The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 44
Religion and Nonviolence
in American History

Ira Chernus

People embrace nonviolence for many reasons. Often their nonviolence is tactical. They would use violence if they thought it could achieve their aims, but they decide that nonviolence is the more effective method to achieve their goals. This chapter concerns those who choose principled nonviolence, who believe that they could achieve their goals by using physical force but refrain from such violent methods on principle. Throughout American history leaders have emerged to guide and shape principled nonviolence movements. They rarely explained their commitment to nonviolence in any systematic way. They were activists, not philosophers. Yet their writings and speeches, often composed in the heat of political conflict, have left us a legacy of rich concepts that can be reconstructed to trace the development of the idea of principled nonviolence in American history.


Early Nonviolence Movements

Before the twentieth century, virtually everyone in the United States who chose the path of nonviolence was Christian. Whether they knew it or not, all owed a historical debt to the Anabaptists, a movement that emerged at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists took a basic principle of the Reformation to its logical conclusion: If true faith comes from the individual’s direct relationship with God, not mediated by priests or any other humans, then individuals must be free to choose their own spiritual path. Therefore they insisted on being “baptized again” (the literal meaning of “anabaptist”) as adults, when they could make a free choice and profession of faith.

When the earliest Anabaptists leaders gathered at Schleitheim, Switzerland, in 1527 and defined their shared principles in “The Schleitheim Confession” (for this and other Anabaptist texts, see Liechty 1994), they made it clear that they intended to live by all of Jesus’ teachings, including the words in the “Sermon on the Mount”: “If someone

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