by Jonathan Dymond

◄Chapter 3 Part 1

Chapter 3 Part 2


Yet I do not know whether the greatest moral evil of war is to be sought in its effects on the military character.  Upon the community its effects are indeed less apparent, because they who are the secondary subjects of the immoral influence are less intensely affected by it than the immediate agents of its diffusion.  But whatever is deficient in the degree of evil is probably more than compensated by its extent.  The influence is like that of a continual and noxious vapor; we neither regard nor perceive it, but it secretly undermines the moral health.

Everyone knows that vice is contagious.  The depravity of one man always has a tendency to deprave his neighbors; and it therefore requires no unusual acuity to discover that the prodigious mass of immorality and crime, which are accumulated by a war, must have a powerful effect in “demoralizing” the public.  But there is one circumstance connected with the injurious influence of war that makes it peculiarly operative and malignant.  It is that we do not hate or fear the influence, and do not fortify ourselves against it.  Other vicious influences insinuate themselves into our minds by stealth, but this we receive with open embrace.  If a felon exhibits an example of depravity and outrage, we are not likely to be corrupted by it because we do not love his conduct or approve it.  But from whatever cause it happens, the whole system of war is the subject of our complacency or pleasure; and it is therefore that its mischief is so immense.  If the soldier who is familiarized with slaughter, rejoices in it, and loses some of his Christian dispositions, the citizen who, without committing the slaughter, unites in the exultation also loses some of his.  If he who ravages a city and plunders its inhabitants impairs his principles of probity, he who approves and applauds the outrage also loses something of his integrity or benevolence.  We acknowledge these truths when applied to other cases.  It is agreed that a frequency of capital punishments has a tendency to make the people callous, to harden them against human suffering, and to deprave their moral principles.  And the same effect will necessarily be produced by war, of which the destruction of life is incomparably greater, and of which our abhorrence is incomparably less.  The simple truth is that we are gratified and delighted with things which are incompatible with Christianity, and that our minds therefore become alienated from its love.  Our affections cannot be fully directed to “two masters.”  If we love and delight in war, we are less likely to love and delight in the dispositions of Christianity.  And the evil is in its own nature of almost universal operation.  During a war, a whole people becomes familiarized with the utmost excesses of enormity – with the utmost intensity of human wickedness – and they rejoice and exult in them, do that there is probably not an individual in a hundred who does not lose something of his Christian principles by a ten year war.  The effect of the system in preventing the perception, the love, and the operation of Christian principles, in the minds of men who know the nature and obligations of them, needs little illustration.  We often see that Christianity cannot accord with the system, but the conviction does not often operate on our minds.  In one of the speeches of Bishop Watson in the House of Lords, there occur these words: “Would to God, my lords, that the spirit of the Christian religion would exert its influence over the hearts of individuals in their public capacity.  Then would revenge, avarice, and ambition, which have fattened the earth with the blood of her children, be banished from the counsels of princes, and there would be no more war.  The time will come – the prophet has said it, and I believe it – the time will assuredly come when nation, literally speaking, shall no longer lift up hand against nation.  No man will rejoice, my lords, more than I shall, to see the time when peace shall depend on an obedience to the benevolent principles of the gospel.” [94]  This is language becoming a Christian.  Would it have been believed that this same man voluntarily and studiously added almost one-half to the power of gunpowder in order that the ball, which before would kill only six men, might now kill ten; and that he did this, knowing that this purpose was to spread wider destruction and bloodier slaughter?  Above all, would it have been believed that he recorded this achievement as an evidence of his sagacity, and that he recorded it in the book that contains the declaration I have quoted?

The same consequences attach to the influence of the soldier’s personal character.  Whatever that character may be, if it arises out of his profession, we seldom regard it with repulsion.  We look upon him as a man whose honor and spirit compensate for “venial errors.”  If he is spirited and gallant, we ask not for his virtue and care not for his profligacy.  We look upon the sailor as a brave and noble fellow who may reasonably be allowed droll profaneness, and sailor-like debaucheries – debaucheries that, in the paid-off crew of a man-of-war, seem sometimes to be animated by…

The most dissolute Spirit that fell,
The fleshliest Incubus.

