Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1991

Gladdys Muir in North Manchester
By Allen C. Deeter

[Editor’s Note: The Peace Studies program, started at Manchester College in 1948 under the leadership of Dr. Gladdys Muir, was the first of more than 200 programs now being offered by college and universities worldwide.]

Dr. Gladdys Muir came to Manchester College because President Vernon F. Schwalm had the vision to invite her to carry out her dream of Brethren colleges training leadership for peace. Her 1947 essay, “The Place of Brethren College in Preparing Men and Women for Peace Leadership,” was addressed to all the presidents of the six Brethren colleges. It would be a joy to Dr. Muir that now, nearly 45 years later, each of the Brethren colleges and Bethany Seminary have some type of academic program in peace studies. But Dr. Muir was the pioneer at Manchester.

Dr. Muir was primarily a teacher and scholar. She was also the living embodiment of her concerns. Her impact on students, colleagues, and townspeople was the result of what she was as a person.

She was a deeply religious person. Each week for most of her years at Manchester she held a quiet hour, when students, colleagues, and neighbors were invited to join her in meditation. While I was in college from 1949-1953, this Quaker-like silent meeting was held in the Calvin Ulrey room on the second floor of the old Library (now Communications Center), which also served as her office. It was rumored outside the college that these meetings included yoga exercises and eastern mysticism. The rumors were unfounded to the best of my knowledge. But participants were free to share whatever insight or concern was on their heart.

There was also a weekly peace cell group in which Dr. Muir, the Don Royers, the Earl Garvers, and a number of students participated. Because there was a considerable range of theological opinion represented, many of the books and pamphlets we studied in the cell were religious in focus. Dr. Muir was always deeply interested in the roots of peace and social concern. She repeated often Elton Trueblood’s assertion that ours was a “cut-flower civilization” severed from its religious and cultural roots. She saw these roots primarily in people’s personal spiritual lives and the community of faith. Dr. Muir and her mother were in church each Sunday, and she often led church related classes at Walnut Street Church of the Brethren and on campus in the College Church School program. Still, her private devotional life was the richest source of her personal faith and vitality.

For those who knew her well, it was quite evident that everything she taught and shared was rooted in her own spiritual life. Her lifelong quest originated in the study of the life and teaching of Jesus. Her favorite Biblical teachings were summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. Her course on “Principles and Procedures in Peacemaking” began with a study of the Biblical sources of peace concern and spent several weeks on the life and witness of Jesus as focused in the Sermon on the Mount.

Dr. Muir was deeply influenced by Quakerism. She saw in it a combination of spiritual questing and social/political activism. John Woolman’s Journal combined the two elements in his lifelong questing toward spiritual and material simplicity and his campaigns to convince his fellow Quakers and others to renounce slavery and voluntarily free their slaves. It was this sort of appeal to individual conscience and personal spiritual growth that was over and over again stressed in readings assigned and analyses offered. George Fox and William Penn, as well as modern Quakers, such as Rufus Jones, Douglas Steere, and Elton Trueblood, were key readings in her various course syllabi. She was chided by some as being more Quaker than Christ-centered in her faith. As always when she was challenged publicly, she would grow very quiet and reflective. After a moment’s evaluation of the issue, she would respond, “The Inner Light is the spirit of the Living Christ within. To listen to the voice of God within is to be Christ-centered.”

These beliefs led her to examine the spiritual and intellectual quests of non-Christian faiths. Her sources for peacemaking always included world spiritual classics, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, Plato’s Apology for Socrates, and the Greek tragedies. For Gladdys Muir the religious and philosophical quests of all human kind led to peace and could provide the foundations for “many mansions” in the coming city of God, which is humanity’s true home. No one could know Gladdys Muir well, or be in her company long, without discovering the profound respect she had for the treasures of spirituality and community, as well as political/social/moral insights that originated both within and outside the western democratic and religious traditions.

Gladdys Muir was a remarkably thoughtful person. Not only in terms of the ideas which sparkled behind her quiet, unobtrusive exterior, but in the many personal kindnesses she showed was Dr. Muir remarkable. Many received gifts of books and Christmas cards, handlettered and illuminated beautifully in her own calligraphy. The messages were aptly chosen for the particular recipients. Her students were invited for weekly afternoon teas in her home, where art and music were often the focus of interest. Dr. Muir was at times prevailed upon to play the piano. She did so reluctantly but beautifully in the same gentle touch evident in her sketches and paintings. From her father she had gained a love of art and music, and perhaps as well learned and polished her considerable talent. At times art books and reproductions prominently displayed in her home were conversation starters.

Ever the gracious hostess, even in her seminars, which were by invitation only, she provided a setting where there was a freedom to raise any issue or question and to express any opinion. But it was also quite evident when she did not agree, though she rarely directly contradicted or argued a point. Her sparkling eyes gave encouragement to ideas shared and convictions revealed. Only occasionally did the body language of averted eyes and reflective silence indicate dissent from an opinion or conclusion.

