Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

"War and Pacifism"

Main content start

Date: February 20, 1951 to May 4, 1951 ?

Location: Chester, Pa. ?

Genre: Essay

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education


In Kenneth L. Smith’s course Christianity and Society, each student chose to speak on one topic from the course syllabus, distributing a short summary of his argument to other class members.1 King kept eleven of these summaries, only two of which are of known authorship. Although this essay has often been attributed to him, internal evidence raises questions about King’s status as its author. His handwriting is on the document—he conjugated three French verbs on the reverse of the second page and wrote at the bottom of that page, “See Crozer Quarterly, Jan. 1949 an artical on Pascifism”—but he also wrote comments on other outlines for this class. A plausible explanation for these marginal comments is that King received the outline during a classmate’s presentation, wrote a note to himself to check the article referenced in the talk, and practiced French during a break in the presentation.

Whether or not King was the author of this essay, the views presented herein are consistent with those expressed in Stride Toward Freedom. The author of “War and Pacifism” criticizes “absolute pacifism” on the grounds that it ignores the essentially sinful side of human nature and the need for coercion to avoid anarchy. The author questions the applicability of Gandhi’s example to the world: “That Gandhi was successful against the British is no reason that the Russians would react the same way.” This argument reflects both King’s class notes on Smith’s lectures and the assigned readings of Reinhold Niebuhr’s works. In a later article, Smith recalled that as a student in 1951 King had argued that ”Niebuhr’s emphasis upon ‘original sin,’ the ambiguous nature of historical existence, and the ethic of love as ‘an impossible possibility‘ were inadequate as the bases for a dynamic theory of social change.” But, Smith speculated, King’s later commitment to nonviolent direct action reflected “the realism of Niebuhr.”2

{Christianity and Society
Dr. Kenneth L. Smith
Crozer Theological Seminary
Sem II, 1951}

Though I cannot accept an absolute pacifist position, I am as anxious as any to see wars end and have no desire to take part in one. Man being what he is it seems to me that struggle wll be a necessary part of human existance for a long time to come. I could not present my view as one to which there is no exception. No one can work out a theological or philosophical system which is perfect.

I found the position of Nels Ferré interesting especially since he was for a time a pacifist.3 He presents conflict as a part of the evolutionary process. Man struggles with his fellow man because he has not yet overcome the animal nature which is his. He sees war as a creative part of this process, but it is creative only as long as it is used to work toward peace. The true aim of war is peace. War has been creative in the past and might possibly be so in the future. A third world war might give us a united world. The development of larger units of government from smaller ones has often come about as a result of war. However he is not sure that war can be creative any more. War has been necessary under the concept of natural law and national sovereignty. The time has come for the nation to give way to world government. Under world government man could learn to control war with proper world police. He find the cause of war in the sinful nature of man and the proper attitude one of the practice of Christian justice.

John H. Hallowell of Duke University in an article in the Crozer Quarterly writes largely in criticism of a book by A. J. Muste.4 I think that his criticisms are valid. He first points out the strong emphasis of the pacifists on the importance of the pacifist position since the atomic bomb has been developed. I think he rightly sees that the ethical and moral problems are exactly the same as they were. It matters little how one kills; the victim is just as dead. It may shock the sensitivity of men to kill many but if it is wrong to kill many with an atomic bomb it would be just as wrong to kill one with a stone axe. In fact the position of non-participation advocated by Muste might cause a more horrible death by starvation. His so called non-violence may become more violent than war. That Gandhi was successful against the British is no reason that the Russians would react the same way.

A position of absolute pacifism allows no grounds for maintaining even a police force, since there is no real difference in kind between war and police action. Their position logically results in anarchy. Perhaps the most serious criticism is that they fail to recognize the sinfulness of man. The believe that if we just assume that the enemy will react favorably he will. They isolate war from other ethical problems and ignore the fact that war is actually a symptom of deeper trouble. By their total absorption in the question of war they neglect the deeper underlying causes of war.

It seems to me that we must recognize the presence of sin in man and that it can be done without seeing that there is also good. Since man is so often sinful there must be some coercion to keep one man from injuring his fellows. This is just as true between nations as it is between individuals. If one nation oppresses another a Christian nation must, in order to express love of neighbor, help protect the oppressed. This does not relieve us of our obligation to the enemy nation. We are obligated to treat them in such a way as to reclaim them to a useful place in the world community after they have been prevented from oppressing another. We must not seek revenge.

1. Kenneth L. Smith, Syllabus for Christianity and Society, 20 February–4 May 1951, MLKP-MBU.

2. Kenneth L. Smith, “Martin Luther King, Jr.—Reflections of a Former Teacher,” Bulletin of Crozer Theological Seminary 57, no. 2 (April 1965): 2–3.

3. Nels Frederik Solomon Ferré (1908–1971) was a Congregational minister and professor of philosophical theology. Ferré taught at Andover Newton Theological School (1937–1965) and the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University (1950–1957). He was the author of many books and articles, including The Christian Faith (1948); Faith and Reason (1946); Evil and the Christian Faith (1947); The Christian Understanding of God (1951); and his most popular work, Strengthening the Spiritual Life (1951).

4. John H. Hallowell, “Pacifism—The Way to Peace,” Crozer Quarterly 26, no. 1 (January 1949): 30–40. Hallowell (1913–) was an Episcopal layman educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1939) and professor of political science at Duke from 1942 to 1981. He wrote The Decline of Liberalism as an Ideology (1943); Main Currents of Political Thought (1950), which he considered his most important work; and The Moral Foundation of Democracy (1954). A. J. Muste (1885–1967) was a militant pacifist who opposed both World Wars, served the Fellowship of Reconciliation, helped establish the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and chaired the Committee for Non-Violent Action. Under Muste’s leadership, American pacifists adopted Gandhi’s tactics for nonviolent social change.

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

© Copyright Information