Honouring the Prophets: Archibald Baxter — a moral leader for our time

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 33, Pentecost 2005

It is strange to have to research in libraries to find information about someone who should be an icon of goodness and prophetic insight to a nation. But that is what was needed to piece together this story of Archibald Baxter (1881-1970), pacifist and moral leader to a nation intent on war.

Archibald Baxter was born in Saddle Hill near Dunedin on 13 December 1881. As a young working man who reached manhood during the Boer War, Baxter could see that there was a growing desire for social change. He was particularly inspired by a Dunedin speaker he heard in 1902 on the evils of war and resolved to be a pacifist. He was even more encouraged by the great English socialist and Labour leader Keir Hardie, whom he heard speak in Dunedin in 1912. Keir Hardie crystalised for him the place of war in a capitalist world economy and strengthened his conviction that all war was wrong. Archibald was later to name his poet son James Keir Baxter after this visionary Christian.

With the advent of World War One, Archibald let it be known that he would never sign up. He encouraged others, including six of his seven brothers, to refuse conscription. This was introduced in 1916, and more than 300 went to prison rather than be enlisted against their will in the military. It was a time of huge patriotic fervour. The white feather of ‘cowardice’ was not something one welcomed on the front lawn. But he stuck to his principles and refused to enlist. He was arrested and imprisoned at The Terrace and Mt Crawford prisons and Trentham Military Camp. In July 1917, he and 13 others including two of his brothers were sent on a troopship to England, via Cape Town. On board ship he was frequently abused. He was stripped and forcibly placed in a uniform. When he ripped it off, he was beaten and locked up for the duration.

After a short period in military custody in England, he was sent to France. Here, because of what was perceived as his stubbornness, he was given the No 1 Field Punishment (nicknamed the crucifixion). He was taken outside to the open parade ground, hands bound behind his back, and tied at the ankles, knees and chest to a post. There he was forced to stand in varying conditions – hot sun through to snow blizzards – each day with no relief. The pain initially was excruciating but he said afterwards, ‘once you have been through the most excruciating pain and survived, you know they can no longer affect you.’

Released by a kind-hearted major who happened by one day when he was tied during a snowfall, he was eventually shipped to the front lines. Here there was a different kind of torture. Under guard, he was placed as close to enemy shelling positions as possible. Shells fell all around him and he saw many soldiers die. Denied food and beaten regularly, somehow he survived but the experience nearly broke him mentally. He was diagnosed as ‘insane’ (because of his continued refusal to wear the uniform) and sent to a hospital. In August 1918 he was sent home, one of only two of the original 14 to hold out to the end. Three months later the war ended. It had involved the largest slaughter in human history.

He returned to Dunedin and continued to be harassed by the authorities for some time. He again became a farm labourer, saved some money, bought a small farm and married Millicent Macmillan Brown. He stayed farming until 1930. He had two sons, Terence and James, both pacifists (Terence was imprisoned during WW11). In 1937 he travelled to Europe and addressed the War Resisters International Conference in Copenhagen. He wrote his autobiography We Will Not Cease in Salisbury and had it published in England in 1939. Few copies reached New Zealand before WW11 and strangely his publisher’s premises were bombed during the Blitz in 1941. All unsold copies were destroyed. It was reprinted by both Caxton Press, Christchurch (1968) and Cape Catley, Whatamongo Bay (1980).

For Archibald Baxter, war became the defining issue. Writing in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war, he notes that ‘the only apparent justification that war ever had was that by destroying some lives it might clumsily preserve others. But now even that justification is being stripped away. We make war chiefly on civilians and respect for human life seems to have become a thing of the past. To accept this situation would be to accept the devil’s philosophy’. He chose instead to follow his insight that ‘all war was wrong, futile and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.’

Jesus said that a prophet is never acknowledged in his own country or by his own people. He got it right. Archibald Baxter, one of the leading moral forces of his day, was never widely recognised (except among the few) for the goodness of his life, the courage of his convictions or his huge moral fibre. While most have been quick to accept Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi as wonderful international prophets of non-violence from the last century, our own Archibald Baxter stands there with them – a light to the nations, yet still largely unknown. He is also a light within the Church. Being Christian for most of his life and a Catholic in the latter years, he took the teachings of Jesus on justice and peace very seriously. He should be recognised as one of New Zealand’s true saints, a source of inspiration for those seeking moral courage or looking for moral leadership. His story should form part of all true catechesis within our religious education programmes, sitting alongside Suzanne Aubert and others.

Archibald Baxter continued to live in Dunedin and he remained active in the cause of social justice and a pacifist all his life. He followed his son Jim into the Catholic Church in 1965 and died 10 August 1970, aged 88.

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