The violence inherent in “Christian Socialism”

by Veronica Coffin on February 17, 2016



These proponents of Socialism, old and new, speak of benefits, care, loving one’s neighbor, welfare, help, aid, etc.. But they call for the use of civil government to fulfill those values. It is a subdued, modern version of John Brown and the Secret Six, of Marx, of Engels’s and Mao’s calls for the barrel of a gun.

Submitted by: Veronica Coffin


Socialism means the denial of private property to a great or even total degree. It means the use of State power—violence inherent in the power of the sword and gun—to redistribute property according to the dictates of some officer or committee of officers. Violence is therefore inherent in Socialism. Why some Christians see this as a means of fulfilling God’s will defies both reason and revelation.

The “Christian” Wedge

The Social-Gospel historian C. H. Hopkins notes that Unitarians formed the seedbed of the Christian Socialist movements and planted some early seeds in it.[1] To those familiar with the liberalism associated with Unitarianism, that socialistic activism grew out of it will come as no surprise. I would like to mention the links between socialism and violence in the context of allegedly Christian activism. In short, since violence is inherent in socialism, “Christian” socialism—whether its proponents call it by that name or not—will necessarily rely on violence as well. To the extent it relies on violence beyond the few instances God’s law allows the civil ruler to exact punishment, to that extent—which is nearly the whole of it—we must understand Christian socialism to be anti-Christian in essence.

As early as 1826, although the idea of redistribution of property already abounded, few Christian or Unitarian representatives had begun calling for State coercion to effect it. Instead, Unitarian ministers (and others) organized private Christian social services, such as Joseph Zuckerman’s “ministry at large.”[2] In fact, some Unitarians vehemently defended the sanctity of private property. Harvard Professor of Moral Philosophy Francis Bowen wrote in 1856, “No nation has ever been discovered on earth, so low and brutal in their inclination and habits, so destitute of any idea of right, that the institution of property, to a greater or lesser extent, does not exist among them.”[3]

The literary critic and radical abolitionist William Ellery Channing some twenty years earlier had argued from the principle of private property against socialist movements among workers in Boston. He urged them not to be “so insanely blind to their interests [or] so deaf to the claims of justice and religion,… as to be prepared to make a wreck of the social order, for the sake of dividing among themselves the spoils of the rich.”[4] Channing, in fact, argued against the ownership of slaves by acknowledging private property as a sacred law, not merely a civil law. In this sense, some of the pro-slavery crowd subverted society by making property rights (and thus the right to own slaves) dependent upon civil legislation:

Of all radicals, the most dangerous, perhaps, is he who makes property the creature of law; because what law creates it can destroy. If we of this Commonwealth have no right in our persons, houses, ships, farms, but what a vote of legislation or the majority confers, then the same masses may strip of them all.[5]

This devotion of the sanctity of individual property unfortunately did not stick. Channing’s nephew, William Henry Channing, who had moved into Transcendentalism while remaining a Unitarian minister, had a greater appetite for government force and even violence if necessary to bring in a socialistic society. In 1848 he published The Christian Church and Social Reform—his opinion that a collectivist society would be the literal fulfillment of Christ’s kingdom on earth.[6] When pulpits and scholarship would not be enough to persuade, the radical nephew would set the tone for revolutionary activism: “The next thing is guerilla war … at every chance.”[7]

The Secret Six

A little-known story of terrorism and revolutionary causes in American history involves the abolitionist John Brown and the “Secret Six.” The Six was a group of Boston Unitarian ministers (a point rarely emphasized) intent on using and financing agitation, violence, and guerrilla tactics in order to advance their cause. They imposed themselves in more than one theater, notably in raids in Kansas in 1856, and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, 1859—a bloody confrontation that hastened the War.

One of the six, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, made little secret of his inclination for armed conflict. Master-historian James C. Malin notes,

T. W. Higginson announced to [financier] Gerrit Smith that he intended to “start a privateorganization of picked men, who shall be ready to go to Kansas in case of need, to aid the people against any opponent, state or federal.” He confessed that he wished “to involve every state in the war that is to be.…”[8]

Higginson had “prophesied” the war he spoke of, calling for revolution if need be. Malin tells of Higginson’s prophecy, that whoever was elected president that year,

the administration would be “resisted as one. If that is treason, make the most of it. Such treason as this is fast ripening in Kansas. Call it Revolution if you please. If the United States Government and Border Ruffians are to mean the same thing, the sooner the people of Kansas have revolution the better.” Before the conflict was ended, he declared, the two Nations, North and South, would be separate.[9]

