Conscientious objection

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1955 Article

Although the origin of the term "conscientious objector" remains obscure, it was used during World War I to designate persons whose conscience forbade them to perform military service. Since then the term has remained in common usage.

From their earliest history the Anabaptist-Mennonites have given a Christian testimony against participation in war and military service. In 1524 Conrad Grebel said: "True believing Christians ... use neither the worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely ...." Menno Simons said: "The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war ...." The early Mennonite confessions held the same position.

For more than two centuries service in the armed forces was practically unknown among the Mennonites of all countries. But since military service was voluntary during this period, nonresistance was not usually the immediate cause of conflict between Mennonites and the state. Persecution in this period was usually due to the entire religious position of the Mennonites (a voluntary church, separation of church and state, adult baptism, etc.), of which nonresistance was only one aspect. Following the time of Napoleon, however, when compulsory military service was generally first introduced, the conflict between, Mennonites, and the state more often than not has converged on the issue of nonresistance. This continued long after the achievement of general toleration.

Following the introduction of universal military service in the 19th century, the Mennonites of western Europe experienced a gradual decline in adherence to their nonresistant principles. During the Napoleonic wars a number of Dutch Mennonites served in the army. As late as 1850, however, when it was possible for conscientious objectors to secure exemption from service by hiring a substitute, most of the Dutch church leaders were opposed to voluntary service in the army. When the new Dutch military law of 1898 was enacted, without exemption for Mennonites, even the leaders failed to offer any objections. Among the Dutch Mennonites called up for military service during World War I, only one was a conscientious objector. He served a term in prison for taking this stand.

The 19th century witnessed a similar decline in nonresistance among the German Mennonites. In the last quarter of the 18th century the Mennonites of Prussia proper were required to give financial support to a military academy and suffered other forms of oppression, causing large numbers to emigrate to Russia. When the Prussian universal military training law was passed in 1814 the Mennonites were granted exemption, but only on condition that they continue to pay a tax instead of personal service. In 1867, following the founding of the North German Confederation, when a new universal military law with no exemption for Mennonites was enacted, the Mennonites appealed to Berlin. The only concession they received, however, was a cabinet order permitting noncombatant military service for those who had scruples against full service. As a result of this legislation Mennonites with strong nonresistant convictions immigrated to America. Those who remained at first accepted only noncombatant service. The difference between noncombatant and regular service was so slight, however, that the German Mennonites gradually accepted the latter. Thus the nonresistant position was gradually abandoned until in 1937 the Mennonitische Blätter (1854 ff., published at Elbing), the organ of the Vereinigung (Union of Mennonite Churches in Germany), asserted the loyalty of the German churches to the National Socialist regime, and declared that during World War I few if any German Mennonites had taken advantage of the legal provision for noncombatant service, and that there were no conscientious objectors refusing both combatant and noncombatant service. In 1935 the constitution adopted by the reorganized Vereinigung contained a statement declaring that the Mennonites had surrendered the principle of nonresistance and no longer claimed any special privileges in regard to military service.

The French Mennonites had a similar experience. Following 1870 French military law made no provision whatever for conscientious objectors. As in the case of Germany, many of the French Mennonites immigrated to America for the sake of their nonresistant faith, and among those who remained the doctrine of nonresistance seemed all but lost by the time of World War I, though it was still believed in a vague and general way. Many of the French Mennonites (especially in Alsace) retained their Swiss citizenship (most of them are of Swiss origin or background) for the specific purpose of evading military service, since as Swiss citizens resident in France, they are not called up for service. To retain their Swiss citizenship, however, and to be eligible to carry a Swiss passport, they must pay an annual Swiss military tax. No doubt many French Mennonites felt that this course kept them somewhat in line with the true Mennonite tradition. On the other hand, there was for several generations no teaching on the subject. For those who were not protected by Swiss citizenship, military service was taken as a matter of course, and during World War II many of the men were in the service, a considerable number losing their lives. This situation is emphasized by the fact that in 1949 a Paris attorney, whose specialty was legal assistance to CO's, and who was well informed about Mennonites as CO's generally, was unaware that any Mennonites resided in France.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the military system of Switzerland approached the methods of modern conscription more nearly than did that of any other country. The Swiss cantons not only recruited soldiers for their own defense, but autocratic noblemen recruited mercenary armies to be hired out to foreign governments. Refusal of the Mennonites to serve in these two capacities was therefore a genuine obstacle to the policies of the authorities, and helps to explain why the Mennonites of Switzerland were persecuted more severely and longer than in any other country. In the 18th century the Mennonites enjoyed military exemption under practically every other government, whereas in Switzerland they were being imprisoned, exiled, and sentenced to the galleys for refusing military service. Not until toward the end of the century was even partial toleration granted them, and not until 1815 were they given complete toleration. Even then they were excused from military service only by furnishing some form of substitute, usually by the payment of a special tax or commutation fee. In 1874, moreover, the administration of Swiss military service was transferred from the jurisdiction of the cantons to that of the confederation, and the controls became increasingly rigid. The law of 1874, however, still provided that CO's could serve in the Sanitätsdienst (medical corps), which was considered noncombatant service. Mennonites, apparently feeling that the new law providing noncombatant service was the solution of their problem, accepted its terms. Since then the Swiss Mennonites have been in uniform, and although most of them during the next 75 years accepted only noncombatant service, a few entered the regular service. During the first half of the 20th century, therefore, the Mennonites have had no part in the cause of full conscientious objection in Switzerland. Among the 67 cases of conscientious objectors brought to trial in Switzerland in 1939-45, there were no Mennonites. As medical corpsmen, however, the Swiss Mennonites did constitute a conscientious objector group.

