Seeking community: Brethren in Christ nonresistance and American society, 1914-1958

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


Pacifism, World War I, World War II, Cold War, Brethren in Christ, Community, Nonresistance, Society

Subject Categories

History | Religion


Between 1914 and 1958, American society mobilized for the three great wars of the twentieth century: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The Brethren in Christ Church joined other pacifists in opposing participation in these war mobilizations. Using the elaboration of a particular expression of pacifism, nonresistance, practiced by the group, this study considers small community life and its relationship to larger communities. Within the community the focus is on definitions and practice of nonresistance by many members of the community in daily life.

The picture of the belief that emerges from this focus challenges historical analysis that stresses the separatist nature of the nonresistant doctrine. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Brethren in Christ altered and passed on their generations-old nonresistant position. They did so, however, not as an isolated community. Because the community was integrated economically and technologically into American society, members found it impossible to keep the world out. Furthermore, the religious belief of nonconformity often served less as a wall against the outer world than as a means to determine what the community would and would not borrow from neighbors. Nonresistance, in particular, pulled the nonconformist community into society by attempting to foster peaceful interactions with neighbors. At the same time, disunity within the community was integral to nonresistance. Disagreements were common and sometimes contentious. During World War II the definition of nonresistance, itself, divided the community.

Nonresistance in this study appears less coherent than it does in ones based more completely on doctrinal formulations or counts of conscientious objectors. The consideration of many community members and serious attention to the power of daily life to muddle ideas, however, shows that this persistent brand of pacifism survived its interactions with the larger society and in spite of its internal tensions. Study of ordinary people in daily routines enlarges our understanding of how community values persist with compromise and confusion at the center.


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