A. J. Muste’s Reformed roots ran deep. Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967) was born in the Netherlands, raised in Grand Rapids, and educated at two Reformed Church in America institutions: Hope College and New Brunswick Theological Seminary. He excelled in sports at Hope, and in the year between graduating from Hope and enrolling at New Brunswick taught Latin and Greek at the Northwestern Classical Academy in Orange City, Iowa.
Muste’s remarkable life is being chronicled in a series of documentaries produced and directed by the independent filmmaker David Schock. The first film, Finding True North was released in April, 2019, and was honored with a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. The second film, “The No. 1 U.S. Pacifist,” has just been released. Both films, and more information about the project, may be accessed here. A third film is planned, and the production team is seeking funding on the project website.
Muste was too radical for the RCA, which has never known what to do with him. I attended an RCA seminary in the 1980s and the only thing I can recall learning about him was one story: when asked by a reporter if he seriously thought standing with a candle night after night in front of the White House would change anything, Muste reportedly said, “I don’t stand out here to change the country, I stand out here so they won’t change me.”
The RCA’s uneasy relationship with Muste came to mind when I saw recently that Great Britain has unveiled a new banknote featuring computer pioneer Alan Turing. In his lifetime, Turing faced criminal prosecution because of his sexual orientation from the same country now honoring him. In a similar way, the RCA and its institutions have been slow to recognize the brilliance and insight of Muste.
As the first film documents, Muste was the pastor of the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan until he left the RCA in 1914 out of frustration. (In Manhattan Muste also found much more broad-minded religious instruction at Union Theological Seminary than he had at New Brunswick, which was quite parochial in those days).
Muste opposed every American war from World War I to Vietnam, and worked as a labor organizer. In 1949 a seminarian named Martin Luther King Jr. heard Muste lecture on non-violence. C.O.R.E., the Council on Racial Equality, was formed in 1942 as an offshoot of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which Muste was executive secretary. He was a pacifist but never passive — he demonstrated against nuclear proliferation in Red Square in Moscow and would scandalize American politicians by meeting with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
I was with a small group of RCA pastors last week and we were lamenting the RCA’s historical lack of bright lights. In fact, we were comparing the intellectual heft of the RCA to the Christian Reformed Church and we found the RCA lacking. I imagine all you CRC readers are smiling to yourself right now while RCA readers are looking away in shame. Muste might be the brightest light the RCA has ever produced, but the RCA couldn’t hold him.
One other ironic story: the other day Pat Robertson, of all people, spoke out about the police killing black people. We might mark down 2021 as the year Pat Robertson was woke. A.J. Muste was woke more than a hundred years earlier.
Thanks to the work of David Schock, with an assist from Kathleen Verduin, Hope College Professor of English who also coordinates the college’s annual A.J. Muste Lecture Series, Muste’s significant life story is being told. Each film runs a bit more than an hour and is the quality of something you’d see on PBS. In fact, these films ought to be on PBS. I hope you’ll take the time to learn about A.J. Muste and consider helping the filmmakers finish this important project.
Thank you for this. A. J. Muste was an angel. His younger brother Cornelius was pastor in Brooklyn, and there’s a Muste pew at Old First (which I was privileged to show to Howard Zinn when he spoke at Old First), so I like to think that this angel might have sat in that pew the odd Sunday, when visiting his family. Thank you for bringing his name to this website. He was too good for us. Not perfect, mind you, he was not perfect, but too honest and too faithful for our purposes.
What Daniel said.
My father, too, spoke frequently with pride of Muste and his RCA roots. There was a “but” at the end of his story. “But we didn’t appreciate him, we didn’t know what to do with him, we couldn’t understand him.” I’m grateful to have grown up with Muste’s witness in my own story of faith in the RCA. Who else witnesses now and we don’t know what to do with her, we don’t appreciate him, we can’t understand them?
Referencing A. J. Muste is always appropriate, Jeff, and I thank you for this post.
All you have mentioned about him has the ring of truth.
The RCA and Hope College has always had questions about him. Yet, through the efforts of Hope graduate, Mary Neznek, his on-going influence will be memorialized on Hope’s campus. She was a previous speaker at the annual A. J. Muste Peace lecture.
