Richard Sheppard (always known as Dick Sheppard), a canon of St. Paul's Cathedral, had been an army chaplain during the First World War. A committed pacifist, he 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 at the Albert Hall in London. Eventually named the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), it achieved 100,000 members over the next few months. The organization now included other prominent religious, political and literary figures including Arthur Ponsonby, George Lansbury, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Wellock, Reginald Sorensen, Max Plowman, Maude Royden, Frank P. Crozier, Alfred Salter, Ada Salter, Margaret Storm Jameson, Siegfried Sassoon, Donald Soper, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Housman and Bertrand Russell.
Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier, who had a long record fighting in numerous wars, became a pacifist and a member of the Peace Pledge Union: "My own experience of war, which is a prolonged one, is that anything may happen in it, from the very highest kinds of chivalry and sacrifice to the very lowest form of barbaric debasement - whatever that may be." Crozier now became a great supporter of the creation of a Peace Army.
Richard 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.
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.
From 1937 the PPU organized alternative Remembrance Day commemorations, including the wearing of white rather than red poppies on 11th November. In 1938 the Peace Pledge Union campaigned against legislation introduced by Parliament for air raid precautions, and the following year against legislation for military conscription.
The rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini caused problems for the Peace Pledge Union. Wilfred Wellock pointed out: "Soaked in politics, we were all ardent anti-imperialists and even anti-militarists, but the real essence of pacifism, which is a positive faith, was not in us. We survived the Abyssinian War, because our loathing of Italian imperialism was balanced by an equal loathing of British and French colonial policy; and we were logical enough to see that it was absurd to demand sanctions against Italy unless we favoured providing rival bandits with a gendarme's baton."
Alfred Salter was one of the main figures in the Peace Pledge Union. He argued that "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children." Salter and George Lansbury went on a peace-tour of the United States. He estimated that he "spoke in the presence of two hundred thousand people, and over the wireless his voice reached tens of millions more." They also had meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State.
Salter's pacifism was so strong that he became a supporter of appeasement. After the Munich Agreement he insisted that "the average German will withdraw his backing from Hitler if we show willingness to be just". He added: "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children.... We and France made Hitler and put him where he is. Our policy of refusing justice to the defeated Powers after the Great War prepared the minds of the German people to support him and gave him his case. Our present attitude helps to rally them behind him today."
In September 1939, Vera Brittain of the PPU began publishing Letters to Peace Lovers, a newsletter that expressed her views on the war. This made her extremely unpopular, as she criticized the government for mass bombing of civilian areas in Nazi Germany. The newsletter obtained over 2,000 subscribers and was published throughout the war.
The PPU campaigned, as well, against the National Service Act that called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. The PPU gave strong support to the 60,000 conscientious objectors who refused to join the armed forces.
Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of France in May 1940. Margaret Storm Jameson, Louis Mumford and Bertrand Russell left the PPU. Jameson wrote: "I had joined Dick Shepherd when he started it, in October 1934. Then, I was absolutely certain that war is viler than anything else imaginable... I don't think that now." During the Second World War members of the PPU were also arrested for holding open-air meetings and selling the PPU newspaper, Peace News, in the streets.
In June 1940 six members of the PPU were arrested and charged with encouraging disaffection amongst the troops by publishing the poster, "War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are YOU going to do about it?" The six, Alexander Wood, Maurice Rowntree, Stuart Morris, John Barclay, Ronald Smith and Sidney Todd, were defended by John Platts-Mills and he managed to save them from going to prison.