Evelyn Underhill and Pacifism

Cameron Lesage. December, 2021.

There does not seem to be much written about Evelyn Underhill and her pacifist stance against WWII. This may be because her turn to pacifism came at the very end of her life and it was not well developed in her writings. That she suffered from intense pain, extreme asthma, and exhaustion did not help matter, either. Furthermore, “Unfortunately, there is a lacuna in our story; we do not know how and why Underhill became a pacifist. One regrets that she did not disclose the dynamics of her change. Probably no single crisis moved her to renounce war; more likely she arrived at this decision as a result of her pilgrimage of faith, having mellowed and matured in her Christian experience.”


This is not really surprising, as Underhill is known to have been quite private in relation to her private life and did not share much of her own spiritual struggles with others. However, Greene does attempt a response to the question. What is important, however, is that Underhill was indeed a pacifist during WWII – how prudent was this stance?

Greene states that Underhill turned to pacifism as a result of her need to speak of God’s love in the world. This stands as quite the development from her support of WWI, as characterized by articles from 1915-1916 which, broadly speaking “urged broad-based civilian support for the war”. By 1939-40, new articles in Into the Way of Peace highlighted Underhill’s turn to pacifism. Essentially, Greene states that pacifism is the “understanding of what it is to be
a Christian, namely to live God’s Kingdom in the world”. Greene further elaborates her point of view. For Christians, it is important to live without bitterness or anger toward any of God’s creatures. Pacifists “are not indifferent to sin and
suffering, but bear it and absorb it”. Greene concludes that Underhill sees war as sinful and should not be attempted by committed Christians. Underhill insists upon the role of a Christian to love and “such love means a certain share
in the Divine generosity, tolerance and patience towards every manifestation of life”.

In doing so, pacifists must not be embittered as God loves the violent and “seeks without ceasing to draw
them into His love” in part, by way, of the love that flows through “self-abandoned men”. Pacifists must seek creative peace, basking in “an entire and tranquil acquiescence in the action or non-action of God”.

“Peace is bought at a great price; the peace of the Cross, of absolute acceptance, utter abandonment to God, a peace inseparable from sacrifice”, but is the martyrdom of all Christians the will of God?

Underhill lamented the fact that, as the war intensified, many former pacifists turned from the path and embraced the war effort. She deems the war effort to be an effort “to cast Satan out by Satan”. Those who embraced the war could not “accept the awful risk inherent in the unlimited application to life of the doctrine of the Christian love – that national or personal crucifixion which may be the reward of absolute trust in the power of Divine Charity, and absolute surrender to its claims”.


It seems as if Underhill is equating an abandonment of pacifism as a lack of faith – war “can only mean capitulation to expediency and defective confidence in God”. Is, however, “national or personal crucifixion” the proper vocation of one and all? Perhaps the answer is here: “absolute pacifism, which means an uncompromising obedience to the utmost demands of charity is impossible except as an effect of grace”. While “all this seems to be remote from the life that now rages around us”, pacifism is rooted in God and contemplation. Furthermore, true pacifism is a “supernatural vocation” that demands “unlimited faith, unshakable hope, and inexhaustible charity”.

Can all Christians boast of such grace and vocation as operative in their lives? Underhill herself admits that this is not the case: “we are forced to the bitter conclusion that the members of the Visible Church as a body are not good enough, not brave enough to risk everything for that which they know to be the Will of God and the teaching of Christ. For it does mean risking everything; freedom, reputation, friendship, security – life itself.”


Indeed, this is a tall order to ask of anyone, even for those for whom it is vocation and God’s will, as witnessed, ultimately, by Jesus himself in Gethsemane. Underhill seems to recognize the difficulties of what she is advocating, as pacifism is “at a level where the natural man cannot as yet maintain himself”. However, “natural man” need not “abjure conflict, unless he is potentially spiritual man and therefore subject to the law of charity”.

