious objectors, helped found the Congress of Racial Equality, and sought to encourage adoption of Gandhian resistance tactics by pacifists. In the postwar era Muste sponsored draft resistance, tax resistance, and organizations seeking to promote massive civil disobedience.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as chairman of the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), Muste fostered a series of dramatic acts of civil disobedience outside missile bases, inside thermonuclear testing zones, and during civil defense drills. Under his leadership the peace movement became increasingly dynamic. The civil rights movement's adoption of nonviolent resistance owed much to his example and influence. In 1965 and 1966 Muste coordinated the first massive public demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and in 1966 he went to Saigon with a group of CNVA activists. He died on Feb. 11, 1967.

Further Reading

Muste's works include Non-Violence in an Aggressive World (1940), War Is the Enemy (1942), Wage Peace Now (1942), Not by Might (1947), and The Camp of Liberation (1954). A good sampling of his shorter writings from 1905 to 1966 is provided in The Essays of A. J. Muste, edited by Nat Hentoff (1967). The only biography is Hentoff's extremely sympathetic Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste (1963). See also Lawrence S. Wither, Rebels against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (1969).

Additional Sources

Robinson, Jo Ann, A.J. Muste, pacifist & prophet: his relation to the Society of Friends, Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1981.

Robinson, Jo Ann, Abraham went out: a biography of A.J. Muste, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981. □

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