He traveled around the world four times in the cause of world peace. He designed the World Peace Flag that was adopted by the League of Nations in 1920. He wrote a Declaration of Interdependence that he read both to President Woodrow Wilson and to the League of Nations on July 4, 1920, the day his flag was raised at the Peace Palace in Geneva, Switzerland. He did all this while serving as a minister in Youngstown, Ohio.
He was born February 27, 1858 in Feed Springs, Ohio and grew up in southeast Ohio. Watching his uncle march off to the Civil War had a profound impact on his life. He fell from a rail fence, and despite seven operations, his right leg had to be amputated. He wore a wooden leg the rest of his life, and in the words of his obituary article, “stamped his way around the world four times on a wooden leg.”
He started working as a plasterer in Canton. Wanting more education, at age 27 he enrolled at Mt. Union College, attended a business college in Canton, and then Boston College and finally Harvard. He returned to Ohio to serve a church in Twinsburg for $500 a year, before coming to Youngstown as the pastor of Grace Methodist Church. He helped erect a new building for the church, helping with much of the lathing and plastering and achieving the goal of dedicating a debt-free church, due in part to his efforts.
He then requested a leave to travel around the world the first time to speak on world peace, talking to school and civic groups wherever he landed. He called himself “Moving Van.” It was during his second trip in 1909 that he drafted his Declaration of Interdependence. He contended that in a world that had shrunk to a neighborhood, we must foster brotherhood to survive. For a third trip, in 1911, he designed a World Peace Flag. The flag has a blue background, the seven colors of the spectrum arranged in a rectangle at the left, with white lines merging into a white bar on a brown circle representing the earth. The stars scattered on the blue field represent members of a World Federation, an effort preceding that of the League of Nations
It was this flag that was raised at the Peace Palace of the League of Nations on July 4, 1920 as Van Kirk read his Declaration of Interdependence. The League, a vision of Woodrow Wilson, was formed that year as an intergovernmental organization similar to the United Nations, with the intent of preserving peace between nations after the “war to end all wars.” It must have been the moment of a lifetime for this minister from Youngstown to see the realization of the dream that had already driven him around the world three times.
Sadly, the dream did not last. He was on his last tour in the late 1930’s and barely escaped China when the Japanese invaded. He left behind six trunks of flags and buttons which fell into the hands of the Japanese. They were not interested in world peace at that time. His flag was flown for the last time in 1938 on Central Square. That same year, he published a memoir titled A Life: Stranger Than Fiction. He was honored by a citywide gathering at Trinity Methodist Church.
The following years would not be years of world peace but rather world war. In 1942 on his 84th birthday, he ate milk and crackers for his meal in sympathy with the hungry and starving around the world. He lived to see the end of the war and a new flag, that of the United Nations, in 1945. He died on June 14, 1946 at 5:20 am at South Side Hospital.
It is common these days to hear the phrase “think globally and act locally.” That was James W. Van Kirk–except that he also acted globally. What also strikes me was that for him to act globally as he did, he must have enjoyed local support. One does not do these things alone. It’s obvious that many in the Youngstown community were behind him.
I don’t know if he was at all conscious of Rev. Van Kirk, but in the wake of the Vietnam War in 1975, Jack Cessna, a runner, organized the The Peace Race of Youngstown bringing runners from around the world for a day of “friendship, competition, and understanding.” While Youngstown has not always been a peaceful place, it’s interesting that the efforts of a pastor with a wooden leg and a runner have promoted long term and wide-reaching efforts to promote world peace. I wonder what it would mean to focus on those aspects of our history more?
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!