New England Non-Resistance Society

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

New England Non-Resistance Society

By 1838, some members of the American Peace Society felt that they could no longer work within the Society's official program of moderate reform. These members, discontented because the American Peace Society would not come out against all state and personal use of violence, withdrew to start the New England Non-Resistance Society, the boldest pacifist organization in the 19th Century. Members of the New England Non-Resistance Society were committed to radical social change without violence. They took the offensive against injustice and also made important theoretical contributions to the development of nonviolence.

Henry Clarke Wright, a Congregational minister and stormy abolitionist, led the discontented members in their attempts to radicalize the American Peace Society. Wright was ably assisted by Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister who championed temperance, penal reform, women's rights and the causes of oppressed people — from Native Americans to immigrant Irish. William Lloyd Garrison, a pacifist and leading abolitionist, supported their efforts, although he was not a member of the American Peace Society. In his abolitionist paper Liberator, Garrison criticized the American Peace Society, saying that such mild organizations:

…are mischievous, instead of being beneficial, because they occupy the ground without being able to effect the object. What a farce it is to see a Peace Society enrolling upon its list of members, not converted but belligerent commanders-in-chief, generals, colonels, majors, corporals and all! What a wonderful reform may be expected where there are none to be reformed!

Garrison once told William Ladd, the President of the American Peace Society, "Be assured that… until your cause is honored with lynch law, a coat of tar and feathers, brickbats and rotten eggs — no radical reform can take place."

Under Wright's leadership, the radicals called a convention to which they invited all whom they hoped would share their views. Garrison and his followers came; George C. Beckwith, Secretary of the American Peace Society and editor of its paper Advocate of Peace, arrived with his contingent. After a few hours, Beckwith and his sympathizers left, saying that they objected to women being admitted to full membership in the convention and its committees. Most of the debate centered around the successful resolution that "human life is inviolable and can never be taken by individuals or nations…" The convention set up the New England Non-Resistance Society and Garrison headed the committee to draft the Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments.

The Declaration which Garrison wrote says in part:

We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government… Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind… We register our testimony, not only against all war -- whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war, against every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification; against the militia system and a standing army; against all military chieftains and soldiers; against all monuments commemorative of victory over a foreign foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military or naval exploits; against all appropriations for the defense of a nation by force and arms on the part of any legislative body; against every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service. Hence, we deem it unlawful to bear arms or to hold a military office… We cannot sue any man at law to compel him by force to restore anything which he may have wrongfully taken from us or others; but if he had seized our coat, we shall surrender up our cloak rather than subject him to punishment.

Like the nonresistant peace churches, the New England Non-Resistance Society would not use violence or participate in government; unlike those churches which withdrew from the world, the New England Non-Resistance Society directly challenged the injustice of the contemporary society and actively campaigned for change.

While most of the work centered in New England, active branches also operated in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. The Society's views found expression in the Liberator, and from 1839 until mid-1842, the Society published its own paper, Non-Resistant, which in 1840 had 1,000 subscribers. Rank and file members of the Society disturbed church meetings to call attention to the churches' inaction concerning slavery. For their efforts, the members as well as their leaders often faced the violence of angry mobs, but always they refused to return the injury. The Society attributed to this nonresistance the fact that none of its members were ever killed.

Several capable and energetic women furthered the organization and the principles of the New England Non-Resistance Society. Among them were: Lucretia Mott, abolitionist and women's rights advocate; Sarah and Angelina Grimke, early feminists and abolitionists; Lydia Maria Child, novelist; Maria Chapman, abolitionist; Abby Kelly, Quaker and women's rights advocate; and Ann Weston, nonresistance activist.

William Lloyd Garrison led the abolitionist work. Henry C. Wright, an apt organizer, traveled throughout this country and to England, where he made considerable impact on the anti-militarist movement just beginning there. Of the group, Adin Ballou did the most to further pacifist theory. Later, Russian novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy corresponded with Ballou, translated some of his work and propagated his writings in Russia. Mohandas Gandhi was also influenced by the work and thought of Adin Ballou and William Lloyd Garrison.

