Article Note: Gordon L. Heath, “Canadian Presbyterians and the Rejection of Pacifism in the Interwar Years, 1919-1939”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 3/4 (Fall 2023)

Article Note: Gordon L. Heath, “Canadian Presbyterians and the Rejection of Pacifism in the Interwar Years, 1919-1939,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 98, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2020), 66-77.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In this article, Gordon Heath of McMaster Divinity College has analyzed diverse forms of pacifism within the Presbyterian Church of Canada (PCC) during the 1920s and 1930s. He argues that support for internationalist pacifism—a “liberal reformist” movement committed to “international developments for peace” but “willing to support the use of force as a last resort” (68)—was strong among Presbyterians, but that support for absolute pacifism—the refusal “to support the use of force for any reason” (68)—waned in the later 1920s and 1930s. This was in large part because the minority of Presbyterians who remained with the PCC after most chose to join the new United Church of Canada (UCC) were largely committed to the Just War tradition, a core Presbyterian conviction (67).

In the first section, “Shifting Views and Rising Pacifism,” Heath explains Canadian enthusiasm for the First World War in 1914 aimed initially at “saving civilization from German militarism,” then also putting a halt to the genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey and more generally creating a world without war. Though postwar Presbyterians went on to commemorate the Great War, Canadians as a whole began to embrace pacifism, because of the costs of the war—both human and material. Among Christians, one evidence of this surge in pacifism was “A Creed for Believers in a Warless World” (1921), which articulated “belief” in arms reductions, international law, “a worldwide association of nations for world peace,” racial equality, good will between nations, “just dealing and unselfish service,” Christian brotherhood, and a “warless world” (66, 69). A wave of internationalism swept through the churches, just as it had the wider society. The influence of the social gospel was important for pacifism, as was the formation of the League of Nations, which the Presbyterian press supported, and a series of international agreements which suggested the possibility of arms reduction, normalization of relations with Germany, and the elevation of diplomacy over war (70).

Among Canadian Presbyterians, however, support for pacifism was limited to these hopes for stable international relations marked by bilateral and multilateral agreements, which would render war less likely. Absolute pacifism convictions were rejected. As one Presbyterian writer put it, while war was “contrary  to the will of Christ and foreign to His spirit” as well as “not Christ’s method of bringing in His Kingdom” and “fundamentally alien to the spirit of brotherhood which he came to establish on earth,” it should be emphasized that “the Church does not take the position that no circumstances can justify armed resistance to unlawful aggression or inaction in the face of wrong and suffering inflicted upon the weak and defenseless” (71). Another writer asserted that German aggression in the First World War had demonstrated that “sometimes war was needed to stop bellicose nations.”

Still, Heath argues that 1920s Presbyterians believed that international organizations and the churches could partner to make peace, foster “universal brotherhood,” and usher in the Kingdom of God. The Christian contribution would be to invest in global Christian mission. By the 1930s, however, these hopes were challenged by the increasing aggression of dictatorships in Japan, Italy, and Germany. Presbyterians referred to a “Dark Valley” of international tensions that made pacifism seem more and more untenable (71).

The second section of Heath’s article (“Just War (Redux)”) illustrates the growing division among pacifists and the fact that PCC convictions were primarily internationalist and not those of the “absolute pacifists” (72). In 1934, for instance, the Canadian editor of the Presbyterian Record quoted his US counterpart (from the Presbyterian Banner) stating that any Presbyterians who support resolutions opposed to the use of any force to defend the country “should remember that they subscribed to a different doctrine when they accepted our Confession of Faith” (72) The magistrate still exercised the sword in the “Just War” tradition. Heath references other similar PCC statements to illustrate the limits of Presbyterian pacifism, while also noting that there were still some scattered Presbyterian statements renouncing war entirely. Overall, though, a new realism took hold.

Here Heath enters into historical debates about 1) the relative importance of the social gospel within Presbyterianism, 2) the level of preoccupation with survival and reconstruction of Canadian Presbyterianism after the departure of most Presbyterians for the UCC, 3) the extent to which Presbyterians had any energy at all for theological innovation, and 4) the level of conservatism within the (now much smaller and more homogenous) PCC. Above all, Heath argues,

Presbyterian identity was under duress due to the recent formation of the UCC. Despite the optimism for peace, it is not entirely surprising that absolute pacifism did not take root in the PCC. There was no significant pacifist movement in the Reformed tradition, and thus the surging peace movement did not resonate strongly with a pre-existing body of pacifist Presbyterians. More importantly, absolute pacifism directly contradicted the creeds of the church… (74).

As a result, when German Führer Adolf Hitler launch the world into war once again in 1939, “the PCC remained faithful to the Just War tradition, and the war against Hitler was deemed to be a Just War” (74). Moreover, commentary in the Presbyterian Record and resolutions from the General Assembly both maintained strong support for the war against Hitler and Nazism. What the pacifist influence had done, though, was to temper the enthusiasm with which the PCC endorsed the Second World War as compared to the First.