Richard Sheppard, the son of a chaplain of Queen Victoria, was born in Windsor Castle on 2nd September 1880. As a young man he volunteered for the British Army in the Boer War, but a horse-drawn carriage in which he was travelling crashed, leaving his leg permanently slightly lame, so his military career ended before it had begun.
Instead, Sheppard went to Cambridge University. During vacations he did social work in the East End of London. This experience radicalized him, and he became associated with progressive political ideas.
Sheppard worked as the private secretary of Cosmo Lang, the Bishop of Stepney, before being ordained in 1907. He was chaplain at Oxford House, Bethnal Green, and in 1914 became Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. On the outbreak of the First World War he went to be an army chaplain on the Western Front for some months; his experiences turned him into a pacifist.
Committed to helping the local population, Sheppard opened up the crypt of St Martin's for the homeless. In 1924 Sheppard became the BBC's "radio parson". His broadcast services made him one of Britain's best known religious figures. Ill-health forced him to resign from St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1926, but he continued to work for the BBC and to write for newspapers. He also wrote a controversial book, The Impatience of a Parson (1927) that was highly critical of the Church of England. Sheppard became Dean of Canterbury (1929-31), and a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1934.
Sheppard was concerned by the failure of the major nations to agree to international disarmament, and on 16th October 1934 he had a letter published in the Manchester Guardian inviting men to send him a postcard giving their undertaking to "renounce war and never again to support another." Within two days 2,500 men responded and over the next few weeks around 30,000 pledged their support for Sheppard's campaign.
In July 1935 he chaired a meeting of 7,000 members of his new organization, Peace Pledge Union, at the Albert Hall in London. In a speech made in 1936 Sheppard argued: "You and I who were sensitive to our world in 1914, we who are 40, 50 or more, to-day, in the silence of those moments when the veil that hides us from the other world kind of wavers like gossamer in a slight breeze; we who look back into the faces of those we know and those we loved, and whom, before God, we still look upon as martyrs for peace because they died to end war, we cannot easily today, I say, forget what it cost them to do what they did, believing they were doing so to save us from that hell, nor can we forget the terrible, ghastly, awful way in which we are failing them, because it does look, doesn't it, I speak not only to you but to myself - that we are not to be depended on."
Over the next few months other prominent religious, political and literary figures including Arthur Ponsonby, George Lansbury, Fenner Brockway, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Wellock, Max Plowman, Maude Royden, Frank P. Crozier, Alfred Salter, Ada Salter, Siegfried Sassoon, Donald Soper, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Housman and Bertrand Russell, joined the Peace Pledge Union.
John Middleton Murry purchased a farm in Langham, Essex. Murry and Max Plowman established a pacifist community centre they called Adelphi Centre on the land. Murry argued he was attempting to create "a community for the study and practice of the new socialism". Plowman organised summer schools where people such as George Orwell, John Strachey, Jack Common, Herbert Read and Reinhold Niebuhr lectured on politics, philosophy and literature. During the Spanish Civil War the farm was handed over to the Peace Pledge Union. They used it to house some 60 Basque refugee children.
Sheppard became very depressed by the international situation. Alfred Salter claimed that Sheppard "admitted that love, as the main motive of his life, had failed - that it had played him false." Another friend, Fenner Brockway said: "He had had one blow after another. He realised that he had failed to create a movement of conscientious objectors sufficient to deter the nation from engaging in war. He had been subject to the limitations which the Church of England had imposed on him. He had struggled against increasing bodily weakness. Then came the final personal tragedy. His wife left him."
Richard Sheppard died on 31st October 1937.
You and I who were sensitive to our world in 1914, we who are 40, 50 or more, to-day, in the silence of those moments when the veil that hides us from the other world kind of wavers like gossamer in a slight breeze; we who look back into the faces of those we know and those we loved, and whom, before God, we still look upon as martyrs for peace because they died to end war, we cannot easily today, I say, forget what it cost them to do what they did, believing they were doing so to save us from that hell, nor can we forget the terrible, ghastly, awful way in which we are failing them, because it does look, doesn't it, I speak not only to you but to myself - that we are not to be depended on.