Thus, following the adoption of universal compulsory military service by the governments of western Europe, those Mennonites who took their nonresistance most seriously emigrated, while those who remained gradually lost their nonresistance; during the two world wars there were few Mennonite CO's in western Europe. It was rather the Russian, Canadian, and American Mennonites that furnished the conscientious objectors during this period.

In Russia the Mennonites were not included in the national conscription system from the time of their settlement in the 18th century until 1880. After 1880, though they were conscripted, their position as conscientious objectors was recognized by granting them the privilege of alternative service in the Russian government forests. A program was set up in which the forestry service (Forsteidienst) was under the direction of the state's technical service, which provided the tools and paid the men a small daily wage. The life of the men, apart from this, was under the direction of the Mennonite Forestry Service Commission, which housed, clothed, and fed the men, and provided them with a spiritual ministry. The term of service was four years. For some years after 1880 the average enrollment in the camps was about 400, with an annual maintenance cost to the church of 70,000 rubles, not counting the original cost of the buildings. Later enrollment increased until in 1913, the year before the beginning of World War I, the Mennonite CO's in the Russian forestry service numbered about 1,000 with an annual expense of 350,000 rubles. When the war began, the demands for service increased, and during the course of the war some 12,000 Mennonite CO's were engaged in government service. About 6,000 were in the forestry, and another 6,000 in the Mennonite hospital and medical corps. The latter organized and financed complete hospital units of its own, who gathered soldiers from the battlefields and took them back to hospitals on hospital trains manned by Mennonites. During 1917 alone the Mennonites contributed over $1,500,000 for the support of their men in these two forms of service. The action of some Mennonites of the Ukraine in organizing a Self-Defense Corps (Selbstschutz) in 1918 with the help of officers of the German army of occupation, followed by some actual fighting between armed Mennonites and groups of Russian bandits, no doubt increased the difficulties for Mennonite CO's.

The Soviet government, however, continued recognition of Mennonite CO's in principle until about 1935, and granted some form of alternative state service to eligible CO's on individual application quite regularly down to 1925. Thereafter it was made increasingly difficult, but a few cases were reported as late as 1935 by Mennonite refugees reaching Germany in 1943-45. The treatment varied from one case to another. In some cases the CO's were reported to have been shot, and in others the alternative service was practically the same as the forced labor of the concentration camps. The policy of the Soviet government in World War II of not conscripting German colonists because of their political unreliability, which enabled many Mennonites to escape military service, was something quite different.

The traditional policy of the Canadian government with respect to conscientious objectors has been a very liberal one. From 1808 to 1855 members of the Historic Peace Churches were recognized as conscientious objectors, and were excused from military service; but they were required to pay a twenty-shilling tax in peacetime, and four pounds in wartime. From 1855 to 1867 Canadian conscientious objectors were unconditionally exempted from military service. In 1868 the newly organized Dominion government provided for the exemption of CO's, "upon such conditions and such regulations as the Governor or Council may from time to time prescribe." In 1873 an Order in Council of the Dominion government promised complete exemption from all military service to those Mennonites about to immigrate from Russia. When conscription was introduced in 1917 there was some confusion in the application of the various laws and Orders in Council, resulting in prison sentences for a number of CO's. Eventually, however, a uniform policy was arrived at whereby all religious conscientious objectors called by the draft were given indefinite "leaves of absence" from military service.