In other words, non-Christians will participate in war and more cannot be demanded until they make the move toward the Church. For Christians, new converts to pacifism need not being in activity, denouncing wars, et cetera, but may begin “around himself a little pool of harmony and love” as “the establishment of cells of tranquility in a world at war should be a primary pacifist aim”.

It would be difficult to argue with a vision that encourages tranquility and peace, in war-time, or the rush of post-modern life. But what about protesting or other forms of non-violent activity? Underhill seems to discourage such activities, as stooping to controversy only begets conflict and disturbs the peace; to “live in quietness” seems to border on quietism. However, “in the late 1930’s there were few pacifists in England or elsewhere in Europe. By siding with this tiny minority, Underhill opposed not only general public opinion and ecclesiastical support for the war, but the urging of religious quietists who believed such public involvement intruded on one’s relationship with God”.

Perhaps, Underhill is bowing to the pressures of the true quietists; on the other hand, the contributions of Gandhian non-violence had not yet arrived. It would seem then, that pacifism, in Underhill’s context, is anti-war, but does still attempt to bring about the Kingdom in some limited way: “we cannot sit down and be devotional, while acquiescing in conditions which make it impossible for other souls even to obey the moral law”. Underhill does not go into great detail about how a pacifist should go about rectifying this situation. A clue may be found here:


“for those who trust God, and are sure that those hidden, spiritual forces which condition and support our life can and will intervene – not to save us from suffering or material loss, not in the interests of personal or national selfishness, but to secure in the teeth of opposition the ultimate triumph of God’s will”.

It might be wondered how long Underhill would encourage other pacifists to wait for God’s providence to provide. Could we not argue that humanity often acts as Providence, evidently inspired by the Holy Spirit? In any case, Underhill’s writing on pacifism does reflect a maturity and progression that must be heralded and applauded. Her “early writing reflects little sense of compassion for one’s enemies or awareness of the universal suffering produced by war”. It is abundantly clear that Underhill has much compassion for the enemy, as well as friends and members of the Allies. Can we perhaps see some nuance in Underhill’s seemingly absolute pacifism?

It seems as if the only hint to be found in Underhill’s scant writings on pacifism is a reference to the necessity of policing. One must remember that these writings were composed under great duress during the last years of her life, during which work needed to cease completely from time to time due to extreme fatigue, asthma, and other malaises of the body and, perhaps, spirit. Underhill writes that “certainly [the Church] can, and perhaps must under present conditions, approve the use of such discipline as is needed to check the turbulent, protect the helpless, and keep order
between man and man and between group and group. But such a use of force is never by intention destructive, and works for the ultimate good of those to whom it is applied. It is often difficult to define the boundary which divides the legitimate police action from military action: nevertheless, Christians must try to find that boundary, and having found
it must observe it. Christianity is not anarchy; and the right ordering of society for the good of all is a part of her creative task. But on the question of war between man and man she cannot compromise; for this is in direct conflict with her law of brotherly love”

It can be difficult to find the boundary indeed, and it is often crossed, as evidenced, for example, in the reports of police brutality. Why, then, does Underhill stop short of supporting war, even just wars?

For Underhill, the roots of war were found in sin (pride, anger, envy, or greed) or fear. War cannot be accepted, even for the nation, as Jesus forbade violence in Gethsemane. This is a reference to Jesus rebuking Peter’s use of the sword in defense of Jesus. As a result, “even in the defence of the just and holy”, violence and war are forbidden to Christians. It is for Christians to be saved via the Crucifixion, suffering, and patience. What was the context of Jesus’ refusing Peter’s act of violence, however?

Traditionally, since Augustine’s just war theory, the vast majority of mainline Christians have supported a limited role for defensive war, to protect the weak. Evidently, “the awful spectacle of war and science” in the modern and post-modern world calls the just war theory into question. Indeed, it could be argued that war is never just as it often, or always, veers off course into injustice, as Merton seems to conclude. Underhill seems to be harkening back to the oldest understandings of Christianity, which seemed to be pacifist in nature. Here, too, we find evidence to support the interpretation that Jesus rebuking Peter means that Christians are forbidden from taking up the sword. Is this the case?