Mary, thank you for your witness to this giant, a man who resolutely followed the teaching and example of Jesus the Nazarene.
Grateful for this piece, and he’s pictured in the first photo, with Dorothy Day, another activist/saint we are much indebted to.
Thank you for highlighting this work. As one of Dr. Kathleen Verduin’s admiring siblings, I have watched and listened as she and David Schock have labored for years to secure enough support and funding to finish this project. In the current state of affairs in national and denominational politics, Muste’s voice rings with integrity. Now more than ever! I hope Reforned folk will make a generous donation!
THANKs for this information Jeff. My great great grandmother’s name was Johanna Muste (later Westmaas). I haven’t done the geneology work to confirm a family connection but I like to think there is one. In any case, his story has long been an inspiration to me and his life a model worthy of this attention. Again, thank you.
I know nothing about AJ Muste, so I’d best try and watch this to learn more. I have a high level of respect for truly convicted pacifists – by that I mean those who truly understand the consequences of pacifism, as opposed to a squishy, naive “all you need is love” sort of pacifism that believes you can resolve all conflicts through love and understanding. The Amish are about the only people I’ve seen that truly live out pacifism because they are willing to take the beating that comes along with refusing to respond to aggression with aggression.
The trouble to my mind is that while I may be willing to turn my other cheek if I’m taking a beating, there’s a real moral dilemma when it’s someone else that’s taking the beating and I know I am capable of coming to their defense. Certainly one of those areas of life that is much simpler to think about than it is to live it out.
Many thanks for highlighting this important project and this courageous son of the Reformed family! May we all learn from his powerful witness to what it means to accept and affirm Jesus’s words in John 20 to his terrified and confused followers (don’t we all have days like that?): “My peace I leave with you.”
Thanks for this Jeff! And I certainly am going to take the time to learn more about A.J. Muste, as my great-great-grandmother was a Muste. She immigrated from the Netherlands as a young woman in 1857, and lived out her life in Holland, Michigan with her husband, Adam Westmaas. I have never heard the name A.J. Muste mentioned in my family. Maybe he was “too radical” for our family too. I can see some genealogical work in my future. I would be proud to be related to a man who, as John Kleinheksel has already said here, was “a man who resolutely followed the teaching and example of Jesus.”
He was from Zierikzee, in Zeeland.
“Trying to ride two horses at once” A. J. Muste: Dutch American Peace Activist” is an article featuring Muste in Origins (Historical Magazine of the Heritage Hall Archives of Calvin U, Seminary, and CRCNA), Volume XXXVIII. Number 2, 2020 — last fall.
~ Shirley VanBaak Martinus
Thanks for this, Jeff. I discovered A. J. Muste as a freshman at Calvin College in 1969, as I struggled with whether to apply for conscientious objector status with Selective Service. It meant a lot to me to find someone from my own tradition who sought to think through, and then live out, the implications of the Gospel for war.
Thanks very much for bring Muste to our attention. Walter Wink makes an important distinction between “pacifism” and “non-violence.” Norman Thomas remembered Muste as someone who made a “remarkable effort to show that pacifism was by no means passivism and that there could be such a thing as a non-violent social revolution.” (from Wikipedia).
I’m not a theologian, just a congregant of Daniel Meeter’s past church in Park Slope. I knew of Muste from my parents. My dad was a conscientious objector in WWII who served in the army as a non-combatant, a medic. Dad’s mother was a Friend and the Friends gave him support. Both of my parents were members or followers of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. So I knew of Muste before I was a member of a Reformed Church, and was much surprised to find the connection through his brother, our pastor from 1931-1954. I did a tad genealogy and these Mustes came to US ca 1891 to his mother’s family in Grand Rapids. So likely the Muste connection to others here was in the Netherlands. There’s a nice memorial piece that was published in a Hope journal that adds some things I had not seen online yet, that he filled the pulpit at Middle Collegiate while still a student. That was where he first experienced real poverty and developed sympathy for workers. I ordered a biography, am waiting for it. Thank you for posting the films. I shared the link with some Old Firsters and will watch one tonight.