Adin Ballou (1814 — 1890)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Adin Ballou

Although Henry David Thoreau's “Civil Disobedience” (1849) and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) are the most famous documents in the American tradition of nonviolence, without Adin Ballou’s Christian Non-Resistance in All Its Important Bearings (1846), would we have the other two? Although less well known than the other two theorists of nonviolence, in spirit, Adin Ballou is very much alive. Agape Community in Ware, Massachusetts resembles, in fact, Ballou’s Hopedale Community, a 19th-century utopian experiment in nearby Milford. For both, the nonviolent gospel combining a refusal to kill and a commitment to social justice is central.

Reading Ballou’s prose, one is struck by the apparent justice of his son-in-law’s description of him as “a great power for good in the world, a noteworthy man of his age.” For the tone and mood of Ballou’s writings have a kind of sweet reasonableness about them, particularly when one remembers the difficulties he faced in espousing “Christian non-resistance” (nonviolence), a doctrine, as he put it, so “little understood, and almost everywhere spoken against.”

Prior to Leo Tolstoy, Adin Ballou contributed more to our understanding of nonviolence, perhaps, than anyone in recent history, and Gandhi probably know of Ballou’s work, through his reading of Tolstoy. In The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893), the Russian count furthered the insights formulated in Ballou’s carefully reasoned, generous spirited, and synthesizing treatment of the subject. Recognizing the controversial nature of his “unpopular doctrine,” Ballou confidently and openly explored the full implications of his defense in Christian Non-Resistance, believing it “as ancient as Christianity, and as true as the New Testament.” For these reasons, characteristically, he stressed that “friends and opposers be candid, just and generous” of his exposition, approving or condemning it “solely on its own intrinsic merits or demerits.”

Born April 23, 1803, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, Adin Ballou was descended from the founders of that New England colony. At eighteen, he responded to what he regarded as a supernatural call to the ministry and subsequently headed Universalist societies in New York City and Milford, Massachusetts (where his statue stands today on the Hopedale town common), and traveled throughout the Northeast as a popular preacher.

Ballou’s writings in Independent Messenger (1831-1839) influenced Unitarian/Universalist thought considerably, and pacifist and abolitionist journals, such as The Nonresistant and Practical Christian (1845-49), which he edited, contributed to lively anarchist debates and the growth of utopian communities in the decade prior to the Civil War. Although Ballou regarded himself as “no antagonist to human government,” his perspective challenged the basic ideologies of what we know now as state socialism or state capitalism. His position resembles Thoreau’s in “Civil Disobedience,” written during the same period; for Ballou, government is “a mere cypher,” with “no rightful claim to the allegiance of man.”

Christian Non-Resistance (1846)In his remarks to a September 25, 1839, meeting of the New England Non-Resistance Society, in Boston, Ballou addressed the question whether we must “disobey parents, patriarchs, priests, kings, nobles, presidents, governors, generals, legislatures, constitutions, armies, mobs, all rather than disobey God?” His answer, resembling that of antiwar and anti-nuclear activists in recent decades, was, “We must, and then patiently endure the penal consequences.”

In 1841, Ballou became co-founder and president of the Hopedale Community, on 250 acres of land carved out of Milford, Massachusetts. A utopian and Christian society based upon radical principles, it was an effort “to establish a state of society governed by divine moral principles, with as little as possible of mere human restraint.” There, according to its constitution, “no individual shall suffer the evils of oppression, poverty, ignorance or vice through the influence or neglect of others.”

In “What a Christian Non-Resistant Cannot Consistently Do,” an opening section of Christian Non-Resistance (1846), Ballou listed seven commandments that conscientious followers of Jesus should obey.

He/she cannot kill, maim, or otherwise absolutely injure any human being, in personal self-defense, or for the sake of his family, or any thing he holds dear ... He/she cannot be a member of any voluntary association, however orderly, respectable or allowable by law and general consent, which declaratively holds as fundamental truth, or claims as an essential right, or distinctly inculcates as sound doctrine, or approves as commendable in practice, war, capital punishment, or any other absolute personal injury.

