Acting on Conscience: The Prequel

Paul Harvey

We’ve got a big week for acting on conscience (while procrastinating our own work!) here at the blog. We’ll begin today a series of posts on recent studies of Christian nonviolence, pacifism, and war in twentieth-century America. Today is the prequel; tomorrow the main show; then there will be at least one sequel post, and probably a "son of" posting down the road. Your cost for all this entertainment: free!

Tomorrow I’ll post my own reflections on Kip Kosek’s Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. Followers of this blog will recognize this text, as I’ve blogged about it previously here and here, and Kip has a short summary of some of his major points here in his post at the Columbia Press website.

Just a bit down the road, I’m pleased that Professor Kosek will post his own reflections on another book entitled (oddly enough) Acts of Conscience, this time with the subtitle World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, authored by Steven Taylor. The topics are related, but different, so I hope the contrasting posts will be of interest. Scroll down for more information on that.

Before dealing with Kip Kosek’s excellent book, I want to set his work in the context of two other recently published books. The first is the other Acts of Conscience, by Steve Taylor, and I’ll let Kip give that work a fuller analysis. Here’s another, which looks like a nice companion to Kip’s book: Patricia Applebaum, Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. I have yet to see this text, but here’s a preview from UNC Press:

American religious pacifism is usually explained in terms of its practitioners' ethical and philosophical commitments. Patricia Appelbaum argues that Protestant pacifism, which constituted the religious center of the large-scale peace movement in the United States after World War I, is best understood as a culture that developed dynamically in the broader context of American religious, historical, and social currents.

Exploring piety, practice, and material religion, Appelbaum describes a surprisingly complex culture of Protestant pacifism expressed through social networks, iconography, vernacular theology, individual spiritual practice, storytelling, identity rituals, and cooperative living. Between World War I and the Vietnam War, she contends, a paradigm shift took place in the Protestant pacifist movement. Pacifism moved from a mainstream position to a sectarian and marginal one, from an embrace of modernity to skepticism about it, and from a Christian center to a purely pacifist one, with an informal, flexible theology.

The book begins and ends with biographical profiles of two very different pacifists, Harold Gray and Marjorie Swann. Their stories distill the changing religious culture of American pacifism revealed in Kingdom to Commune.

While the subject is related, these books -- Kosek’s and Applebaum’s -- look very different (I’m guessing here). Kip’s is more an intellectual history combined with short biographies; Applebaum’s appears to draw in some different characters and source materials (Swann does not appear in Kosek’s index, for example).

The second concurrent text here is Acts of Conscience: World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, by Steven J. Taylor. As mentioned, Kip Kosek will give us his reflections on this text soon here on the blog. In the meantime, here’s a description of the book:

In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young men rattled the psychiatric establishment by beaming a public spotlight on the squalid conditions and brutality in our nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Bringing the abuses to the attention of newspapers and magazines across the country, they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institutional staff. Prominent Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, author Pearl S. Buck, actress Helen Hayes, and African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune, supported the efforts of the young men.

These young men were among the 12,000 World War II conscientious objectors who chose to perform civilian public service as an alternative to fighting in what is widely regarded as America’s "good war." Three thousand of these men volunteered to work at state institutions, where they found conditions appalling. Acting on conscience a second time, they challenged America’s treatment of its citizens with severe disabilities. Acts of Conscience brings to light the extraordinary efforts of these courageous men, drawing upon extensive archival research, interviews, and personal correspondence.

The World War II conscientious objectors were not the first to expose public institutions, and they would not be the last. What distinguishes them from reformers of other eras is that their activities have faded from professional and popular memory. Steven J. Taylor’s moving account is an indispensable contribution to the historical record.

With this prequel out of the way, tomorrow we'll move on to more on Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, then hopefully soon we'll have Kip's take on Steven Taylor's Acts of Conscience, and I'll follow up with more on Patricia Applebaum's complementary text as soon as I can get a look at it.


Art Remillard said…
Sounds like an excellent week of insights! I'm hoping to develop a class on the subject, so this should all be very instructive.

In my attempts to disrupt worldviews, I always like to assign Dorothy Day's "We are UnAmerican: We are Catholics."

"Why is THE CATHOLIC WORKER opposed to UMT and to war? Because we are Communists? No! For we were opposed to World War II when the Communists were for it. Because we are indifferent to the fate of the Church? No! For she is our Mother, the Bridegroom of Jesus Christ. But she is more than real estate, she is more than temporal power, her spirit is not the spirit of the world and she has no need to be defended by the arms of the world. No more than her Divine Master who refused such defense."

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