During World War II the Canadian government provided a program of alternative service for conscientious objectors. When a conscientious objector was called up for service. he was required to file with the Mobilization Board an application for "postponement" of his military service. After he was passed by the Board as a CO, the man was referred to the alternative service officer of one of the Dominion's 13 mobilization districts, who then assigned him to alternative service work; under this system the man was assigned either to a government camp or to work for private individuals on farms or in factories. The men in the camps worked on the highways, engaged in forestry service and similar tasks, for which they received board, lodging, medical service, and 50 cents per day. Men working on farms received board and lodging and $25.00 per month for themselves. Earnings beyond this point were withheld and given to the Canadian Red Cross. Men assigned to industrial work paid their own board and lodging and then made payments to the Red Cross on a graduated scale depending on the amount of their monthly earnings. By 1946, when conscription came to an end, more than 5,000 Canadian Mennonites had been classified as CO's and had served in camps or in private agriculture or industry under the conscription system. Manitoba, the home of thousands of Russian Mennonites, had a larger number of CO's than any other Canadian province.

In the last year of World War II the Canadian government organized a "C.O. Medical Corps." Several hundred Mennonites, chiefly from the General Conference Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, became members of the corps, receiving their training in the military camp at Peterborough in Ontario, and were sent to the military hospitals near the battlefields. For additional information on Canadian conscientious objectors during World War II see Alternative Service Work Camps.

In the United States the government has always maintained a reasonably liberal policy with respect to conscientious objectors, although not as liberal as that of Canada. In the 18th century Mennonites were found only in the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. During the American Revolution there was something approaching modern conscription in these three colonies. Citizens were required to attend military musters and join companies of soldiers called associations which were organized to fight the British. In all three colonies, however, it was possible to remain a non-associator, because of religious objections or for other reasons, by paying a fine or furnishing a substitute. In Virginia, in 1777 a law was actually passed exempting Mennonites from military service when called, but putting them under obligation to furnish a substitute who was to be paid for by a levy on the entire church. The public was sometimes less tolerant of the CO than was the government. Frequently a great amount of popular pressure was brought to bear upon citizens to become associators. When nonresistant men refused to enroll, considerable feeling was aroused against them. In Pennsylvania there were actual cases of mob violence, so that the civil authorities had to warn the public to respect the consciences of these people.

During the American Civil War a permanent conscription policy in the North was not completed until late in the war. At the beginning of the war, when conscription was administered by the states, and even after the federal government first assumed the administration of conscription in 1863, it was possible for conscientious objectors and others to obtain exemption from military service by hiring a substitute, or by paying a commutation fee of several hundred dollars to pay for this purpose. But since the Mennonites as well as other conscientious objectors were opposed to the hiring of substitutes, a new federal draft act, passed in February 1864, provided that the commutation fee of $300 be applied to the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers. This fee was generally paid by Mennonite CO's.

The Mennonites of Virginia, located as they were in Southern territory where there was no provision for CO's before the enactment of the Confederate law of October 1862, suffered considerable persecution during the first 18 months of the war. A few weakened under the test and joined the army. Some hid in the mountains and came home to visit their families from time to time at night. Others when drafted went into the army under protest, with the understanding among themselves that they would not shoot. A Confederate general later testified, "There lives a people in the Valley of Virginia, that are not hard to bring to the army. While there they are obedient to their officers. Nor is it difficult to have them take aim, but it is impossible to have them take correct aim. I, therefore, think it better to leave them at their homes that they may produce supplies for the army." In the spring of 1862. a group of Mennonite and Dunker draftees attempting to escape to the North were captured and imprisoned.

The Confederate Conscription Act of October 1862 brought a measure of relief to the Virginia Mennonites. This law made specific reference to conscientious objectors, and provided two methods whereby they might obtain exemption from military service; viz., by finding a substitute, or by paying a tax of $500 into the public treasury. The Mennonites approved the second means of exemption. The new law led to the release of the men in prison, and also to the return of "such as were in the army and such as were in hiding near their homes." It is important to note that the Virginia Mennonites came to the assistance of the imprisoned men and of those in the army, helping them to raise the commutation money, and to pay the price to the authorities to secure their release.

During the last year of the war, when the Confederacy was sorely in need of men, and some of the fighting took place in the territory where the Mennonites lived, it seemed for a time as if the privileges of the law of 1862 would be lost. In spite of the law, attempts were made to impress young Mennonites into the army, with the result that many went into hiding in the mountains, some of them being hunted by army scouts who had orders to shoot them at sight.

During the Civil War the Mennonites in both the North and the South were severely tested. Unfortunately there are no statistics showing how many men were drafted, how many took a clear stand as conscientious objectors, and how many compromised their nonresistant position in one way or another. It is clear, however, that while many met their test, there were others who did not. It is also clear that the American Mennonite Church in the 1860's did not teach its nonresistant doctrine aggressively and that it was not fully awake to the opportunities and obligations of the time. At the close of the war, for example, Secretary of War Stanton said that he and President Lincoln had "felt that unless we recognized conscientious religious scruples, we could not expect the blessing of heaven," and in the administration of the draft, Stanton went further than Congress in giving consideration to conscientious objectors. When he discovered that some Quakers had scruples against paying the commutation fee he ordered such paroled from the army. It seems probable that if the Mennonites had conceived and promoted a constructive program of alternative service it would have been granted them.

