Military Service and the Alternatives

“Military Service and the Alternatives” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was asked to serve on a select commission of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a Presidential Panel called the Diversity of Ministry Team (DOMT). That team met three or four times a year in the President’s office, in those days, a corner room overlooking the Massachusetts State House lawn in one direction, and from the other windows, Boston Common. On the desk of Rev. William Sinkford was a treasured item: a reproduction of a Civil War cap on which were stitched a brass horn and the numbers 5 and 4.

This was the cap of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first infantry of free African Americans from the North recruited to fight on the side of the Union against the Confederacy. Rev. Sinkford, the first African American to serve as President of the UUA, held on to that cap not so much to indicate that he expected his time in office to be a time of battle, but rather to remember he had been recruited by his peers to volunteer to pursue that office; to remain aware of what it means to be a ground breaker, a pioneer, a “first”; and to remind himself that his Presidency was intended by many to be part of a decisive turning point in the story of Unitarian Universalism when we would emerge as a multicultural, anti-oppressive and anti-racist faith community.

Across the street from that Presidential Office in the old UUA is a sacred place in Boston: the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, a key element of the Boston African American National Historic Site. This memorial by Augustus Saint Gaudens features the bas relief of a young adult, a 25-year old colonel, a Unitarian, on horseback leading his African American volunteers on their journey to South Carolina, where they would achieve “Glory,” Hollywood would later name it, in the valiant and calamitous attack on Fort Wagner, and where Col. Shaw would give his life. 

On this Memorial Day, let us remember people of our faith tradition who served their country in times of war. Robert Gould Shaw was born into a wealthy Unitarian family with roots in Boston and business interests in New York. They were staunch abolitionists, but Robert was still finding his way in the world. Business was before him, and his family’s philanthropy interested him; but his education at Harvard was not preparing him to find his true course. It was when the 7th New York Militia was organized to march in defense of the nation’s capitol in 1861 that Robert heard his calling. After 30 days in DC, he signed up with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and joined their campaigns in Winchester, Cedar Mountain and Antietam. It was in Antietam that he was wounded, and during his recovery, his father suggested that he might respond to the request of the Governor of Massachusetts that he lead the newly organized Massachusetts 54th.

African Americans had been organized to fight in earlier armies and navies of the United States. They served in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812 in both seaboard and frontier battles. But there were federal laws from the 1790s that forbade Blacks from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Not until after the Emancipation Proclamation were Black Americans legally allowed to serve. Even after it became lawful, there was ambivalence on the part of many to allow Black men to serve, and ambivalence on the part of Black men to risk their lives for a country where they were treated as second class citizens. It was Frederick Douglass who encouraged military service as a mechanism for full inclusion into US civic life:  “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button,” said Douglass, “and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

The 54th would fight valiantly; would lose two thirds of its officers and half its enlisted men; would yield martyrs for the cause of freedom and give the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, Sargent William H. Carney of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who would save the company colors at the second attack on Fort Wagner. “Boys, I only did my duty,” he would later say, “the old flag never touched the ground.”

Confederate General Johnson Hagood refused to return Shaw’s body to the Union army, and to show contempt for the officer who led Black troops, Hagood had Shaw’s body buried in a common trench with his men. Francis G. Shaw refused to see his son’s interment as an insult. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”

This Unitarian family found meaning in their public life in the cause of abolition. Their son found his calling in military service. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

L. Griswold Williams was a Universalist minister whose faith gave him a radical approach to ministry and to World War One. He heard in his faith a call to the Universal Love of God, the compelling—if hidden—truth of the Universal human family, and the decision to resist war. Williams had studied at Meadville Theological School beginning in 1912; this just a few years after Maria Louisa Hyde Pratt, of this congregation, made a substantial donation to that school. Like Shaw, Williams was not entirely satisfied with educational setting. He was expelled during his third year at Meadville because of his outspoke support for Italian workers on strike. But with a willingness to endure the hardship of the ministerial preaching circuit in Ohio, and a native intelligence that allowed him to minister effectively to many people, and the social gospel in his heart, he was ordained and began to serve Universalist pulpits. 

