1 I expect before long to write about “the little Dutch boy” who, decades ago, walked on the top of a dike one morning and saw on one side the seemingly boundless sea and, on the other, the bright green carpet of the meadowland, sunk below the level of the sea, dotted in the distance with what seemed like painted toy cattle. The experience was so vivid then, and I was so shaken anew by the sensations of beauty, of awe, of the horror of falling off the dike into the sea, of the cattle becoming painted toys in the lovely shimmering light—that something in me reaches for my mother’s hand, as my hand tightened in hers that morning long ago. (Sketches for an Autobiography)
2 The Dutch community was a community to a considerable extent in itself. The store keepers were Dutch. You talked in Dutch when you ordered meat, groceries. The same was true when you went to a shoe store, a clothing store. You could find Dutch stores and ordinarily you went to them. On the block on which we lived at that time probably six out of ten families were Dutch. . . . The church which we attended was what is technically known as the Reformed Church in America, usually called the Dutch Reformed Church, which was a conservative Calvinistic church, but not sectarian in the sense of what we call the seceder church and which is known as the Christian Reformed Church, was. It took a more extremely dogmatic attitude and required more puritanical behavior from its members than the Dutch Reformed Church did. But you went to these churches. Even at that time there were eight or nine of them in Grand Rapids, and they were all crowded and further more during the first two years that we were here I went to a Dutch-speaking parochial school. (Columbia University Oral History interview)
3 Now, as far my experience in the private school, I can remember that a good deal of attention was paid to religious aspects. The school was opened with prayer, and it opened with the singing of a verse from the metrical version of the psalms in Dutch which, incidentally, made an impression on my life. The metrical version of the psalms in Dutch was done by real poets and is much less literal and on the whole with exceptions is much better than the Scotch-English version of the psalms, for example, so that in quite a number of instances the metrical version is up to the standard of the King James version, or the Dutch translations, which is not the case with any except possibly one or two of the metrical Scotch psalms. (Columbia University Oral History interview)
4 Both because there was not much else, and because my parents believed this was just as it should be, the church, especially in the first years when our life was mainly lived within the Dutch community, was the center of social life and culture, as well as of worship and religious training. Sunday certainly was for me, and I think for most youngsters in that community, thehigh day of the week—a day of “rest and gladness,” of “joy and light” . . . . (Sketches for an Autobiography)
5 There were several of them [the Hope faculty] who were very stimulating people and several who were really duds. …the Greek man [Edward Dimnent] was a very recent graduate . . . and he was a very good scholar, and a person who drove you and who insisted on accuracy and so. If he asked you a question about some translation and you started out saying, “I think,” he said, “Don’t think, know!” He took graduate work subsequently at the University of Chicago and became president of the college for a number of years long after I had graduated, but I would say that he was one of the people who did me a lot of good, inspired me. Now the Latin professor, a man named James Sutphen, who had come there from New Jersey and was from an old Dutch settlement of colonial times, not a Dutchman of a later migration, and who brought into the community partly by his air and his family life and partly by the fact that he couldn’t talk Dutch something of the atmosphere of the east and another sort of light. He was a very good teacher and did arouse some interest, I just say, in Latin literature so that he actually had me as a sort of special assignment read some of the books of Virgil which the class as a whole did not read. But essentially he was a disciplinarian, his objective was to pound it into people, get them to toe the mark and be accurate and so on. . . . the older it [literature] was, the better it was. We never had anything in modern fiction, for example, or in modern poetry. We read that outside the class, and we were regarded as a little bit queer and getting on the edge of heterodoxy. . . .
