The Perils of Pacifist Dissent During World War I
On April 28, 1917, the Senate and the House of Representatives both approved bills that instituted a military draft. The two bills were reconciled on May 16 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson two days later. The law Wilson signed—the Selective Service Act—did not explicitly bar the United States government from drafting members of the peace churches into the military. Instead, it left open the possibility of their being drafted into the military and assigned noncombatant duties. What did and did not count as noncombatant duties was left to the discretion of the President.
On April 30, 15 Quakers met in Philadelphia and created what was first called National Friends Service Committee. (The name was changed to American Friends Service Committee that May.) The committee adopted a minute that said the following:
We are united in expressing our love for our country and our desire to serve her loyally. We offer our services to the government of the United States in any constructive work in which we can conscientiously serve our country.
The idea, of course, was to suggest that the nation ought to be able to find ways of having Quakers serve their country that did not involve serving in the military.
The meeting was convened by a 33-year-old Quaker named Henry J. Cadbury. Cadbury was an associate professor of biblical literature and Greek at Haverford College. He had recently married an outspoken young Quaker, Lydia Caroline Brown. Two months after AFSC was created, Lydia gave birth to a daughter and named her Elizabeth. Both Lydia and Henry came from well-known Quaker families. Henry was related to the branch of the Cadbury family who had made a fortune manufacturing and selling chocolate in England. His immediate family in the United States was also fairly prosperous. He had been educated at William Penn Charter School, Haverford College, and Harvard University, and was highly regarded as a scholar of the New Testament with particular expertise in the books of Luke and Acts. In 1918, there were few if any Quakers living in the United States whose scholarly credentials were stronger than Cadbury’s.
It seems entirely fitting that Cadbury convened the first meeting of what soon became American Friends Service Committee. Cadbury (together with his brother-in-law Rufus Jones) played a huge role in shaping the early history of AFSC, chairing the committee from 1928 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1960. When Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, it was Cadbury who traveled to Oslo to accept the award on behalf of AFSC. (It is also significant to note the historic role that Haverford College faculty played in founding AFSC, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this month.)
The year after he helped to create AFSC, Henry Cadbury spoke out advocating for peace, and thus became embroiled in a controversy that led to his being forced to resign from the faculty of Haverford College. It was occasioned by peace overtures that the leaders of Germany sent to the Allies in the autumn of 1918. Many Americans viewed these efforts with deep suspicion. The war was going well for the Allies, and they sensed a decisive victory might be close at hand. And in the autumn of 1918, many Americans were filled with a deep hatred of the German nation.
Consider, for example, an editorial that was published in one of Philadelphia’s leading newspapers—the Public Ledger—on October 7. It praised the many Americans who were demanding “a short, sharp, and plain” rejection of the German peace feelers. It asserted that the peace that the Kaiser was offering was nothing more than a “Judas peace.” “The Hun tribes” had, the editorial said, wreaked havoc wherever they fought. Their cruelty had to be punished harshly.
Five days later, the Public Ledger published a letter from Cadbury strenuously denouncing Americans’ reluctance to look for ways to bring the war to a halt:
Sir—As a Christian and patriotic American may I raise one cry of protest in your columns against the orgy of hate in which the American press and public indulges on the receipt of peace overtures from the enemy. Whatever the immediate result of the present German request for an armistice, the spirit of implacable hatred and revenge exhibited by many persons in this country indicates that it is our nation which is the greatest obstacle to a clean peace and the least worthy of it. Never in the period of his greatest arrogance and success did the German Kaiser and Junkers utter more heathen and bloodthirsty sentiments than appear throughout our newspapers today. Intoxicated with the first taste of blood and flushed with victory, the American public hastens to condemn in advance the soberly phrased pleas of a conciliatory foe. While the English press wisely refrains from comment until an official answer can be given, Americans with insatiable lust for vengeance cry, “More, more!” Every concession on the part of the enemy is counted a mark of weakness and is made an excuse for more humiliating and unreasonable demands. While the war-weary people of Europe long for peace, we conceited newcomers into the fight prefer to sacrifice their youth and ours by the millions more in order that we may dictate a peace to suit our insane hysteria. Surely it behooves us at this hour, when not relation for the past but the assurance of a safer and saner international fellowship is the world’s need, distinguishing justice and mercy from blind revenge, to keep ourselves in the mood of moderation and fair play. A peace on other terms or in any other spirit will be no peace at all, but the curse of the future.
Cadbury’s letter caused an immediate uproar. A government official met with him to investigate the possibility that writing the letter constituted an act of sedition. (The official concluded that the letter was not seditious.) The minister of a prominent Presbyterian church asserted that Cadbury was quite wrong to think that he had any right to think of himself as either a patriot or a Christian. A Baptist layperson said that Cadbury was wrong to say that Americans’ hostility toward the Germans was irrational. That hostility was, the Baptist said, a perfectly reasonable response to the atrocious way that Germans had conducted themselves during the war.