As a teacher in the upper level classes I took from her, Dr. Muir rarely lectured. At times she would present a situation or problem or perspective in a 10 to 20-minute summary, but then she would turn to her question cards over key points in the assigned readings. If you had not read, you needed to be prepared to be embarrassed in class. While she often allowed volunteers to respond, she persisted in questioning those who did not volunteer. Facts were important, but approaches, interpretive slants, points of view, analyses of issues, and summaries and comparison were the focus of each class. It was the ultimate demonstration of the Socratic method, of dialogue, and the truth that “teaching is not simply telling.” The excitement of Dr. Muir’s classes (nearly all the outstanding students from whatever field were attracted to them) was not based on a theatrical performance. It was based on the excitement of the ideas themselves and the vast horizons opened by them as together the class and Dr. Muir explored their implications.

Dr. Muir was a genius in helping her students to think, to articulate and evaluate ideas and proposals. Some felt her style and loading of the course readings amounted to a subtle indoctrination. Both at Manchester and at Bethany Seminary, her students ran into that assessment of Dr. Muir’s work. Certainly many of us were deeply influenced by her ideas and perspectives. However, it is a mistake to assume that there was (or is) uniformity of opinion and point of view among her former students and majors. Her students included argumentative and dissenting learners. Much of the argumentation went on long after class was dismissed.

Dr. Muir taught, to many of us for the first time, how to read reflectively and critically, not just for data but for conclusions, ideas for practical application to social, political, and moral problems. A remarkably high number of her majors and former students went on to graduate study. Many earned doctorates and other professional degrees in a wide variety of fields, attesting to the effectiveness and inspiration of her teaching, along with that of many other Manchester faculty.  It was part of the excitement of Manchester’s faculty in those days that there were many clear and open disagreements among our teachers. These differences were usually respectfully but also forcefully presented.

Dr. Muir was not only a teacher in the narrower sense, she was also a mentor. Throughout her academic career, the large amount of personal advising she carried on was largely non-directive but supportive of ambitions and goals, plans and programs that seemed beyond the reach or present capacities of those who sought her counsel. Not all of her students were able or disciplined, yet she found positive elements and possibilities in their dreams. She believed ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Motivation, hard work, sustained concentration on a goal can overcome limitations. She helped turn D students into C and B students, and students with little self-confidence into effective, self-possessed mature adults. As my wife reminded me, she also gave A students C’s, if they were not working up to their ability. I was one such in my first two classes with her. She also helped students who had always made good grades see the value of their study itself and the insights to be gained by sustained reading and reflection.

Dr. Muir always stressed that you could be a peacemaker through many vocations and with quite different personal styles. While she modeled a very non-aggressive, non-belligerent approach, she recognized, and her students often represented, a very diverse set of approaches. While some made inner transformation and creation of small of like-mindedness (the Bruderhof communitarian movement claimed many whom she inspired), many others chose political and social activism, public health, relief and rehabilitation, administrative and church vocations. The largest number chose teaching and ministry as their avenues of peacemaking.

Gladdys Muir was a person of broad interests and wide range of competencies. This is obvious from what has already been said of her teaching, artistic, and musical talents. She was originally a teacher of Latin and Spanish. Greek classics and the history of the ancient world were favorite subjects in her teaching. Among the materials she taught with the most enthusiasm were the plays of the Greek tragic poets, the Odyssey and the Iliad of Homer, and Plato’s Republic and Apology for the life of Socrates. Her course on “Foundations of Democracy” featured the Athens of Pericles and its assembly of free citizens, as well as the struggle between the Roman Senate and the emerging power of the generals turned emperors and autocrats. The ancient world came to life and relevance in her classes. Each year at Manchester her reading course in intellectual history would perform one of the classical Greek tragedies. In her world civilization classes and various peace studies courses, the Peloponnesian Wars served as illustrations of the recurrent economic and political breakdowns of agreements among ancient city states and modern nations. She pointed out the parallels in the economic competition and mercantile imperialism which repeatedly led to wars, and the breakdown of world order.

For Dr. Muir explanations of historical events were never simply economic, or political, or sociological. ‘They were all of these, plus the influences of broadly cultural ideas and values. Spiritual movements were shown to have their impact on the total life and developments of the time. Nor were local or regional events treated in isolation from their broader contexts. Her approach was always holistic and global to the extent that data warranted wider vistas of interpretation.

Narrow specialists and persons jealous of her breadth and popularity among the more serious students of various disciplines were often critical of her approaches and sometimes quarreled with her conclusions, as well as what they considered her biases. But she never, to my knowledge, retaliated in kind by discussing their limitations or being defensive about her own views. She seemed supremely confident in her grasp of the big issues and of the ideas of great thinkers. Like Confucius in ancient China, she saw herself as merely passing on the wisdom of the past and helping others try to apply it to the present. Problems of war and peace deserve the best thinking and deepest spiritual/philosophical insights any can bring. We do not have to agree, Dr. Muir concluded. We do have to grapple with the issues that dominated the 1940s to the 1960s and still dominate today.

