The United States entered World War I in April 1917. Shortly afterward, Congress passed the 1917 Espionage Act. The act made it a crime for people to speak out against the country's involvement in the war or to encourage draft resistance or conscientious objection. As a result of the act, several hundred people were arrested. Peace and social justice organizations, minority political parties, and radical labor unions were repressed. Against this backdrop, the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches met in Montreal, Canada for its biennial meeting.
Events at the conference challenged the Unitarian tradition of free speech and dissent. In advance of the meeting, John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Church of the Messiah in New York City, prepared an official report outlining different attitudes found among Unitarians toward the war. The report, though authored by Holmes, was presented on behalf of the Conference Council, an official body designated to assess the state of Unitarianism between meetings of the conference.
The report asserted that there were "varying attitudes maintained by Unitarians towards this war." Holmes identified four groups. The first were those who agreed with President Wilson, "that the Allies are battling...to make the world safe for democracy" and held Germany and its allies to be the aggressor. The second supported the war effort, but were less certain about with whom the fault lay. The third felt that the war must be brought to an immediate end even if that meant "peace without victory." The final group, a small minority to which Holmes belonged, were pacifists and opposed to not just the current war but "war in general." The remainder of the report was split between a plea that "nothing is more important at this time than opportunity for full, free, and fair statement of all points of view" which argued for the right for people to hold dissenting opinions, and Holmes's hope that churches could develop a "ministry of reconciliation" and create a "gospel of peace."
After hearing the Report of the Council, the president of the conference, former United States President William Howard Taft, was outraged. He expected Unitarians to line up firmly behind the war effort. In an effort to make the position of the Unitarian denomination clear, he made a motion stating: "Resolved, that it is the sense of this Unitarian Conference that this war must be carried to a successful issue to stamp out militarism in the world; that we, as the Unitarian body, approve of the measures of President Wilson and Congress to carry on this war, restrictive as they may be..."
Taft's resolution resulted in a debate between Taft, Holmes, and others as to the appropriate response to the war. Holmes stated, "I am a pacifist, a non-resistant, I hate war, and I hate this war; and so long as I live I will have nothing to do with this or any war." He was not trying to force his opinion on others. He only wanted to show that there were many different opinions held by Unitarians.
In response, Taft argued that it was necessary for the Unitarians to show that there was only one opinion among them. Doing otherwise would not respond adequately to "the great issue that is being fought for, for which the blood of our dearest is being shed." At such a time as when "our house is afire" it is not proper to consider "whether the firemen are using the best kind of water," Taft orated.
Taft's motion was carried by a vote of 236 in favor to 9 opposed. Over the next few months the Board of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) voted to deny aid to congregations with ministers that did not support the war. As a result most of the Unitarian ministers who had taken pacifist positions in opposition to the war lost their pulpits. In protest, Holmes resigned his fellowship with the American Unitarian Association and convinced his congregation to rename itself the Community Church of New York.
Throughout the rest of his life, Holmes remained a steadfast pacifist and an outspoken critic of the United States government. In addition to playing a central role in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People, and the War Resisters League, he is remembered for his part in introducing Mohandas Gandhi widely in the United States. After his retirement from ministry, Holmes resumed fellowship with the American Unitarian Association. Today the Unitarian Universalist Association honors his memory through the annual Holmes-Weatherly Award, which is "given to an individual or organization...whose life-long commitment to faith-based social justice is reflected in societal transformation."
More important than Holmes's reconciliation with the AUA is the fact that the General Assembly of the Association decided, in 1936, to recant its denial of aid to congregations with ministers who did not support the war. In World War II and subsequent wars, the AUA and the UUA have supported conscientious objectors and those who have spoken out against governmental policy.