The conscription act of World War I provided for the exemption of CO's, with the further provision that "no person shall be exempted from service in any capacity that the President shall declare to be noncombatant." Although the act was passed on 18 May 1917, and actual conscription began in the late summer of 1917, the President did not define noncombatant service until 20 March 1918, and when he did so he defined it as noncombatant military service, which meant membership in the armed forces and the wearing of the military uniform. As early as 1915, and again after the United States entered the war in April 1917, various Mennonite conferences repeatedly declared themselves unable to accept military service in any form, whether combatant or noncombatant. When the first Mennonite men were called to the military camps the War Department informed them and the church that they would be offered noncombatant military service. If they could not conscientiously accept such service, however, they had the privilege of declining it, in which event they would be segregated until their cases could be officially disposed of. As the weeks passed by, a steadily growing number of Mennonite and other CO's who declined all military service accumulated in the various army camps. Although it was the intention of the War Department that these men should receive fair treatment, and that the conscience of all sincere objectors be respected, officials in the army corps were often lacking in understanding and sympathy. As a result, many CO's were mistreated, and some were court-martialed and sent to federal prison. Several men died as a result of mistreatment while in prison.

In June 1918 the Department of War took two actions which brought relief. The first was to apply to CO's a recently enacted law authorizing furloughs to men in the army "to engage in civil occupations and pursuits." The second was the establishment of a civilian Board of Inquiry to visit the military camps and review all cases of conscientious objectors. Those found sincere were to be granted furloughs, either for farm service or to engage in relief work with the American Friends Service Committee, then operating in France. When the war came to a close in November 1918, the Board of Inquiry, though it had not yet completed its work, had succeeded in sifting out 1,300 sincere conscientious objectors of various religious beliefs, who accepted either farm service or reconstruction work in France, upon recommendation of the Board.

No complete analytical study has been made of the Mennonites who were conscripted in World War I. The number in camp was apparently nearly 2,000. The various Mennonite groups demonstrated varying degrees of loyalty to the principle of nonresistance; but the majority of the conscripted Mennonites refused service of any kind under the military. A substantial minority accepted noncombatant service, while a few accepted combatant service. Limited records of the Mennonite majority who declined all service under the military indicate that approximately 10 per cent (a total of 138) were court-martialed and sent to prison, chiefly at Leavenworth; 60 per cent accepted alternative service, either farm or reconstruction work; and 30 per cent remained in the camps until the close of the war, most of these not having had an opportunity to appear before the Board of Inquiry.

The experience of World War I had two very important results. First, it clarified the issues of noncombatant service, making it clear both to the Mennonites and to the War Department that no form of service under the military arm of the government was suitable for Mennonite CO's. Second, the farm furlough and the reconstruction program under the American Friends Service Committee pointed the way to the system of alternative service which was used during World War II. When the Conscription Act of 1940 was being written, army officials and representatives of the Historic Peace Churches agreed that this time men with conscientious scruples against both combatant and noncombatant military service should not be taken to the army camps. Consequently the law as passed provided that all persons "who by reason of religious training and belief" were conscientiously opposed to all forms of military service, should, if conscripted, "be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction."

This provision in the law led to the establishment of the well-known Civilian Public Service (CPS) system of World War II. The administration of CPS was a co-operative arrangement in which the government assumed responsibility for the work projects, while the church agencies (chiefly of the Historic Peace Churches) assumed responsibility for camp life and the nonworking time of the men. On the government's side, ultimate responsibility was vested in the Director of Selective Service. Under the Director of Selective Service, in immediate charge of the CPS program, was Camp Operations, whose duty it was to locate, equip, maintain, and supervise the CPS camps and special projects. It assigned, transferred, and discharged men from CPS, and reviewed their classifications. It initiated policies and administrative action having to do with the entire CPS system, and dealt directly with technical agencies and project superintendents having to do with CPS.

On the side of the church agencies, the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO) was organized to serve as liaison between Selective Service and these agencies. Normally Selective Service dealt with the church agencies indirectly through the NSBRO. The church agencies were consulted by Camp Operations in the formulation of its policies and, in the beginning at least, they had a genuine share in developing the program. In the matters of camp regulations, leaves, transfers, and discipline they had a considerable degree of freedom.

The church agency responsible for Mennonite CPS camps was the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The MCC operated a total of 23 base camps, 10 of which were under the Soil Conservation Service, 6 under the Forestry Service, 4 under the National Park Service, 2 under the Bureau of Reclamation, and 1 under the Federal Security Administration. Beginning in 1942 a large number of CPS units were organized for work in general and mental hospitals, and in public health and related services. No type of CPS service was held in higher esteem, either by the general public or by the men themselves, than were these various types of health service. Altogether, the MCC operated 25 mental hospital and 5 training school units. By the end of 1945, over 1,500 men had given service in such units, and even after the close of CPS some men continued in the hospital jobs to which CPS had assigned them.

