Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Conscience: Two Pacifists, Two Soldiers, One Family
© 2012 Louisa Thomas
336 pages

How does a pious young Presbyterian minister become a six-time candidate for the Socialist party? Such is the story of Conscience,  the story of Norman Thomas and his younger brother Evan, who would go to seminary as conventional Presbyterians and emerge radicals whose faith  found truer expression in political idealism than Christian worship. The promised tension between brothers is wholly overstated, as Conscience concerns Norman and Evan's struggle to find a way to live as authentic Christians in a world of violence and poverty.  Unable to accept religious claims on their face, and deeply unhappy with the response of Christians in general to the problems of the world around them -- platitudes and minor alms for the poor, enthusiastic support for the horror of the Great War -- both grew further from Christianity and more politically radical as the years wore on.  Although both eventually become ardent pacifists,  to the discomfort of their family  and institutions which bore them,  in each political activism takes different forms. Young Evan's zeal took hold early,  his high, strident ideals are so resolute he can make no concessions anywhere, and develops something of a martyrdom complex as a conscientious objector. Norman's own radicalism was slower to ripen; as pastor of a church with a growing family, he sought to effect  change through the political system rather than his brother's active protests.

The piquancy of Conscience is how the brothers came to their respective positions, considering their very conventional background; their family was stolidly middle class and the boys were elevated into the elite Princeton University and its social clubs through their own scholarship.  This was an era of tremendous social and political upheaval, a time in which comfortable politics-as-usual was giving way to demands for action by the populists and progressives.  Louisa Thomas well delivers a sense of the changing spirit of the times, its energy impacting the lives of all who are involved. She draws largely on letters within the family, a feat made easy by merit of her being Norman Thomas's great-granddaughter. She is thus tender to her subjects, though it would be hard not to be considering their commitment to justice and peace; Norman is especially sympathetic, not being quite so much the puritan,  and torn between old loyalties (to his mentor, Woodrow Wilson, who ran on an anti-war campaign and then locked up people like Evan for protesting when he joined in) and new expressions of old values.   Conscience is thus a fascinating look into the souls of two young men during one of the west's darkest moments.

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