While carrying a large sum of money on a business trip in 1805, the well-to-do city of New York merchant, David Low Dodge, who had been fast asleep in a tavern, was suddenly awakened by the noise of someone jiggling the lock to his bedroom door. Startled by the rattling doorknob and as the door slowly opened, Dodge, not taking any chances, quietly turned and reached for the pistol he always carried for protection.
And then, just before he was about to discharge his pistol, he recognized the suspected intruder as the innkeeper who had come to prepare the room for other guests.
Since private hotel rooms in the early nineteenth century were a rarity, Dodge was always concerned for his safety while traveling on business and bunking with others. But this near call, when he almost killed someone, shook him to the core. Unable to sleep the rest of that night, Dodge began to reconcile his moral and spiritual beliefs, reexamining his moral justifications for self-defense. It marked the beginning of his conversion to pacifism, which was complete by the time of the War of 1812.
Evolution to Pacifism
Dodge’s interest in peace had been prompted by a few life-altering events. First, his two half-brothers had been killed while fighting for the cause of independence. David, born in Connecticut in 1774, recounted in his autobiography: “My two half-brothers, William and Jesse Earl, were enlisted during the war. … They survived battles, fatigues, sickness, and privations, and both died towards the close of the war. This event almost destroyed my mother’s nervous system.”
His father and mother, strict Calvinists, instilled strong religious values promoting respect for human life in the young boy as he grew up in Connecticut, and his life-long interest in religious fundamentalism was reinforced in the 1790s when he married the daughter of the evangelist Reverend Aaron Cleveland. Faced with the responsibility of raising a family, he moved to the city of New York and soon became a prosperous merchant. Four years after the innkeeper incident that led him to question self-defense, Dodge survived an attack of spotted fever that nearly killed him. These three events convinced Dodge that the pathway to human understanding and cooperation could only be built through nonviolence.
Upon his recovery, he made it his lifelong mission to begin refining and disseminating his views on peace. In 1809, he anonymously published a biblical injunction condemning personal self-defense and defensive war. Titled The Mediator’s Kingdom Not of this World, the first edition of 1,000 copies sold out quickly. It was a nonresistant position, one which relied heavily upon the Sermon on the Mount, filled with Biblical injunctions to “love your enemy” and “resist evil” at any cost. His strong religious upbringing and fundamentalist convictions led him to urge his fellow Christians to disavow violence in all forms and to put their trust in the Lord’s protection.