Pacifism and Isolationism

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A. J. Wingblade in 1919

A. J. Wingblade, as pictured in the 1918-1919 Bethel catalog – Bethel University Digital Library

During and after the First World War, Bethel Academy principal A. J. Wingblade strove to keep a full list of all those associated with Bethel who had served as soldiers, sailors, or nurses. As many as could be reached were invited back to campus for a special reception in December 1919, where they were to hear leading Swedish Baptist pastor Frank Peterson speak on patriotism and Christianity.

But one young man on Wingblade’s “roll of honor” who didn’t respond until after that event would likely have given a very different address than the one his former principal had in mind:

Your rather persistent endeavors to secure my war record has [sic] called forth, at length, this letter. I am delighted to say that I have no war record. I was in the army only for a very short time physically and not at all mentally, nor spiritually. Sometimes,—not very often, I became slightly enthusiastic for victory against the Germans. Now that it is over, I can say truthfully that I am ashamed that I ever had enthusiasm to see one armed force victorious over another. I have no more interest in seeing one nation lick another than I have in a dogfight. When one nation fights another both lose and both defeat the progress of righteousness.1

Harvey Stallard was just one of the many Americans whose brief encounter with total war in 1917-1918 had caused them to rethink the relationship between love of God and love of country. For some individuals and churches, that reappraisal led to a rejection of violence altogether — just in time for a second World War to arrive.

“The First World War,” observes historian Philip Jenkins, “was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”2 Though not without reservation, American Christians generally supported their country’s participation in World War I, following the lead of their president, a Presbyterian pastor’s son whose view of his country’s role in world affairs was shaped by Calvinist notions of election, redemption, and God’s sovereignty.

Poster for "Pershing's Crusaders"

Poster for “Pershing’s Crusaders,” the first propaganda film produced by the Committee on Public Information – Library of Congress

In practice, most Catholic and Protestant leaders stood “between the crusading and pacifist positions and very close to the just war theory.”3 But the language of holy war was hardly uncommon. For example, Samuel Zane Batten, the secretary of the Northern Baptist Convention’s War Commission, contended that “This war for the destruction of injustice and inhumanity is a holy crusade and a continuation of Christ’s sacrificial service for the redemption of the world.”4 Even the Quaker educator John L. Carver would describe the war as one of “unselfish sacrifice to save humanity from the reign of the Beast.”5 While premillennialist conservatives tended to be less optimistic than postmillennialist liberals about the possibility of war leading to permanent peace, Protestants of different stripes generally shared an antipathy to what the Baptist preacher John Roach Straton called Germany’s “system of autocracy and tyranny… founded upon the idea that men are not capable of ruling themselves.”6 (For fundamentalists like Straton, Germany was also guilty of being the intellectual home of biblical criticism.)

But in 1920s and 1930s, a similarly broad spectrum of Christians recoiled from such language. Andrew Preston, pioneer of the recent “religious” turn in diplomatic history, offers the following assessment in his seminal Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:

…whereas Quaker and Mennonite pacifism had been unfashionable, even treasonable, in the Great War, it now found itself swimming in the religious mainstream. After 1920, war became unthinkable, its permanent banishment an obsession among the mainline that had often associated with pacifism but were not necessarily peace churches. To those dedicated to Christianity and pacifism, it was self-evident that war was unchristian, the most grievous of all sins.7

Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of FaithIt was not just the liberal-internationalists of the Federal Council of Churches or the pacifist absolutists of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who strongly opposed American intervention as German, Italian, and Japanese ambitions grew into the early phase of a second World War. Their more theologically conservative brethren tended to be just as committed to American neutrality, if not pacifism in the abstract. Preston points to the 1934 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which had strongly supported American participation in both the Spanish-American War and World War I. “The prospect for International Peace has not been promising during the last twelve months,” noted the members of the SBC’s Social Service Commission, who were disturbed by the “flaming outburst of Nationalism throughout the world….” They continued:

The nations of the world, still bleeding as the result of the great War and burdened with taxation growing out of that war nigh beyond human endurance, and unable to meet the financial obligations placed upon them by that war, are still in a mad race for armament. Far more men are enlisted in the armies of the world than were enlisted in 1914 and the end is not yet in sight.8

Meeting just weeks before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, delegates of the Mission Evangelical Covenant Church proclaimed that “in loyalty to the principles and spirit of Jesus Christ we abstain from the racial and national antagonisms and hatreds that prevail in the world today.” That Swedish-American denomination also expressed concern about compulsory military training and “[pledged] our moral support and protection to those who follow the voice of conscience either in personal participation or refusal to participate in war.”9

What of the churches that sponsored Bethel Institute, cousins by theology to the Southern Baptists and by ethnicity to the Mission Covenanters?

