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Donald Soper



‘You never cast out evil by evil. You can’t conquer violence by more violence, or fear by terror.’ Those were the words of the socialist preacher and pacifist Donald Soper, and that was what he called ‘the fundamental Christian answer’ to the problem of war. From church pulpits and open-air soap-boxes, at meetings and parties, in public conferences and in private conversation, he proclaimed the way of nonviolence for well over half a century. ‘Love and trust and sacrifice are the weapons which are perfectly effectual to achieve all that men have tried - and failed - to secure by terror and the sword,’ was the message of this outstanding speaker in the cause of peace.

Growing up in the First World War
Donald Soper was born in January 1903, the eldest of three children. He was brought up in south London by parents who were committed Christians. His father was an expert in marine insurance who gave all his spare time to church work. His mother was a strong, educated woman who became a teacher of English, maths and religious studies in a Wandsworth junior school. Later on she was made headmistress, a post she would hold in several other schools. Someone who knew her described her as ‘a lively and elegant lady ready to listen to any problems, and full of compassion for others.’

Donald Soper’s upbringing was quite strict, but it was stable, secure and happy. The family had regular seaside holidays in Devon, Sussex or Norfolk. In the church community there were parties, games of charades, and concerts in which everyone took a turn. Sundays were serious days: the only books and music allowed were religious, and of course there were religious services to attend both morning and evening. What Donald Soper always remembered about those childhood Sundays was their ‘warmth and reality’.

World peace was not yet on his mind. As a small boy, when the Boer War was very recent history, ‘I believed I was a member of the greatest empire the world had known’, and he was thrilled by the stories he read about courage, life-or-death struggles against ‘forces of evil’, and loyalty to a just cause. His family protected him from hearing about the very real struggles against poverty, racism, oppression and other human-made evils in the world beyond his own.

Donald Soper was only 11 years old when the First World War began. His Sunday School immediately prepared and performed a patriotic pageant. Stirring martial hymns were regularly sung. At weekday school ‘I was very soon drafted into the cadet corps, issued with a uniform and a wooden rifle, and required to polish brass buttons as a preparation of drill every Wednesday’. Donald Soper remembered his confidence in what he believed was ‘the unconquerable power’ of Britain, and how putting on his cadet uniform gave him a personal sense of that power. ‘No-one suggested to me even the possibility that the power of conducting mass violence did not necessarily confer moral approval on its practice.’

What he also knew, and was attracted by, was the work of the Methodist church, especially abroad: its missionaries could be found spreading the message of Christianity in ‘faraway places with strange-sounding names’ in Africa, South America and Asia. It sounded an exciting and dedicated life. When he was 13, Donald Soper announced over breakfast one day that he was going to be a Methodist minister.

He first began to think critically about war and violence after he had trained as a bayonet-fighting instructor for his school’s cadet corps in 1918. At first he saw it as a splendid sort of ‘knightly prowess, involving skill, guts and spirit’. But then he began to grow uneasy abut what it meant in real terms. When he went to Cambridge University in 1921 to study history, he concentrated on one of his first loves: sport. At school he had excelled at boxing, cricket, football and swimming. At Cambridge he concentrated on cricket - and many of his fellow players were young men who had fought in the recent war and carried its scars and disablements. ‘I began to hear at first hand the realities of war....The martial exercise I had enjoyed became part of an obscenity of which I was ashamed.’ What’s more, he began to see that ‘War was not only a filthy business, it was an unintelligent one’.

Finding his feet
‘Peace on earth,’ on the other hand, was entirely reasonable. It was a cricket match that brought home to Donald Soper just how important it was. A ball he bowled hit the batsman above the heart, and the young man died instantly. Donald Soper never forgot this tragedy. It was indeed, he said, ‘traumatic to be responsible for killing someone’ even unintentionally. For a while afterwards he suffered badly from depression and also experienced doubts about his religious beliefs.

