Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
A renowned Christian pacifist and a leading member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Abraham Johannes Muste was one of the foremost proponents of nonviolence in the United States. Muste was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, as well as a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the end of Muste’s life, Martin Luther King said that without Muste, “the American Negro might never have caught the meaning of true love for humanity” (Robinson, 137).
Muste was born in Zierikzee, the Netherlands. In 1891 his family emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they became naturalized citizens in 1896. Muste graduated from Hope College and Union Theological Seminary. During the first decades of the twentieth century Muste was heavily involved with Communist and labor movements, and met with Leon Trotsky. He returned to his religious roots and during his years as national chairman (1926 to 1929) and executive secretary (1940 to 1953) of FOR he helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and served as a mentor to younger FOR staff members, including Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and Jim Lawson.
During World War II Muste wrote a tract addressed to black churches called “What the Bible Teaches about Freedom.” The pamphlet advocated nonviolent resistance as a biblically sanctioned method of fighting injustice. In it Muste notes that unless “Negroes and whites concerned about abolishing the denial of brotherhood represented by Jim Crow take up the Cross of suffering for its removal, it cannot be done away.”
As a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, King attended a lecture by Muste and was initially skeptical of his absolute pacifism, believing at the time that war “could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force” (King, 95). After the Montgomery bus boycott brought King to national prominence as a proponent of nonviolence, he asked Muste to speak at conferences on nonviolence, and Muste invited King to attend meetings advocating worldwide Christian pacifism. After King was stabbed in 1958, Muste wrote to him: “Above any other man, Negro or white, you are now inevitably the instrument both to break down the color bar in this country and to reconcile and heal the people involved” (Papers 4:500).
A long-time opponent of the Vietnam War, Muste sought to link King to the antiwar movement, arranging a meeting for him with Thich Nhat Hanh, a prominent Vietnamese monk. He continued to organize events against U.S. involvement in Vietnam until his death in 1967.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Muste, Essays of A. J. Muste, ed. Nat Hentoff, 1967.
Muste, What the Bible Teaches about Freedom, circa 1943.
Muste to King, 23 September 1958, in Papers 4:500–501.
Robinson, Abraham Went Out, 1981.