"Peace churches" is the term commonly applied to the three oldest pacifist denominations in the United States—the Society of Friends or Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites. None of these is a united body, embracing different and diverse organizational entities. Quakers, and Brethren and Mennonites to a lesser extent, run the gamut from fundamentalism to universalist liberalism.
As the least ethnic and most acculturated of the peace churches, Quakers have been the most visible in peace activism in the United States over the past four decades. All persuasions of Friends remain formally committed, through doctrinal statements, to the support of conscientious objection, but their doctrinal differences otherwise manifest themselves in their attitudes toward war resistance and groups such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Liberal, unprogrammed Friends, largely affiliated with Friends General Conference or the small Conservative yearly meetings, have been most active in peace movements, draft resistance, and other forms of peace activism. Most American Friends, however, are in pastoral bodies. The most evangelical of these, Evangelical Friends International (EFI), makes conscientious objection a matter of individual conscience, and, while generally supportive of its members who embrace traditional Quaker pacifism, has had leaders who have been open in repudiating pacifism and supporting U.S. military actions. In the middle is Friends United Meeting (FUM), which embraces both pastoral and unprogrammed Friends. In its official statements it has remained committed to pacifism and has supported various programs to advance disarmament and a peace witness. But many individual members, including some leading Friends, and many affiliated congregations have openly broken with pacifism and peace activism.
These fractures, dating back to the Civil War, were clearly manifested during the Vietnam War. The AFSC was among the earliest religious groups to call for a halt to bombing and a negotiated peace settlement. A Baltimore Friend, Norman Morrison, attracted national attention in 1965 when he burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon as a protest. By 1967 the most radical Quaker peace activists had formed A Quaker Action Group for radical confrontation with U.S. policy. They chartered a ship, the Phoenix, and amid massive controversy took a shipment of artificial limbs to North Vietnam. For the rest of the war, the AFSC, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), and numerous regional and local Quaker bodies and individuals were active in the antiwar movement. Some Friends actively resisted the draft, refusing induction and destroying draft cards. Others refused to pay certain taxes that they saw as supporting the war. The Quaker peace tradition also attracted antiwar activists who joined the society.
The activism of antiwar Friends, however, was not shared by all Quakers. President Richard Nixon remained a member in good standing in his California meeting group throughout his presidency. Most pastoral Friends of draft age were not conscientious objectors. And high-profile activism, like that of the Phoenix voyagers and draft resisters, drew fierce criticism from some Friends, who resented what they saw as unpatriotic actions.
These divisions have continued since the end of the Vietnam War. The AFSC and the FCNL have continued to back policies for disarmament, the end of the draft, and peaceful settlement of international conflicts. The Iranian crisis of 1979–1980, the Grenada invasion of 1983, the Gulf War of 1990–1991, and the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia have brought appeals from both groups, as well as from FUM and other Quaker bodies, against the use of force. And all of these conflicts saw support of the use of force by some Friends. The resumption of draft registration in 1980 again brought conflicts over draft resistance by some Friends.
The increasing commitment of the AFSC to support groups it perceived as oppressed, such as Nicaraguan and Salvadoran rebels and Palestinians in Israel, has brought charges that it was moving away from traditional Quaker pacifism. Well-known pacifist Kenneth Boulding engaged in a sit-in at AFSC headquarters in 1977 to protest what he saw as AFSC indifference to oppression by the Communist Vietnamese government.
Like Quakers, the various groups with a German Baptist or Brethren heritage span the theological spectrum. The largest group is the Church of the Brethren; other Brethren groups include the Brethren Church, the Dunkard Brethren, the Old Order German Baptist Brethren, and the Grace Brethren. All trace their roots to Dunkard pacifists who emigrated from Germany in the eighteenth century. Their attitudes toward peace issues since 1960 have reflected their diversity.
The Church of the Brethren has remained officially committed to pacifism in a number of statements of its governing body, the Annual Conference. It has advised its membership against not only military service but also against noncombatant service. During the Vietnam War, many of its members were active in the antiwar movement. In 1970 the Annual Conference recorded its support for draft resisters as well as for registered conscientious objectors. The Annual Conference maintained the Peace Committee, which in 1978 was merged in the Social Concerns Committee, and has sponsored a series of peace seminars. Peace issues have been part of Brethren Sunday school curricula, and peace studies are part of the curricula of colleges affiliated with the church. Manchester College, for example, has maintained its Peace Studies Institute since 1948. On the other hand, acculturation has moved many Brethren away from pacifism. In this century a majority of members eligible for the draft have served in the armed forces in American wars, including Vietnam.
The position of the Brethren Church on peace issues has been similar to that of the larger Church of the Brethren. The Brethren Church remains officially committed to pacifism, and urges its members to register as conscientious objectors. Peace issues are promoted by its Social Concerns Committee and in its publications. Yet many members no longer support pacifism, and have served in the armed forces. Even some pastors have served as chaplains.
The positions of the most conservative Brethren groups, the Old Order German Baptist Brethren and the Dunkard Brethren, are similar. They enjoin pacifism on their members, most of whom registered as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. Yet these groups have resisted links with antiwar groups. In 1978, for example, the Old Order German Baptist Brethren officially condemned civil disobedience and antiwar demonstrations, enjoining instead subjection to civil powers.
The most fundamentalist of the Brethren groups, the Grace Brethren, have tended to follow the general course of other fundamentalist denominations on peace issues since 1960. A few older pastors still embraced pacifism, but such views were those of a small minority. Most Grace Brethren have more or less openly supported U.S. use of armed force in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and other conflicts.
Mennonites have seen the greatest change over the past four decades. In 1960 all of the various Mennonite groups in the United States were still largely committed to the traditional Anabaptist theology of the Two Kingdoms. This theology separates the kingdom of the believer, where people live in strict obedience to New Testament command to "resist not evil," from the world that is subject to human authorities ordained by God. Thus while a Mennonite could not bear arms or engage in violence, neither could a Mennonite criticize governments that did so.
Change has been most apparent in the most acculturated of Mennonite bodies, the Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren, and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Many of its members have moved away from Two Kingdoms theology toward a vision that sees all the world bound by the commandments of Christ. Thus violence is never in accord with the will of God. Mennonites also became more open to joining with people of other faiths in work to promote peace and in political action. Mennonites, for example, were active participants in the civil rights movement, in the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, in the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s, and in various groups that opposed the draft. Peace studies became part of the curriculum of Mennonite colleges. The Mennonite Central Committee, which coordinates the social witness of the various Mennonite bodies, includes a Peace Section, which has been active in holding conferences and publishing peace literature.
Still, sociologists studying Mennonites have found considerable diversity. The most conservative Mennonites, especially in various Amish groups, still embrace the Two Kingdoms theology. They see involvement with "worldly" people as a threat to the separateness of believers, and civil disobedience and draft resistance as an irreligious violation of the commandment to accept human authority. Other Mennonites, more comfortable with political action, have seen the various peace movements as too linked to leftist and pro-Communist groups.
In 1976 Mennonites, most Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren joined together in a new organization, New Call to Peacemaking. The proposal to form the group came from evangelical Friends who feared a loss of the biblical basis of pacifism. The organization's first national conference was held in Green Lake, Wisconsin, in 1978. The New Call group sponsored conferences and publications to attempt to extend the peace witness within the constituent bodies and in the larger American society.
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Thomas D. Hamm