Ballou stated, further, that the Christian non-resistant must not directly or indirectly “abet or encourage any act in others, nor demand, petition for, request, advise or approve the doing of any act, by an individual, association or government” that “would inflict, threaten to inflict, or necessarily cause to be inflicted any absolute personal injury.” For the informing “sub-principle of Christian non-resistance,” as Ballou argued first and Tolstoy later in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), is “Evil can be overcome only with good.” Anticipating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s counsel to civil rights activists and civil disobedients a century later, Ballou said, “Resist not personal injury with personal injury.” And in a verse concluding his introduction, Ballou describes Isaiah’s vision, much in the manner of Edward Hicks’ well-known painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom”:

The earth, so long a slaughter-field,
Shall yet an Eden bloom;
The tiger to the lamb shall yield,
And War descend the tomb:
For all shall feel the Saviour’s love,
Reflected from the cross—
That love, that non-resistant love,
Which triumphed on the cross.

A vigorous debater, with a remarkable sense of the theoretical and practical implications of nonviolence, Ballou is at his best in addressing arguments justifying self-preservation. If self-preservation is the best method of protecting and preserving human life, Ballou asks, why have “fourteen thousand millions of human beings been slain by human means, in war and otherwise?” From such evidence, might one not conclude that such methods of self-preservation are "the offspring of a purblind instinct — the cherished salvo of ignorance — the fatal charm of deluded credulity — the supposed preserver, but the real destroyer of the human family?"

Adin Ballou statue in Hopedale, Massachusetts"If only a few thousands, or even a few millions, had perished by the two-edged sword ... if the sword of self-defense had frightened the sword of aggression into its scabbard, there to consume in its rust; then might we admit that the common method of self-preservation was the true one." On the other hand, if everyone since the conflict of Cain and Abel had responded to robbery, murder, and killing with non-resistance, “would as many lives have been sacrificed, or as much real misery have been experienced by the human race,” as has resulted from the usual method of responding to injury with injury?

As with so many of Ballou’s arguments and questions, this reflection seems more timely, more pertinent in any discussion of “just war theory” today than it was a century ago. And the recent republication of his books may yet win for him the wide and thoughtful audience among activists and scholars that he deserves.

The most remarkable example of Adin Ballou’s faithfulness to nonviolence was perhaps his steadfastness, as other abolitionists and non-resistants came to justify the violent means of John Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and of the national government’s “war to end slavery” shortly afterward. One by one, Ballou’s old friends and fellow non-resistants drifted away, having seemingly forgotten their earlier commitment to nonviolence — William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, even that most persistent nonviolent activist, Stephen Symonds Foster.

In his autobiography, Ballou set their earlier statements beside their later justifications of war. Almost alone among his old radical friends, he continued to insist on just means for just ends, carefully thinking through, for example, what his grandson’s response to the wartime draft should be, as a non-resistant. In the last years of his remarkably active life as writer, lecturer, and clergyman, he devoted himself to writing his family and community history, but he never repudiated or turned away from the values and principles associated with resistance to violence and discrimination that had informed his life and writings since he first formulated them fifty years before.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Adin Ballou
  • Autobiography of Adin Ballou, 1803-1890, Containing an Elaborate Record and Narrative of His Life From Infancy to Old Age, with Appendixes. Ed. William S. Heywood. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, (1896) 1975.
  • Christian Non-Resistance, Ed., with an introduction by Lynn Gordon Hughes. Providence: Blackstone Editions, (1846) 2003.
  • History of the Hopedale Community, From Its Inception to Its Virtual Submergence in the Hopedale Parish. Ed. William S. Heywood. Lowell, Mass.: Thompson & Hill, 1897.
  • Practical Christianity: An Epitome of Practical Christian Socialism, Ed. Lynn Gordon Hughes. Providence: Blackstone Editions, (1854) 2002.
Selected material about Adin Ballou
  • Patterns of Anarchy: A Collection of Writings on the Anarchist Tradition. Ed. Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry. New York: Anchor Book, 1966.

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