Christians at War: A Peace Witness

The ease with which Bethel and its denomination embraced the war effort from 1941-1945 suggests that any interwar dalliance with pacifism had shallow roots. That comes into starker relief when you look at the history of an actual “peace church” and its colleges.

A one-room Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, 1942

Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, 1942 – Library of Congress

Writing a history of Mennonite education in 1925, John Ellsworth Hartzler (president of the short-lived Witmarsum Seminary) insisted that “Mennonites from the beginning have been opposed to war and the participation therein.” But he also worried the future of Mennonite identity was murkier than its past:

Has Mennonitism become a stagnant pool or is it a running stream? Are there sufficient resident forces and potentialities in the denomination to insure a future worth while? Do we today possess sufficient of the ‘Faith of our Fathers’, sufficient of an open Bible for all men, sufficient freedom of religious conscience and freedom of Biblical interpretation, sufficient spiritual regeneration and religious toleration among ourselves to guarantee our continuance as Mennonites? (p. 180)

(Witmarsum — a forerunner of today’s Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary — was affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church, as were Bluffton College in Ohio and Bethel College in Kansas. That denomination was distinct from the “Old” Mennonite Church, or MC — whose annual meeting, confusingly, was known as the “Mennonite General Conference.” For the most part, the rest of this post refers to the MC and its flagship college in Goshen, Indiana. The two denominations completed their merger, as the Mennonite Church USA, in 2002.)

The same year that Hartzler wrote, the Mennonite Church established a Peace Problems Committee, charged not only reinforcing nonresistance among Mennonites, but also representing the MC’s peace witness to the government and other Americans. In August 1937, while war waged between Japan and China, that committee presented a statement on “Peace, War, and Military Service” that was adopted by the MC’s general conference:

We believe that war is altogether contrary to the teaching and spirit of Christ and the Gospel, that therefore war is sin, as is all manner of carnal strife, that it is wrong in spirit and method as well as in purpose, and destructive in its results. Therefore, if we profess the principles of peace and nevertheless engage in warfare and strife we as Christians become guilty of sin and fall under the condemnation of Christ, the righteous Judge….

We can have no part in carnal warfare or conflict between nations, nor in strife between classes, groups, or individuals. We believe that this means that we cannot bear arms personally nor aid in any way those who do so, and that as a consequence we cannot accept service under the military arm of the government, whether direct or indirect, combatant or noncombatant, which ultimately involves participation in any operation aiding or abetting war and thus causes us to be responsible for the destruction of the life, health, and property of our fellow men.

“We love and honor our country,” insisted the authors, but they nonetheless professed themselves “constrained by the love of Christ to love the people of all lands and races and to do them good as opportunity affords rather than evil, and we believe that this duty is not abrogated by war.”

When Congress enacted the peacetime draft three years later, the Mennonites and other historic “peace churches” (e.g., the Brethren and Quakers) worked with the government to develop an alternative to military service. In May-June 1941 the first camps of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) opened; about 40% of the 12,000 conscientious objectors who served in the CPS came from Mennonite communities. (Learn more about the CPS at this digital history project hosted by alumni of the program.)

CPS workers at Mennonite Central Committee camp in Puerto Rico

Civilian Public Service workers at a camp in Puerto Rico established by the Mennonite Central Committee – MCC Photo Archive

Many of them were students or alumni of Mennonite colleges like Goshen, which had been an epicenter for the reassertion of the Mennonite peace witness in the 1930s. Writing about the Mennonite experience of WWII in 1951, Goshen historian Guy F. Hershberger noted that his school had hosted peace conferences in 1935 and 1939, and that two of its faculty always served on the Peace Problems Committee. One was Harold Bender, who chaired the committee throughout World War II. His 1943 speech, “The Anabaptist Vision,” jumpstarted a “neo-Anabaptist” movement after the war; its third pillar was “the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships.”

(Hershberger himself wrote several books advocating nonresistance, including 1940’s Can Christians Fight? and 1944’s War, Peace, and Nonresistance, which was reissued again in 2009.)

While other colleges and universities (e.g., some of Bethel’s neighbors in the Twin Cities) hosted military training corps, “no Mennonite college could think of participating in this kind of program. It was reasonable to believe, however, that Mennonite colleges did have a contribution to make to the need of the time; a contribution which would also be consistent with their nonresistant faith” (The Mennonite Church in the Second World War, pp. 175-76). So in August 1942, representatives of Goshen, Bethel (KS), and Bluffton met in Winona Lake, Indiana with peers from Hesston and Freeman (Mennonite junior colleges in Kansas and South Dakota, respectively), plus Tabor College of Kansas (Mennonite Brethren) and Messiah Bible School (now College) of Pennsylvania (Brethren in Christ). They adopted a statement on Mennonite Colleges and Wartime Problems:

Being by reason of our religious belief and our historic Mennonite convictions committed to the way of life taught and exemplified by Jesus as a way of love to all men and ministry to all human needs, and being accordingly conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form as a violation of that way of life, we desire to set forth our common position on the problems which face our colleges as a result of the war and the needs, both present and prospective, resulting from it.

Trying at once “to continue a strong Christian educational program” and to “continue and strengthen our peace testimony,” the colleges agreed to decline “government assignments which would commit us to participation in the war effort,” including military recruitment and training, spreading pro-war propaganda, and selling war bonds and stamps. (They did permit the sale of “Civilian Bonds” through the Mennonite Central Committee — or pro-war propaganda). At the same time, they affirmed “a warm spirit of loyalty to our country, and a Christian patriotism which leads to devotion to the highest welfare of the land, and which we believe will lead to the finest possible contribution of our nation to the welfare of the entire world,” and committed to developing alternative forms of public service.

Goshen, for example, began to train student volunteers for postwar relief and reconstruction work. In the summer of 1943 the campus hosted a short-lived CPS camp dedicated to such training, only for Congress to cut off funding.

Goshen College in 1940

Goshen College, ca. 1940 – Council of Independent Colleges

“World War II pressed the Mennonites as pacifists to fortify their identities,” concluded Rodney Sawatsky, “even as it encouraged Mennonites anew to a larger social engagement.” For example, Goshen’s wartime attempts to prepare students for relief and reconstruction work paved the way for the school’s distinctive combination of international education and service-learning. Service abroad was commonplace among faculty and their spouses by the 1950s, with half having done so by 1970. And a “study-service semester” has been part of Goshen life since 1968, with 80% of students now spending thirteen weeks in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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