1927 photo of Bethel Seminary faculty and students

1927 photo of faculty and students at Bethel Theological Seminary – Bethel University Digital Library

In his 2010 undergraduate thesis, Bethel student Taylor Ferda found the interwar Swedish Baptist General Conference (BGC) to be marked by “distrust toward worldly diplomats and politicians,” with its annual reports and publications expressing ” fervent longing for the end of war and a reign of peace….”10 Perhaps the strongest evidence Ferda cites for Conference Baptist “insistence on American isolationism and military noninterventionism,” comes from the denomination’s June 1938 annual meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, where delegates resolved to

reaffirm our position as being opposed to all wars of aggression, and state as our conviction that civilized nations should find it possible to settle their national and international problems through the medium of Christian diplomacy and arbitration. We further pray and hope that the leaders of our nation and of the world shall with increasing interest listen to His voice who still speaks to us in the unforgettable words: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”11

Two years later in Rockford, Illinois, at an annual meeting that began the day after France officially surrendered to Germany, BGC delegates went “on record as [being] unalterably and unequivocally opposed to any and every move on the part of the President and the Congress of these United States, and other national, state, and local legislative bodies that will in any way tend to draw us or drive us into a war of aggression on other shores, and on other soil than our own.”12

Backlund, A Pioneer Trio

A Backlund project from the time of WWII: a triple biography of Swedish Baptist pioneers – Bethel University Digital Library

As Britain fought on alone against the Axis, J. O. Backlund used the editorial pages of the denomination’s new English-language magazine to argue for American neutrality:

First of all, war is in itself a deterrent to the Christian life and spirit. You cannot hate your fellowmen, and seek their death, without losing something valuable from your soul…. Christ’s Peace on Earth must sound incongruous amid falling air bombs and shattered human dwellings.13

Less than a month before Pearl Harbor, The Standard editorialized against the seeming drift towards war: “As to our own land we cannot quite divorce our minds from the thought that we are slowly but surely gliding into the abyss into which most of the world has been plunged. We feel the effect in the feverish haste to train the youth of the land for military service, in our concentration on arming ourselves, building a strong navy and getting rid of the neutrality inhibitions which have hitherto kept us in at least a semblance of peace.”14

The Bethel students who edited the school’s newspaper, The Clarion, opined but rarely about foreign policy. But the looming prospect of a peacetime draft prompted editor Marvin Toews to take up his typewriter in mid-October 1940. He sounded anything but enthusiastic about preparing for war:

The conscription bill raises a question of supreme importance to every patriotic American. Will the draft help solve our problem? Will conscription insure peace? Or, will there be a precipice at the end of this preparedness stampede?

In the first place, what are we preparing for, WAR or PEACE? If we don’t want to fight, then why roll up our sleeves? No one with a determination to get what he wants has been pacified by seeing his opponent take off his coat and vest….

I hope our readers don’t misunderstand. I hold in highest esteem Washington and his revolutionists, but let’s make sure we bear as worthy a banner and arm for as noble a cause.15

Peace rally at Cal-Berkeley in April 1940

April 1940 peace rally at the University of California, Berkeley – U.S. National Archives

This reaction was hardly unusual, as anti-war sentiment among college students ran high up until the fall of 1941. Starting in 1935 and annually until the war started, campuses across the country hosted a peace rally every April. Mere months before Pearl Harbor, only 13% of students at Ohio State University thought the U.S. should go to war with Germany.16 Lynne Olson identifies Yale University as the birthplace of the isolationist America First movement — under the leadership of the school’s future president, Kingman Brewster — and notes that Harvard’s commencement ceremonies in 1940 featured a student speaker denouncing Lend-Lease as “fantastic nonsense.”17  Closer to Bethel, Augsburg College in Minneapolis was “even more neutralist and anti-war than the national average”; its students overwhelmingly rejected amending the Neutrality Act to permit countries at war to buy supplies from US, and few expressed any interest in volunteering should England and France be defeated and the US enter the war.18  

But Bethel’s Clarion remained largely silent about the war for the next twelve months. And in any case, it would be a mistake to interpret most of these statements from Bethel and the BGC as evidence of pacifism. The 1938 and 1940 resolutions rejected “wars of aggression” — especially when fought beyond these shores — not war in general. This was entirely consistent with the centuries-old Christian just war tradition — and with the pre-Wilsonian tradition of Americans avoiding foreign entanglements, which revived in the 1930s in the form of an isolationist movement that was particularly strong in the Midwest, the heart of the Swedish BGC.19

