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A belief or policy in opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes. Pacifists maintain that unswerving nonviolence can bestow upon people a power greater than that achieved through the use of violent aggression.

Over the years, pacifism has acquired different meanings. As a consequence, it is practiced in a variety of ways. For example, pacifists may make an individual vow of nonviolence. They may also organize and actively pursue nonviolence and peace between nations. They may even assert that some form of support for selective violence is sometimes necessary to achieve worldwide peace.


The earliest form of recorded pacifism appear in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha. The Buddha, or the Enlightened One, left his family at a young age and spent his life searching for a release from the human condition. Before dying in northeast India between 500 and 350 b.c., the Buddha taught the paths to elevated existence and inspired a new religion. Buddhism eventually spread from India to central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and the United States.

The teachings of Jesus Christ continued the attachment of nonviolence to organized religion. Christ taught, in part, that an appropriate response to violence is to "turn the other cheek" and offer no resistance.

As civilization expanded and distinct states were formed, Christianity was carried to developing areas. It became popularized as the official religion of entire states, the leaders of which sought to retain both Christianity and a stronghold on power. In the third century, the nonresistance aspect of Christianity was reconsidered, and certain passages in the Gospel were interpreted to mean that resistance is an acceptable reaction to evil forces.

Saint Augustine solidified Christianity's break with pure pacifism in the fifth century with a warmly received religious treatise. In The City of God, he maintained, in part, that peace could be realized only through the acceptance of Christianity and that the Church was to be defended.

More than a millennium passed before the next great pacifist movement was seen. In the fifteenth century, Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation, which inspired religious creativity. Europeans who were disenchanted with Catholicism broke away from the Church in Rome, experimented with observations and practices, and founded their own religions. The most pacific of these was Anabaptism. Anabaptists practiced nonviolence and actively supported those suffering from violence.

In the seventeenth century, still more pacific religious groups were established, such as the Mennonites, the Brethren, and the Religious Society of Friends. Of these, the Friends have gathered the largest following in the United States.

Religious Society of Friends

In 1652, George Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends in England. Initially, Friends were known as Children of the Light, Publishers of Truth, or Friends of Truth. They held fast to the belief that there exists in all persons a light, which can be understood as the presence of God. With this reverence for other people, nonviolence came naturally. And, since God exists in all people, violence can be avoided by finding and revealing the Light in others.

Friends were also called Quakers, perhaps from the trembling some experience as they find the Inner Light during meetings. The nickname was originally coined by antagonists and intended as derisive, but many Friends began to use it in their own speech. Quaker soon lost its derogative connotation, and it remains the most recognized name for Friends.

A Friend's commitment to pacifism often came with no small dose of activism. Friends interrupted church services and refused to take oaths in seventeenth-century England, arguing that if one always tells the truth, one need not promise to do so. Friends ignored social niceties, refusing, for example, to remove their hat in the presence of royalty. Friends also used the informal thee and thy in place of the more respectful you and your. Within four years of the creation of the Society, Friends in England were being imprisoned by the thousands, and they began to seek refuge in the New World.

Ann Austin and Mary Fisher were the first Friends to reach colonial America from England. After their arrival in 1656, Austin and Fisher were imprisoned and deported. Friends who came after them suffered a similar fate. Many of those who stayed moved to Rhode Island, which Roger Williams founded on religious freedom principles.

In 1681, Charles II gave to William Penn, a longtime Friend, the charter to colonial land in America as repayment for a debt owed to Penn's father. In 1682, Penn founded Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment," and many English and European Friends found permanent sanctuary there.

Friends continued their activism in colonial America by obstructing the business of Slavery. Many Friends published their opposition to slavery and assisted fugitive slaves. Friends also addressed other social issues, such as the treatment of mentally ill persons and the rights of women. With the onset of the Civil War, many Friends reconsidered their absolute refusal to participate in war and helped the Union forces and slaves. In World Wars I and II, many Friends took an active part in medical and relief work.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi was the first great modern pacifist. Born October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India, Gandhi led a high-profile life dedicated to political and social reform through nonviolence.

During the 1900s, Gandhi experimented with various means of resolving conflict. Passive resistance, according to Gandhi, had to be supplemented by an active effort to understand and respect adversaries. In an atmosphere of respect, people could find peaceful, creative solutions. This active campaign for equality is called satyagraha, or "grasping for the truth."

Gandhi led a well-orchestrated political campaign for Indians in South Africa through the early 1900s. The movement reached its pinnacle in November 1913, when Gandhi led Indian miners on the Great March into Transvaal. The march was a profound show of determination, and the South African government opened negotiations with Gandhi shortly thereafter.

By promoting a variety of nonviolent activities designed to dramatize and call attention to social injustice, Gandhi won new rights for laborers, members of minorities, and poor people in South Africa and India. In many cases, however, Gandhi was working against centuries of hatred, and success was never absolute.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement

Gandhi's campaigns became the inspiration and model for the U.S. Civil Rights and political movements in the 1950s and 1960s. Among those inspired was martin luther king jr. King was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, the son of a Baptist preacher. His Baptist upbringing was supplemented by the study of theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi.

In 1955, King became involved with the first great pacifist movement in the United States, the African American Civil Rights Movement. He eventually spearheaded that movement. On December 1, rosa parks, a black Montgomery resident, refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man. Her subsequent arrest for violating Segregation laws sparked a boycott of the Montgomery transit system led by King and the black activists of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott lasted over one year, until the Montgomery city government abolished segregation on buses. King's leadership had helped effect political change without the use of violence, and he resolved to build on the success.