As he recovered, he found that several things had become clear. What mattered to him about Christianity was Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence as a way of life: to be a pacifist was essential. What mattered to him about the world he lived in was the need for social reform: his social conscience led him to socialist politics. What mattered to him about himself was to stand up for these things. For a time he even wondered if he should become a pacifist politician instead of a pacifist churchman. But he never regretted the choice he made.

Donald Soper began training to be a Methodist minister, and in 1926 was given his first post in a London church. In 1929 he was ‘promoted’ to Islington Central Hall (‘where I made most of my mistakes and where I grew up’ - and where he became an Arsenal supporter). In 1936 he became superintendent at another well-known Methodist church in London, Kingsway Hall, with a congregation of thousands and responsibility for other churches as well. This would be his work until he retired in 1978.

One of Donald Soper’s characteristics was a love of words and a relish for debate. Widely known and respected for his sermons from the pulpit, he nevertheless become even more famous for his open-air speaking at London’s two most famous ‘stumps’: a raised spot that a speaker can stand on, surrounded by open space big enough for a sizeable audience to stand round, stare up, and listen. Speakers are free to expound any political or religious view, and the audience is free to hurl questions at them. One of these ‘soapbox parliaments’ was close to Tower Hill. Donald Soper began speaking here in 1927, every Wednesday between 12.30 to 2.00 pm. It wasn’t long before anything up to a thousand people were turning up to hear him - and some to argue back. In 1942, despite having three Sunday services to take, Donald Soper began equally popular Sunday sessions at Hyde Park’s ‘Speakers’ Corner’ as well. He continued this open-air ministry until three weeks before his death in December 1998.

In 1929 Donald Soper married Marie Dean. ‘Her love, her understanding and her tolerance have been both my safeguard and my inspiration,’ he said. They had four daughters.

At the time of the Sopers’ marriage Britain was in the grip of economic depression. There was widespread and chronic unemployment, and this became one of Donald Soper’s main concerns in the 1930s. His response was characteristically practical. As well as writing to the press and visiting parts of the country particularly badly affected, he set up a ‘rest room’ where unemployed people could find books and magazines, conversation and games, and food and drink (nothing alcoholic, though - Donald Soper was a lifelong teetotaller because he had seen the damage alcohol could do). 500 men enrolled at once. The idea caught on, and other centres like it were started up.

It was at a public meeting about unemployment that Donald Soper met Dick Sheppard for the first time. These two pacifists, both admirers of Gandhi, became great friends at once. In 1932, with conflict threatening between Japan and China, they wrote to the papers suggesting that a ‘Peace Army’ of unarmed volunteers - the century’s first ‘human shields’ - should go to Asia to stand between the warring sides. 300 volunteers were on the point of sailing, but then the conflict subsided. Nonviolent protest against war, however, did not.

Trying to prevent war
In the early 1930s Donald Soper and Dick Sheppard were leading members of the War We Say No campaign. Donald Soper (also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organisation founded in 1914) was confident that war could be averted. People had come to their senses, he said, and the remembered horrors of 1914-1918 would stop them going down that road again. But by the middle of the decade he had realised that he was wrong: another war was possible, and even likely. It had to be resisted.

When Dick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union, Donald Soper became a sponsor (in the company of some other notable people, including Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and Aldous Huxley). When Dick Sheppard died in 1937, Donald Soper led a successful appeal for funds to carry on Dick Sheppard’s vision, and for a time also helped to run the PPU. Donald Soper’s own Methodist church had also started a peace movement, the Methodist Peace Fellowship, in 1933, and he was one of its senior officers (and later became its president).

Together with many others, he took every opportunity to argue publicly the case for pacifism. One point he often made was that pacifism was a ‘way of life’, and that nonviolence was a ‘spiritual force’ working on behalf what was good. ‘The stronger the opposition and the nearer the peril of war,’ he wrote later, ‘the clearer it became that personal rejection of war required a moral as well as an intellectual base.’ It was not enough to argue that war was impractical, or bad policy. Indeed, in the face of the rise of Nazism, a moral argument was crucial. ‘Armed violence against evil, however comprehensive and dastardly that evil may be, is not the way to overthrow it. It is finally impossible to cast out evil by evil, and the use of armed violence, however justifiable the cause, is a process of evil.’