The first CPS camps were opened in May 1941, and the program officially came to a close in March 1947. During this time approximately 12,000 conscientious objectors were drafted and assigned to "work of national importance." Of this number, 4,665, or 38 per cent of the total, were Mennonites, most of them serving in MCC camps or units. The Church of the Brethren and related groups had 1,540 men in CPS; the Friends (or Quakers) had 951; the Methodists, 673; the Jehovah's Witnesses, 409; Disciples groups, 227; Baptist groups, 223; the Congregational Christian Church, 209; the Presbyterian, 204; Roman Catholics, 149; Christadelphians, 127; Lutherans, 108; Evangelical and Reformed, 101; numerous other groups had less than 100 members each in CPS.

While the Mennonites furnished more CO's than any other denominational group, and while all of the American Mennonite groups were officially committed to the nonresistant and conscientious objector position, not all Mennonites called by the draft followed this course. In the case of the Old Order Mennonites, all men drafted were given a IV-E (CPS) classification. Two additional small groups had a 100 per cent record. The Old Order Amish and the Church of God in Christ Mennonite each had 93.5 per cent of their drafted men in CPS, and the Hutterian Brethren 90.6 per cent. At the other extreme, however, were the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and the Defenseless Mennonite Church with 4.8 per cent and 10.2 per cent respectively of their drafted men in CPS. The Mennonite Church (MC), the largest Mennonite group, had 59.5 per cent of its drafted men in CPS, the Mennonite Brethren, 36.4 per cent, and the General Conference Mennonite Church, 26.6 per cent. The average for all American Mennonite groups was 46.2 per cent in CPS, 14.2 per cent classified I-A-O (noncombatant military service), and 39.5 per cent I-A (regular army service).

While all Mennonite groups were officially committed to the CO position, not all groups dealt in the same manner with members who accepted military service. As a general rule those groups with a high percentage of men in the armed forces were also more lenient in their attitude toward men who accepted such service. In some cases military service did not affect their church standing whatever. In the more conservative groups, enlistment in the armed forces meant immediate severance of church relationship. The Mennonite Church (MC) represented a more or less middle position. Men who accepted military service were under church censure, but in many instances their cases were not disposed of until after the man returned from service. A census showed that in 1949, three and one-half years after the close of the war, approximately 32 per cent of the members of this group who had accepted military service were restored as members of the church after confession, whereas about 68 per cent had not been restored to fellowship. Since the number of men who joined the armed forces was about 1,300, this means that through the war experience the Mennonite Church (MC) lost approximately 900 young men. No comparable statistics are available for other Mennonite groups.

Although the administration of Selective Service was generally fair, a number of local boards were unsympathetic, and caused much difficulty for the drafted CO's. Some were denied CO classification, several of whom were given prison sentences when they refused induction into the army. From the various Mennonite groups more than 40 men were sentenced to prison, about 20 of whom were Old Order Mennonites who received CO classifications and then refused to serve in CPS. The number of imprisoned Mennonites is small, however, as compared with World War I, when 138 Mennonites were imprisoned in a war of much shorter duration.

During the war it was not only the nonresistance of the drafted men that was under test. It was rather that of the entire church, which was confronted with a variety of difficult questions related to the war program. In respect to the Red Cross, many Mennonites made contributions with the specific stipulation that they should not be used for military purposes, but that they be allocated to the disaster relief fund. Official attention was given to possible civilian defense activities, and the church was advised not to participate in any such activities as would contribute to the war effort. Disaster relief and similar activity, when not tied in with support of the war effort, were regarded as consistent, and out of this came constructive proposals which made their contribution to the voluntary service program which continued to grow following the war. Church leaders testified against work in war industries. One public-school teacher is known to have lost her position for refusing to participate in the sale of war stamps. Strong opposition was maintained against the purchase of war bonds, with the result that both the Canadian and the American governments approved plans whereby conscientious objectors to war could lend their money to the government for relief and civilian purposes, instead of for war purposes. Mennonites of the United States and Canada subscribed nearly $10,000,000 for these purposes.

