History: An antiwar conspiracy?

Apr 24, 2017 by

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The president had squeaked by in the general election. A key plank in his platform had been opposition to foreign military intervention. But in a matter of months after his inauguration, he reversed course.

Not only did the nation go to war, but Mennonites found themselves in the cross-hairs of a government blinded by hyperpatriotic fever.

The 1917 Mennonite Church delegate assembly at Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., adopted a statement expressing loyalty to the United States but opposing military service. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

The 1917 Mennonite Church delegate assembly at Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., adopted a statement expressing loyalty to the United States but opposing military service. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

It happened 100 years ago, during World War I. While Europe was mired in armed hostilities, President Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

That changed on April 6, 1917, when Congress honored Wilson’s request to declare war on Germany. The draft was instituted the next month.

It was a crisis for Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. Church members were intimidated and assaulted. Homes and churches were vandalized. Newspapers published “fake news.”

Yet the Mennonite Church’s response was clear and bold. At its biennial delegate assembly in August at Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., the denomination adopted a statement that expressed its loyalty to the United States but reaffirmed opposition to military service and calling for “the free exercise of our faith.”

The statement further declared, “We are conscious of what this attitude, under existing circumstances, may mean.”

The federal government proceeded to test that willingness to suffer. Investigators thought the Yellow Creek statement demonstrated the church “was engaged in a vast conspiracy to stymie the war effort on virtually every front, from the raising and selling of food to the proper use and training of America’s manpower,” wrote researcher Allan Teich­row, who has studied federal surveillance of Mennonites.

Edwin S. Wertz, the U.S. district attorney for Ohio’s Northern District, was among the most zealous pursuers of conscientious objectors. He grew up in Dalton, Ohio, amid the heavily Mennonite and Amish population of Wayne County and represented the county in the state legislature from 1904 to 1908.

Wertz made a name for himself for successfully prosecuting Eugene V. Debs, the noted labor leader, socialist, presidential candidate and antiwar activist. Debs had urged resistance to the military draft and was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act in September 1918.

In his closing arguments, Wertz said, “These fellows, instead of going over and giving Germany information, find it more profitable to create discontent here at home, to make the people feel that they are not fighting for the honor of their country and for the safety of democracy, and to preserve this country as it is.”

The previous month Wertz had secured convictions against a Mennonite editor and publisher and an Old Order Amish bishop. Earlier that year, S.H. Miller’s The Budget, a national Mennonite and Amish newspaper based in Sugarcreek, Ohio, printed a letter from Manasses E. Bontrager of Dodge City, Kan. He urged readers to remain steadfast and continue to oppose military service and buying war bonds.

The two men were fined $500 plus court costs. Bontrager apologized for the letter.

Twelve days later, on Aug. 29, 1918, Wertz sent a telegram to the U.S. attorney general announcing his plans to seek indictments against the 181 signatories of the Yellow Creek statement. “There is no doubt in my mind about a conviction,” he said.

The attorney general, however, wasn’t as confident. He said Wertz lacked evidence and ordered him to drop the case.

Wertz was still fuming about it three years later when he was ordered to return evidence to J.S. Hartzler. He and Aaron Loucks were the secretary and chair, respectively, of a committee appointed to lead the Mennonite Church’s response to the war’s issues. They visited conscripted COs, met with government officials, spoke and wrote widely and responded to countless letters from church members.

They subsequently received plenty of unwanted attention. In one case, Hartzler was speaking at Fairview (Mich.) Mennonite Church, unaware that two Department of Justice officials were in the audience prepared to arrest him. But they departed without incident, reassured by Hartzler’s presentation that he was not a threat.

During his Yellow Creek investigation, Wertz had taken Hartz­ler’s record book. After repeated requests from Hartzler, the U.S. attorney general in 1921 told Wertz to return the book. Wertz responded that he opposed it.

“I want the case complete and to remain in the files of this office to show that I have performed every duty which I should have performed in regard to the prosecution of this outfit and breaking up the conditions which this conference brought about,” he wrote.

The book was eventually returned. Wertz served as district attorney until 1923. Hartzler, Loucks and many others distinguished themselves as faithful peace proponents.

And, a century later, the church still needs to remain vigilant.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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