Interpretation here depends heavily on properly defining the context. Is Jesus rebuking Peter because of the context of his coming Crucifixion, or is this a subtle way of commanding Christians to go and do likewise? What needs to be remembered is that there is hierarchy of meaning and authority in the Bible. The hierarchy does end with Jesus within the Bible itself, but who then canonized and codified the Bible? This is not to imply that Tradition then should override the authority of the Bible, but it does mean that both the authority of Tradition and the Bible need to be respected.

What is important to realize, furthermore, is that there must necessarily be a hierarchy of importance relating to Jesus’ words and commandments. Should we as Christians take everything that Jesus said in the Bible as a command? If
yes, how should those commands then be interpreted? What is the place of the tradition of the teachings of perfection, supporting the conclusion that we should not consider all of Jesus’ sayings in the same manner. For example, Jesus says that if someone should want your coat, you should also give him your cloak. Is this practicable by all in its literal sense?

Would the world become more just if more people practiced these words in their literal sense? What might be a
metaphorical sense, or spiritual sense of these words? How do we distinguish what is a command, and what is based on context, or needs further spiritual interpretation? Jesus’s words themselves provide clues for how to interpret his own words. Is the commandment to love your enemy a higher commandment than the commandments to love God,
to love neighbour as Self? No, all the rest hang on these two. However, who is neighbour and who is enemy? This is where serious discernment arrives. However, does a slavish adherence to the letter of Jesus’ commandments not begin to resemble a certain Pharisaic theology? Can love turn to violence when there is no other alternative? There is the shadow side and the light side of the being that is soldier. What, then, is the shadow and light of a pacifist?

Perhaps the ultimate answer lies in Merton’s appeal to the conscience of the Christian individual: “whether in warfare or in pacifism the Christian is bound to act according to his Christian conscience”. One of the weaknesses of Underhill’s presentation is that she seems to take for granted that the Church should be strictly pacifist, while it seems that the Church was never explicitly and officially pacifist. Yes, the Church has urged non-violent responses for much of its existence, but this has not been the exclusive and only answer. It should also be lamented that Underhill did not elaborate more fully on her pacifist stance against war. In the non-violent understanding that has developed since Gandhi, King Jr., Mandela, Merton, and many others, there is, at its best, a contemplative and active response to
countering violence. Underhill does indeed cover the contemplative aspect relatively well, but the active aspect is lacking. She urges the Church to support pacifism and “offer [pacifists] constructive work that they can do”.

What this work might be is not mentioned. Elsewhere, as mentioned above, Underhill does not support controversy and conflict. Here again, it is unfortunate that she did not discern the difference between conflict and violence – conflict is unavoidable, but there are many alternatives to violence that do much to solve conflict. However, we must remember that Underhill was writing about pacifism in 1939-41. It is unclear as to when she formally adopted a pacifist stance, but she did write about Huxley’s pacifism in a positive way in 1936.

Remembering her ailing health, and her late adoption of pacifism, we must proceed with caution. In addition, we must not forget about the contribution of Gandhi and how his vision of non-violence was very much different than the pacifism of the past. Granted, Underhill must have been aware of the witness of the early Christian martyrs. Another possible reason could be linked to Underhill herself. We must remember her context: while she was a woman with no formal education in theology, she nonetheless led many retreats even for Anglican clergy. Even though she occupied a non-traditional role for a woman, and an extraordinary one at that, Underhill still held many of the conservative views of her time.

Underhill was apolitical in much of her writing, preferring for much of her career to focus on the inner life, and only later in life beginning to see the connections between the inner life and the world outside. Even at this point in time, Underhill could never have been considered a social reformer, but she does attempt to address some of the issues. However, her chapter on the role of women in the Church is fairly conservative and traditional in nature; not many would approve of her conclusions today. Ultimately, her views on civil disobedience would have most likely been in the negative.