The concern of the entire church for the cause of nonresistance is seen in the manner in which it supported the CPS program. The church-administered camps were financed by the churches. Although most of the housing and some equipment in the base camps was obtained from the government rent-free, maintenance and heating of the buildings, feeding and maintenance of the men, and general administration costs were met at church expense. Further, since the men received no wages, the church found it necessary to contribute something to their personal needs, and especially for the support of dependents. The total contributions received by the MCC for the operation of CPS, 1941-47, amounted to considerably more than $3,000,000. Since the support of CPS dependents was administered only in part through the MCC, and personal financial support of CPS men was administered almost altogether by local conferences and congregations, it is impossible to determine the total amount of such support. It is known, however, that the MCC spent over $47,000 for dependency aid; that the Mennonite Relief Committee of Elkhart, Indiana, spent over $130,000; and that various local conferences and congregations spent from $2,000 to $6,000 each for these purposes. Hence it seems likely that the church contributed between $200,000 and $300,000, and perhaps more, for dependency support; it is impossible to determine the amount of personal contributions for support of individual CPS men. In addition to the above support, some of the Mennonite groups assisted CPS men in their occupational rehabilitation after discharge from camp. Educational grants-in-aid were also provided for men who desired to continue their education after discharge from CPS, the cost of the grants to be shared by the Mennonite colleges and the MCC or its constituent bodies. Closely related to the CPS program as supported by the church were the extensive Mennonite foreign relief and voluntary service programs, as developed during the war and which have continued indefinitely. Hundreds of Mennonite young men and women, many of them discharged young men, served in this work during and after the war.

The wartime experience made a great impact upon the CPS men themselves, and upon the American Mennonite churches as a whole. For the men it was an enriching spiritual experience, giving them a deepened understanding of the Christian life, a new appreciation of the Mennonite heritage, and a strengthening of their nonresistant conviction. While many weaknesses were discovered in the church as a whole, as revealed by the number of drafted men who did not take the CO position, and by numerous illustrations of inconsistency with that position by many church members, the wartime experience did have the helpful effect of making the American Mennonite churches conscious, as never before, of their place in the world and of the contribution they were being called upon to make. Following are some major results:

  1. They acquired a new awareness of the Mennonite contribution to theology, and developed a deepened conviction that the Christian Gospel, and the message of love and nonresistance which according to the New Testament is an integral part of it, was sorely needed in their world
  2. They received an enlarged vision of their place in the mission field.
  3. The experiences of the war helped to develop among the Mennonites a new social consciousness, and a new sense of social responsibility.
  4. The churches came to see more clearly than ever before the place of the youth in the work of the church.

As to the CPS program itself, it was commonly agreed by the Mennonites that under it the opportunities for consistent Christian service were far more satisfactory than under the conditions of World War I. On the other hand, it was also agreed that in some ways CPS was not the most satisfactory solution of the CO problem. In some cases the work program was not as satisfactory as might have been desired. There was also much disappointment when foreign relief service was not permitted as part of the CPS program. Another undesirable feature was the lack of remuneration for the work which the men did. Then there was the question of how far the church should become involved in the enforcement of government regulations in a system such as CPS was. The Mennonite Church as a whole and the great majority of the men in CPS agreed that the decision to operate the camps was a wise one. On the other hand, there was also a general feeling that in case of future conscription some improvements on the wartime plan would be desirable.

Wartime conscription came to an end in March 1947. In 1948, however, a new draft law was passed, which became inactive in 1949. It was extended in July 1950, for one year, then reactivated in August 1950. This law provided for the deferment of all conscientious objectors. Then in June 1951, the law was amended to provide that the CO registrant should "be ordered by his local board, subject to such regulations as the President may prescribe, to perform for a period equal to the period prescribed ... [for conscripted men in the armed forces], such civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest as the local board may deem appropriate...." It was the definite intention of this law that there should be no CPS system, but that conscripted CO's should give their service in some other manner.

The new program was inaugurated in the summer of 1952 and provided for the assignment of drafted CO's to approved government and private agencies for work which would contribute to the "national health, safety, or interest." The term of service was fixed at two years, equal to that of men drafted into the army, and the CO's were to be remunerated at the prevailing wage rate of the employing agency. Once the man was assigned to a government or private agency for alternative service he was responsible to that agency until the assignment was completed. The agency would then report the completion of the assignment to Selective Service, and the latter would then certify the man's draft obligations as having been completed. By 26 September 1952, Selective Service had approved the United States Public Health Service throughout the United States and territories as a federal agency to which CO's might be assigned. On the Selective Service list, as of the same date, were no less than 155 specific public and private agencies in 29 states which had been approved for the assignment of CO's. A high percentage of these agencies were hospitals and welfare agencies of various types. On the list of nonprofit private agencies nationally approved for the employment of CO's, were the Mennonite Central Committee, the Brethren Service Committee, and the Near East Foundation. Seventeen domestic and 32 foreign projects of the Mennonite Central Committee had been placed on the approved list. The foreign projects consisted of work in relief and voluntary service units in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America. The domestic projects included service in Mennonite hospitals, homes and charitable institutions, service units among Indians, migrant laborers, and similar services, including two units in Puerto Rico.