We are, however, much diverted by them.  The sailor’s cool and clumsy vices are very amusing to us; and so that he amuses us, we are indifferent to his crimes.  That some men should be wicked is bad – that the many should feel complacency in wickedness is, perhaps, worse.  We may flatter ourselves with dreams of our own virtue, but that virtue is very questionable.  Those principles are quite inoperative, those that permit us to receive pleasure from the contemplation of human depravity, with whatever “honor or spirit” that depravity is connected.  Such principles and virtue will provide, at any rate, little resistance to temptation.  An abhorrence of wickedness is more than an outwork of the moral citadel.  He who does not hate vice has opened a passage for its entrance. [95]

I do not think that those who feel an interest in the virtue and the happiness of the world will regard the animosity of party and the restlessness of resentment that are produced by a war as trifling evils.  If anything is opposite to Christianity, it is retaliation and revenge.  In the obligation to restrain these dispositions, much of the characteristic placability of Christianity consists.  The very essence and spirit of our religion abhor resentment.  The very essence and spirit of war promote resentment; and what then must be their mutual adverseness?  That war excites these passions needs not to be proved.  When a war is being contemplated, or when it has begun, what are the endeavors of its promoters?  They animate us by every artifice of excitement to hatred and animosity.  Pamphlets, placards, newspapers, and caricatures – every agent is in requisition to irritate us into malignity.  No, dreadful as it is, the pulpit resounds with declamations to stimulate our too sluggish resentment and to invite us to blood.  And thus the most un-Christian of all our passions, the passion that it is most the object of our religion to repress, is excited and fostered.  Christianity cannot be flourishing under circumstances like these.  The more effectually we are animated to war, the more nearly we extinguish the dispositions of our religion.  War and Christianity are like the opposite ends of a balance, of which one is depressed by the elevation of the other.

These are the consequences that make war dreadful to a state.  Slaughter and devastation are sufficiently terrible, but their collateral evils are their greatest.  It is the immoral feeling that war diffuses – it is the depravation of principle – that forms the mass of its mischief.

There is one mode of hostility that is allowed and encouraged by war that appears to be distinguished by peculiar atrocity: I mean privateering.  If war could be shown to be necessary or right, I think this, at least, would be indefensible.  It would surely be enough that army slaughtered army, and that fleet destroyed fleet, without arming individual avarice for private plunder and legalizing robbery because it is not of our countrymen.  Who are the victims of this plunder, and what are its effects?  Does it produce any mischief to our enemies but the ruin of those who perhaps would gladly have been friends; of those who are made enemies only by the will of their rulers, and who now conduct their commerce with no other solicitude about the war than how they may escape the rapine which it sanctions?  Privateering can scarcely plead even the merit of public mischief in its favor.  An empire is not injured much by the wretchedness and starvation of a few of its citizens.  The robbery may, indeed, be carried to such extent, and such multitudes may be plundered, that the ruin of individuals may impart poverty to a state.  But for this mischief the privateer can seldom hope.  And what is that practice, of which the only topic of defense is the enormity of its mischief!

There is a yet more dreadful consideration.  The privateer is not only a robber, but also a murderer.  If he cannot otherwise plunder his victim, human life is no obstacle to his rapine.  Robbery is his object, and his object he will attain.  Nor has he the ordinary excuses of slaughter in his defense.  His government does not require it of him.  He makes no pretext of patriotism, but robs and murders of his own choice, and simply for gain.  The soldier makes a bad apology when he pleads the command of his superior, but the privateer has no command to plead; and with no object but plunder, he deliberately seeks a set of ruffians who are unprincipled enough for robbery and ferocious enough for murder, and sallies with them upon the ocean, like tigers upon a desert, and like tigers prowling for prey.  To talk of Christianity as permitting these monstrous proceedings implies deplorable fatuity or more deplorable profaneness.  I would, however, hope that he who sends out a privateer has not so little shame as to pretend to conscience or honesty.  If he will be a robber and a murderer, let him at least not be a hypocrite, for it is hypocrisy for such men to pretend to religion or morality.  He that thus robs the subjects of another country wants nothing but impunity to make him rob his neighbor.  He has no restraint from principle.

I know not how it happens that men make pretensions to Christianity while they sanction or promote such prodigious wickedness.  It is sufficiently certain that whatever be their pretensions to it, it is not operative upon their conduct.  Such men may talk of religion, but they neither possess nor regard it; and although I would not embrace in such censure those who, without immediate or remote participation in the crime, look upon it with secret approbation because it injures their “enemies,” I would nevertheless suggest to their consideration whether their moral principles are at that point in the scale of purity and benevolence which religion enjoins.

