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Peter Ainslie (1867-1934) was a minister in what is now the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a leader of the ecumenical movement. He was born on June 3, 1867, in Dunnsville, Virginia. He was the son and grandson of Disciples ministers, continuing their legacy. In 1886, Ainslie entered the College of the Bible (now Lexington Theological Seminary) and Transylvania University, both in Lexington, Kentucky, where he studied with John William McGarvey. Due to ill health, he left school after two years. After that he began his congregational ministry, beginning with a congregation in Newport News, VA. Although he began his career as a religious conservative, much like McGarvey, over time he became a leader in the liberal wing of the Disciples. As Edgar DeWitt Jones wrote in 1933 of his colleague, “No man among the Disciples has undergone greater theological transformation in the last twenty years than this unordained bishop of Baltimore.” In 1925 Ainslie married Mary Elizabeth Wiesel, who was dean of a Presbyterian girl’s school in Baltimore, where he was serving as pastor of Christian Temple. They had two children, Mary Elizabeth and Peter Ainslie IV. He died on February 23, 1934, of cancer. The April issue of the Christian Union Quarterly, which he edited until the time of his death, was devoted to his memory. In that issue, Charles Clayton Morrison, the editor of The Christian Century, said of him: "Dr. Ainslie had scant resources. His time was not his own. But from his modest ecclesiastical position in Baltimore, he exercised great influence through the courage and clarity of his thought and his own complete emancipation from sectarian self-interest. With his passing, the kingdom loses a knightly servant."
After serving for two years the congregation in Newport News, Virginia, in 1891 Ainslie was called to be the pastor of Calhoun Christian Church of Baltimore, Maryland. That congregation would later relocate and become Christian Temple. He would serve that congregation for the next forty years.
Ainslie was a strong advocate of Christian unity, world peace, racial inclusiveness, social justice, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and liberal Christianity. In line with this commitment, in 1910, while serving as President of the Disciples National Convention, he became convinced that the Disciples were losing their commitment to Christian unity. In a speech titled “Our Fellowship and the Task,” he called on the Disciples to reclaim their calling to advocate for Christian unity. As part of this call, he joined the Episcopal Church in calling for a world conference on Christian unity. He also led in the establishment of a Disciples ecumenical agency, the Commission on Christian Union of the Disciples of Christ (now known as Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministries), of which he became the first president. This commission was the first denominational ecumenical agency in the world. In organizing these efforts, he also founded the Christian Union Library in 1911, which in 1913 became the Christian Union Quarterly. Although originally founded under the auspices it became the leading ecumenical journal of its day. He served as editor of the journal until his death in 1934.
As a leader of the emerging ecumenical movement, he participated in several early world conferences working toward Christian unity and was a delegate to meetings that would lead to the establishment in 1920 of the first World Conference on Faith and Order. He represented the Disciples in many ecumenical ventures including the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (1908) and the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (1914, 1919, 1922). He served as a trustee of the Church Peace Union, launched in 1914, with a grant from Andrew Carnegie. He also participated in the first conference of the World Conference on Life and Work in Stockholm (1925) as well as the first World Conference on Faith and Order held at Lausanne, Switzerland (1927). Within the Disciples, he was a strong proponent of liberty of opinion on theological matters. As such he was a proponent of open communion, open pulpits, and open membership, believing they were signs of a coming unity of Christians. However, his advocacy on these matters led to his resignation as president of the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity (formerly the Council on Christian Union). He also attended the World Conference on Faith and Order not as a Disciples delegate but as a member of the Continuation Committee.
After he resigned from the leadership of the Disciples bodies, he decided that top-down solutions would not occur, and so he pursued a bottom-up venture, launching in 1927 the Christian Unity League for Equality and Brotherhood, which was a voluntary organization of individuals from across denominational boundaries. Those who joined this league, which was intended to be a “fellowship of adventurous Christians from nearly every communion in America, seeking a practical expression of equality before God in order to raise the standard of Christian brotherhood above every denominational barrier, and to win others into the brotherhood of Jesus,” were required to sign the “Pact of Reconciliation.” That pact concluded with a pledge that “irrespective of denominational barriers, to be brethren one to another in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, whose we are and whom we serve.”
Ainslie was a committed pacifist, standing strongly against American participation in World War I. He was a member of several peace organizations. These included the New York Peace Society, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the National Council for the Prevention of War. He was elected as the chair of this latter organization in 1928. Among the influences on his move to pacifism was his reading of Leo Tolstoy. But, most importantly, it was his commitment to the teachings of Jesus that drove his complete commitment to non-resistance. Craig Watts writes that “while he offered many pragmatic reasons against war, none of them was attributed with the fundamental importance that he gave to biblical and theological considerations. While he willingly supported practical strategies that would reduce international tension and while he urged functional alternatives to solving disputes by means of deadly force, in the end he held that in regard to war "the only cure is Jesus Christ." His anti-war views were linked to his commitment to Christian unity, for he believed that denominationalism and nationalism went together. This led in large part to his strong opposition to World War I. It also led to his opposition to the presence of chaplains in the military.
Ainslie was a prolific writer, with books focused on Christian unity, world peace, biblical studies, and spirituality. In addition to serving as the founding editor of the Christian Union Library/Christian Union Quarterly, his books include:
- Religion in Daily Doings (1903)
- Studies in the Old Testament (1907)
- Among the Gospels and the Acts (1908)
- God and Me (1909)
- The Unfinished Task of the Reformation (1910)
- My Brother and I (1911)
- The Message of the Disciples for the Union of the Church (Yale Lectures, 1913)
- Christ or Napoleon—Which? (1915)
- The Scourge of Militarism (1916)
- Towards Christian unity (1918)
- If not a United Church—What? (1920)
- A Book of Christian Worship (1923)
- Christian Unity Problems as Applied to the Disciples of Christ (1924)
- The Way of Prayer (1924)
- The Scandal of Christianity (1929)
- Some Experiments in Living (1933)
- Paul Crow, “Ainslie, Peter,” The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Edited by Douglas A. Foster, et. al., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.
- Paul Crow, “The Quest for Unity Between the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ: History’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Church.” Discipliana, 53:3.
- John Weeden Douglas, “The Contribution of Peter Ainslie to the Ecumenical Movement,” MA Thesis presented to the College of Religion, Butler University, 1945. https://digitalcommons.butler.edu/grtheses/448
- Edgar DeWitt Jones, American Preachers of Today: Intimate Appraisals of Thirty-Two Leaders, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1933.
- Craig Watts, “Peter Ainslie, Church Unity and the Repudiation of War,” Encounter. 68:3 (2007): 1-18.
- Edgar Dewitt Jones, American Preachers of To-Day: Intimate Appraisals of Thirty-Two Leaders, (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobb’s Merrill Company, 1933), p. 47.
- Charles Clayton Morrison, "Some Appreciations for Peter Ainslie," Christian Union Library, volume 23, Number 2 (April 1934): 117. (Theological Commons, Princeton Theological Seminary).
- Peter Ainslie, “The Work of the Commission of the Disciples of Christ,” Christian Union Library, volume 1, Number 2 (October 1911): 3-5. (Theological Commons, Princeton Theological Seminary).
- “Church Peace Union,” The Advocate of Peace (1894-1920), Vol. 76, No. 3 (March 1914), pp. 50-51 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
- Jones, American Preachers of To-Day, pp. 48-49.
- Craig Watts, “Peter Ainslie, Church Unity and the Repudiation of War,” Encounter. 68:3 (2007): 6.
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