Thus in the summer of 1952 the Mennonites of the United States were entering a new era with respect to conscription. Obviously the new law was more liberal in its provisions for conscientious objectors than any previous law had been. A gratifying feature was the approval of foreign relief and service as meeting the requirements of alternative service, a recognition which was not granted during World War II. The absence of CPS camps, and the provision for remuneration for the men avoided certain administrative and financial problems for the church, although it seemed certain that the new program would also bring many new and unforeseen problems. It was confidently hoped, however, that the new program would be an improvement over all previous programs for the conscription of CO's, with greater opportunities for a consistent witness and service for peace.

In October 1953 Selective Service reported 6,964 registrants classified 1-0 (CO's not yet drafted), or I-W (CO's assigned to work projects and those released). Of these men, 3,712 were in I-W. By January 1954 the number of Mennonites in I-W had reached 2,411. By that month the Mennonite I-W men were serving in 32 states and the District of Columbia and in 18 foreign countries. The largest number of employees were working in mental and general hospitals.

As stated earlier in this article, the early persecution of the European Mennonites was directed primarily against their general religious nonconformity, rather than against nonresistance as such, since in that time there was no military conscription. After conscription was introduced the Mennonites of western Europe either solved the military issue through emigration, or through the process of gradual compromise and accommodation they eventually succumbed to the military requirements of the state. The result of this was that through the time of World War I, among the Mennonites of western Europe there had never been more than an insignificant number of conscientious objectors to war, in the technical, legal meaning of the term, as it was understood among the Mennonites of Russia, the United States, and Canada. As pointed out earlier, there was only one CO among the Dutch Mennonites called up for service during World War I.

It is significant to observe, however, that the period following World War I witnessed a significant revival of nonresistance, first in Holland, and then elsewhere in Europe. The Gemeentedag movement, founded among the Dutch Mennonites in 1917, had as its aim the bringing of the church to a more thoroughly Biblical faith. Included in its emphasis was nonresistance. During the 1920's and 1930's there gradually developed among the Dutch Mennonites a vigorous body of opinion opposing military service. In 1925 this led to the formation of the Dutch Mennonite Committee Against Military Service. After the war this organization was replaced by the Mennonite Peace Group. This new organization symbolized a changing emphasis in the peace teaching and peace work of the Dutch Mennonites. The earlier emphasis tended to be that of anti-militarism, whereas the later emphasis was increasingly that of Biblical nonresistance, so that by 1954 the Biblical position was dominant. By that time also about two fifths of the Dutch Mennonite ministers were members of the Peace Group.

While this movement was developing among the Mennonites of Holland other Dutch churches were having a similar experience, and shortly before the beginning of World War II the Dutch government recognized the new situation to the extent of liberalizing its military laws so as again to give some recognition to CO's. Following the war a program of alternative service was inaugurated, with civilian public service camps for CO's similar to those in the United States during the war. In 1952 several hundred Dutch CO's were engaged in this service, about 30 of them being Mennonites. These Dutch camps were government camps, however, like those of Canada; and the men also received pay from the government. Most of the men were engaged in soil conservation work, with some serving in mental hospitals. In 1952 also two Dutch Mennonites whose CO position was not recognized by the government were serving prison sentences.

Elsewhere in Europe there was also a revival of interest in nonresistance, although in 1954 this had not gone as far as in the case of Holland. In Germany the constitution of the new West German Republic provided that no one should be compelled against his conscience to perform military service. When the question of remilitarization arose, the German parliament took steps to enact legislation to implement this constitutional provision, the German churches were given the opportunity of stating their position on conscientious objection. In 1950 the German Mennonite conferences then went on record as supporting the position of the conscientious objector. This did not mean that the great body of German Mennonites had come to accept nonresistance in faith and practice once more. It did mean, however, that those who took that position would have the support of the church. In 1954 conscription had not yet been implemented in Germany, hence it was too early to know how many young German Mennonites, if any, would actually take the CO position.

In 1954 the Swiss and French military laws were essentially the same as at the time of World War I. In Switzerland noncombatant service in the medical corps was available, and most young Mennonites accepted this. There were signs of reviving interest in nonresistance, and some were happy for a medical discharge or some other technical means of exemption from military service. But so far none had refused all military service when actually called. French law in 1954 gave no consideration for CO's whatever, but a number of Mennonites who had formerly served in the army had now notified the government that they could not do so again. In 1951 the French Mennonite conferences also took official action requesting the government to provide alternative civilian service for CO's. By 1954 no such action had been taken by the government. Only one man from a Mennonite family had refused to serve when called, and he had disclaimed membership in the Mennonite Church. Thus while there was a growing interest in nonresistance among the Mennonites in Germany, Switzerland, and France, actual conscientious objection to conscription as found in the United States and Holland had not yet developed. -- Guy F. Hershberger

1990 Update

For more than four centuries Mennonite have refused to perform military service. Their refusal is grounded in a conviction that obedience to Christ means a rejection of violence and willingness to suffer for the cause of truth. The example they cite is Jesus, who chose the cross and nonresistance as his way in the face of violence. Jesus' command to demonstrate love in all relationships is taken to be normative for all of his followers. The alleviation of human distress and suffering is understood to be the first order of responsibility for the Christian. Not even an overriding "reason of state" can cancel the Christian's commitment to peace and nonviolence. The Mennonite practice on this point has been continued not only over an unprecedented length of time, but at considerable sacrifice. Throughout their history Mennonites have suffered exile, emigration, punishment, and in some cases, death, for their fidelity to love and nonresistance.