What I do want is to consider and discuss with you the ideas, principles and problems which have concerned genuine peace-lovers for the past twenty years. In helping to sustain the spirits of my readers (and through writing to them to invigorate my own). I hope to play a small part in keeping the peace movement together during the dark hours before us. By constantly calling on reason to mitigate passion, and truth to put falsehood to shame, I shall try, so far as one person can, to stem the tide of hatred which in wartime rises so quickly that many of us are engulfed before we realise it.
In a word, I want to help in the important task of keeping alive decent values at a time when these are undergoing the maximum strain.
My only object is to keep in close personal touch with all who are deeply concerned that war shall end and peace return and who understand what Johan Bojer meant when he wrote: "I went and sowed corn in mine enemy's field that God might exist".
Richard Sheppard's second asset was his intellectual humility. Plowman, who had certainly been surprised (and was probably flattered) by being rung up out of the blue by Sheppard and asked whether he should quit the Church, later believed Sheppard's strength lay in being "the living contrary of the modem intellectual. He was a brilliantly perceptive and imaginative man whose active love of persons prevented him from any intense concern with intellectual abstractions"...
Equally characteristic was his attempt to define his spiritual beliefs in a note to Ponsonby on 14 May 1936: "As to my own religious faith, I am blowed if I know exactly where I stand. I am mostly a Quaker these days but Jesus Christ, man or God, (I have never wished to define him) is the hero I would wish to follow."
It was Sheppard's brilliant achievement to turn into a positive asset this notable weakness as an abstract thinker. With the Sponsors divided over what policy the P.P.U. should adopt, Sheppard's lack of defined views enabled him to devote his energies to teasing out what he thought to be their general will. Such positive opinions as he held, moreover, were middle-of-the-road: he was opposed to adopting either a collaborative orientation towards collective security, as he made clear in We Say "No", or a position of sectarian quietism, as when he whispered to Kingsley Martin, one of the guests invited to his flat to meet Gregg on 17 July 1936: "Can't you get up and tell them that we haven't time for all this intensive cultivation and that our job is to stop the next bloody war." Indeed, essential to his Christianity was his faith that a middle position could be occupied that was sufficiently pure and idealistic to stand outside the self-defeating compromises of politics while at the same time sufficiently relevant and practical to have wide-ranging regenerative power. Just as he had always called for a Church "that was in the world but not of it", he was still calling a fortnight before his for support for pacifism.
On October 31, 1937, Dick Sheppard died. This was a severe loss to the pacifist movement. Salter was distressed specially because in his last weeks Sheppard lived under a sense of failure. Later the doctor delivered a remarkable address on the intimate tragedy which marked the end of his friend's life. Sheppard had presented love as the sovereign remedy and solvent for evil. "Yet in the end," said Salter, "he admitted that love, as the main motive of his life, had failed - that it had played him false." He had had one blow after another. He realised that he had failed to create a movement of conscientious objectors sufficient to deter the nation from engaging in war. He had been subject to the limitations which the Church of England had imposed on him. He had struggled against increasing bodily weakness. Then came the final personal tragedy. His wife left him. "I will never preach again," Sheppard said in his despair and humiliation. On the day before his death Dick's wife telephoned asking if she could come back. He replied, "It must wait till Monday." The next day he was found dead in his chair. "A terrible tragedy," commented Salter, "yet it was not evidence of God's failure or even the failure of love. If Dick Sheppard had been a little more patient, "he might have felt differently. He might have realised that his love for his wife had not been lost but refound, that he could have gone on preaching the eternal truth that love never faileth."
Whilst Dick Sheppard lived the Peace Pledge Union was run under his personal leadership with a group of sponsors as his advisers. After his death a general meeting of delegates from branches was held and a democratic constitution adopted. George Lansbury was appointed president and a representative council elected. Salter was asked to join the panel of sponsors and from this time on took an active interest in the national affairs of the Union. It was the strongest pacifist organisation that had ever existed in Britain and was a source of great inspiration and hope to the doctor.