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Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family--a Test of Will and Faith in World War I Hardcover – June 2, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Louisa Thomas on Conscience

A few years ago, a family friend found a history seminar paper that my father had written thirty years before. It had the curious title “Evan Thomas: A Case Study of a Conscientious Objector in the First World War”—curious because Evan Thomas is my father’s name, but I did not know about the conscientious objector. The paper opened with the arresting image of a young man—about my age, as it happened—standing in solitary confinement with his hands manacled to the bars, while outside the nation celebrated the armistice ending World War I. Evan was willing to go to prison to protest conscription, my father wrote, “for the most complex of simple reasons: to be true to himself.” That line made me pause. Even from the fragments of the letters my father quoted, Evan’s reasons did not seem simple, even complexly simple. He did use language like that—he wanted to be true to himself—but what that meant was just as troubling to him as it was to me. He understood that it had something to do with truth, faith, and courage. It had something to do with his family, country, and a willingness to die, but also a desire to be free. He often used the word conscience, and he said he fought for freedom of conscience. But what did it mean? One thing was clear: his conscience compelled him to do something different than it did his three brothers. Buried in my father’s paper was one line that seized me. While Evan was on a hunger strike protesting conscription, his brother, Ralph, an army captain, was wounded by a German shell in France. The Thomas family, my family, was divided.

Two brothers were pacifists, two soldiers. The oldest, Norman, a Presbyterian minister, was drawn toward politics and became a Socialist and an activist for pacifism and the defense of civil rights. The youngest, Arthur, joined the military and went to training camp to become a pilot. They had attended the same sermons delivered by their father, had the same hobbies, and went to the same schools. Yet when the United States entered World War I their lives diverged dramatically. Their choices were irreconcilable. To understand them I had to try to understand the times and places the brothers lived in, times and places that are now often overlooked or forgotten. Their letters, in archives and attics around the country, led me to the those of their father, a Presbyterian minister who resisted what he saw were assaults on religion; and those of their mother, who had grown up in Siam and then on an all-black college in the Reconstruction South, the daughters of missionaries. Their lives in turn led me to others—to the pugnacious evangelical preacher Billy Sunday; to Roger Baldwin, the force behind the nascent civil liberties movement during a time of repression; to Woodrow Wilson, who had been the brothers’ professor at Princeton, and who become President, and who led the nation into the First World War.

The oldest brother, Norman, who was my great-grandfather, emerged as the central figure in the story. It may seem strange that the making of a Socialist, a journey that took him to the margins of American history, might have something to say to us now, but it does. The debates (if not the answers) in which he was engaged are still at the center of the American experience: the responsibilities of the individual and the state, political versus economic liberties, pragmatism versus principle, the role of religion, war as an instrument, civil liberties, and dangerous enemies. Norman and his brothers spoke and acted with conviction, sympathy, anger, and humor, as well as a sense of adventure, that resonate across the space of a century. They had a moral lucidity that seems difficult to imagine in a more diverse, post-Freudian age, but one that should not be dismissed. There is something remarkable to me about the drama of their lives during those years, something worth recovering. They knew that something was at stake. The Great War was the greatest global struggle the world had so far seen, one that followed and precipitated social upheaval across the world. The Thomas brothers’ history is a part of that history, which is a part of our own.

--Louisa Thomas

Photo of Louisa Thomas © Joe Mikos


“Daring … The thrust of this enthralling book lies with its title: through the experience of her forebears, Thomas examines how conscience fares when society considers it subversive.” — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“….a well-paced, well-told story of an American family nurtured on mainstream middle-class, Christian respectability, testing its values as the Great War threatened to suck in America.” — NEWSDAY

“….a fascinating story from a fascinating moment in New York’s (and the nation’s) history..” — THE NEW YORKER Book Bench --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 1st edition (June 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159420294X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202940
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #968,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Suzanne on June 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I started this book with little knowledge of this historical period and was immediately riveted. The book focuses primarily on a domestic drama--one that bears on one of the most pivotal events of the last century. It reminded me of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club in the sense that it had a beautiful, narrative style--a small cast of players who emerge as fully-formed characters and as intellectual figures, deeply embedded in the questions of the time--and you leave the book with a visceral sense of the ethos of a particular era. What moved and impressed me most was the way that the author kept coming back to the ideal of belief--or, rather, the thing that precedes belief: the desire to believe. Evan Thomas is so desperate to believe in something--to do good, to make himself useful, to prove to himself that he has a conscience and can act on it--that he essentially removes himself from a society. It made me think about the blurry boundary between dedication to a cause and solipsism or vanity. When does social altruism become a form of self-preoccupation? The book is also very funny! Wonderful glimpses into early ivy culture and vivid, eloquent descriptions of the political leaders of the day.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Matthew K Martin on June 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I devoured this book. A great story of brothers taking very different paths but reflecting similar courage. You don't have to be a socialist or a pacifist to admire how these men stood up for what they believed in, despite their privileged background. I look forward to reading more from Ms. Thomas!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Anne E. Muratori on June 8, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
A beautiful book. The political and spiritual field of pre WWI America comes alive through the experiences of four brothers. Thomas tracks the formation of the Socialist leader, her great grandfather, with honesty, subtlety and an uncommon insight into the power of our intimate relationships in forming public selves.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By pat libbey on July 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mothers, fathers, grandparents, citizens. If you want to better understand today's conflicting ideas about freedom and patriotism, war and peace, immigrants and poverty, then read this beautifully written family and cultural saga. Louisa Thomas, a descendant of courageous missionaries, ministers and patriots, writes with insight into her family's story that traces their heartfelt debates over differing interpretations of the Christian Gospels. Her tale of three generations living out their fervently held ideals spans three continents--from mid-19 century Siam (of "The King and I" era) to a small town parish in Ohio, to the teaming immigrant tenements of Harlem in the early 20th century, to the battlefields in France during World War I. The moral issues the young minister, Norman Thomas, the central figure in this story, and his brother Evan grappled with lead them further away from their family's Christian convictions in ways that were at times painful for their mother, father and two other brothers to hear, witness and debate. We can all learn from this fascinating story of how one family lived out their radically differing beliefs with respect and love.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By BobL on July 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a must-read. Thomas's exploration of a family divided by commitments to both pacifism and the military beautifully elucidates our country's complicated relationship with war, socialism, equity, and faith. It is deserving of the highest recommendation, as well as a read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Nancy Gerber on July 3, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This wise and fascinating book tells us in intimate detail of the early
spiritual and intellectual development of one of the last century's most
influential activists, Norman Thomas. Anyone who became a conscientious
objector after World War I owes a huge debt to Evan Thomas for (literally)
offering his own life for his right not to serve. Their brothers Ralph and
Arthur, who chose to enlist in the war that Norman and Evan so opposed,
never stopped being loyal to the brothers who took a different and less
socially accepted path. They respected each others' points of view, without
giving an inch.

Imagine being the parents in this family! Welling and Emma Thomas are
compelling characters in their own right; their great-great-grandaughter
Louisa Thomas gives us insight into how good parents raise independent
thinkers. She has culled the history and her family's memories to show us a
world that no longer exists, but which remains eerily relevant.
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