A.J. Muste: The 20th Century’s Most Famous U.S. Pacifist

In 1939, when war clouds over Europe became darker by the hour, Time magazine called Abraham Johannes Muste “the Number One U.S. Pacifist.” The designation was certainly appropriate and he wore the label proudly. From World War I until his death in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, Muste stood out in the struggle against war and social injustice in the United States. His leadership roles in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, War Resisters League, and Committee for Non-Violent Action, and his numerous writings filling the pages of the pacifist press, bear ample witness to the Quaker Peace Testimony. Reinforcing this view are many tributes detailing his remarkable career at the time of his death. David McReynolds of the War Resisters League observed that Muste’s Inner Light “was so central to him that his life cannot be understood without realizing that he was, even at his most political moments, acting out his religious convictions.” Longtime labor radical and writer Sidney Lens commented that “for Muste the term ‘religion’ and the term ‘revolution’ were totally synonymous.” And one of his closest allies in the peace movement, John Nevin Sayre, noted with affection that religion was Muste’s “motivating force . . . right up to the end of his life.”

A.J. Muste’s spiritual journey began with his birth on January 8, 1885, in the Dutch shipping port of Zierikzee. In 1891 his family left Holland and settled with relatives and friends in the Dutch Reformed community of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His childhood years were deeply influenced, according to biographer Jo Ann Robinson, “by the ‘religious and pious’ home which his parents kept, where he was ‘soaked in the Bible and the language of the Bible,’ and by the teaching of his native church that ‘you live in the sight of God and there is no respecter of persons in Him, and pretension is a low and despicable thing.'” In 1905 Muste graduated from Hope College; and in 1909, after attending seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. That same year he was installed as the first minister of the Fourth Avenue Washington Collegiate Church in New York City. He also married his former Hope classmate, Anna Huizenga. They would have three children.

For a brief period Muste clung to the rigid tenets of his Calvinistic faith. But witnessing the ill effects of industrialization and urbanization in the largest U.S. city caused him to reconsider his role as preacher. His liberation from the theological restraints of Calvinism thus came with the onset of World War I. According to Robinson, his growing concern over “how to apply Christian precepts to political corruption and class conflict in America became compounded in the new struggle over how to come to terms with massive suffering and dying caused by the Great War.” Looking inward, he now felt, as he wrote in his “Sketches for an Autobiography,” that “I had to face—not academically but existentially, as it were—the question of whether I could reconcile what I had been preaching out of the Gospel and passages like I Corinthians: 13, from the Epistles, with participation in war.” Deeply troubled by world events, Muste began searching for answers in the teachings of Quakerism. He was inspired by the first Quakers during the revolutionary turmoil of 17th- and 18th-century England. He asked himself: How do moral persons evaluate the courses of action they intend to pursue, and how will they know if they are right?

Gradually, Muste drew closer to Quakerism, and when he was voted out of his pulpit in Newtonville, Massachusetts, due to his preaching against the war, he became a Friend in March of 1918. What prompted this conversion was the influence of Quaker scholar and activist Rufus Jones. In his Studies in Mystical Religion (1909), Jones noted that mystical experiences have led to “great reforms and champion movements of great moment to humanity.” During the Great War Jones served as the first chairman of American Friends Service Committee and helped establish a U.S. branch of Fellowship of Reconciliation. Jones’ ability to apply his beliefs to action prompted the recently deposed preacher to consider what he might do to aid the cause of humanity. Consequently, Muste and his wife moved in with Quakers in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was enrolled as a minister in the Religious Society of Friends. There Muste started counseling conscientious objectors at nearby Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. He also defended opponents of war who were accused of failing to comply with sedition laws, and, according to his “Sketches,” began talking about “establishing urban and rural cooperatives from which they could carry on the struggle against war and for economic justice and racial equality.” Throughout 1918 he traveled about New England, addressing the issues of war and social injustice at the annual session of New England Yearly Meeting in Vassalboro, Maine, and at Providence (R.I.) Meeting.

Shortly after the war, Friends from all over the world met in London to reexamine and explore the application of the Peace Testimony. A consensus was reached that it was insufficient to single out individual evil as the sole cause for war. Racism, poverty, oppression, imperialism, and nationalism now had to be met head on. This perfectly suited the temperament of the recently converted Friend. In large measure, Muste’s involvement in Quaker life and institutions was found in peace work and antiwar organizations rather than strictly in local and yearly meetings.

In 1919 he began carrying out his new commitment to the Peace Testimony as a strike leader during the bitterly contested textile walkout in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He jokingly remarked that “Becoming a pacifist and Quaker in wartime was bad enough, but to go around in a blue shirt and parade on picket lines—this is too much!” Two years later he assumed the directorship of Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. There he helped train a number of labor activists who would promote the industrial union campaigns of the late 1930s. A factional split among the faculty, due to his growing militancy, led to his departure in 1933.