In 1918, most of Haverford’s faculty were Quakers. The president of the college at the time, William Wistar Comfort, was also a member of the Religious Society of Friends. So were all of the members of the Board of Managers that oversaw the work of the college. Some of the members of the board came from families that had contributed money to AFSC. The board, whose chair was a Quaker businessman named Asa S. Wing, had allowed AFSC to set up a camp where young Quakers could be trained for non-military forms of service. The board had refused to allow its campus to be used as a site for military training. Nevertheless, despite the institutional prominence of Quakers at Haverford College in this era, significant support for militarism existed on campus and throughout the country. The college tried to reconcile its Quaker origins and ideals with views of the larger community of which it was a part.
Even at this relatively early date, many Haverford College students and alumni were not Friends. Some of them were already in the military; others were in the process of joining it. And some of the college’s students and alumni were shocked by the letter that Cadbury had written to the Public Ledger. Twenty-seven of the college’s alumni, all of whom had graduated from Haverford between 1880 and 1908, wrote the board a note expressing their displeasure. Those men said that they believed that peace was good, but that the kind of peace they wanted to achieve was one that was “just and righteous.” They said that in light of the “bestial” actions of the Germans, the views Cadbury expressed in his letter amounted to “treason.” Cadbury was, in their opinion, “unworthy” to be a member of the college’s faculty. They advised the board to ask for Cadbury’s immediate resignation from the faculty. One of the other letters referred to Cadbury as a “canker.” Another argued that if the college supported Cadbury, then it would alienate many of its most important alumni. Alienating those men was not, the letter writer warned, something that the college could afford to do.
Cadbury seems to have been taken aback by the furor his letter created. He seemed not to have contemplated the possibility that the letter would cause such consternation and so many calls for him to leave the college. Within days, however, Cadbury’s position at the college had become completely untenable. On October 21, he wrote a letter to the college’s board in which he offered to resign from the faculty. In the letter he praised the board for their deep devotion to the religious traditions on which Haverford was founded and expressed his profound regret for having caused the college so much public embarrassment.
The next day, the board began discussing what they referred to as the “grave situation resulting from the reception of Professor’s Cadbury’s letter.” President Comfort told the members of the board that Cadbury possessed “certain personal characteristics and combative tendencies which lessened his usefulness as a member of the faculty.” He also told them that Cadbury was a hard worker, a fine scholar, and a man of integrity.
The board members’ response to the situation was anything but straightforward. Several voiced a commitment to academic freedom and said that they did not want it to look as if Haverford was subject to the sway of “excited public opinion.” But members of the board strongly disapproved of the letter Cadbury had written, and they suspected that accepting his resignation might well be in the best interest of the college. They believed that “the habit of temperate judgment and consideration for the feelings of others with whom one has associated one’s self should always characterize the utterances of a scholar.”
So in the autumn of 1918, the members of the board could not agree on whether or not Cadbury’s letter of resignation should be accepted. The board stopped short of firing Cadbury but suspended him from teaching with pay, and appointed a committee of respected board members to investigate the matter more thoroughly.
In March 1919, Cadbury wrote a second letter of resignation in which he said that he was resigning because he wanted to teach at another school. Haverford’s board accepted the second letter of resignation and also adopted a minute which expressed its admiration for the way that Cadbury had responded to the controversy his letter had sparked.
Shortly after resigning from Haverford’s faculty, Cadbury informed the leaders of AFSC that he was moving away from Philadelphia and was thus obliged to resign his position as a member of the board of AFSC. In June of 1919, AFSC accepted his letter of resignation with “deep regret.” The end of the war was still months away, but the efforts of AFSC to ameliorate civilian suffering in Europe had already begun. The possibility of Quakers performing wartime service without being inducted into the military had been widely recognized, a victory for all conscientious objectors in the United States.
After his departure from Haverford College, Cadbury landed on his feet. He taught at Andover Theological Seminary from 1919 until 1925 and at Bryn Mawr College from 1926 until 1934. In 1935 Cadbury joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School and taught there until 1954. At Harvard, Cadbury continued to do important work on the New Testament and also launched a series of thorough investigations into Quaker history.
Over the years, Haverford College has taken a number of steps to show that it holds Cadbury in high esteem. When Cadbury was still in midcareer, the college awarded him an honorary doctorate. After his retirement, Haverford asked Cadbury to return to its campus to teach courses on Quakerism. (Cadbury accepted that invitation.) Haverford also arranged to have a portrait of Cadbury prominently displayed in the college’s archives. But, as far as we know, Haverford has never issued a formal apology for—or even a detailed analysis of—the way Cadbury was treated during World War I.
Given how little we know about the inner workings of the board, it is tempting to let its actions recede quietly into the background and to focus more attention on what Cadbury said and did. But yielding to that temptation would get in the way of our understanding the nature of Quakerism in the early decades of the last century. Quakerism was then, as it is now, a complicated admixture of prophetic impulses and pragmatic proclivities. Little is gained and much is lost when we pretend otherwise.
Correction: When Cadbury left Haverford College, he began teaching at the Andover Theological Seminary, not Phillips Academy as stated in the original article.