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Ben Salmon

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Ben Salmon

Benjamin Joseph Salmon
Born 1889
Denver, Colorado
Died February 15, 1932
Chicago, Illinois
Education High school
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Smith
Children Charles, Margaret, Geraldine
Parents Catherine

Benjamin Joseph Salmon (1889–1932) was an American Christian pacifist, Roman Catholic, conscientious objector and outspoken critic of just war theory, as he believed all war to be unjust.[1]

Salmon was born and raised in a working-class Catholic family, and became an office clerk with the Colorado and Southern Railroad. Outraged by the Ludlow Massacre, he became more active in populist causes such as unionism and the single tax.[2] When President Woodrow Wilson ordered a draft, Salmon was one of a number of Americans to refuse to cooperate.[3] On June 5, 1917, Salmon wrote in a letter to President Wilson:

Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable. … The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.[4]

Salmon was arrested in January 1918 for refusing to complete a Selective Service questionnaire. While out on bail, he was re-arrested for refusing to report for induction. He was locked in the guardhouse for refusing to wear uniform and forced to work in the yard. Despite not having been inducted, he was court-martialed at Camp Dodge, Iowa on July 24, 1918, charged with desertion and spreading propaganda.[5] He was sentenced to death, but later re-sentenced to 25 years hard labor. He arrived at Fort Leavenworth on October 9, 1918 to start his sentence, just one month before World War I ended on November 11, 1918. He began a hunger strike "for liberty or death" on July 13, 1920.[6] The government claimed that his fast was a symptom of mental illness and sent him to a ward reserved for the "criminally insane" at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. on July 31, 1920.

The fledgling American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) eventually took up his case, and the tide of post-war public opinion favored the release of conscientious objectors. Salmon was pardoned and released on November 26, 1920, and given a dishonorable discharge from the military service he had never joined.

Upon his release, Salmon led a quiet life with his family, but his prison ordeal, which included beatings and force-feedings, had permanently damaged his health. He died of pneumonia in 1932.

Opposition from the Catholic Church

Though Salmon was and remained a faithful Catholic, his own Church abandoned him. In the book, Eleven Modern Mystics which contains a chapter on Ben Salmon, author Victor M. Parachin writes:

While incarcerated, Salmon also had to contend with his own church's support of the militarism via the “just war” theology. Salmon staked out his position not merely on political and humanitarian grounds but upon his Christian-Catholic religious grounds. Salmon's pacifism put him at odds with his own church. For example, Cardinal John Farley of New York remarked in 1918 that “criticism of the government irritates me. I consider it little short of treason... Every citizen of this nation, no matter what his private opinion or his political leanings, should support the President and his advisers to the limit of his ability."[7]

Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary.

Ben Salmon, A Critique of Just War Doctrine, p.86

Farley, along with the majority of Catholic Bishops, supported President Wilson, citing the just war teaching of the Church. Salmon, however, objected to this teaching, hand-writing a 200-page manuscript critiquing the Church's just war theology during his time in St. Elizabeths Hospital. His only reference tools were a Bible and the Catholic Encyclopedia. In the manuscript, Salmon cited Christ's blessing of the “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and the “merciful” (Matthew 5:7) and noted that Jesus said “Do not murder” (Matthew 19:18). He declared there was no such thing as a just war and urged Christians to "listen to the voice of Christ echoed from the pages of the New Testament."

Salmon cited his Catholic faith as the reason for his steadfast pacifism and refusal to cooperate in the business of war. In this he suffered opposition from his church, whose de facto head in America, Archbishop James Gibbons, had directed that all Catholics were to support the war. Even when Salmon was sick and in prison, priests refused him the Sacraments.[8]

However, Salmon has since been cited as an inspiration for other Catholics, such as Fathers Daniel Berrigan and John Dear.[8][9]

See also


  1. ^ Robert Ellsberg (1997). All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. p. 77. 
  2. ^ Staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (2007). "The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon". Sign of Peace 6.1 (Spring 2007). 
  3. ^ William R. Douglas (1997). "The Germans Would Courtmartial Me, Too". Minnesota History (Fall 1997): 288–301. 
  4. ^ Torin Finney (1989). Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon. pp. 118 and 119. 
  5. ^ "WW1 Conscientious Objectors Database". Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Retrieved February 24, 2010. 
  6. ^ Salmon, Ben (July 17, 1920). "Letter from 'Ben Salmon, U.S. War Prisoner' to Hon. Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War and others". Retrieved February 24, 2010. 
  7. ^ Victor M. Parachin (2011). Eleven Modern Mystics and the Secrets of a Happy, Holy Life. p. 30. 
  8. ^ a b John Dear (February 23, 2010). "Ben Salmon and the Army of Peace".  
  9. ^ Berrigan, Daniel. "The Life and Witness of Benjamin Joseph Salmon". Jonah House. Retrieved February 24, 2010. He brings to mind the buried treasure of the Gospel story, this unlikely hero 

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