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.