AN INQUIRY INTO THE ACCORDANCY
OF WAR WITH THE
PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY


by Jonathan Dymond


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AN INQUIRY, ETC.



WhenI endeavor to divest myself of the influence of habit, and to contemplate a battle with those emotions which it would excite in the mind of a being who had never before heard of human slaughter, I find that I am impressed only with horror and astonishment – and perhaps, of the two emotions, astonishment is the greater.

That several thousand persons should meet together, and then deliberately begin to kill one another, appears to the understanding a proceeding so preposterous, so monstrous, that I think a being such as I have supposed would inevitably conclude that they were mad.  Nor, if it were attempted to explain to him some motives to such conduct, do I believe that he would be able to comprehend how any possible circumstances could make it reasonable.  The ferocity and prodigious folly of the act would out-balance the weight of every conceivable motive, and he would turn, unsatisfied, away…


“Astonished at the madness of mankind.”


There is an advantage in making suppositions such as these because, when the mind has been familiarized to a practice however monstrous or inhuman, it loses some of its sagacity of moral perception – profligacy becomes honor and inhumanity becomes spirit.  But if the subject is by some circumstance presented to the mind unconnected with any of its previous associations, we see it with a new judgment and new feelings; and wonder, perhaps, that we have not felt so or thought so before.  And such occasions it is the part of a wise man to seek, since if they never happen to us, it will often be difficult for us accurately to estimate the qualities of human actions, or to determine whether we approve them from a decision of our judgment, or whether we yield to them only the acquiescence of habit.

It is worthy at least of notice and remembrance that the only being in the creation of Providence which engages in the wholesale destruction of his own species is man; that being who alone possesses reason to direct his conduct, who alone is required to love his fellows, and who alone hopes in futurity for repose and peace.  All this seems wonderful, and may reasonably humiliate us.  The powers that elevate us above the rest of the creation, we have employed in attaining to pre-eminence of outrage and malignity.

It may properly be a subject of wonder that the arguments, which are brought to justify a custom such as war, receive so little investigation.  It must be a studious ingenuity of mischief that could devise a practice more calamitous or horrible; and yet it is a practice of which it rarely occurs to us to inquire into the necessity, or to ask whether it cannot be or ought not to be avoided.  In one truth, however, all will acquiesce: that the arguments in favor of such a practice should be unanswerably strong.

Let it not be said that the experience and the practice of other ages have superseded the necessity of inquiry in our own; that there can be no reason to question the lawfulness of that which has been sanctioned by forty centuries; or that he who presumes to question it is amusing himself with schemes of visionary philanthropy.  “There is not, it may be,” says Lord Clarendon, “a greater obstruction to the investigation of truth, or the improvement of knowledge, than the too frequent appeal and the too supine resignation of our understanding to antiquity.” [22]  Whosoever proposes an alteration of existing institutions will meet, from some men, with a sort of instinctive opposition, which appears to be influenced by no process of reasoning, by no considerations of propriety or principles of rectitude, which defends the existing system because it exists, and which would have equally defended its opposite if that had been the oldest.  “Nor is it out of modesty that we have this resignation, or that we do, in truth, think those who have gone before us to be wiser than ourselves – we are as proud and as peevish as any of our progenitors – but it is out of laziness; we will rather take their words than take the pains to examine the reason they govern themselves by.” [23]  To those who urge objections from the authority of the ages, it is, indeed, a sufficient answer to say that they apply to every long continued custom.  Slave dealers urged them against the friends of the abolition, Papists urged them against Wickliffe and Luther, and the Athenians probably thought it a good objection to an apostle that “he seemed to be a setter forth of strange gods.”

It is agreed by all sober moralists that the foundation of our duty is the will of God, and that his will is to be ascertained by the Revelation that he has made.  To Christianity, therefore, we refer in determination of this great question.  We admit no other test of truth, and with him who thinks that the decisions of Christianity may be superseded by other considerations, we have no concern.  We address not our argument to him, but leave him to find some other and better standard by which to adjust his principles and regulate his conduct.  These observations apply to those objectors who loosely say that “wars are necessary”; for if we suppose that the Christian religion prohibits war, it is preposterous and also irreverent to justify ourselves in supporting it because “it is necessary.”  To talk of a divine law that must be disobeyed, implies, indeed, such a confusion of moral principles, as well as laxity of them, that neither the philosopher nor the Christian are required to notice it.  But, perhaps, some of those who say that wars are necessary do not very accurately inquire what they mean.  There are two sorts of necessity: moral and physical, and it is probable some men are accustomed to confound these.  That there is any physical necessity for war – that people cannot, if they choose, refuse to engage in it – no one will maintain.  And a moral necessity to perform an action consists only in the prospect of a certain degree of evil by refraining from it.  If, then, those who say that “wars are necessary” mean that they are physically necessary, we deny it.  If they mean that wars avert greater evils than they occasion, we ask for proof.  Proof has never yet been given; and even if wethought that we possessed such proof, we should still be referred to the primary question: “What is the will of God?”

