Alternative Service (USA)

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It was 1918. Rufus Jones, chairman of the American Friends Service Committee had just returned from yet another fruitless mission to Washington, DC. "It apparently did not occur to the Washington people that our objection to war was anything more than an objection to the direct killing of people. They do not seem to understand that we are opposed to the military system...." Jones had hoped the War Department would be willing to help design a program of alternative service for World War I conscientious objectors (COs). The model he had in mind was already functioning as the Friends reconstruction work behind the lines in war-torn France. The problem was that COs were not allowed to enroll for the work.

The unfortunate experiences of historic peace church (HPC) objectors in World War I lent special urgency to the development of alternative service plans at the onset of World War II. The result was the Civilian Public Service program (CPS). Both the US military conscription administrators and the historic peace churches desired an alternative service program.

For military 's Selective Service System, COs were a practical nuisance: they obstructed the conscription machinery. So Selective Service System welcomed a relatively simple solution—Civilian Public Service—which solved many of their administrative problems and met the political need of Congress to require a level of sacrifice from the objector sufficient to satisfy the public in time of war.

For most peace church members, CPS was a positive statement of their desire to emphasize Christian service as an alternative to military service. On the practical level, it represented the most that was politically possible for COs in the context of World War II. Complete deferment was politically impossible. Imprisonment was not an option most peace church COs were prepared to accept.

No one captured the essence of the alternative service idea better than Guy Hershberger, in a 1935 essay entitled "Is Alternative Service Desirable and Possible?" War is a time of suffering and it behooves Christians to serve those who suffer, he argued. Alternative service offers a Christian witness; a graphic alternative way of behaving in wartime.

When conscription began again in 1948, Congress, in a fit of amnesia, provided for a simple deferment for COs. With the high casualties of the Korean War in 1951, public opinion forced termination of the deferment clause, and a new era of alternative service was ushered in.

The new program, I-W service, which existed with little change from 1951 to 1973, was quite different from CPS. Objectors were employed in government and nonprofit organizations engaged in charitable, health, social welfare, educational, and scientific work. They could volunteer and choose their service job. They could serve abroad. And they were paid wages comparable to those of non-CPS fellow workers. Immediate supervision of the program, was placed with state Selective Service directors. In the 22 years of the program approximately 15,000 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ men participated in the I-W service.

Alternative service is an attractive possibility for many COs, for it meets a minimal obligation of citizenship in a democracy in time of war—public service. While some COs have opted for exile or imprisonment as a Christian and moral protest against war, especially during the Vietnam War (1965-1974), most Mennonites prefer alternative service because it has the potential for a positive witness against war in the form of acts of love and goodwill.

During the 1970s, the idea of a National Service program which would require all young persons to serve the nation for a year or two years, either in a military or a civilian assignment, was proposed in the United States. Despite some perceived advantages, Mennonites have not endorsed the idea for two reasons. One is a growing conviction that conscientious objection to war should more directly challenge the military system. Alternative service, as an aspect of national service, would confront public awareness even less directly than it has in the past. A second reason is suspicion of the government's right to a claim on an individual's life. The national service idea has a proto-fascist connotation which promotes nationalism and becomes another military wedge into civilian life.

Alternative service is an idea which has great appeal to many pacifists. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) has an alternative service plan modeled on the earlier I-W program in the United States, and a recent United Nations draft proposal for universal recognition of conscientious objectors to war has a suggestion for alternative service as one means by which conscientious objectors could meet citizenship obligations.


Keim, Albert and Grant M. Stoltzfus. The Politics of Conscience. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 1988.

Rempel, Hans, ed. Waffen der Wehrlosen. Ersatzdienst der Mennoniten in der USSR. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1980.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 379-381, index.

Klippenstein, Lawrence. "Mennonite Pacifism and State Service in Russia." PhD diss., U. of Minnesota, 1984.

Author(s) Albert M Keim
Date Published 1987

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Keim, Albert M. "Alternative Service (USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 2 Aug 2021.

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Keim, Albert M. (1987). Alternative Service (USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 18-19. All rights reserved.

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