We often hear, during a war, of subsidies from one nation to another for the loan of an army; and we hear of this without any emotion, except perhaps of joy at the greater probability of triumph, or of anger that our money is expended.  Yet, surely, if we contemplate such a bargain for a moment, we shall perceive that our first and greatest emotion ought to be abhorrence.  To borrow ten thousand men who know nothing of our quarrel, and care nothing for it, to help us to slaughter their fellows!  To pay for their help in guineas to their sovereign!  Well has it been exclaimed…

War is a game,
That were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at.

A king sells his subjects as a farmer sells his cattle and sends them to destroy a people whom, if they had been higher bidders, he would perhaps have sent them to defend.  That kings should do this may grieve u, but it cannot surprise us.  Avarice has been as unprincipled in humbler life; the possible malignity of individual wickedness is perhaps without any limit.  But that a large number of persons, with the feelings and reason of men, should coolly listen to the bargain of their sale, should compute the guineas that will pay for their blood, and should then quietly be led to a place where they are to kill people towards whom they have no animosity, is simply and object of wonder.  To what has inveteracy of habit reconciled mankind!  I have no capacity of supposing a case of slavery, if slavery is to be denied in this.  Men have been sold in another continent and England has been shocked and aroused to interference.  Yet these men were sold, not to be slaughtered, but to work; but of the purchases and sales of the world’s political butchers, England cares nothing and thinks nothing.  No, she is a participator in the bargains.  There is no reason to doubt that upon other subjects of horror, similar familiarity of habit would produce similar effects; or that he who heedlessly contemplates the purchase of an army, wants nothing but this familiarity to make him heedlessly look on at the commission of parricide.  If we could for one moment emancipate ourselves from this power of habit, how would it change the scene that is before us!  Little would remain to war of splendor or glory, but we should be left with one wide waste of iniquity and wretchedness.

It is the custom, during the continuance of a war, to offer public prayers for the success of our arms; and our enemies pray also for the success of theirs.  I will acknowledge that this practice appears to me to be eminently shocking and profane.  The idea of two communities of Christians, separated perhaps by a creek, at the same moment begging their common Father to assist them in reciprocal destruction is an idea of horror to which I know no parallel.  “Lord, assist us to slaughter our enemies.”  This is our petition.  “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”  This is the petition of Christ.

It is certain that of two contending communities, both cannot be in the right.  Yet both appeal to Heaven to avouch the justice of their cause, and both mingle with their petitions for the increase, perhaps, of Christian dispositions, importunities to the God of mercy to assist them in the destruction of one another.  Taking into account the ferocity of the request – the solemnity of its circumstances – the falsehood of its representations – the fact that both parties are Christians and that their importunities are simultaneous to their common Lord – I do not think that the world exhibits another example of such irreverent and shocking iniquity.  Surely it would be enough that we slaughter one another alone in our pigmy quarrels, without soliciting the Father of the universe to be concerned in them.  Surely it would be enough that each reviles the other with the iniquity of his cause, without each assuring Heaven that he only is in the right – an assurance that is false, probably in both cases, and certainly in one.

To attempt to pursue the consequences of war through all her ramifications of evil would be, however, both endless and vain.  War is a moral gangrene that diffuses its humors through the whole political and social system.  To expose its mischief is to exhibit all evil; for there is no evil that it does not occasion, and it has much that is peculiar to itself.

That, together with its multiplied evils, war produces some good, I have no wish to deny.  I know that it sometimes elicits valuable qualities that would have otherwise been concealed, and that it often produces collateral, adventitious, and sometimes immediate advantages.  If all this could be denied, it would be needless to deny it, for it is of no consequence to the question whether it is proved or not.  It can never happen that any widely extended system should not produce some benefits.  In such a system, it would be an unheard-of purity of evil that was evil without any mixture of good.  But, to compare the ascertained advantages of war with its ascertained mischiefs, or with the ascertained advantages of a system of peace, and to maintain a question as to the preponderance of good, implies not ignorance but guilt – not incapacity of determination, but voluntary falsehood. [96]

But I rejoice in the conviction that the hour is approaching when Christians shall cease to be the murderers of one another.  Christian light is certainly spreading, and there is scarcely a country in Europe in which the arguments for unconditional peace have not recently produced conviction.  This conviction is extending in our own country in such a degree, and upon such minds, that it makes the charge of enthusiasm or folly, vain and idle.  The friends of peace, if we choose to despise their opinions, cannot themselves be despised; and every year is adding to their number and to the sum of their learning and their intellect.