It is some satisfaction to be able to give, on a question of this nature, the testimony of some great minds against the lawfulness of war, opposed as those testimonies are to the general prejudice and the general practice of the world.  It has been observed by Beccaria that, “It is the fate of great truths to glow only like a flash of lightning amidst the dark clouds in which error has enveloped the universe; and if our testimonies are few or transient, it matters not, so that their light may be the light of truth.”  There are, indeed, many who, in describing the horrible particulars of a siege or a battle, indulge in some declamations on the horrors of war, such as has been often repeated and often applauded, and as often forgotten.  But such declamations are of little value and of little effect.  He who reads the next paragraph finds, probably, that he is invited to follow the path to glory and to victory – to share the hero’s danger and partake the hero’s praise – and he soon discovers that the moralizing parts of his author are the impulse of feedings rather than of principles, and thinks that though it may be very well to write, yet it is better to forget them.

There are, however, testimonies, delivered in the calm of reflection by acute and enlightened men, which may reasonably be allowed at least so much weight as to free the present inquiry from the charge of being wild or visionary.  Christianity indeed needs no such auxiliaries; but if they induce an examination of her duties, a wise man will not wish them to be disregarded.

“They who defend war,” says Erasmus, “must defend the dispositions which lead to war; and these dispositions are absolutely forbidden by the gospel.  Since the time that Jesus Christ said, “Put up thy sword into its scabbard,” Christians ought not to go to war.  Christ suffered Peter to fall into an error in this matter on purpose that, when he had put up Peter’s sword, it might remain no longer a doubt that war was prohibited, which, before that order, had been considered as allowable.”  “I am persuaded,” says the Bishop of Llandaff, “that when the spirit of Christianity shall exert its proper influence over the minds of individuals, and especially over the minds of public men in their public capacities, over the minds of men constituting the councils of princes, from whence are the issues of peace and war – when this happy period shall arrive, war will cease throughout the whole Christian world.” [24]  “War,” says the same acute prelate, “has practices and principles peculiar to itself, which but ill quadrate with the rule of moral rectitude, and are quite abhorrent from the benignity of Christianity.” [25]  The emphatic declaration that I have already quoted for another purpose is yet more distinct.  “The prohibition of war by our Divine Master is plain, literal, and undeniable.” [26]  Dr. Vicesimus Knox speaks in language equally specific: “Morality and religion forbid war in its motives, conduct, and consequences.” [27]

In an inquiry into the decisions of Christianity upon the question of war, we have to refer to the general tendency of the revelation, to the individual declarations of Jesus Christ, to his practice, to the sentiments and practices of his commissioned followers, to the opinions respecting its lawfulness which were held by their immediate converts, and to some other species of Christian evidence.

It is, perhaps, the capital error of those who have attempted to instruct others in the duties of morality that they have not been willing to enforce the rules of the Christian Scriptures in their full extent.  Almost every moralist pauses somewhere short of the point which they prescribe; and this pause is made at a greater or lesser distance from the Christian standard in proportion to the admission, in a greater or lesser degree, of principles which they have superadded to the principles of the gospel.  Few, however, supersede the laws of Christianity without proposing some principle of “expediency,” some doctrine of “natural law,” or some theory of “intrinsic decency and turpitude” which they lay down as the true standard of moral judgment.  They who reject truth are not likely to escape error.  Having mingled with Christianity principles that it never taught, they are not likely to be consistent with truth, or with themselves; and accordingly, he who seeks for direction from the professed teachers of morality finds his mind bewildered in conflicting theories, and his judgment embarrassed by contradictory instructions.  But “wisdom is justified by all her children,” and she is justified, perhaps, by nothing more evidently than by the laws which she has imposed; for all who have proposed any standard of rectitude other than that which Christianity has laid down, or who have admixed any foreign principles with the principles which she teaches, have hitherto proved that they have only been “sporting themselves with their own deceivings.” [28]