Higginson had been the ringleader of early agitation and violent actions that foreshadowed the secret six. His beginnings in Boston with several others of the six included an organized campaign of violence to buck the fugitive slave laws. Hearing news that a U. S. Marshall had just imprisoned an escaped slave, Higginson organized some sixty men to storm the courthouse and free him. The group bore at least one pistol and wielded a dozen axes freshly purchased by Higginson at the local hardware store. In the short version of the story, the plan failed as armed guards subdued the invaders with clubs and cutlasses. One guard was shot dead and Higginson escaped with a slashed chin which he thereafter wore proudly as the scar of a hero-martyr for the cause. Not long after, Higginson delivered a powerful sermon that was printed and influenced a broad audience.[10]

The U.S. Marshall who arrested the slave later encountered an attack in Worcester. Abolitionists somehow conjured a warrant for his arrest though his mission was legal. At trial he was rushed, beaten, and threatened with calls for lynching and tar and feathers. When a judge acquitted him, abolitionist crowds pelted him with eggs and spat tobacco upon him. By the time he reached the train to Boston he might have counted himself lucky to be alive, save that Rev. Higginson had been among the crowd and now traveled back to Boston at his side “to lecture him on the evils of his ways.”[11]

It is no surprise, then, that when the famous vigilante and known terrorist murderer John Brown came to Boston, Higginson and his circle were drawn to him. Brown had come seeking money for his radical raids; he found much more. He met the Unitarian ministers Higginson, Parker, Howe, and Stearns, all of whom were “either famous or wealthy men who shared a common despair of the wisdom of their countrymen; each seemed to believe that slavery could only be ended by revolution.”[12] Higginson, at least, among them knew of Brown’s murderous past. Many people did. “In accepting that knowledge—and by silence and protection accepting the principle that innocent lives could be destroyed in the name of Higher Law—all these men darkened their cause and altered its essence.”[13]

Otto Scott explains how matter-of-factly John Brown approached his revolutionary violence: “Brown’s project was fairly simple. He wanted thirty thousand dollars to ‘fight for freedom’ in Kansas and ‘carry the war into Africa.’”[14] Rev. Higginson had expressed his revolutionary violence just as plainly: “Give me a convention of ten … who have drawn their swords and thrown away the scabbard and I will revolutionize the world.”[15] Playing off his abolitionism as the central cause (perhaps it was), he argued for violence in general to get political control. He said,

Give us the power and we can make a new Constitution … how is that power to be obtained? By politics? Never. By revolution, and that alone.[16]

Nearing the beginning of Brown’s most famous raid—upon the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry—his train’s engineers heard the tracks were blocked ahead. They scouted ahead to see but were met by gunfire. “Hayward Shepherd, the Negro baggagemaster at Harper’s Ferry, ventured out, was shot, and hit.”[17] His wounding was the first in the raid, and turned out fatal. In an ironic twist of fate symbolic of the tyranny of good intentions, “The first casualty of John Brown’s blow for black freedom was a free black man.”[18]

Otto Scott’s masterful work on the subject suffers from that bane of all hard-truth-telling: it was ignored by the establishment literati. Though Scott’s book was still in print and had long since been entered into the Library of Congress, a New England journalist named Edward J. Renehan, Jr., wrote another with the identical title, The Secret Six.[19] Coming some sixteen years after Scott’s, Renehan’s book has the nerve to boast, “The existence of the six has been known to scholars, but there has never been a book devoted to them.”[20] He includes a bibliography: notably absent are Scott’s far superior work as well as Malin’s two-volume masterpiece.

Despite all of their talk about equality and freedom, at least one of the Six, Rev. Theodore Parker (also a Unitarian Minister), expressed his rank elitism in absolute disdain for the black race. Near the end of his life, he penned to fellow Sixman Rev. Howe, “What a pity that the map of our magnificent country should be destined to be so soon torn in two on account of the negro, that poorest of human creatures, satisfied, even in slavery, with sugar cane and a banjo.”[21]

Elitism expressed as racism is bad enough, but the greater expression of elitism is the violence in support of one’s cause. As long as man thinks he is the great liberator (and that was the name of the Boston abolitionists’ newspaper—The Liberator), and that his agenda for liberation is justified, he will have no problem imposing his will on other men, using violence if necessary, in an attempt to further that agenda. And he will easily convince himself that whatever blood he sheds, or has shed, is justified by the goodness of his cause.

