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Ain't Gonna Study War No More

Portsmouth's Peabody refused to celebrate
the American bombing of innocent victims

Rev. Andrew Peabody Patriotism doesn't always wear a uniform. Sometimes brave Americans stand opposed to war. You won't find their images cast in bronze like the thousands of military statues that populate New England towns. But occasionally their words survive with haunting power.

In early April 1847, the bells of all but one Portsmouth church rang out in celebration. The United States had bombed the city of Vera Cruz into surrender in the Mexican-American War. Only the bells of the South Church remained silent in protest. In his sermon that Sunday, Rev. Andrew Peabody said this:

"I pity, from the bottom of my heart, the man who can have so much as a momentary feeling of exultation at such horrors. What! rejoice at the explosion of those infernal missiles in those late peaceful homes, -- at the scattering of those dissevered limbs and mangled corpses of those hundreds of women and children?"

Though a pacifist at heart, Peabody was not protesting the defense of America here, but rather the aggressive campaign bombing of a foreign nation where innocent natives could be killed. He could not, in his study of the New Testament, he said, find any way to rationalize this systematic killing with the fundamentally peaceful teachings of Christ. His sermon that day continued:

"Suppose our whole population surrounded by the engines of war -- our wives and children forbidden egress -- witnessing day after day spectacles of the utmost agony…The groans of the wounded, the wild shrieks of the dying rises from house to house above the roar of the artillery."

South Church Portsmouth

 The South Church where Rev. Peabody delivered this sermon still stands. It's the dark, stone Greek-revival building on State Street, better known as the Unitarian Universalist church today. While Peabody's stance may have been controversial, he was incredibly popular among his parishioners. Considered one of the wisest clerics of his time, Peabody became the youngest graduate of Harvard when he was just 15. The following year in 1833 he was appointed Junior Minister in Portsmouth, and a year later took over the congregation when the elder minister died.

While other teens flirted with their career plans, Peabody had found his calling. He opposed the Annexation of Texas and – and after 20 years as South Church pastor -- was still just 36 years old when he spoke out against the Mexican-American War. His published sermons, collected at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, show a prolific nature. He fathered eight children, wrote hundreds of articles, preached at the Isles of Shoals, traveled to Russia, and died just short of his 83rd birthday in 1893. In account after account, he is considered one of the most beloved ministers in Portsmouth history, because, it appears, he loved people back.

Peabody's 1847 sermon didn't stop at protesting the month-long American bombardment of the Mexican fortifications at Vera Cruz. He also posed the most controversial of all military questions -- Is a soldier required to follow orders, if he considers them immoral? Ethics, Peabody suggested, do belong on the battlefield. War does not free the individual soldier of moral responsibility, he said. And Rev. Peabody did not mince words:

"When the individual soul stands before the divine tribunal, stained with the wanton butchery of those women and babes, think you that the plea, "I knew that it was wrong and vile, but my country bade me do it?" will be accepted in Heaven's chancery in mitigation of the crime?"

Soldiers, Peabody said, should be encouraged to act on their moral beliefs, and rewarded for doing so. Rather than undermining the military establishment, he said, this philosophy would ensure that -- when America fights -- it fights only for the right. "My country, right or wrong", he implies, is not patriotism at all, but barbarism, especially when the war is fought on other people's homelands -- no matter how compelling the cause.

Unitarian Portrait of Peabody

In 1847, it was a stretch for white Christian Americans in New Hampshire to fathom the plight of the impoverished Mexican victims at Vera Cruz. Newspapers rarely reported civilian casualties, offering instead, only glowing accounts of how few American soldiers died in the weeks of bombardment with over 10,000 United States troops on hand. Peabody, however, asked his parishioners to cast aside their ethnic prejudices.

Again, the Mexicans are called our enemies. They probably are so. We have done enough to make them so…[but] Those Mexicans have human hearts. There are there, as here, fond parents and loving children. They have the same susceptibilities of suffering and anguish with ourselves.

But if these "foreigners" whose homes we are bombing, Peabody wrote, are really our enemies, then we should treat them as enemies. The bible, he noted, mandates clear responses. Christians should love and forgive their enemies. He quoted this scriptural passage – "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink."

Peabody’s response to aggression was as politically incorrect in his time, as it may be today. Again the United States appears to follow the Old Testament precepts of an "eye for an eye." To not fight back when attacked, is here considered weak, not masculine, not wise. Retaliation and punishment are synonyms for "justice". Peabody, by contrast, preached in favor of meekness and mercy, modeling his Christianity after the biblical Christ. The road to righteousness, he reminded his Portsmouth congregation, was to turn the other cheek. It is only by forgiving evil, he explained, that one avoids becoming as evil as one’s enemies.

Certainly, despite his enormous popularity, Peabody had his detractors. After his sermon against the war in Vera Cruz, the Dover, NH newspaper announced: "The Rev. Andrew P. Peabody, of Portsmouth, N.H. has made himself particularly ridiculous."

Peabody continued to be ridiculous all his long life. He championed the end of slavery at any cost, favored the education of women, campaigned for better treatment of the mentally ill, served on committees advocating peace, espoused temperance and denounced mysticism. He taught at Harvard, served at the Perkins School for the Blind and was a trustee at Phillips Exeter Academy. He wrote on every imaginable topic – from manners and conversation, to essays on taxation and the Hebrew language. His writings in the North American Review alone totaled over 1,600 published pages.

One’s religious beliefs, according to Peabody, are not simply a set of rules and rituals. He saw them, instead, as a flexible guide for every day living. Why bother to participate in a religious faith, he might ask, if that faith isn’t evident in everything one does?

The American landing and siege at Vera Cruz was this nation’s first major amphibious attack on another country – although the landing was unopposed by the Mexican army. What Peabody read in the newspaper, frightened him. While he openly honored America’s Revolutionary War heroes and those who defended America against British attacks in the War of 1812 – Mexico, he said, was different. It was, Peabody feared, the beginning of a culture of violence in this country.

Rev. Andrew Peabody

Indeed, historians have described the Mexican American War as the training ground for our own Civil War – that preceded a century of unspeakably bloody foreign wars. Consider these names from our history books -- Zachary Taylor, Stonewall Jackson, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, Ulysses S Grant, Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan and Winfield Scott. Every one served in the Mexican War. You won’t find the name Andrew Peabody among the heroes there – at least not in the minds of many. American history textbooks focus on battles and body counts. But history is not as simple as winning and losing.

It doesn’t take much editing, in these times of renewed foreign war, to imagine ourselves sitting in Rev. Peabody’s South Church pews, listening to a young minister who refused to rejoice in the misery of others. If our efforts today in Afghanistan succeed, perhaps we should ring no bells, and remember the words of another kind of patriot – a man who was not afraid to open his eyes to the horrible waste of war.

"I confess, my sympathies are with the bereaved, suffering homeless Mexicans – of the multitudes that, without fault of their own, have been made to feel the direst of earthly calamities, and have been given over to the wasting of the war-fiend, whose tender mercies are cruelty. They are our brethren."

Copyright © 2001 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..
Article and original photos by J. Dennis Robinson. Image of the elder Peabody courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum. Painting of young Rev. Peabody courtesy of South Church, Portsmouth, NH.

Don't miss the column by J. Dennis Robinson in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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