The man who impressed me a great deal in the last couple of years at the college was the biologist . . . Samuel Mast . . . (Columbia University Oral History interview)
6 In our section of the hospital [where Muste’s mother was briefly kept on their arrival from the Netherlands] there was an attendant whose name was John. We did not understand his English, nor he our Dutch, but we were friends. John learned that my first name was Abraham. So, when he appeared in the morning, he said, “Hello, Abraham Lincoln . . . .” So it came about that early in life I began to read everything by and about Lincoln that I could lay my hands on. . . I followed him on the trip down the Mississippi River and I heard him say when he saw a slave sold on the block in New Orleans: “By God, if I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it and hit it hard.”(Sketches for anAutobiography)
7 The fact is that Abraham “went out, not knowing whither he went.” He was a fool and a gambler. But he was not a little fool; rather he was a big one, whose foolishness consisted in taking on a Herculean task. . . . Abraham went out looking for a city which existed—and yet had to be brought into existence. It was the perfect and holy city—which had to be built and whose “builder and maker is God.” (Sketches for an Autobiography)
THE MAKING OF A RADICAL
8 In a world of sin it could not be otherwise; there must be unrest before there can be progress and thus in labor and in sorrow mankind works out the long problem of its redemption. How clearly this shows the duty of the educated man of today. Not in a life of retirement and contemplation will he find peace or a solution to the vexing problems of life. The deep unrest of his soul is a divine call to battle. (“The Problem of Discontent,” commencement address, Hope College, 1905)
9 It [the morality of war] was a problem which I could not evade because I had been brought up to take religion, specifically the Biblical teaching and Gospel ethic, seriously, and to abhor the sham which enables a person to preach what he does not try desperately to practice. Moreover, my upbringing had given me a definite attitude regarding the struggle which goes on perpetually in the human spirit and in society as to whether the Gospel demand shall be adjusted to the outward circumstances . . . . I had received too solid a dose of Calvinism not to have a strong conviction about human frailty and corruption. It was this that made me aware, long before Freud was more than a name to me, that when a man is sure that he is honest, he deceives himself; when he imagines himself to be pure, he is impure; and when we bask in the glow of the feeling that we love, the fact is that in subtle ways we hate. But this does not alter the nature of the demand the Gospel places upon us . . . . (Sketches for an Autobiography)
10 In 1928, I still thought of myself as a Christian, though I was not particularly active in any church or even in the Quaker meeting to which I belonged, and as a pacifist. . . . A few years later, I had become a Trotskyist Marxist-Leninist and had accordingly ceased to think of myself as a Christian and a pacifist. If I try to recall and to communicate to others how the change came about, I think first of what was certainly not the most important factor, namely the reading matter to which I turned increasingly in the late Twenties. . . . What could one say to the unemployed and the unorganized who were betrayed and shot down when they protested? . . . What did one point out to them? Well, not the Church . . . . In the first place, when you looked out on the scene of misery and desperation during the depression, you saw that it was the radicals, the Left-wingers, the people who had adopted some form of Marxian philosophy, who were doing somethingabout the situation . . . . Besides, the Left had the vision, the dream, of a classless and warless world . . . . This was a strong factor in making me feel that here, in a sense, was the true church. (Sketches for an Autobiography)
11 In the Thirties we faced a terrible situation. The ultimate betrayal, the sacrifice of my inner integrity, would have been to stay out of it, not to resist, not to be on the side of the oppressed. I did not know how to apply nonviolence effectively to the situation. The effort to apply Gandhian methods to American conditions had scarcely begun. (Sketches for an Autobiography)
12 It was not long before I became convinced that Trotsky controlled his followers about as autocratically as Stalin controlled his . . . I suspect that if he had come to power in the Soviet state, his reign, too, would have been a bloody one. (Sketches for an Autobiography)
