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Posted on: October 15th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin 1 Comment

Conscience by Louisa Thomas

“I know what I know,” the lyric from the song by the same name echoes Norman Thomas’ understanding of conscience.  It was the heart of his pacifism and his dedication to social justice.  He believed that every person had a conscience –“a sense that he is more than a creature of instinct, an awareness of ultimate ethical ends.”  Everyone knows what is right, though not everyone is free to act on that knowledge.

Norman’s great-granddaughter, Louisa Thomas, uses her access as a member of the family to tell the story of how Norman’s conscience developed.  This is both a strength and a weakness in the book.   The details of Norman’s parents and grandparents lives in the early chapters delay the narrative of Norman’s own story, which is worth telling.   He ran for President six times on the Socialist ticket, but that was preceded by his stand for peace and civil liberties during World War I.  These extremely unpopular positions are the focus of the book and the author should have gotten there sooner.

Norman’s parents did not have the money to send their sons to Princeton.  When an uncle offered to pay Norman’s tuition, he entered Princeton as a sophomore on the condition of passing extra exams.   Though he was woefully underprepared, he graduated valedictorian.  Woodrow Wilson was the new president of Princeton, and Norman took every class from the popular lecturer that he could.   He idealized him.  This only increased his disillusionment years later when Wilson took the country into war.

Norman followed both his father and grandfather into the Presbyterian ministry, but he didn’t share their belief on the inerrancy of the scripture.  At his ordination test, conservatives on the panel pushed Norman for his interpretation of the literal factuality of the Bible.  He had to “deploy a little sophistry” to satisfy his questioners.  His answers disappointed his father, and, for opposite reasons, Norman felt his performance was not his most principled hour.  This was a milestone in the development of his conscience.   From then on, he aligned his words and actions with his beliefs.

Newly ordained, he left a promising position in an upscale Manhattan church for a new parish in East Harlem that served immigrants and presented enormous challenges.  During this period, Wilson was elected President of the United States. His presidency began with a series of reforms, and he was reelected with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”  To Norman’s disappointment, Wilson changed course shortly after his reelection and asked Congress for a Declaration of War in April 1917.

If Norman was not really successful as a missionary for the Presbyterian church, on the subject of the war, he was evangelical.  He was convinced that an ethical society could not emerge from the inferno of battle, and he believed that capitalism meant the “practical denial of brotherhood” in favor of greed and distrust with war the most horrific evidence that exploitation leads to violence.

Norman was not subject to the draft, but he supported his younger brother, Evan, a conscientious objector who was court-martialed, imprisoned, shackled, brutally force-fed, and finally sentenced to life in prison for refusing to eat.  Norman called attention to the injustice and absurdity of Evan’s penalty.  Yet while he championed Evan, he also maintained dialogue with and respect for his two brothers who had enlisted.  In our polarized times it’s a remarkable achievement that the Thomas brothers found ways to be true to themselves and to each other.

In a letter to Evan, Norman expressed his reasons for hope even in discouraging times.  ”I am still enough of an optimist about the universe to believe that truth, righteousness, reason, not as abstractions but as the expression of the deepest desires of living men and women, will ultimately triumph if we serve them with methods consistent with them and abandon the false and perilous maxim that the end justifies the means.”   In our own discouraging times of continuous war, Norman Thomas’ words offer hope to us also.

Dorothy Sampson



One Response

  1. Anne Millhollen says:

    Each of the brothers in this family responds differently to the war. Each acts according to his conscience, according to what he thinks is right. They continue to communicate their views and reasons to each other, and continue to love and respect one another despite their differences. A remarkable family.

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