Mennonite editor charged with sedition

Aug 14, 2017 by

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In the middle of World War I, on June 15, 1917, the highly controversial Espionage Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The Act provided for a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for anyone convicted of interfering with military recruitment, and it imposed a penalty of up to $10,000 (more than $166,000 in today’s dollars) for anyone convicted of doing so. It also gave additional powers to the Postmaster General to confiscate any mail that could be considered “seditious or treasonable.”

As a part of a senior history project years ago, I did some research on how this dramatically impacted the Mennonite publisher of a weekly newspaper, The Budget, published from Sugercreek, Ohio, and still widely circulated in Amish and Mennonite communities across the U.S. At the time, editor Samuel H. Miller, who was also a preacher heavily involved in church work, was delegating a lot of the responsibility for his paper to his linotype operator, A. A. Middaugh.

While Miller was in Pennsylvania for meetings, Middaugh printed a rather lengthy letter in the May 15, 1918, issue of The Budget that was written by M. E. Bontrager of Dodge City, Kan. It was just one of scores of newsy letters from readers published regularly in the paper each week, and it read as follows:

How are we meeting the great problems confronting us? Shall we weaken under the test or are we willing to put all our trust in our dear Savior? ….Our young brethren in camp were tested first. Let us take a lesson from their faithfulness. They sought exemption [from military service] on the grounds that they belonged to a church which forbids its members the bearing of arms or participating in war in any form. Now we are asked to buy Liberty Bonds, the form in which the government has to carry on the war. Sorry to learn that some of the Mennonites have yielded and bought the bonds. What would happen to the nonresistant faith if our young brethren in camp would yield? From letters I received from brethren in camp I believe they would be willing to die for Jesus rather than betray Him. Let us profit by their example they have set for us so far, and pray God may strengthen them in the future. Many people can’t understand why we don’t want to defend our country… [by taking up arms].

As a result of this exercise of free speech and freedom of the press, editor Miller was charged with “inciting and attempting to incite insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States, in publishing in the newspaper known as the Weekly Budget, which was distributed to certain people, among them were A. A. Kauffman and others…” The result was his having to pay fines and court costs totaling $900, which would be the equivalent of nearly $15,000 today.

So much for the First Amendment. Miller, a traumatized man, soon sold his paper and got out of the publishing business for good.

While the Espionage Act of 1917 is no longer applied in the same manner it was when first enacted, it has never been repealed, and so technically remains in effect today.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.


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