She called on our reading of Tolstoy to challenge notions of wealthy people doing little for the poor, “on whose backs we ride,” as he said. In War and Peace and in the century later Dr. Zhivago her students saw how tragic is war and how irrational and arbitrary are its course, impact, and devastation. How wasteful and cruel is war and how destructive to both human lives and the environment were repeated concerns in her classes. Critiques of imperialism, colonialism, as well as the need for Third World development and aid were topics for learning lessons from the past and seeking solutions for the present and future.

The United Nations was, to her mind, the great hope for human organization and eventually world government to curb war, settle disputes, and provide aid for refugees, victims of hunger and natural calamities. Successful negotiations by the U.N. to settle the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 were examined carefully for the various factors which allowed for an end to the fighting. She was never quite satisfied with the failure to care for Palestinian repatriation or the integration of Arab refugees into their host countries. She foresaw the bitterness and resentment on all sides without a settlement just to all would continue to cause problems.

Gandhi and the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience were central to her vision of how unjust laws and international arrangements could be made right. The writings of Thoreau and Kagawa filled out various aspects of social and political change that could be wrought by conscientious resistance to injustice, oppression, poverty, and unconcern for the powerless and dispossessed. Reading about their lives, approaches, and theories of non-violence provided concrete models for social change and resistance to war and structural violence of unjust systems.

William James’s “moral equivalents of war,” encouraging redirection of our struggles with enemies to focus on overcoming ignorance, poverty, narrowness of concern, were presented as substitutes for humankind’s combativeness and hostility. The true enemy is all that blights and plagues human life. If people or systems cause the human tragedies, we should seek to change the oppressors and oppressive systems by persuasion where possible or by the force of direct confrontation, public opinion, appeal to conscience, and civil disobedience, general strikes, and non-cooperation.

Dr. Muir was an astute analyst of the causes of war in political and economic terms. The origins of World Wars I and II and of the Korean “Police Action” were examined closely. She sought always to understand what did happen but also to suggest how alternative diplomatic or policy stances might have prevented these wars. While she believed there were always alternatives to violence, she did not believe that utopias would come or that human tragedies could always be averted.

She carefully analyzed why the League of Nations failed, and she cautiously suggested that the United Nations had overcome some of the League’s flaws but was in great difficulty whenever the great powers could not agree or cooperate in seeking solutions. The Cold War was a great tragedy in her mind, as was the McCarthy Era, which prevented a fair or accurate assessment of world communism or Russian nationalism as threats. The nuclear arms race and our use of atomic weapons had poisoned the atmosphere of trust so essential to the emergence of a peaceful world. She would have been amazed as all of us are at the end of the Cold War and the way Eastern European socialism and communism seem on the brink of self-destruction.

It would be fascinating to hear her analysis of what has happened and what is likely to follow. Her own predilections to Wilsonian idealism and faith in the possibilities of self-determination and self-government would have made the opportunities of today’s world exciting indeed for her. She was proud of America for the Marshall Plan helping to rebuild Europe. She supported massive aid for the world’s poorer nations and would likely approve of a similar investment in Eastern Europe today. She would be happy that much of the developed world now surpasses U.S. contributions but sad that most of the aid is still based on political and economic quid pro quo beliefs and goals of the givers.

Ultimately Gladdys Muir’s impact on North Manchester was made in the influence which she had on Manchester College and a generation of faculty and students who learned to know her well. One could not know her and see her earnest search for truth and solutions to humankind’s 20th century problems without being affected. She was so focused and disciplined. Her efforts to understand, to communicate her passion for alternatives to violence, and her sense of the essential role of spiritual growth made an impact and a difference in the lives of those who knew her well. Her sparkling eyes and articulate, assured voice advocating reason, compassion, and spiritual questing are unforgettable to those of us who learned from her.

One of her students and later colleagues at LaVerne College, California, Dr. Herbert Hogan, has said, “Perhaps she was as close to being a saint as any of us will ever know.” That sort of observation has been made by many who knew her. But she would never have claimed such a title for herself. She was far too modest and self-effacing. Yet, like Saint Francis, she made the world her family. The example of her love and care for her aging mother and her newsletter networking which tied her former students and friends into her circle of caring had all the tenderness and grace of a parent and true servant of God the parent and God’s children. If a saint she was, it was precisely in her lack of consciousness of her own saintliness or indeed of her own significance. She witnessed to a better way and the love that knits the universe together, providing hope that humankind, too, can bond someday in one human family whose quarrels can be resolved without violence.

Manchester’s Peace Studies program has pioneered a way now followed by over 200 institutions worldwide. We owe it to her vision and her persuasiveness that such a model of faith, learning, and service should live today and have had an influence in many settings through her students, colleagues, and friends. Her work and influence have put North Manchester and Manchester College on the world map, more widely known than many larger cities and universities. If God’s peaceful city should ever come on earth, Gladdys Muir has provided brick and mortar and has laid well a small part of the foundation.