THE HIDDEN HISTORY of PENTECOSTAL PACIFISM

By Alexander, Paul | Sojourners Magazine, March 2014 | Go to article overview

THE HIDDEN HISTORY of PENTECOSTAL PACIFISM


Alexander, Paul, Sojourners Magazine


WHEN I FOUND out years ago that most early Pentecostal denominations had been committed to nonviolence-including the Assemblies of God, the denomination of my heritage-I thought it was about the dumbest thing I'd ever heard. Not kill for the United States of America (or any country)?

Then I stumbled upon the Pentecostal Evangel, a weekly magazine of the Assemblies of God (USA), which published these revealing words during World War I:

From the very beginning the [Pentecostal] movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of the blood of any man.

This was new to me. I was reared in a U.S. Pentecostalism that taught intense loyalty to the United States and deep pride in combatant military service. Where did this hidden history of Pentecostal nonviolence come from?

Reading other early accounts of Pentecostal peacemaking prompted me to further examine where it had gone and whether it could re-emerge. It would also challenge and deconstruct my understanding of Christianity.

In the 1930s, the Pacifist Handbook actually listed the Assemblies of God as the third largest church in the U.S. that "opposed war." Although not universal, Pentecostal conscientious objection and noncombatant service in the U.S. continued into World War II and beyond.

One day when I was at my grandparents' home in east Texas, they asked me about the subject of my dissertation. With nervous hesitation, I shared that the Assemblies of God used to be a pacifist denomination and that I was researching the history of pacifism's emergence and eventual decline in U.S. Pentecostalism.

"Well, of course, we know that," my grandmother responded.

Pointing to my grandfather, she continued, "Grandpa was a conscientious objector in World War II and worked in a Civilian Public Service camp in Virginia for a couple of years. He fought forest fires. So did your Uncle Don and Stokely. That's what the church taught then."

I was a fourth-generation Assemblies of God member and had never heard this suppressed part of our family's story! My grandfather, like hundreds of other Pentecostals, told his draftboard that, as a follower of Jesus, he was not willing to kill others. Many of these conscientious objectors worked instead in hospitals, psychiatric wards, and farms during World War II. Other Pentecostals went into the military as noncombatants and served as medics, cooks, and barbers.

There are now more than half a billion Pentecostals in the world in a movement that's barely a century old. Most of the progenitors of the movement advocated for nonviolence, even to the point of imprisonment and being killed.

Dave Allen, a 26-year-old Pentecostal in Alabama, was beaten and shot to death in 1918 by two police officers in his home in the presence of his wife for being unwilling to serve in the military. J.B. Ellis, the overseer of the Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., who had himself served time in jail for refusing to buy war bonds, wrote, "Brother Allen was in the second draft... Knowing that his Bible church opposed war, he felt he could not kill ... We feel he might be classed among the martyrs."

Official denominational statements, peace witness preaching and writing by leaders, and actual conscientious objection occurred across the racial/ethnic, national, and doctrinal breadth of early Pentecostalism. Dozens of Pentecostal denominations formed in the early 20th century and presented themselves as committed to nonviolence, including the Latin American Council of Christian Churches, the Filipino Assemblies of the First Born, and the predominately Euro-American Church of God. In addition to most U.S. denominations, pacifism was part of the formation of Pentecostal denominations in England, Germany, Russia, Canada, and Wales. …

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