It is a remarkable fact that the laws of the Mosaic dispensation, which confessedly was an imperfect system, are laid down clearly and specifically in the form of an express code; while those of that purer religion which Jesus Christ introduced into the world are only to be found casually and incidentally scattered, as it were, through a volume – intermixed with other subjects, elicited by unconnected events, delivered at distant periods and for distant purposes, in narratives, in discourses, in conversations, and in letters.  Into the final purpose of such an ordination (for an ordination it must be supposed to be), it is not our present business to inquire.  One important truth, however, results from the fact, as it exists: that those who would form a general estimate of the moral obligations of Christianity must derive it, not from codes, but from principles; not from a multiplicity of directions in what manner we are to act, but from instructions respecting the motives and dispositions by which all actions are to be regulated. [29]

It appears, therefore, to follow that in the inquiry of whether war is sanctioned by Christianity, a specific declaration of its decision is not likely to be found.  If, then, we are asked for a prohibition of war by Jesus Christ in the express term of a command, in the manner in which “Thou shalt not kill” is directed to murder, we willingly answer that no such prohibition exists, and it is not necessary to the argument.  Even those who would require such a prohibition are themselves satisfied respecting the obligation of many negative duties, on which there has been no specific decision in the New Testament.  They believe that suicide is not lawful.  Yet Christianity never forbade it.  It can be shown, indeed, by implication and inference, that suicide could not have been allowed, and with this they are satisfied.  Yet there is, probably, in the Christian Scriptures not a twentieth part of as much indirect evidence against the lawfulness of suicide as there is against the lawfulness of war.  To those who require such a command as “Thou shalt not engage in war,” it is therefore sufficient to reply that they require that which, upon this and upon many other subjects, Christianity has not chosen to give.

We refer then, first to the general nature of Christianity, because we think that, if there were no other evidence against the lawfulness of war, we should possess, in that general nature, sufficient proof that it is virtually forbidden.  That the whole character and spirit of our religion are eminently and peculiarly peaceful, and that it is opposed, in all its principles, to carnage and devastation, cannot be disputed.


Have peace one with another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Walk with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love.

Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another.  Love as brethren, be pitiful, [30] and be courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing.

Be at peace among yourselves.  See that none render evil for evil to any man.  God hath called us to peace.

Follow after love, patience, and meekness.  Be gentle, showing all meekness unto all men.  Live in peace.

Lay aside all malice.  Put off anger, wrath, and malice.  Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.

Avenge not yourselves.  If thine enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink.  Recompense to no man evil for evil. Overcome evil with good.


Now we ask of any man who looks over these passages, what evidence do they convey respecting the lawfulness of war?  Could any approval or allowance of it have been subjoined to these instructions without obvious and most gross inconsistency?  But if war is obviously and most grossly inconsistent with the general character of Christianity, if war could not have been permitted by its teachers without any egregious violation of their precepts, we think that the evidence of its unlawfulness, rinsing from this general character alone, is as clear, as absolute, and as exclusive as could have been contained in any form of prohibition whatever.

To those solemn, discriminative, and public declarations of Jesus Christ, which are contained in the Sermon on the Mount, a reference will necessarily be made upon this great question; and, perhaps, more is to be learned from these declarations, of the moral duties of his religion, than from any other part of his communications to the world.  It should be remarked, in relation to the injunctions that follow, that he repeatedly refers to that less pure and less peaceable system of morality that the Law of Moses had inculcated, and contradistinguishes it from his own.


“Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;’ but I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…  Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy;’ but I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, for if ye love them only which love you, what reward have ye?” [31]


There is an extraordinary emphasis in the form of these prohibitions and injunctions.  They are not given in an insulated manner.  They inculcate the obligations of Christianity as peculiar to itself.  The previous system of retaliation is introduced for the purpose of prohibiting it, and of distinguishing more clearly and forcibly the pacific nature of the new dispensation.

Of the precepts from the Mount, the most obvious characteristic is greater moral excellence and superior purity.  They are directed, not so immediately to the external regulation of the conduct as to the restraint and purification of the affections.  In another precept, [32] it is not enough that an unlawful passion be just so far restrained as to produce no open immorality – the passion itself is forbidden.  The tendency of the discourse is to attach guilt, not to action only, but also to thought.  “It hath been said, ‘Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment;’ but I say that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment.” [33]  Our lawgiver attaches guilt to some of the violent feelings, such as resentment, hatred, and revenge; and by doing this, we contend that he attaches guilt to war.  War cannot be carried on without these passions, which he prohibits.  Our argument, therefore, is syllogistic.  War cannot be allowed, if that which is necessary to war is prohibited.