"No foreign entanglements" sign

Frame from the “Prelude to War” episode of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series – Wikimedia

In December 1941, Backlund neither celebrated the coming of war nor called for conscientious objection from it. “Like millions of other American citizens,” he wrote a week after Pearl Harbor, “we have urged peace. Now that war has come, we are profoundly thankful that another nation, not ours, was the aggressor…. When a nation is at war the only thing to do is to stand by our Government and hope and pray for a speedy settlement of the gigantic struggle which now encircles the globe.”20 By the end of the month, The Standard was featuring Marine private Donald Coleman’s argument that “Distasteful as the subject of soldiering may be to many Christians, it should be remembered that it has given the writers of Scripture some of their finest examples of obedience and discipline. How else but through his military training did the centurion obtain his faith in the spoken word?”21

1610 portrait of Menno Simons

1610 portrait of Menno Simons – Wikimedia

In his pioneering 1933 history of the Swedish Baptists in America, Backlund had written less about Baptists in England and America than about 16th century Anabaptists like Menno Simons, who “remained faithful to his calling and continued to preach the gospel, urging a high standard of Christian morality, and created the Mennonite brotherhood into his own likeness, characterized by mildness of spirit, purity of morals and peacefulness in relation to their fellow-men.”22 But the shallowness of Conference Baptist interest in pacifism, such as it was, comes into starker relief when one considers how the 20th century descendants of Menno Simons’ movement responded to WWII.

In August 1937, while war waged between Japan and China, the Mennonite Church (MC) adopted a statement on “Peace, War, and Military Service”:

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.”23

A one-room Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, 1942

Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, 1942 – Library of Congress

While other colleges and universities — including 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.”24 So in August 1942, representatives of Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ colleges 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. 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.25

Even before Pearl Harbor, 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.

While many students at Mennonite schools like Goshen College joined the CPS26, we have found not a single Bethel student who claimed conscientious objector status during World War II. And when one of the few Conference Baptists in the CPS wrote about his anti-war stance to a Bethel leader, he received a frosty response.

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

Late in 1943, Bethel Junior College dean Emery Johnson received a remarkable letter from a young man named Curtis Johnson. The younger Johnson had received a Christmas greeting from the older and decided “to correct the impression that you have that I am in the armed forces.” While Curtis Johnson had spent two years as a reserve officer cadet at the University of Nebraska, that experience only left him

resolved that so long as life lasts, I would not permit myself to be enrolled in such an organization whose sole purpose is that of forcing a brother man to concede to our collective will, under penalty of death at our hands. The practice of war is, to put it but mildly, no more than government-sanctioned mass murder; and of course, one that has as his sole guide (poorly tho he may follow it) the example and teaching of such a one as Christ, finds it difficult to reconcile these entirely opposite behaviors in his thinking.

Curtis Johnson, it turned out, was one of the rare Americans who categorically refused to go to war in 1941-1945: “They label us variously — conscientious objectors – pacifists – conchies – C.O.’s, religious objectors — and others that shouldn’t be printed.” While Curtis was not among those “in prison for the heinous crime of refusing to kill our fellow-man,” he was“serving out the duration in manual-labor, without pay of any kind, for the same reason.” Curtis Johnson entered the CPS in June 1941.27 In late 1943, he was at CPS Camp No. 27 in northern Florida, where workers helped the state health board to combat hookworm.

CPS workers assembling a privy at Camp 27

CPS Camp 27 workers assembling a privy in Mulberry, Florida – Mennonite Church USA Archives

The camp was run by the Brethren Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee, but Curtis was a Baptist from Stromsburg, Nebraska (from 1886 to 1888, the home of what’s now Bethel Seminary). “As I understand it,” continued his letter to Emery Johnson, “the Baptists have no creed save the Bible, or particularly as the New Testament portrays Christ’s plan for the life of an individual.” It was for that reason that he refused to take human life:

You know, Mr. Johnson, Christ did set a tremendously difficult course for his followers to take. Suppose He were here now, walking along with you and me, suggesting to us a course of action in days such as these. Truthfully, can you conceive of Him giving His o.k. to your taking the life of some man, perhaps a German or a Japanese, some man that He died to save? Can you conceive of Him along side you in an airplane, dropping tons of explosive on helpless women and children, even tho your intention is to hit only munitions plants? Would He man the trigger on them occasionally for you, and show you how to do it more accurately? Did you ever try to imagine Commando Jesus Christ, private, first class, armed with every sort of knife, or club, or revolver, violently bringing the Kingdom of God here to men, and forcibly making them believe in Him as the all-powerful by physical process and military might?

