Letter July 16, 1918 from Norman Thomas to John Mott




Letter July 16, 1918 from Norman Thomas to John Mott




WWI conscientious objection / objectors


Thomas, Norman


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


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Dr. John R. Mott
347 Madison Avenue
New York

My dear Dr. Mott:
I am sending this letter because of an inner compulsion that cannot be denied. It is personal and not sent by direction of The Fellowship.

I have been greatly concerned by the attitude the Y M C A has taken to some of the deep religious problems of our time. I recognize that the nature of the welfare work that it has undertaken and its relations to the government may make it necessary to abandon any express references to Christian character. I am a little surprised that some of my friends should tell me (perhaps they are mistaken) that the chief moral qualifications a man must have are, that he have no sympathy with pacifism or socialism and that he be “not too pious”. However, I can understand even this, although the situation is not without its dangers to the future and I should think might easily result in a profound modification of the basis of the Y M C A and its work.

What I find much less easy to understand is the attitude the Association has taken toward Conscientious Objectors. At Camp Upton, Christian men like my brother have resented some of the things said and done by Y M C A secretaries more than anything done by any officers. At Camp Dix, I am told, the Secretary put up a notice which reads: “We conscientiously refuse to serve those who conscientiously refuse to conscientiously serve their country.” Whether this was meant humourously or not I do not know. At Camp Grant, at least,

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one of the highest-minded Christian men I know, himself a former Y M C A worker, was turned over to the Y M C A secretaries for examination as to his sincerity, and his detailed account of that examination makes one feel a sense of deep humiliation that such spiritual malpractice should be possible in dealing with a Christian man. Mr Norman Angell, on hearing his letter read, remarked that it showed the progress humanity had made! Once the Church turned its heretics over to the temporal arm, now the state turns its heretics over to that very docile spiritual art, the Y M C A.

I might multiply illustrations. My point is not that the Conscientious Objectors are right – you know my opinion on that matter – but that for a Christian organization to assume toward them the attitude of the Y M C A is to come close to stultifying Christianity. It will make it very hard for Y M C A leaders in the future to talk about the absolute supremacy of Christ and the necessity of the decision of character and loyalty to conscience. Surely I need not argue this point with you, for though you do not agree with these Conscientious Objectors, in the case of some of them it was your own addresses at Northfield and elsewhere that gave them part of their spiritual background for their present stand; and as one of the founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in America, you are aware of some of the spiritual values involved in conscientious objection. I know the system is too big for you or any other one man to revolutionize, but is there nothing that you and others of the wise leaders can do to modify that attitude which tends, even in this hour of its popularity, to bring the Y M C A into reproach among thoughtful men? When the letters Y M C A on a banner are interpreted, as they once were, “You

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Must Come Across”, when under its auspices as often one hears preached a message of hate, it is not easy to see in your great organization a thoughtful, forward looking, Christian body, capable of playing a mighty part in the rebuilding of our broken civilization.

I have written frankly because I think you ought to know what is being said, not only by me but my many men who have owed much to your leadership in the past, and who cannot feel that you view the present situation with the great organization you have done so much to create without some perturbation of spirit. Is it not possible for you to speak out on spiritual principles? Aside from questions of religious and civil liberty at home there is the possibility that the Christians of Sweden have put before us of reasserting Christian brotherhood by united Conferences for prayer that God may guide us to a righteous peace. To speak to the hearts and conscience of the nation along these lines, as you are capable of speaking, is a great service than heading a mighty organization.

Sincerely yours
(Signed) Norman Thomas



Thomas, Norman, “Letter July 16, 1918 from Norman Thomas to John Mott,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed October 26, 2021, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/1619.

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