Anabaptists only one facet of World War I dissent

Conference looks at Great War's resistance and impact

Oct 24, 2017 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While many events have honored heroism and sacrifice during World War I, a different kind of conference gathered in an unlikely place to pay tribute to those who opposed the Great War a century ago.

“Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today” took place Oct. 19-22 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

James Juhnke, Bethel College professor emeritus of history, speaks about the formation of Mennonite Central Committee Oct. 20 at “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today,” hosted by the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Fellow panelists included, from left, American Friends Service Committee archivist Don Davis, Quakers in Britain advocacy worker Jane Dawson and Goshen College history professor John D. Roth, one of the conference co-planners. — Tim Huber/MWR

James Juhnke, Bethel College professor emeritus of history, speaks about the formation of Mennonite Central Committee Oct. 20 at “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today,” hosted by the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Fellow panelists included, from left, American Friends Service Committee archivist Don Davis, Quakers in Britain advocacy worker Jane Dawson and Goshen College history professor John D. Roth, one of the conference co-planners. — Tim Huber/MWR

Museum president and CEO Matthew Naylor said the work of interpreting the First World War and its impact isn’t just to glorify heroism and sacrifice but to reveal the catastrophe of spilled blood.

“To tell the story of war’s horror warns us, tells us what humans are capable of and steers us to peace,” Naylor said. “. . . At a time when there is much loose talk of war and the sabers are rattled loudly by men in lofty houses . . . this work of remembering, of learning, of peacemaking is even more important than ever.”

Historic peace churches were well-represented at the conference, which included 70 academic paper presentations and was attended by about 250 participants. On a panel moderated by conference co-planner and Goshen (Ind.) College history professor John D. Roth, Mennonite historian James Juhnke described how American Anabaptists, many of whom spoke German, were gripped in crisis by the conflict and found a sense of identity in the founding of Mennonite Central Committee shortly after the war. Quakers in Britain advocacy worker Jane Dawson spoke of varying responses among British Quakers to the war, ultimately emerging into the 1920s with strengthened convictions — no longer a quietist church, but a peace church.

On Oct. 21, the story of Hutterite men who died rather than wear a U.S. Army uniform was dramatically retold. Timothy Binkley, archivist at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, shared about Church of the Brethren responses to warmaking through the lens of Old German Baptist Brethren member Maurice Hess. Hess became known for his articulate court-martial defense after refusing to rake the yard at Fort Riley in Kansas. Sometimes standing shackled to the bars of his jail cell, he wasn’t released until 10 weeks after the Armistice was signed Nov. 11, 1918.

“We know that obedience to Christ will gain for us the prize of eternal life,” Hess wrote in pencil on Fort Leavenworth toilet paper. “. . . We have no alternative than to endure the ‘suffering’ as soldiers of Christ.”

Dissent’s secular side

Anabaptists’ objections to the war do not tell the whole story. Populist resistance to a rich man’s war could be found across the United States. Millions failed to register for the draft, and hundreds of thousands of those who did never showed up for duty.

In Arkansas, multiple counties were home to gunfights that killed law enforcement officials who came looking for draft dodgers. Hillbilly Hellraisers author Blake Perkins, chair of the history department at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Ark., said opposition to military action was already present in the Ozarks during the Spanish American War in 1898.

“Timber and mining companies and larger agricultural companies were enjoying rising profits in 1918 with demand for their products,” he said, noting the rural working class concerns were shared by urban counterparts.

Socialists, communists, unionists and other international workers’ rights groups lamented loudly how wealthy industrialists standing to make a profit were beating the drums of war.

Such groups were often “transnational,” linking workers in a brotherhood that spanned state lines. Echoing the Anabaptist concept of holding citizenship in the kingdom of God rather than an earthly state, the secularists paused at the thought of killing their fellow workers.

University of South Australia professor of law and criminal justice Rick Sarre cited a satirical antiwar poster in his country telling workers to follow their masters, since they wouldn’t be going to war.

“It was only the unionists that were sent, not the manufacturers,” Sarre said. “It was a class war.”

While men get most of the attention for their role as soldiers or conscientious objectors, women were also key voices of dissent.

One of the oldest antiwar groups in the U.S., the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded in 1915 in opposition to the preparedness movement that paved the way for American entry into war.

Some suffragists criticized Woodrow Wilson for categorizing World War I as a fight for democracy when women wouldn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Feminists could be smeared in the media. Kimberly Jensen, professor of history and gender studies at Western Oregon University, told of Portland, Ore., librarian M. Louise Hunt, who refused to buy a war bond and was sexualized in major newspapers as a prostitute who “would rather be raped by a Hun than buy war bonds.”

“Interestingly, her accusers in the press often vilified her as a conscientious objector even though as a woman she was not available for the draft,” Jensen said. “. . . For her supporters we see the emerging language of civil liberties.”

Indeed, sedition laws and other methods of punishing people for being against war coalesced into organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which was formed to support the constitutional rights of conscientious objectors, among others.

An exhibit developed by Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum covers both religious and secular opposition to the war. “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War” was on display at the museum and will travel across North America.

War’s inspiring wounds

Every war inspires objectors in the buildup, and every war inspires other objectors in the carrying out of conflict. While the British colonies weren’t enthusiastic about giving their lives for the crown, they recognized an opportunity for economic advancement and understood that should Great Britain lose the war, they would be subjected to a worse form of racism under German rule.

Barbados Defence Force Lt. Col. Errol Brathwaite said those who volunteered from what was then the British West Indies were given menial and dangerous tasks on the front lines, were underpaid and sometimes left unarmed out of fear that by the end of the war they would want to resist other Europeans.

“There was profound stimulation of socioeconomic, political and psychological change that they later benefited from,” he said. Many colonies learned from India’s work for independence, sparking moves to their own independence.

Other soldiers returned from war not just with different politics but a transformed relationship with God. Rick Sarre’s Australian grandfather boarded a troop ship a Christian but returned from Europe an atheist who never spoke of his time as a soldier.

In Germany, the state Lutheran church essentially discarded a multitude of Christian beliefs on many occasions in the first half of the 20th century.

Anthony Chvala-Smith, assistant professor of theology and Scripture at Graceland University’s Community of Christ Seminary in Independence, Mo., said theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to push back after those beliefs were surrendered to make way for a war theology.

“I think the single greatest religious and theological problem facing America and humanity is the unconfessed nationalism that is deeply embedded into church life that nobody knows they are swimming in,” he said. “A confessing church movement could bring it to the fore so it can be seen.”


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Correction: In Germany there was no “State Lutheran Church”. The Prussian Church was definitely “united” and nondenominational – because Prussian princes and kings had for a long time been Calvinist, but governed over a mostly Lutheran people.
    It is correct that Calvinists tended to be Leftists, as Calvinism was at the origins of Leftist “totalitarian democracy” (for that, plz read Jacob Talmon). It is also correct that Leftists before WWI tended to be anti-war as they had nothing to gain from a war between the states. This of course changed when Leftists had their own state, the USSR – Karl Barth was never a pacifist and definitely not in WWII, Bonhoeffer, a weak character, only temporarily flirted with pacifism in the begin of the 1930s because then pacifism was the fashion of the day.,
    An interesting point is that Anglo-American war theology in WW II relied heavily on Barth. But then the American Left doesn’t want to debate American war theology in WW II. Would Anabaptists do this, even at the risk of losing their leftist friends?

About Me

Latest from MWR

Recent comments