Justification for Violence

This justification of violence—be it for abolition or redistribution of property (as with the Socialists)—appears in all of the great exponents of revolution. A few come to mind. Karl Marx, in his earlier writings (around 1844), expressed his ultimate reliance not to be persuasion, but force: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force.…” His preferred version of force was to agitate the masses into mob action: “theory also becomes material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.…”[22]

Marx lamented the fact that in his situation in Germany no one had a strong enough grip on the masses to effect a violent revolution:

But no particular class in Germany has the consistency, the severity, the courage or the ruthlessness that could mark it out as the negative representative of society. No more has any estate the breadth of soul that identifies itself, even for a moment, with the soul of the nation, the genius that inspires material might to political violence, or that revolutionary audacity which flings at the adversary the defiant words: I am nothing and I should be everything.[23]

Note how Marx called for the “me” generation over a century and a half ago, urging people to think that “I am a nobody in society, but society owes it to me to give me everything.” Socialism is institutionalized envy and selfishness—institutionalized, that is, by government force. With the promise of the use of material might to achieve his ends, Marx provided a powerful incentive to realize the workingman’s envy of greater wealth.

Likewise, Marx’s partner-in-crime Friedrich Engels argued against Socialists whose theory got too consistent. Certain Socialists were beginning to take the idea of equality literally (a no-no for elitists who know the word is just a useful illusion). They thought that since they believed in abolishing all material difference, and leveling everyone to the same status, they should get rid of hierarchies in the workplace as well. End oppressive authority of man-over-man altogether. Engels saw this as unrealistic. Who will organize and schedule? We need some authority!Someone (guess who) should make the rules after all. In advancing his argument, however, Engels might have spilled the Socialist beans:

Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets, and cannon—authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.[24]

He might have been saying this in hyperbole, but the truth of revolution rings out through his words. Even if he ultimately denied violent revolution—oh nooo… we’d never call for violentrevolution to seize and redistribute property—he nevertheless expressed it pretty clearly in this passage. Socialism, redistribution, is obtained and maintained through the barrel of a gun. This is authoritarian, Engels argued. To call for an end to this authority, he finished out his essay, would be to sell out the cause of the working masses.

A final example comes from Chinese Communist murderer Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. In 1926 he expressed the exact same sentiment as Engels:

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.[25]

This is the violence inherent in the systems of Socialism. Violence is justified by proponents when an elitist acts in the name of the “common good,” or some beneficent law. If redistribution of property lies at the heart of the cause, you can bet they will need violence to enforce it.


It was a split-off from orthodox Christianity that paved the way for ideas like this to take hold in the Christian world. It was a combination of atheists, radicals, Unitarians, and liberals—all groups that could care less about God’s commandments—that brought socialism into the modern world. But the quasi-Christian groups made it sound acceptable to Christians. This continues today.

None of these proponents, old or new, can justify their implicit appeals to violence in light of God’s law, so they ignore that law. They speak of benefits, care, loving one’s neighbor, welfare, help, aid, etc.—but they call for the use of government guns to fulfill those values. It is a subdued, modern version of John Brown and the Secret Six, of Marx, of Engels’s and Mao’s calls for the barrel of a gun. Except it is no secret—except insofar as Christians in public schools and drawing from welfare programs either do not know better, or refuse to admit it. There is no greater oxymoron than Christian socialism.

[To explore “Christian Socialism” further, see the author’s book God versus Socialism: A Biblical Critique of the New Social Gospel.]


[1] Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism: 1865–1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 4.
[2] Charles Howard Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism: 1865–1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 4.
[3] Quoted in Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 230.
[4] Quoted in Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, 230.
[5] Quoted in Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, 273.
[6] Hopkins, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 5.
[7] Quoted in Otto Scott, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement (New York: Times Books, 1979), 15.
[8] James C. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six, 2 vols. (New York: Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., (1942) 1971), 2:698–699.
[9] Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six, 2 vols., 1:226–227.
[10] Otto Scott, The Secret Six, 10–13.
[11] Otto Scott, The Secret Six, 14.
[12] Otto Scott, The Secret Six, 228.
[13] Otto Scott, The Secret Six, 227.
[14] Otto Scott, The Secret Six, 229.
[15] Quoted in Scott, The Secret Six, 231.
[16] Quoted in Scott, The Secret Six, 243.
[17] Quoted in Scott, The Secret Six, 288.
[18] Quoted in Scott, The Secret Six, 288.
[19] New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995
[20] From the dust jacket front flap.
[21] Quoted in Scott, The Secret Six, 285.
[22] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Introduction,” Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 3:182, 185.
[23] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Introduction,” Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 3:182, 185.
[24] Frederick Engels, “On Authority,” Basic Writings on Philosophy: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ed. by Lewis S. Feuer (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1959), 485.
[25] Mao Tse-Tung, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, 23.


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