The Hidden History of Pentecostal Pacifism

WHEN I FOUND out years ago that most early Pentecostal denominations had been committed to nonviolence—including the Assemblies of God, the denomination of my heritage—I thought it was about the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Not kill for the United States of America (or any country)?

Then I stumbled upon the Pentecostal Evangel, a weekly magazine of the Assemblies of God (USA), which published these revealing words during World War I:

From the very beginning the [Pentecostal] movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of the blood of any man.

This was new to me. I was reared in a U.S. Pentecostalism that taught intense loyalty to the United States and deep pride in combatant military service. Where did this hidden history of Pentecostal nonviolence come from?

Reading other early accounts of Pentecostal peacemaking prompted me to further examine where it had gone and whether it could re-emerge. It would also challenge and deconstruct my understanding of Christianity.

In the 1930s, the Pacifist Handbook actually listed the Assemblies of God as the third largest church in the U.S. that “opposed war.” Although not universal, Pentecostal conscientious objection and noncombatant service in the U.S. continued into World War II and beyond.

One day when I was at my grandparents’ home in east Texas, they asked me about the subject of my dissertation. With nervous hesitation, I shared that the Assemblies of God used to be a pacifist denomination and that I was researching the history of pacifism’s emergence and eventual decline in U.S. Pentecostalism.

“Well, of course, we know that,” my grandmother responded.

Pointing to my grandfather, she continued, “Grandpa was a conscientious objector in World War II and worked in a Civilian Public Service camp in Virginia for a couple of years. He fought forest fires. So did your Uncle Don and Stokely. That’s what the church taught then.”

I was a fourth-generation Assemblies of God member and had never heard this suppressed part of our family’s story! My grandfather, like hundreds of other Pentecostals, told his draft board that, as a follower of Jesus, he was not willing to kill others. Many of these conscientious objectors worked instead in hospitals, psychiatric wards, and farms during World War II. Other Pentecostals went into the military as noncombatants and served as medics, cooks, and barbers.

There are now more than half a billion Pentecostals in the world in a movement that’s barely a century old. Most of the progenitors of the movement advocated for nonviolence, even to the point of imprisonment and being killed.

Dave Allen, a 26-year-old Pentecostal in Alabama, was beaten and shot to death in 1918 by two police officers in his home in the presence of his wife for being unwilling to serve in the military. J.B. Ellis, the overseer of the Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., who had himself served time in jail for refusing to buy war bonds, wrote, “Brother Allen was in the second draft ... Knowing that his Bible church opposed war, he felt he could not kill ... We feel he might be classed among the martyrs.”

Official denominational statements, peace witness preaching and writing by leaders, and actual conscientious objection occurred across the racial/ethnic, national, and doctrinal breadth of early Pentecostalism. Dozens of Pentecostal denominations formed in the early 20th century and presented themselves as committed to nonviolence, including the Latin American Council of Christian Churches, the Filipino Assemblies of the First Born, and the predominately Euro-American Church of God. In addition to most U.S. denominations, pacifism was part of the formation of Pentecostal denominations in England, Germany, Russia, Canada, and Wales.

As late as October 1940, the Assemblies of God still claimed that “military service is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that a Christian cannot fully follow the teachings of his Lord and Master if he engages in armed conflict.”

MANY EARLY Pentecostals read scripture in ways that affirmed love of enemy, evangelism, discipleship, and the refusal to kill. These arguments were mostly biblical and theological, claiming that killing was inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. For the Assemblies of God, this close attention to scripture meant that “conscientious objection then becomes the only possible choice, however serious the consequences.” When the laws of a nation clash with the teachings of Christ, “the only answer for the Christian is contained in the immortal words of Peter, ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’”

However, beyond the refusal to kill people is the positive call to engage in the practices of peacemaking: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As such, I have come to learn that peacemaking is more than not killing; it’s also working for economic justice and challenging engrained prejudices in society.

Some Pentecostals’ peace witness also included critiques of racial/ethnic and economic injustices. Frank Bartleman, an early leader of the Pentecostal movement, preached about social conscience and political awareness in 1915:

A fortune in war supplies and provisions awaits our merchants, manufacturers, and capitalists. They are willing to plunge our nation into war even to get this. Our rulers dare not say no to them if they hope to retain office ... We have stolen the land from the North American Indians ... Our wrong to the black people was avenged in blood. What will the next be? We are living on blood money today and trying to wash our hands in innocency in the matter. But it will not come off.

Thus it was quite a shock to observe the contrast between the early voices of Pentecostalism advocating for peace and justice and those of the faith in the latter half of the 20th century, who would come to support the machinery of war. For instance, in August 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, the Assemblies of God changed its biblically based argument for nonviolence and replaced it with a statement affirming U.S. patriotism and freedom of conscience:

Whereas, we live in a world in which there may arise international emergencies which will lead our nation to resort to armed conflict in the defense of its ideals, freedom, and national existence ... As a movement we affirm our loyalty to the government of the United States in war or peace. We shall continue to insist, as we have historically, on the right of each member to choose for himself whether to declare his position as a combatant, a noncombatant, or a conscientious objector.

Even when the vast majority of members were not U.S. citizens, the Assemblies of God reframed its values to uphold the interests of the United States. This ethnocentric shift has profoundly altered the way some U.S. Pentecostals regard killing. Uncritical nationalism has made it easier to dehumanize and enact violence toward anyone deemed the “other.” For the Assemblies of God, moving into the mainstream meant dropping the peacemaking teachings of Jesus. Other Pentecostal denominations also made similar changes as they sought to fight “the battle against conscience with realism.”

AFTER FINISHING my dissertation in 2000, I helped to form Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ). From opposing the invasion of Iraq to publishing books to taking friendship delegations to Israel and Palestine, our organization seeks to revise and restore a peace with justice witness that resonates with Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.

Marlon Millner, a co-founder of PCPJ and Pentecostal minister, wrote to President George W. Bush in 2003, “We agree with the priorities of construction and creation, rather than destruction through war ... Only through dialogue, mutual investment, and self-sacrifice can we demonstrate our Christian love, binding us together as we work for peace. This is the true effect of praise.” It’s inspiring to hear voices for peace with justice coming from current Pentecostals, not just from the dusty archives of history.

We’ve made a lot of mistakes in this messy business of peacemaking, but we’ve also discovered that there are Pentecostals around the world who are engaged in nonviolence, peacemaking, and justice-seeking. Pentecostals throughout Africa, Australia, Latin America, Asia, and Europe continue to engage in local peacemaking and social transformation work.

Pentecostals tend to believe in the healing power of the Holy Spirit, so it makes sense for them to live as if the Spirit can empower them to love everybody (even enemies), bring healing to brokenness, and work for justice even when it’s really difficult. May it be ever more increasingly so. 

Paul Alexander, co-founder of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice and co-president of Evangelicals for Social Action, is professor of social ethics and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary.

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