Free Speech in the Free Church in Wartime

by Frank W. Carpenter

Contributing member UU Peace Ministry Network

 

World War I was a time when the government and civic organizations inthe United States — including Unitarian congregations — contended with the meanings of democracy. At the national level, the Wilson administration’s Committee on Public Information (CPI) stressed anti-militarism,anti-authoritarianism and the defense of democratic government. Yet on June 11, 1917, just two months after the United States declared war on Germany, the Congress passed the Espionage Act. This far-reaching act, which President Wilson urged as necessary to combat possible disloyalty among immigrant citizens, generated controversy over its threat to free speech and democracy. CPI Chair George Creel stated, “Democracy has never been, and can never be, other than a theory of spiritual progress.  Countering this assertion, Rev. Alson H. Robinson of Cincinnati’s First Congregational Church (Unitarian) argued that the 1917 Espionage Act threatened democracy and enflamed hysteria.  At the September 1917 meeting of the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches in Montreal, discussion of a resolution in support of the war met with resistance over the threat to free speech contained in the Espionage Act.

 

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