It was sufficient for the Law of Moses that men maintained love towards their neighbors; towards an enemy they were at liberty to indulge rancor and resentment.  But Christianity says, “If ye love them only which love you, what reward have ye?  Love your enemies.”  Now what sort of love does that man bear towards his enemy, who runs him through with a bayonet?  We contend that the distinguishing duties of Christianity must be sacrificed when war is carried on.  The question is between the abandonment of these duties and the abandonment of war, for both cannot be retained. [34]

It is, however, objected that the prohibitions “resist not evil” and the like are figurative, and that they do not mean that no injury is to be punished and that no outrage to be repelled.  It has been asked, with complacent exultation, what would these advocates of peace say to him who struck them on the right cheek?  Would they turn to him the other?  What would these patient moralists say to him who robbed them of a coat?  Would they give him a cloak also?  What would these philanthropists say to him who asked them to lend a hundred pounds?  Would they not turn away?  This is argumentum ad hominem, one example among the many of that lowest and most dishonest of all modes of intellectual warfare, which consists in exciting the feelings instead of convincing the understanding.  It is, however, of some satisfaction that the motive to the adoption of this mode of warfare is itself an evidence of a bad cause, for what honest reasoner would produce only a laugh if he were able to produce conviction?  But I must ask, in my turn, what do these objectors say is the meaning of the precepts?  What is the meaning of “resist not evil”?  Does it mean to allow bombardment, devastation, and murder?  If it does not mean to allow all this, it does not mean to allow war.  What again do the objectors say is the meaning of “love your enemies,” or of “do good to them that hate you”?  Does it mean, “ruin their commerce, sink their fleets, plunder their cities, and shoot through their hearts”?  If the precept does not mean all this, it does not mean war.  We are, then, not required to define what exceptions Christianity may admit to the application of some of the precepts from the Mount, since whatever exceptions she may allow, it is manifest what she does not allow.  If we give to our objectors whatever license of interpretation they may desire, they cannot, either by honesty or dishonesty, so interpret the precepts as to make them allow war.  I would, however, be far from insinuating that we are left without any means of determining the degree and kind of resistance that is lawful in some cases, although I believe no specification of it can be previously laid down, for if the precepts of Christianity had been multiplied a thousand-fold, there would still have arisen many cases of daily occurrence to which none of them would precisely have applied.  Our business, then, in so far as written rules are concerned, is in all cases to which these rules do not apply, to regulate our conduct by those general principles and dispositions that our religion enjoins.  I say, in so far as written rules are concerned, for “if any man lack wisdom” and these rules do not impart it, “let him ask of God.” [35]

Of the injunctions that are contrasted with “an eye for eye and a tooth for tooth,” the entire scope and purpose is the suppression of the violent passions, the inculcation of forbearance, forgiveness, benevolence, and love.  They forbid, not specifically the act, but the spirit of war, and this method of prohibition Christ ordinarily employed.  He did not often condemn the individual doctrines or customs of the age, however false or however vicious, but he condemned the passions by which only vice could exist and inculcated the truth that dismissed every error.  And this method was undoubtedly wise.  In the gradual alterations of human wickedness, many new species of profligacy might arise which the world had not yet practiced.  In the gradual vicissitudes of human error, many new fallacies might be revealed which the world had not yet held, and how were these errors and these crimes to be opposed, but by the inculcation of principles that were applicable to every crime and to every error, principles which tell us not always what is wrong, but which tell us what always is right?

There are two modes of censure or condemnation: the one is to reprobate evil and the other to enforce the opposite good, and both these modes were adopted by Christ in relation to war.  He not only censured the passions that are necessary to war, but also inculcated the affections that are most opposed to them.  The conduct and dispositions upon which he pronounced his solemn benediction are exceedingly remarkable.  They are these, and in this order: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and sufferance of persecution.  Now let the reader try whether he can propose eight other qualities, to be retained as the general habit of the mind, which shall be more incongruous with war.

Of these benedictions, I think the most emphatic is that pronounced upon the peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [36]  Higher praise or a higher title, no man can receive.  Now I do not say that these benedictions contain an absolute proof that Christ prohibited war, but I say they make it clear that he did not approve it.  He selected a number of subjects for his solemn approbation, not one of them possesses any congruity with war, and some of them cannot possibly exist in conjunction with it.  Can anyone believe that he who made this selection, and who distinguished the peacemakers with peculiar approbation, could have sanctioned his followers in murdering one another?  Or does anyone believe that those who were mourners, meek, merciful, and peacemaking could at the same time perpetrate such murder?  If I were told that a temporary suspension of Christian dispositions, although necessary to the prosecution of war, does not imply the extinction of Christian principles, or that these dispositions may be the general habit of the mind and may both precede and follow the acts of war, I would answer that this is to grant all that I require, since it grants that when we engage in war, we abandon Christianity.