Despite these weaknesses, even Underhill knew that she was a forerunner of what was to come. While it is tempting to consider that history flows from the bad of the past, to the good of the present, and, finally, to the better of the future, this is not always, and exclusively, the case. However, in considering Underhill’s contributions, we can say that she was ahead of her time. In essence, Underhill herself recognized this, to a limited degree, when she states that pacifists
should “be content to count themselves in this sense as precursors” to a future that de Tourville predicted would be more pacifist. It is amazing to note how correct this prediction would become. Underhill had urged pacifists to “await with patience the gradual triumph of God’s will”, that “the true significance of the repudiation of war can only be understood when seen in this larger context of the conquest of sin and the bringing in of the Kingdom of God”.

Other writings that she produced at the time were to bolster the prayer life of those civilians living through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain (Spiritual Life in Time of War and “Service of Prayer for Use in War-Time”. Underhill passed away right at the end of the Battle of Britain, in June 1941. It is most unclear as to how much Underhill knew of the atrocities of the Nazis. If she had known, would she have admitted that this war might just be just, even considering the atrocities, evil, loss of life, and injustice? Of course, there is no answer to this question.

One further aspect of Underhill’s pacifism that must be remembered is, as mentioned above, how this development came near the end of her life, when her mental, physical, and spiritual state were nearing their final ebbs and flows. Greene urges the reader to consider these things when reading of Underhill’s pacifism, namely that it was never developed, in print, into anything more than a few pamphlets for the true believers of the cause. What is encouraging is the evidence of the spiritual development that continued until the very end, namely that “what characterizes her letters and writings of this period is a deep sense of every person’s complicity with war”.

This counter-cultural point of view contrasts sharply with the seemingly unreflecting acceptance of war during WWI.
Seemingly so, but one aspect of her writing does merit mention here, namely that conflict is a “given of life”, that “conflict can be used to achieve noble ends”, ends only reached through mysticism. Even more interesting is her conclusion that pacifists deny that conflict is inevitable in life. It would be most interesting to track and trace the development of thought that brought Underhill from war booster to pacifist. This may not be possible, due to Underhill’s notorious guard of her privacy, even in death. What is clear is that, despite her immaturity, on the one
hand, and her various ailments, physical, spiritual, and otherwise, she was still able to muster the
ability to summon deep spiritual pearls of wisdom, whether one agrees with her conclusions or
not.

Greene asks “was this some bizarre, final effort of a tired and feeble woman?” For Greene, the conclusion is that Underhill’s turn to pacifism is logical based upon her development as a human being, a Christian, and as a theologian, mystic, and contemplative. There does not seem to be an evaluation of Underhill’s pacifism in Greene’s article – the purpose seems to be the establishment of the logic behind Underhill’s decision and how it is reflected in her life’s
work and progression. This is to be lamented as Underhill’s work as a pioneer for pacifism/nonviolence within the Christian Church, beyond the traditional peace churches, needs to be celebrated, but also critiqued. For her position to be critiqued, but also celebrated means that there are those that take her writing seriously enough to consider it worth reading, reviewing, contemplating, and ruminating.

An interesting connection between Merton and Underhill might yet be interesting to trace and track. Underhill refers to the root of war in sin or fear. Thomas Merton wrote an article called “The Root of War is Fear”. Perhaps there are connections here that might be worth exploring. In any case, more work is needed on the connections between Merton and Underhill, and her role as a possible forerunner of post-modern Christian non-violence.

Cameron Lesage. December, 2021. There does not seem to be much written about Evelyn Underhill and her pacifist stance against WWII. This may be because her turn to pacifism came at the very end of her life and it was not well developed in her writings. That she suffered from intense pain, extreme asthma, and…

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