13 Marxism and Socialism during the thirties seemed to offer a viable solution, in the minds of many intellectuals, to economic and political problems which the older systems seemed entirely unable to cope with. Socialism, so the argument ran, had never had a fair trial in any industrial nation. At worst, it could hardly produce any more disastrous economic situation than the world-wide depression of the thirties, or any worse political conditions than the feeble remonstrances of the “conservative” or “liberal” or “national” governments of the Western powers—Great Britain, France, and the United States—when confronted by the harsh realities of Fascism and Naziism. Under such conditions, it is hardly remarkable that a good many intellectuals in both Great Britain and the United States felt compelled to look for drastic solutions. Given the apparent contrast between economic conditions in the United States and western Europe on the one hand, and those in the Soviet Union on the other, it is no more remarkable that many were strongly attracted to communism or to other milder collectivisms. Writers who during the twenties had depicted a decaying society now felt themselves challenged to assist somehow at the birth of a new and better order. (John M. Muste, A. J.’s son, Say That We Saw Spain Die: The Literary Consequences of the Spanish Civil War, 1966)
RETURN TO CHRISTIANITY
14 It was in Paris in the beginning of August, 1936. I had begun in very tentative fashion to re-examine my beliefs and to consider what I should do on my return to the United States some months later. However, at the time I was sightseeing, with no conscious purpose except to see sights. One who is seeing the sights of Paris for the first time must see some of the churches. Casually, one afternoon, I walked into one of them. It was being repaired. There was a certain impression of solidity about it, but it had too many statues of saints for my taste. I sat down on a bench near the front and looked at the cross. Without the slightest premonition of what was going to happen, I was saying to myself: “This is where you belong”; and “belong” again, in spirit, to the Church of Christ I did from that moment on. I felt as if the hand of God had drawn me up out of those “titanic glooms of chasmed fears” of which Francis Thompson sings and had catapulted me back into the Church. (“The True International,” 1939)
15 If, on the other hand, the church today dares to believe in the way of the cross, dares to obey the command to put up the sword, to renounce all further participation in war—that will cost something and the church will be persecuted by Caesar and his agents in our day as was the church in the early Christian centuries. But the cost will not be nearly as great as the cost of a general war is likely to be; and into that persecuted church the masses desperately seeking for a way out of war will flock as the masses flocked into that persecuted church of the early centuries. (“The Church’s Responsibility for Peace,” address to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, 1937)
16 My own son enlisted in the Navy during World War II. His mother and I could not be a conscience for him, nor he for us. Each of us had to be true to his own insights and standards. The man who goes into war having seriously thought his way to that decision is on a higher moral level than the smug pacifist who has no notion of the ambiguities and contradictions the decision involves. (Letter to the New York Herald Tribune, 1965)
17 Then she [Anne Muste] was a person who a great deal of courage which she had to call on a good deal later when I got involved in strike activity and labor activity and I’m sure that there were occasions when she was nervous. But there was never any fundamental lack of nerve on her part so that the question was whether the intellectual changes and the changes in one’s position in the world were going to create a fundamental disturbance in the marriage relationship, and this never did occur, and this remained true throughout her life.
This did not mean that she always completely shared my views and particularly in the period which comes a little bit later. . . . By that time we had our first child who, as a matter of fact, was a little over a year old when the break came with the church in Newton, and we didn’t have anything saved to amount to anything and it was a very real disturbance in the atmosphere of the war and there was a good deal of hostility toward pacifists . . . . This was quite an experience for her, and the thing that stands out in my mind about it is something she said one night when we were lying in bed and talking all these things over and wondering where they led with the situation looking fairly dark for the time being. She said, “Well, if you’ll just keep on talking to me as to why you do these things, it will be all right.” (Columbia University Oral History project)
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
18 In November 1949 King was introduced to paciﬁsm in a lecture by A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Although not immediately convinced of the practicality of Muste’s position, King later attended a sermon by Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, and learned of the life and teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. It was through Gandhi’s emphasis on love and nonviolence that King discovered the method of social reform that he had been seeking. (“Martin Luther King and the Global Freedom Struggle”)
19 Dear Martin King:
You are of course receiving many more messages than you can possibly attend to. Still, one who is so deeply involved, in a certain sense, as I am in the work you are doing, cannot refrain from writing, if only to relieve his own spirit. May you have a quick and complete recovery.
