This readable and fascinating book gives an insight into the life of a Henry Richard, who remained faithful all his life to his understanding of Christian nonviolence. Richard was born in Tregaron in 1812 and trained as a Nonconformist minister in London. Although his ‘lot was cast in London’, he remained rooted in Welsh nonconformist tradition and culture. Although a successful minister, he gave up his post to become full time Secretary of the Peace Society, and in 1868 became MP for Merthyr and Aberdare, a seat which he held for over 20 years. Until his death in 1888, Richard preached, wrote, campaigned, organised conferences and congresses across Europe, traveled and spoke in the cause of peace. The wealth of detail in the book brings to life his tireless work, his successes, and also the conflicts and personality clashes of a determined and probably rather stubborn man.
Richard based his views on war on his understanding of Christ’s teaching, leading to an uncompromising pacifism which applied as much to a Christian government as to individuals. Richard lived through a time of constant wars, remarking in 1879 that Britain had been involved in 73 wars in 63 years. Some of these are familiar to us, including the Chinese opium wars, and the Boer and Afghan wars, while Griffiths also details less familiar acts of breath-taking imperial aggression which underline how far Richard was from the mainstream assumptions of his day. Griffith’s detailed discussion of the attitude of different Welsh Nonconformist denominations to war shows that while many churches had a strong tendency to support peace, Richard was often in a minority. He spoke out against the American Civil War, popular among Welsh Christians as a war of liberation for slaves, maintaining that the cause of Christianity could not be promoted by the destruction of human lives. His position might challenge us when todays wars appear to be fought to protect the oppressed, such as women in Afghanistan. His eloquence on militarism also has great relevance today. On military spending he said “To pour money into the hands of the services is like pouring water into a sieve”. As admiration of ‘our heroes’ becomes ever more unquestioning, his views on military honours may resonate; “the work of the warrior is one of pure destruction… to carry into the hearts and homes of men mourning, desolation and woe. And is that the kind of work that needs to be specially encouraged by a Christian state?”
Richard’s whole life was spent in engaging in politics as much as religion. After his surprise election as Liberal MP for Merthyr and Aberdare in 1868, he used his position to promote peace and speak out against wars. He spent two years gaining popular and parliamentary support for his successful resolution on International Arbitration, requesting that Her Majesty’s government work with foreign powers to strengthen international law and establish a permanent system of international arbitration. As one of many who have tried to use arguments from international law in British courts, I found it moving to read about the work carried out so long ago to develop international law to promote peace, a work still very much in progress. Richards one commented “If I do not live to see it rewarded, I shall not despair, for there are some enterprises in which it is more glorious to fail than it would be in most others to conquer.”
Although his work for peace was uppermost, Richard worked for various other causes. He was a strong supporter of school and higher education in Wales, perhaps surprisingly championing secular education. He believed that parents and Sunday Schools should undertake religious education, and admired Dutch secular co-educational schools, noting that physical punishment was not used. He also worked for disestablishment of the Church of England, believing that it had a stranglehold on education and social activity. This was partly driven by his love of Wales, its language, culture and nonconformist religion, and his feeling that the Church of England misunderstood and denigrated all that was good in the Welsh culture.
Richard’s life was driven by the desire to live what he understood as real Christianity. He was not afraid to hold unpopular opinions or to denounce the established church. In this he recalls some of the early Quakers, when he claimed in a speech “Yes, we have a right to say to popes, cardinals and prelates, and other representatives of official religion all over the world ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you’.” This is one of many quotes throughout the book which I will remember – other readers will certainly find passages which inspire and speak to them.