In the late 1950s, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC operated as a network for civil rights work and a platform from which to address the nation and the world. Armed only with fortitude, the moral rightness of a cause, and an exceptional gift for public speaking, King was able to garner widespread support for a series of popular campaigns that led to the end of official discrimination and segregation in the southern United States.

The influence of Gandhi on King was apparent. At the core of King's philosophy was nonviolence, but this pacifism was buttressed by action. Like Gandhi, King directed much of his energy toward the organization of nonviolent campaigns designed to call attention to social injustice. The campaigns did not always win the hearts and minds of other U.S. citizens. Occasionally, King and fellow civil rights activists suffered from the violence of their opponents.

Conscientious Objector Status

When the United States becomes involved in war, military service may become mandatory, and the status of Conscientious Objector (CO) is sought by pacifists to avoid military service. To qualify as a CO, one need only show "a sincere and meaningful" objection to all war (Reiser v. Stone, 791 F. Supp. 1072 [E.D. Pa. 1992] [quoting Shaffer v. Schlesinger, 531 F.2d 124 (3d Cir. 1976)]). This objection need not be grounded in religion. It is legitimate if it results from an "intensely personal" conviction that some might find "incomprehensible; or "incorrect" (Reiser [quoting United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S. Ct. 850, 13 L. Ed. 2d 733 (1965)]).

In Reiser, Dr. Lynda Dianne Reiser sought discharge from military service on the grounds of a conscientious objection to war. Reiser had entered the Army in 1983 in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at Washington and Jefferson College. After graduating in 1986, she sought and received a deferment of military service in order to attend Temple University Medical School. Upon graduation from medical school in 1990, Reiser sought and received another deferment in order to perform a one-year medical internship. In August 1990, Reiser informed the Army that she was a conscientious objector and that she would refuse the four years of military service required of her in return for the ROTC scholarship.

Although Reiser had possessed moral convictions approaching pacifism before entering the ROTC program, she had envisioned a career in medicine and expected her participation in military service to be minimal. In 1985, serious misgivings over military service began to take hold in Reiser. By 1989, her opposition to military service was firm. After treating a 16-year-old shooting victim, Reiser experienced nightmares and attempted to avoid all contact with violence. In April 1990, her beliefs crystallized into complete opposition to violence, war, and military service. Four months later, she applied for CO status.

The Department of the Army Conscientious Objector Review Board (DACORB) denied Reiser's application in September 1990. Despite supporting testimony from Army chaplain Colonel Ronald Miller and Army investigator Lieutenant Colonel Charles Nester, DACORB concluded that Reiser's belief in pacifism was not sincerely held.

Reiser appealed the DACORB decision to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. After reciting the chronology of the case and the legal standards for CO status, the court conducted a complete review of the record. This included an in-depth examination of Reiser's evolution to pacifism.

In addition to possessing a predisposition to nonviolence, Reiser had undergone a pacific metamorphosis that had not been disproved. Reiser had been deeply affected by the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969) and had had her growing pacifism affirmed by roommates. She had also experienced a strengthening of her nonviolent convictions as a result of her medical training.

DACORB had ruled that Reiser had failed to prove that she would have "no rest or inner peace" if she were not discharged. This standard had been rejected by the court in an earlier case, which held that conscientious objectors need only show sincerity in their opposition to war (Masser v. Connolly, 514 F. Supp. 734, 740 [E.D. Pa. 1981]). According to the Reiser court, the "no rest or inner peace" standard was valid, but nothing in the record supported the DACORB conclusion that Reiser would lose no sleep over forced military service.

Because the timing of a CO application alone cannot be used to deny CO status, DACORB took pains to deemphasize the timing of Reiser's application. However, Reiser's application came less than one year before she was scheduled to begin military service, and DACORB was unable to let the issue go untouched. The timing of the application, admitted DACORB, called Reiser's sincerity into question.

DACORB use of application timing did call Reiser's sincerity into question. What DACORB failed to do, according to the court, was answer the question of Reiser's sincerity. Without additional support for its skepticism, DACORB use of application timing as a basis for rejecting CO status for Reiser carried no weight. The court ultimately reversed the DACORB decision and relieved Reiser of her obligation to work four years for the U.S. Army.

Further readings

Beck, Sanderson. 2003. Guides to Peace and Justice: Great Peacemakers, Philosophers of Peace, and World Peace Advocates. Ojai, Calif.: World Peace Communications.

Burkholder, J. R., and John Bender. 1982. Children of Peace. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren.

Churchill, Ward, with Mike Ryan. 1998. Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. Winnipeg, Man.: Arbeiter Ring.

Kellett, Christine Hunter. 1984. "Draft Registration and the Conscientious Objector: A Proposal to Accommodate Constitutional Values." Columbia Human Rights Law Review 15.

Randle, Michael, ed. 2002. Challenge to Nonviolence. Bradford, U.K.: Univ. of Bradford, Dept. of Peace Studies.

Todd, Jack. 2001. Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wallis, Jim, ed. 1982. Waging Peace: A Handbook for the Struggle to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York: Harper and Row.


Civil Rights Movement; Conscientious Objector; Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand; King, Martin Luther, Jr.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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