Despite the numerous peace campaigns across Britain and in Europe, war was not prevented. On the day war was declared in Britain, anti-war groups gathered all over the country. At Kingsway Hall a service was held, which was interrupted by air raid sirens (a false alarm); the congregation went down to the basement and the service continued there.

Being a pacifist in wartime
‘War is a prison as well as a slaughterhouse,’ said Donald Soper. In wartime it is difficult to focus on anything else but the war. Where he could, he took action to promote peace. For a time he was a familiar broadcaster on the BBC’s religious programmes – described by some of the media as one of the nation’s assets; but in 1941 he and other Christian pacifists were banned by the BBC. Talk of peace was thought to encourage ‘the enemy’.

There was still plenty Donald Soper could do, and he did it. When air raids began in 1940, and Londoners took to the underground stations to shelter from them, he opened a ‘rest and feeding centre’ in Kingsway Hall’s basement (not far from Holborn underground station). Here victims of the bombing could find refuge; Donald Soper and his family themselves lived there for a time. Until the end of 1944, Kingsway Hall ran a breakfast canteen. In one 6-month period alone, 26,232 breakfasts were served (and 34,178 cups of tea); Donald Soper himself was often behind the counter dispensing them. At the request of the Ministry of Food, from 1942 he organised the distribution of surplus vegetables from Covent Garden Market to the needy.

With other colleagues, he held services in underground shelters - and once, after a particularly bad night of the Blitz, preached a sermon on the text ‘Love your enemies’. In the same spirit he joined public speakers calling for an end to the Allied blockade of German-occupied Europe, so that relief supplies could reach civilians there. It is known that a number of people were inspired by Donald Soper’s words and actions to become pacifists themselves.

He was acutely conscious of the difficult position of pacifists in wartime, ‘involved in the corporate effort to fight and win a war whether I liked it or not’. For example, he was helping, through the practical work of providing food and shelter, to keep up people’s morale. By ‘fire-watching’ – nightly rooftop vigils watching for fire-bombs and giving advance warning of them – he made himself ‘an integral part of the defence mechanism’. What was particularly hard to come to terms with was receiving benefit from actions within the war he condemned: ‘The food I ate was bought with the courage and blood of sailors in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service’.

At the same time, he thought it quite wrong to refuse to hold services at armed forces bases; though ‘I had to choose my words carefully’. He also sympathised with those conscientious objectors – he talked to many of them – who wanted in no way to support the war, yet found it hard to do nothing. Donald Soper recommended these men to join the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, a medical aid service set up by the Quakers to treat wounded soldiers from both sides. He knew this was not a complete answer, only the best option in the circumstances. Such compromise was the ‘melancholy lesson I learned the hard way’. He went to his open-air pulpits at Tower Hill and Hyde Park with even more determination to argue for peace as a way of life.

‘War is an element in a society, it is part of a system, the output of institutions that are inseparable from the use of armed forces. To renounce war must therefore involve the dismantling of the social and economic structure which not only encourages it but also demands it. By the same token peace too is part of a system, the output of institutions which depend on the use of nonviolent means..... Peace is the fruit of justice and can grow on no other tree. It is impossible to graft it on to a society which is unjust. The rejection of war must go hand in hand with the rejection of the systems which have required war as a continuation of politics by other means.’

Pacifism, as Donald Soper discovered, demands solving dilemmas in every part of life, in small things as well as the big ideas. One of his children, living away from home during the Battle of Britain, wanted to support the RAF Spitfire pilots and asked her father for money for the Spitfire fund at her school. He felt it would be wrong to make her suffer for his pacifist beliefs. So he sent her the money – and also wrote to the head of her school asking her ‘to direct my shilling as best she could to an RAF hospital fund’.

Being a pacifist after the war
Donald Soper was sitting on a beach in Cornwall when he heard the news of the bombing of Hiroshima. ‘The horror of it remains with me,’ he wrote nearly 40 years later. The Holocaust prison camps and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, he said, made his belief in pacifism even stronger.

