In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft, a prominent advocate of the war in Iraq, wrote a song called “Let the Eagle Soar.” It was a deeply patriotic song, which included the following lyrics: “Like she’s never soared before, from rocky coast to golden shore, let the mighty eagle soar . . . Oh she’s far too young to die; You can see it in her eye; She’s not yet begun to fly.” In typical God-and-country fashion, Ashcroft sometimes sang the paean at morning prayer meetings at the Department of Justice.
In 2006, the year after Ashcroft stepped down from the George W. Bush Administration, Sarah Palin was elected governor of Alaska. Her rhetoric also struck a martial tone. On her reality television show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” she spoke frequently of “locking and loading.” She used a crosshairs graphic to target politicians who voted for the Affordable Care Act. She has been very eager to project and use American power abroad, calling the Iraq War a “task that is from God.” She has also been critical of Barack Obama, no peacenik himself, saying, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.”
What do these high-profile politicians have in common besides nationalism and conservative politics? According to Jay Beaman of Warner Pacific College and Brian Pipkin, managing editor of Pax Pneuma, both have had affiliations with the Assemblies of God. But in their book Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013), they also uncover a wealth of primary documents that belie Ashcroft and Palin’s commitment to redemptive violence and testify to the pacifism of many first-generation Pentecostals. It turns out that principled pacifism is not the sole province of Mennonites. In fact, it can emerge in the unlikeliest of places.
Actually the notion of Pentecostal pacifism is not a new discovery. Prominent religious historians Robert Mapes Anderson and Grant Wacker have made limited reference to Pentecostal pacifism. More recently Paul Alexander’s Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (2009) and Beaman’s own Pentecostal Pacifism (1989) have contributed more serious and comprehensive accounts. But these works are not widely known. This sourcebook, which compiles hundreds of remarkable statements, should give this unfamiliar history stronger traction.
The statements themselves are denominationally diverse, coming from the Brethren in Christ, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army. They are also theologically and culturally diverse, representing numbers of the twenty-nine distinct types of pacifism compiled by John Howard Yoder. For instance, a 1938 column from the Foursquare Church, which was founded by the colorful Aimee Semple McPherson, took a two-kingdom approach, feeling freer to instruct Christians than the nation: “Should a Christian take up arms in time of war? The question is perhaps, a little late. It already has been answered—IN THE BIBLE. Until the Ten Commandments are repealed the Christian has no alternative but to stay aloof from war and its consequent destruction of human life.” By contrast, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) spoke to national priorities. Specifically, it called in the late 1960s for the diversion of war budgets to social programs for the poor. The denomination spoke for peace, not merely against war. In one official statement it called upon their members to attempt “exploits for Peace on Earth as risky as do men of war.”
Taken collectively, these sources document just how far Pentecostal culture has changed from Azusa Street in 1906 to contemporary forms of nationalism characterized by Ashcroft and Palin. Most Pentecostals, say Beaman and Pipkin, transformed during the “good” war toward a willingness to use lethal force and an impulse to preserve a “Christian America.”
This historical memory, however, has been erased in the popular consciousness. Beaman, for instance, tells of emailing members of ancestry.com whose relatives were members of holiness and Pentecostal denominations. He provided them documentation that these relatives had claimed religious objection on their World War I draft card. They almost always responded with bewilderment and surprise, telling Beaman that surely must be mistaken. Even after seeing proof, they were sometimes still not convinced.
Interestingly, there seems to be signs of rapprochement with the past as Anabaptists and Pentecostals in recent decades extend beyond their respective enclaves. Pipkin, who grew up attending Assemblies of God and Foursquare churches, learned about pacifism at an Assemblies of God seminary in the Philippines. There he read The Upside-Down Kingdom by Anabaptist scholar Donald Kraybill. He now attends Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Beaman, who was raised in the Assemblies of God, taught at Tabor College in Kansas from 1985 to 1989. He is now a member of Portland Mennonite Church. Paul Alexander, who was a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God and co-founder of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, attended Pasadena Mennonite Church for a time. Martin Mittelstadt, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, calls himself a “Mennocostal” who rejects nationalism and embraces counterculturalism and a Spirit-led, story-based hermeneutic.
David R. Swartz is Associate Professor of History at Asbury University. He is a blog contributor at Anxious Bench and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.