It will perhaps be asked, “What then are the duties of a subject who believes that all war is incompatible with his religion, but whose governors engage in a war and demand his service?”  We answer explicitly, “It is his duty, mildly and temperately, yet firmly, to refuse to serve.”  There are some persons, who, without any determinate process of reasoning, appear to conclude that responsibility for national measures attaches solely to those who direct them; that it is the business of governments to consider what is good for the community and that, in these cases, the duty of the subject is merged in the will of the sovereign.  Considerations like these are, I believe, often voluntarily permitted to become opiates of the conscience.  “I have no part,” it is said, “in the counsels of the government, and am not therefore responsible for its crimes.”  We are, indeed, not responsible for the crimes of our rulers, but we are responsible for our own; and the crimes of our rulers are our own, if while we believe them to be crimes, we promote them by our co-operation.  “It is at all times,” says Gisborne, “the duty of an Englishman steadfastly to decline obeying any orders of his superiors, which his conscience should tell him were in any degree impious or unjust.” [97]  The apostles, who instructed their converts to be subject to every ordinance of man for conscience’ sake, and to submit themselves to those who were in authority, and who taught them that whoever resisted the power, resisted the ordinance of God, made one necessary and uniform provision: that the magistrate did not command them to do what God had commanded them to forbear.  The apostles complied with the regulations that the government of a country thought fit to establish, whatever they might think of their wisdom or expediency, provided, and only provided, they did not, by this compliance, abandon their allegiance to the Governor of the world.  It is scarcely necessary to observe in how many cases they refused to obey the commands of the governments under which they were placed, or how openly they maintained the duty of refusal whenever these commands interfered with their higher obligations.  It is narrated very early in Acts that one of their number was imprisoned for preaching, that he was commanded to preach no more, and was then released.  Soon afterwards all the apostles were imprisoned.  “Did we not strictly command you,” said the rulers, “that ye should not teach in this name?”  The answer that they made is in point: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” [98]  And this system they continued to pursue.  If Caesar had ordered one of the apostles to be enrolled in his legions, does anyone believe that he would have served?

But those who suppose that obedience in all things is required, or that responsibility in political affairs is transferred from the subject to the sovereign, reduce themselves to a great dilemma.  It is to say that we must resign our conduct and our consciences to the will of others, and act wickedly or well, as their good or evil may preponderate, without merit for virtue or responsibility for crime.  If the government directs you to burn your neighbor’s property, or to throw him over a precipice, will you obey?  If you will not, there is an end of the argument, for if you may reject its authority in one instance, where is the limit to rejection?  There is no rational limit but that which is assigned by Christianity, and that is both rational and practicable.  If anyone should ask the meaning of the words, “Whoso resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God,” we answer that it refers to active resistance; passive resistance, or non-compliance, is what the apostles themselves practiced.  On this point we should be distinctly understood.  We are not so inconsistent as to recommend a civil war in order to avoid a foreign one.  Refusal to obey is the final duty of Christians.

We think, then, that it is the business of every man who believes that war is inconsistent with our religion, respectfully, but steadfastly, to refuse to engage in it.  Let such as these remember that an honorable and an awful duty is laid upon them.  It is upon their fidelity, so far as human agency is concerned, that the cause of peace is upheld.  Let them then be willing to avow their opinions and to defend them.  Neither let them be contented with words if more than words – if suffering – is also required.  It is only by the unyielding perseverance of good that corruption can be extirpated.  If you believe that Jesus Christ has prohibited slaughter, let not the opinion or the commands of a world induce you to join in it.  By this “steady and determinate pursuit of virtue,” the benediction that attaches to those who hear the sayings of God and do them will rest upon you, and the time will come when even the world will honor you as contributors to the work of human reformation.


◄Chapter 3 Part 1

Table of Contents


[94] Life of Bishop Watson.

[95] All sober men allow this to be true in relation to the influence of those novels that decorate a profligate character with objects of attraction.  They allow that our complacency with these subjects abates our hatred of the accompanying vices.  And the same also is true in relation to war; with the difference, indeed, which is likely to exist between the influence of the vices of fiction and that of the vices of real life.

[96] Transcriber’s note – not a lack of knowledge, but willful self-deception.

[97] Duties of Men in Society.

[98] Acts 6:28.