#whitefeather diaries

Pacifism is not passive

Thursday 14 August 2014

Howard's campaigning against the war is a reminder that pacifism is not passive. Indeed, it requires tenacity and resilience. Howard became friends with Harry Stanton, a blacksmith's son and Quaker from Luton. Harry was 20 when the war broke out and spoke out against it from the start.

Harry Stanton said that a passive belief in the wrongness of war would not have withstood the pressure of media attacks and social stigma. He insisted that pacifism requires an active commitment to different values. This is an edited extract from his explanation.

The belief that all war is contrary to the principles which inspired the life and teaching of Jesus Christ has been fundamental in the Religious Society of Friends from its inception.

It is perhaps natural for a member of the Society to accept such a belief as a matter of course. But when one is faced point blank with the choice between abandoning such acceptance and deliberately disobeying the commands of the state, the merely passive belief that war is unchristian will be found inadequate to the situation.

For some years prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, I had given time to studying the causes and effects of war, and had become personally convinced that the war method could only bring spiritual and economic disaster to the nations involved.

Such conviction might have remained purely intellectual and with no relation to general conduct but the actual declaration of war transformed the question into a more intimate and immediate form. Was this a case in which one should put aside individual conviction and accept the judgement of "public opinion"? Or was the conviction so sacred, so fundamental to the wellbeing of mankind, that one's truest service to the state lay in denying its right to overrule that conviction?

From the first my own duty seemed clear. I see by reference to my diary that in the very first days of the war I was defending, or rather advocating, the Quaker position with regard to war among my friends, many of whom were on the point of enlisting. I did not prevent any of them from enlisting; though they generally acknowledged war to be an evil, they believed that in this case England must prefer the expedient course to the right one. If however our discussion served no other purpose, they made known my attitude towards war and prepared the way for what was to follow.

The press developed a campaign against "shirkers" and gradually public opinion was mobilised to force men of military age into the army. One had a growing sense of isolation - that one was surrounded by people who thought in different terms, who spoke as it were a different language. It seemed useless to discuss the war with them; their standards of conduct were depreciated, though they would refuse to acknowledge it.

Yet to me the very isolation gave a strange sense of joy - perhaps an expression of my combatant instinct! The facile taunts and innuendoes of the "man in the street", provided daily by the leader-writers of the popular press, had the effect of stiffening my resolution. And now and again, as I met men and women whose convictions were leading them along the same unpopular course, came the feeling that here was something worth doing, that somehow we must hang on to this foundation of truth and sanity we had discovered until the flood of passion and wrong thinking had subsided.

This desire for a closer contact between those opposed to war and conscription soon found expression in the formation of the No Conscription Fellowship and I signalized my twenty-first birthday by convening a meeting in Luton to form a branch of this association, which was presently to become the most abused institution in England.

The original manuscript shows that Harry first wrote that he had “celebrated my twenty-first birthday” with the meeting to form the Luton branch. He later crossed out “celebrated” and wrote “signalized”.

The above extract is taken from Will You March Too?, Harry Stanton's unpublished memoirs, stored at Leeds University Library.

Related Materials

Thursday 14 August 2014

As a peace activist, Howard was involved in several groups campaigning against the war. Anti-war organisations included the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Union for Democratic Control.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Howard was well aware that pacifism is not passive but involves actively making the case for peace. Today Quakers and others campaign against war, the arms trade and military power.