When the betrayers and murderers of Jesus Christ approached him, his followers asked, “Shall we smite with the sword?”  And without waiting for an answer, one of them “drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high-priest, and cut off his right ear.”  “Put up thy sword again into its place,” said his Divine Master, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” [37]  There is the greater importance in the circumstances of this command, because it prohibited the destruction of human life in a cause in which there were the best of possible reasons for destroying it.  The question, “shall we smite with the sword,” obviously refers to the defense of the Redeemer from his assailants by force of arms.  His followers were ready to fight for him; and if any reason for fighting could be a good one, they certainly had it.  But if, in defense of himself from the hands of bloody ruffians, his religion did not allow the sword to be drawn, for what reason can it be lawful to draw it?  The advocates of war are at least bound to show a better reason for destroying mankind than is contained in this instance in which it was forbidden.

It will, perhaps, be said that the reason why Christ did not suffer himself to be defended by arms was that such a defense would have defeated the purpose for which he came into the world, namely, to offer up his life, and that he himself assigns this reason in the context.  He does indeed assign it, but the primary reason, the immediate context, is “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”  The reference to the destined sacrifice of his life is an after-reference.  This destined sacrifice might, perhaps, have formed a reason why his followers should not fight then, but the first, the principal reason that he assigned was a reason why they should not fight at all.  Nor is it necessary to define the precise import of the words “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” since it is sufficient for us all that they imply reprobation.

To the declaration that was made by Jesus Christ, in the conversation that took place between himself and Pilate, after he had been seized by the Jews, I would particularly invite the attention of the reader.  The declaration refers specifically to an armed conflict, and to a conflict between numbers.  In allusion to the capability of his followers to have defended his person, he says, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews,but now is my kingdom not from hence.” [38]  He had before forbidden his “servants” to fight in his defense, and now, before Pirate, he assigns the reason for it: “my kingdom is not of this world.”  This is the very reason why we are urging against war.  We say that it is incompatible with his kingdom – with the state that he came into the world to introduce.  The incompatibility of war with Christianity is yet more forcibly evinced by the contrast that Christ makes between his kingdom and others.  It is the ordinary practice in the world for subjects to fight, and his subjects would have fought if his kingdom had been of this world, but since it was not of this world – since its nature was purer and its obligations more pacific – therefore they might not fight.

His declaration referred, not to the act of a single individual who might draw his sword in individual passion, but to an armed engagement between hostile parties, to a conflict for an important object, which one party had previously resolved on attaining, and which the other was ready to have prevented with the sword.  It refers, therefore, strictly to a conflict between armed numbers, and to a conflict that, it should be remembered, was in a much better cause than any to which we can now pretend. [39]


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[22] Lord Clarendon’s Essays.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Life of Bishop Watson.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Southey’s History of Brazil.

[27] Essays.

[28] Murray’s Inquiries Respecting the Progress of Society states, “Even thinking men, bewildered by the various and contradictory systems of moral judgment adopted by different ages and nations, have doubted the existence of any real and permanent standard, and have considered it as the mere creature of habit and education.”  Thus has the declaration been verified, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”!

[29] I refer, of course, to those questions of morality that are not specifically decided.

[30] Compassionate.

[31] Matthew 5.

[32] Matthew 5:28.

[33] Matthew 5:22.

[34] Yet the retention of both has been, unhappily enough, attempted.  In a late publication, of which part is devoted to the defense of war, the author gravely recommends soldiers, while shooting and stabbing their enemies, to maintain towards them a feeling of “good will.”  Tracts and Essays, by the late William Hey, Esq., F.R.S.

[35] It is manifest, from the New Testament, that we are not required to “give a cloak” in every case to him who “robs us of a coat,” but I think it is equally manifest that we are required to give it not the less because he has robbed us.  The circumstance of his having robbed us does not entail an obligation to give, but it also does not impart a permission to withhold.  If the necessities of the plunderer require relief, it is the business of the plundered to relieve them.

[36] Matthew 5:9.

[37] Matthew 26:51-52.

[38] John 18:36.

[39] In the publication to which (footnote 33?) refers, the author informs us that the reason why Christ forbade his followers to fight in his defense was that it would have been to oppose the government of the country.  I am glad no better evasion can be found, and this would not have been found if the author had consulted the reason assigned by the Prohibitor before he promulgated his own.