Williams, like many social gospel Universalists of his time, held radical views about the Great War and military service. These are captured in the following letter to the editor, cited in the research of Quaker leader Donne Hayden:

I read only the other day that the exports of the United States had increased three billions or one hundred per cent in three years. It seems passing strange that in times of such prosperity, men, women and little children should be without food, starving in the midst of luxury. These half fed laborers are being told that they must be ready to defend our legitimate  rights by going out and murdering as many Germans as they can. I for one wish to register myself as one who refuses to do any of this defending. If the owners want the markets, let them do the fighting, not the workers. The workers of America have no quarrel with the workers of any other country. 


Is this unpatriotic? If you mean by patriotism the willingness to die for the  good of humanity, then I am a Patriot; but if you mean the willingness to die for the sake of bank accounts of the Capitalists of this country, I am not. For the sake of the working men of the world whose struggle for Justice is one, and in the name of the workingman of Nazareth, Brother of Humanity, I refuse to uphold or engage in any war.

—L. Griswold Williams, Minister
All Souls Church Universalist

Williams was not alone in this perspective. The General Convention of the Universalist Church of America had adopted social principles put forward by Professor Clarence R. Skinner in 1915, which principles argued that war was a betrayal of Universalism. Skinner cited Unitarian leader Rev. John Haynes Holmes who argued that “war is the quintessence of evil, because it bears within itself all other evil” (the waste of land and natural resources, the destruction of the youthful generation, unemployment in useful pursuits, starvation and disease, anti-democratic authoritarianism, etc. etc.) For these practitioners of liberal religion, humanity is called us to a greater sense of belonging to one another, and war within the human family reduced us to our lesser selves. Universalism in the United States was ready to allow that European powers may, indeed, be involved in war which had both aggressive and defensive components; but for the countries of this hemisphere to choose sides in a conflict an ocean away seemed to Skinner and Williams and many others a betrayal of faith.

Griswold Williams lost his position as pastor of All Souls Universalist Church in Marion, Ohio, due to his outspoken rejection of entering World War I. Indeed, members of the leadership of his church turned his name in to the Bureau of Investigation for his purported pro-German point of view. But Williams , as an engaged citizen, registered with the draft board, and in pursuit of his principles, he was ready to serve his country’s cause—and the cause of greater humanity—in a non-combatant role. To do so, he joined with the Quakers of the precursor to the American Friends Service Committee, and erected housing on farms in France that had been overrun by war.   

This Universalist minister found meaning in his public life in the cause of resisting war. While his parish was unable to weather his public pacifist stand, still he served in alternative service in Europe. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

This week, a family of this church travelled to Westminster to inter the ashes of their parents, dear departed members of our church: LaVaughn Hanson Beard and Clarence Beard. We stood together in a beautiful morning breeze, atop a hill and under a chestnut tree, surrounded by the stone markers of dozens of relatives, distant and close. The Church of the Brethren holds the land that keeps those mortal remains; a traditional peace church, it was the Brethren who joined with the Mennonites and Quakers to create the Civilian Public Service, a governmental program which allowed conscientious objectors a chance to serve their country not in non-combatant roles related to war, but in projects such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, and agriculture. For Clarence, this meant service in the Allegheny National Forest, and separation from LaVaughn. Then, when his service was transferred to Connecticut, the family was reunited, even as Clarence was allowed to pursue his national service within the boundaries of his conscience. This Unitarian Universalist man of music and his family found meaning in their public life. Clarence would come to this church and found the choir which sings for you today. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

A young adult who gave his life in the Civil War. A radical minister who avoided picking up the gun but rebuilt after the devastation of war. A principled family which pursued alternatives for the common good. These are the people we remember on Memorial Day. These are the Universalists and Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists who live on as we remember them. These are the ones we cherish because they made great sacrifices in the fulfillment of our still-being-perfected democracy. They acted on their belief in the universal and all-conquering Love which binds us together. They lived in the music that symbolizes our profound aspiration for all people to live in harmony. 

May our memorial today keep alive their memory; and may we live lives of morality and ethics, of spirituality and sacrifice, that their aims may be fulfilled in our living. May it ever be. Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Peace, salaam, shalom. Amen.

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