Appealing in particular to the ethical implications of the Sermon on the Mount, Curtis challenged Emery to explain why the Prince of Peace would endorse a war fought by — and between — his followers:

Christ needs not a victory of the allies to make His Kingdom come to earth, nor does Christianity need to be protected by arms against its pseudo-foes — there are Christians in Japan by thousands upon thousands, millions in Europe — Why, oh WHY must we slaughter brother man — brothers in Christ? Is this the righteous cause — the privilege of serving country and God? God forbid.28

Unlike most other letters in this archival file, which repeated variations on a template, Emery Johnson’s response to Curtis Johnson is completely original. Clearly the CPS worker had struck a nerve.

State senator and Bethel Junior College dean Emery Johnson in 1943

Emery Johnson also served as a Minnesota state senator during the war – Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

The Bethel dean affirmed both that “It is a great country in which we live which gives us the privilege of voicing our own convictions without fear of death” and that Baptists “have always maintained that freedom of conscience is fundamental, and have insisted that man be allowed to make his own interpretation of the Master’s teachings under the leadership of the Spirit.” However, those principles only underscored why Christians should take up arms in what, to his mind, was clearly a just war:

These are now two of the issues of this conflict. The youth of Europe have not been privileged to grow in the “strength of the Lord.” Nationalism, not love of God, has been made the religion of many countries. People have been robbed of the privileges of worshipping either as individuals or in the fellowship with others. Millions have been made slaves of war-mad dictators. Millions have died because possessions have been taken from them…their homes, their security, their opportunity to gain the necessities of life. For them we fight to restore them to a freedom which should be theirs as much as it is ours.

We love our enemies. We love those against whom we send our armies. We love not, however, their deeds and their beliefs. If the enemy should win would we not be denied all privilege of worship? Would not the missionary enterprises be completely stopped? Would not the institutions of love, orphanages, hospitals, homes for the aged, schools, be demolished and replaced by State-dictated institutions. Would not we be prevented from even objecting to war?29

— Chris Gehrz


1 Letter, Harvey Stallard to A. J. Wingblade, Feb. 28, 1920, A. J. Wingblade Papers, “Principal Academy – A.J. Wingblade – Misc. 1916-1931,” The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University (hereafter HC).

2 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), pp. 4-5.

3 John F. Piper, Jr., The American Churches in World War I (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985).

4 Quoted in Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), p. 254.

5 Quoted in Jenkins, p. 140.

6 Quoted in Preston, p. 256.

7 Ibid., p. 298.

8 Social Service Commission, “International Peace,” Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1934, p. 108.

9 Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America, 1941 Year Book (Chicago: Mission Covenant, 1941), pp. 185, 187.

10 Taylor Ferda, “For God and Country: Baptist General Conference Attitudes toward World War II” (B.A. thesis – Bethel University, 2010).

11 Resolution, “War,” 1939 Annual Report of the Swedish Baptist General Conference, Part I, p. 107.

12 Resolution, “On Peace and National Defense,” 1941 Annual Report of the Swedish Baptist General Conference, Part I, p. 126.

13 The Standard, Sept. 28, 1940.

14 The Standard, Nov. 15, 1941.

15 The Clarion, Oct. 15, 1940.

16 V. R. Cardozier, Colleges and Universities in World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), p. 2.

17 Lynne Olson, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 220-27.

18 Carl H. Chrislock, From Fjord to Freeway: 100 Years, Augsburg College (Minneapolis: Augsburg College, 1969), p. 194.

19 Nearly two-thirds of the million members of America First lived within three hundred miles of Chicago; ibid., p. 227.

20 The Standard, Dec. 13, 1941.

21 The Standard, Dec. 27, 1941.

22 J. O. Backlund, The Swedish Baptists in America (Chicago: Conference Press, 1933), pp. 12-13.

23 The Mennonite Church, “Peace, War and Military Service,” August 1937.

24 Guy Franklin Hershberger, The Mennonite Church in the Second World War (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), pp. 175-76.

25 Conference of Mennonite and Affiliated College Administrators, “Mennonite Colleges and War-Time Problems,” Aug. 7, 1942.

26 Male enrollment at Goshen declined from 128 in 1939-1940 to 82 four years later; Hershberger, The Mennonite Church in the Second World War, pp. 184-85.

27 His record is included among others at the Civilian Public Service Story website:

28 Letter, Curtis Johnson to Emery Johnson, undated [December 1943], G. Arvid Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 23, HC.

29 Letter, Emery Johnson to Curtis Johnson, Jan. 13, 1944, same file.

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