The ideology developed by the New England Non-Resistants was not a well rounded creed but a constant examination of philosophy and technique. The members agreed that the existing system could not be reformed and they sought a clear break with it. They maintained a determined "no government" position and, as a result, they avoided electoral politics as a means to their ends. Instead, they appealed directly to individuals and encouraged a revolution of the inner person. Henry David Thoreau's celebrated essay "Civil Disobedience" owes much to the Christian anarchism articulated by Garrison and Ballou. The essay was written in 1846, after Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the Massachusetts poll tax. Thoreau's action stemmed from his opposition to the war with Mexico, which he believed was intended to spread slavery. Though neither a pacifist nor a member of the New England Non-Resistance Society, Thoreau was still familiar with their position. He distinguished himself from the New England Non-Resistants by stating in his essay, "… unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government." The essay goes on to argue the necessity for individuals to act according to the dictates of conscience even though this entails resistance to the state.

In developing its theory and practice of nonresistance, the Society gave more consideration to domestic defense from anti-social forces than it did to a nation's protecting itself from external attack. Considering criminals, Adin Ballou introduced the concept of "noninjurious force" which limited the use of force to restraining dangerous persons in such a way that would not harm them. The reformation of criminals, Ballou suggested, was dependent upon the power of the community's concern for them. Charles K. Whipple urged that policemen be recruited from tried nonresistants who would act without weapons but with the full support of the community. The Non-Resistants insisted upon the need to eliminate the social and economic causes of crime.

Adin Ballou distinguished three kinds of principled pacifism: Philosophical, pacifism based on the principle that violence is irrational; Sentimental, pacifism based on humanitarian principIes and the belief in human perfectibility; and Christian, pacifism based on a desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Ballou was the first to suggest that there could be principled pacifism not based on religious considerations.

Ballou also enunciated the Law of Reciprocation. This "law" means that absorbing injury and responding with a benevolent insistence upon justice perfects human society, while to return injury with injury results in further injury. The Non-Resistants repeatedly made the point that humans have followed the latter course throughout history with the only result being a world filled with violence and insecurity.

Concerned as they were with the abolition of slavery, and living in a world which had witnessed several revolutions and attempted revolutions, the New England Non-Resistants particularly examined the relationship of pacifism to struggles for Freedom from oppression. Charles K. Whipple foreshadowed Gandhi's thinking as to technique when he wrote Evils of the Revolutionary War (1839). Whipple accepted the aims of the Revolutionary leaders but maintained, “We should have attained independence as effectually, as speedily, as honorably, and under very much more favorable circumstances, if we had not resorted to arms." In order to accomplish their goals, the colonists would have had to 1) refuse all unjust demands; 2) efficiently make their cause known; and 3) endure the reprisals that undoubtedly would follow.

Whipple suggested that the colonists surely would have suffered, but nothing approaching the calamities of war. Moreover, if they had had the mindfulness to conduct their revolution without violence, the nation which they founded would have enjoyed many benefits. There would not have followed a half century of hostilities with England; slavery would not have been written into the Constitution; Indians would have been treated differently; and the spirit of revenge would not have pervaded the foreign relations of the country and its penal system.

The New England Non-Resistance Society held its last regular meeting in 1849. With the rising tide of militancy among the nation's abolitionists, the Non-Resistants were torn between their commitment to pacifism and their commitment to abolition. While maintaining their personal allegiance to nonresistance, Garrison and Wright advocated that people should be true to their sense of right and employ violence to help the slave if they would use violence in self-defense. The Non-Resistants had not managed to mature their theory into broad and effective practice and, as a result, ended their dual public campaign for both pacifism and social justice.

Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, reprinted with permission, from The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States.  Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
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    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
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    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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