May I, in the next place, say to Mrs. King how deeply I feel for her in what she has gone through in recent years and is experiencing now? You know something of the activities, not infrequently involving physical danger and insecurity, in which I have been involved. For over 45 years I had a wife who bore with all this, did so with unfailing gallantry and courage, gave me her trust, and practically never, even momentarily, lost her joyous buoyancy. I know that a career such as yours is not possible, except perhaps for celibate priests, unless one has such a wife.
Through your arrest some weeks ago and much more through your attack last Saturday God himself has marked you, as I am sure you realize yourself. The marks you bear in your body are, as were those of the Apostle, the marks of the Lord Jesus. (Letter to Martin Luther King, 23 September 1958)
20 The Saigon peace mission came to an end when the team attempted to hold a demonstration outside the U. S. embassy on April 21 . . . . Muste and company were finally arrested. . . . “I was very scared for A. J.—as well as for myself,” Barbara Deming remembered. “For one thing we had decided not to cooperate with Ky’s police . . . . They would have to carry us or drag us. None of us had any idea how rough they might be, and A. J. looked so very frail. As it turned out they were gentle with us.” Lifting the peace advocates into a paddy wagon . . . the police eventually transported them to the airport. Held “in a kind of detention room,” the pacifists waited for deportation. “I looked across the room at A. J. to see how he was doing,” said Deming. “He looked back with a sparkling smile and with that sudden light in his eyes which so many of his friends will remember, he said, ‘It’s a good life!’” (Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A. J. Muste, 1981)
21 His essays are invariably thoughtful and provocative; his life, however, is an inspiration with hardly a parallel in twentieth-century America. Muste believed, with Gandhi, that “unjust laws and practices survive because men obey them and conform to them. This they do out of fear. There are things they dread more than the continuance of the evil.” He enriched half a century of American history with a personal commitment to these simple truths. His efforts began in a time when “men believed that a better human order, a classless and warless world, a socialist society, if you please, could be achieved,” a time when the labor movement could be described as “that remarkable combination of mass power, prophetic idealism and utopian hope.” They continued through the general disillusionment of war and depression and antiradical hysteria, to the days when American sociologists could proclaim that “the realization that escapes no one is that the egalitarian and socially mobile society which the ‘free-floating intellectuals’ associated with the Marxist tradition have been calling for during the last hundred years has finally emerged in the form of our cumbersome, bureaucratic mass society, and has in turn engulfed the heretics.” And finally, still not “engulfed,” he persisted in his refusal to be one of the obedient, docile men who are the terror of our time, to the moment when our “egalitarian and socially mobile society” is facing a virtual rebellion from the lower depths, when young men are being faced every day with the questions posed at Nuremberg as their country devotes itself to enforcing the “stability” of the graveyard and the bulldozed village, and when the realization that escapes no one is that something is drastically wrong in American society. (Noam Chomsky, “On the Backgrounds of the Pacific War,” Liberation Magazine, 1967)
In the annals of Christian radicalism there are few to rival Muste for sheer endurance. Long past the age when most activists grow weary with frustration, muste displayed a vitality that was NOT fed by the need for tangible results. As he wrote, “Joy and growth come from following our deepest impulses, however foolish they may seem to some, or dangerous, and even though the apparent outcome may be defeat.” —Robert Ellsberg, All Saints, 1997
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Hentoff, Nat, ed. The Essays of A. J. Muste. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
—. Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste. Macmillan, 1963.
Meyers, Jeffrey D. The Way of Peace: A. J. Muste’s Writings for the Church. Cascade Books, 2016.
Robinson, Jo Ann Ooiman. Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A. J. Muste.Temple University Press, 1981.
For a biography of Muste and a timeline of his life, see https://digitalholland.org/people/a-j-muste/.
For additional videorecordings, documents, and tributes, see the Web page of the Joint Archives of Holland, https://hope.edu/library/joint-archives-holland/or https://hope.edu/offices/muste-lecture-series/