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Christian pacifists challenged morality of war

By Christine Nielsen-Craig

Now in his 80s, Jack Rogers has a vivid recollection of an experience he had at age 12. With the door closed in his Wanganui bedroom, young Jack pushed a chair over to the bookcase, stepped up to the top shelf and pulled down books his father kept out of his reach.

Alongside the likes of ‘What a Young Husband Should Know’ was a book whose graphic images truly shook him. The book was ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, and its photographs of naked, brutalised corpses proved far more shocking to him than any Victorian treatment of impending manhood.

Jack told this story to an audience at Knox Presbyterian Church in Christchurch on July 11 to launch ‘A Question of Faith’, David Grant’s 120-page historical account of the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society (CPS).

The CPS was founded in 1936 by Wellington Methodist minister Rev Ormond Burton and his circuit steward AC Barrington. Membership in the non-denominational peace group was open only to adult communicant members of mainstream churches. This restriction sparked a controversy that some believe contributed to its ultimate folding in 2002.

Those CPS members who shared Jack’s unwavering rejection of war were detained or imprisoned during WWII for adhering to their religious conviction that killing a human being is always wrong.

Among them was Connie Summers who, as Connie Jones, was arrested in May 1941 shortly after she’d mounted a butter box to speak her pacifist mind. She was sentenced to three months hard labour in Wellington’s Point Halswell Reformatory.

Connie was the only woman jailed for her public rejection of war, while Jack was one of nearly 800 men put into detention camps as defaulting conscientious objectors – most of them on religious, political or ethical grounds.

Jack nurtured his convictions in what became the organisation’s core group, the Methodist church’s highly popular bible classes.

Throughout New Zealand, attendance in these classes “grew through the 1920s and early 1930s to a list of thousands and became a powerful pressure group virtually autonomous within the church as a whole and not necessarily responsible to it”, writes David Grant.

The book begins by setting the scene for the birth of New Zealand’s CPS: the early pacifist response to the 1909 Defence Bill and its attendant compulsory military training legislation two years later, the country’s first. The final chapter outlines the demise of CPS during a 32-year period beginning in 1970.

In between, the pages document the CPS in detail. It includes personal testimony, letters, documents and photographs and it traces the organisation’s path in the political and cultural contexts of its time.

One of striking revelations is that the courts had the power to imprison conscientious objectors for an indefinite period in camps. By late 1942, Christian pacifists accounted for more than half of the 29 defaulters serving indefinite sentences in prisons, according to the book.

Amidst tales of hardship is the story of CPS camp detainees’ secret mail service, a bit of light relief involving a six-kilometre trek to a seven-pound treacle tin buried under a pine tree.

The book also recounts the inevitable ideological wrangling among church and CPS leaders and members. One of the most harrowing instances was Ormond Burton’s expulsion from the Methodist church during its 1942 national conference for his refusal to accept its Manifesto on Peace and War, which prohibited anti-war preaching.

Thrice wounded during WWI, this decorated military officer became a pacifist when he learned about the Treaty of Versailles. Ormond concluded his generation had not endured the ‘war to end all wars’ but rather war would continue despite their sacrifices. He was imprisoned shortly after the 1942 conference and remained estranged from the Methodist Church until 1955.

“Military/war rhetoric went largely unchallenged by the vast bulk of New Zealanders facing fascist military expansion from the late 1930s to Hitler's march through the Low Countries in April-May 1940,” David says.

“By then only a tiny number of Christian pacifists were prepared to brave the wrath of local body leaders, the police, and the law by continuing an assertive pacifist campaign.”

The story of that tiny group of people willing to suffer any consequence for their repudiation of all war offers a refreshing contrast to those who so readily invoke their religious faith to incite war.

David Grant is a Wellington historian. ‘A Question of Faith’ ($29.95) is published by Philip Garside.