The variety of Donald Soper’s peace work increased. From 1945 he supported ‘Save Europe Now,’ sending food parcels to Germany. (By the spring of 1947 Kingsway Hall had sent out over 40 parcels, weighing over 70 pounds each, full of donated food - and food was still rationed in Britain.) In 1946 he led a ‘No Atomic War’ rally, where he called for a ‘federation of communities, each with its own culture, religion, races and language’, instead of armed confrontation. He openly opposed conscription (and gave the No Conscription council office space in Kingsway Hall, one of many peace-based organisations to be welcomed there). In a speech at the 1950 Methodist Conference, he said he would rather see a world of communist governments rather than a third world war. This caused a sensation that hit the headlines. (He admitted that his legs were shaking with nerves as he spoke.) But the result was that the ethical problems of nuclear war – and of another horror, chemical and biological warfare – became widely discussed and not just by pacifists.

It was pacifists, though, who first went into action when in 1954 the British government announced that Britain was to make its own hydrogen bomb. Donald Soper was chosen as chairman of a national campaign against it. He grasped every chance there was to speak out against manufacturing the bomb. A US air force officer, in central London watching a ban-the-bomb march in which Donald Soper was taking a leading part, was heard to say, ‘I wish I had the guts to do the same’.

Donald Soper did not confine his personal peace campaign to the UK. He went to Russia, part of an effort to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the West. Throughout the Cold War he worked hard to encourage dialogue and understanding.

He also travelled to Poland, Germany, Sri Lanka and the Far East. In Japan he visited Hiroshima’s remains - and saw how other major Japanese cities had also been destroyed, by US fire bombs; hundreds and thousands of civilians had been burned alive. At the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 he publicly rebuked the British government for ignoring the United Nations and planning military action. He frequently expressed anxiety about Britain’s relationship with America: ‘in many ways we are an occupied country’, he said in 1960.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was launched in 1957, and at Easter the first Aldermaston march took place, led on its second day by Donald Soper. ‘It rained all day.... We were slushing along past Heathrow when I noticed a group of people standing by the roadside in the drenching rain. As we passed, the men took off their hats to us. They were members of the local council and had been standing there for hours waiting for us.’

He was also ready to carry out nonviolent direct action. In 1957 he joined other members of the Direct Action Committee who were picketing the Aldermaston Research Establishment. In 1960 he took part in a DAC campaign against a factory making nuclear components.

Unlike some anti-nuclear campaigners, Donald Soper believed that total disarmament across the world was the only way to end war and the possibility of war. He believed it was right for countries to make individual (‘unilateral’) decisions to disarm, and for a while held out hopes that a Labour government would take this stance. He was always convinced that ideals need political action, as well as belief in them, to make them real.

Indeed, he felt strongly that pacifist morals must be expressed through specific political and practical aims. The question must be, ‘What practical action is needed to achieve peace?’, and, when the answer is clear, campaigns for it must be started. In the case of Northern Ireland, for example, Donald Soper characteristically felt it was not precise enough to campaign ‘for peace’; what made better sense was to campaign for British troops to be sent back home. Whatever the consequences of the troops’ withdrawal might be, their presence in Ireland (so Donald Soper told the House of Lords - he was made a life peer in 1965) made any real peace impossible to achieve.

This view coloured what he wrote in 1984 about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. ‘The CND to which I was devoted flourished because it appealed to impulses deep enough to find a responsive echo in the hearts and minds of all sorts of people. It started as a crusade, but it foundered because it did not marry its intention to get rid of weapons with an equal intention to get rid of the system that required them.’

Preaching goodwill
‘Goodwill on earth’ was Donald Soper’s vision: ‘it captivated me’. But, always a realist, ‘I recognised that gazing into the distance can quickly degenerate into fantasy unless you can see a possible road to the horizon.... The road was socialism.’ Though he recognised the shortcomings of party politics, in the Labour party he believed there was at least a ‘possibility of the socialism which I wanted to see’. He joined the Labour Party while he was still a student at Cambridge, and never left it, though he saw his hope for a real and peace-based socialism fade.