His involvement with the labor movement did not end, however. The deepening of the Great Depression caused Muste to rethink his commitment to nonviolence. His turn to the left would result in a brief association with the Trotskyite American Workers Party. From 1933 to 1935, he passively adopted the more radical tenets of Marxism, only to be reawakened by the power of pacifism. In 1936, after returning from a summer trip to Europe, highlighted by a visit to the Catholic Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, Muste traded in his Marxist ideology for nonviolence. He had been overcome by a feeling of not belonging among secular revolutionaries.

Now secure in his pacifist witness, he became executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the start of World War II. The Fellowship was widely known as an important religious peace organization by this time. The eminent Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once called FOR “a kind of Quaker conventicle inside of the traditional church.” Throughout the war years, Muste constantly supported the rights of conscientious objectors and called for U.S. aid to those victims who were persecuted in Europe. He vigorously protested the internment of Japanese Americans. As FOR executive secretary he worked closely with those administering the Civilian Public Service Camps for conscientious objectors.

Proudly wearing the label “the Number One U.S. Pacifist,” Muste began promoting more daring actions in the name of peace and justice at the conclusion of the war. The advent of atomic warfare and Cold War fears drove Muste into utilizing the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. Direct action became his mantra. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he involved himself in a number of activities with War Resisters League and Committee for Non-Violent Action. Throughout these years he often faced jail and prosecution for refusing to pay income taxes (he constantly followed the dictates of the 18th century Quaker John Woolman, who insisted that “The spirit of truth required of me as an individual to suffer patiently the distress of goods, rather than pay actively”), leading peace and civil rights protest marches, and trespassing on federal property. He played a pivotal role in helping to establish the Society for Social Responsibility in Science and the Church Peace Mission. In terms of providing visibility for the peace and antinuclear movement, he participated in three significant transnational walks for peace sponsored by CVNA: San Francisco to Moscow (1960-61); Quebec to Guantanamo (1961); and New Delhi to Peking (1963-1964).

Clearly, Muste’s inner spiritual promptings governed his life decisions. Jo Ann Robinson points out that Muste’s own mysticism was moved by out-of-the-ordinary experiences of the kind of “sudden invading consciousness from beyond.” Such mystical experience empowered him to “stand the world better.” It thus took him to places where, symbolically risking death, he would highlight the spirit of the “individual refusal to ‘go along.'” For example, during a 1955 national civil defense drill, he, along with 26 others, was arrested while sitting on a park bench in City Hall Park in New York City, holding a sign that read, “End War—The Only Defense Against Atomic Weapons.” At age 74 he spent eight days in jail in 1959 when he climbed a four-and-one-half-foot fence into a missile construction site outside Omaha, Nebraska. As Muste himself noted in his popular 1940 book, Nonviolence in an Aggressive World, “There is an inextricable relationship between means and ends; the way one approaches one’s goals determines the final shape which those goals take.” For Muste, the relationship between means and ends was simply his now widely quoted statement: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the Way.”

While Muste would have enjoyed simply gathering with Friends at his home, his reputation, despite a quiet and reserved nature, required that he be in the forefront of direct action protests. Believing that peace is more than the absence of war, the 1960s activists, led by Muste, expanded their focus to deal with the issue of racial intolerance in the United States. In one of his popular essays on the role of the emerging civil rights movment, he observed that “a calm survey of the situation will certainly not lead to a verdict that justice and equality for the Negro people have been substantially achieved. On the contrary, there is still a long way to go.” Seeing a direct connection between imperialism overseas and racial injustice at home, Muste provided guidance to Martin Luther King Jr., after the latter’s emergence as the chief spokesman for the nonviolent wing of the civil rights movement. Muste encouraged him to read the works of Woolman, Jones, Gandhi, and Thoreau, and when King’s own growing resistance to the Vietnam War took center stage, Muste stood by him on all counts.

Social and civil unrest at home, marked by civil rights protests and growing opposition to the Vietnam War, demanded even more of Muste’s time and energy. In the mid-1960s, front-page headlines captured Muste’s picture as he led antiwar protestors down Fifth Avenue in New York City. He was instrumental in helping to organize national demonstrations against the war. In April 1966, he visited South Vietnam as part of a delegation from Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam. Nine months later, despite ill health and warnings from his doctor not to go, Muste traveled to North Vietnam where he met with North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh. Along with two other clergyman, he returned home bearing an invitation from Minh to President Lyndon Johnson requesting that he visit Hanoi in order to discuss an end to the war. That was Muste’s final witness to peace. On February 11, 1967, he died.

It is almost 39 years since then. There have been books and articles written about his peace witness, but a younger generation may not know that his conversion to Quakerism during World War I was a seminal moment in his life. It directly enjoined him in the political and economic struggles of his day. His legacy is secure. And I am sure that he would heartily agree with one particular obituary notice observing his passing. In the antiwar newsletter, The Mobilizer, the following appeared: “In lieu of flowers, friends are requested to get out and work—for peace, for human rights, for a better world.”

Charles F. Howlett

Charles F. Howlett is assistant professor of graduate education at Molloy College on Long Island, N.Y. He is a member of the National Council of the Peace History Society. His most recent book, which he edited, is The American Peace Movement, 1890-2000: The Emergence of a New Scholarly Discipline.