The place to start, Donald Soper wrote, ‘is with that real sense of satisfaction in meeting people’s needs’. There were plenty of examples in his own life and in the work of his church’s West London Mission: ‘caring for old people, providing for homeless youngsters, setting up protection housing for recovered alcoholics,’ taking responsibility for helping ‘all sorts of individuals in all sorts of needs’. But such needs and problems arise when society is divided. ‘The class divisions and inhumanities with which I was confronted in the 1930s still exist today, and in some regards are worse.’ Removing social inequality and injustice was, for Donald Soper, the first step towards a world of peace. And it had to be done by political means.

‘There are, of course, those who insist that you cannot make people good by Act of Parliament. True, but you can make it much more difficult for them to be bad. Better still, you can so stimulate the good as to offer other people the satisfaction of behaving decently.’

Donald Soper fully understood that this would not be easy. ‘On the evidence, modern human are a mixture of selfishness and selflessness. The trouble is, any society created while selfishness was predominant continues to abet selfishness and cripple less selfish intentions.’ The answer? Radical change. ‘Revolutionary political methods are the only ones which go deep enough and act effectively enough to turn our acquisitive social system into a co-operative commonwealth.’

But what about the wider world? Peace and goodwill seem to be hindered, and complicatedly so, everywhere. But, wrote Donald Soper, ‘I believe that to understand the problem of a world community is not only to recognise what a colossal task it sets, but also to realise that the means of overcoming these difficulties may be found alongside.’

The first thing to go must be the nation state, an organisation ‘outstandingly violent’ and powered by selfishness. ‘Hope for our future depends on the nature of human grouping. We live in nation states and that grouping is bad. If we change it, we shall not have solved all our problems but we will be in a much better position to solve them. We will also be on the way to discovering what human beings can be and do when their social environment is less selfish and less violent.’

‘A so-called United Nations is no recipe for world government because it dodges the basic issue. By safeguarding the very powers of the nation state, it makes wider authority inoperative.’

‘I agree that transfer of power away from individual nations, which actually exist, to a world government, which has never existed, is a vast step. It is rarely considered by most people. But if the goodwill of a world community can only emerge in a society liberated from the shackles of a nation state, then world government must be on the agenda.’

Where did Donald Soper think a grasp of this possibility might begin? With human relationships close at hand, he said. Members of families have the same kind of problems as each other, and these can be managed with understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. In the same way, the world’s single human family can, with imagination and resourcefulness, learn to live together with goodwill. Small societies based on a family structure are able to support and contain members who lack a sense of family or a capacity to value goodwill. The world society ought to be seeking to do the same for its less co-operative and more menacing members.

This means that the greater family-based system must be acceptable to all the many kinds of family-systems of the world. The first step is ‘to recognise the principle of family life which is common to all examples of it. The family is a social unit, not a casual association of individuals.’

The second step is ‘the sharing of the means of life each member needs.’ Problems look insoluble because until now family groupings have functioned within hostile economic and cultural environments. Begin to provide a more universal economic climate, suggested Donald Soper, and social divisions will wither away, leaving goodwill as the universal principle. ‘This is my belief,’ he said, adding, ‘though I don’t forget that it relies on whether that sort of family life is an achievable objective.’

In 1981 Donald Soper was awarded the World Methodist Peace Prize. The citation described how Donald had consistently risen above nationalism, teaching that it was better to suffer wrong than impose it on others, both individually and between nations. ‘ You have taught us that the only way we can have peace for all nations is to establish goodwill among them, and for people to live on earth in co-operation.’








'It is finally impossible to cast out evil by evil, and the use of armed violence, however justifiable the cause, is a process of evil.’












‘War is an element in a society, it is part of a system, the output of institutions that are inseparable from the use of armed forces. To renounce war must therefore involve the dismantling of the social and economic structure which not only encourages it but also demands it. By the same token peace too is part of a system, the output of institutions which depend on the use of nonviolent means.....





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