Conscientious objection has been a particularly important issue for Mennonites and their sister historic peace churches (the Society of Friends, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ) in the context of the totalitarian character of modern warfare. The draconian and democratic character of military conscription systems demands universal commitment by citizens and rejects individual reservations about war and its purposes. Modern warfare requires not only soldiers, but the mobilization of the entire nation. Thus while the personnel aspects of conscientious objection continue to be at the center of concern, there is growing awareness that conscientious objection must also be seen in relation to occupations, taxes, and investments. As warmaking becomes more technologically sophisticated, the personnel aspect of conscientious objection may diminish, and the financial and societal entanglement of nonresistant Christians in the warfare state will become more urgent and pervasive moral questions.

In the United States the constitutional arrangements regarding arms-bearing has made conscientious objection hostage to political and legislative considerations. In 1789 James Madison submitted an amendment to the Constitution which, if approved, would have protected the rights of those unable to bear arms. It read: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person." Madison intended to protect the conscientious objector (CO) by constitutional right, but a majority of his colleagues in the Congress refused to concede that conscientious objection was a natural right. Rather, as they saw it, Congress has control of the CO as an aspect of its general power over military affairs. The legal status of the CO derives from the will of Congress and is a matter of legislative privilege rather than a constitutional right.

From a military point of view COs are a genuine nuisance. Since the quite disastrous handling of COs by the American War Department in World War I, American military conscriptors have sought ways to classify efficiently and shunt into a well-defined, publicly acceptable program those who persisted as COs. General Lewis Hershey, long-time Director of Selective Service, in testimony before a congressional committee in 1943, argued that the best solution for COs was to put them in out-of-the-way camps, for, as he put it, "the CO, by my theory, is best handled if no one hears of him."

A recurring problem for Selective Service has been establishing criteria for CO status. The administrator's desire is always for a strict definition lest, in the words of Secretary of War Newton Baker (1913-21), too many young men become "conscientious." Hence, religious criteria, augmented by belief in a Supreme Being, and an insistence on membership in a sect officially opposed to military conscription, have usually characterized CO legislation.

Having established criteria for selecting genuine COs, the next problem was to determine what to do with the CO. During the period between World War I and World War II, the historic peace churches came to agreement that some form of alternative service would be a desirable solution. Service rather than resistance to the draft became the appropriate stance of the historic peace church CO. This was rooted in the belief that the CO as citizen owed the nation and the world some service during wartime as a demonstration of Christian love and alternative form of behavior to war.

The Civilian Public Service (CPS) program during World War II was a result of a coincidence of interest between Selective Service and the historic peace churches. Both sought to avoid the debacle of World War I. Selective Service wanted an efficient way to handle the CO problem. The historic peace churches wanted a program to give young COs an opportunity to demonstrate their Christian convictions in action. Both the Selective Service and the historic peace churches needed a program the Congress and the country would tolerate in wartime. Civilian Public Service, with its camps and special social service assignments, met the needs of both parties.

By the end of the war, however, many COs, and especially the American Friends Service Committee, had begun to change their views about CO alternative service. For some, CPS seemed an all-too-easy means to shunt COs into out-of-the-way places, where the ability to witness against war was largely nullified. For most World War II COs, however, CPS was a satisfactory solution to a difficult problem.

In 1948, through an unusual set of circumstances, Congress, in a fit of absentmindedness, offered COs complete exemption from all service in a new draft law passed in response to the anxieties generated by the Cold War. When the Korean War erupted in 1950, public outrage over the CO exemption clause quickly moved Congress to cancel the exemption clause and replace it with a two-year required alternative service for COs.

The I-W program inaugurated in 1951 became a long-term alternative service lasting until conscription ended in 1973 as the conclusion of the Vietnam war drew near. The 1951 regulations built on the experience of the CPS program in World War II. A key change desired by both Selective Service and the historic peace churches was the elimination of the camp program. The churches were also relieved of the administrative (and partial financial) responsibility for drafted COs. Selective Service approved assignments and appointed men to jobs. A wide latitude prevailed in job choices--more than 2,000 agencies were approved for I-W service. Church agencies found the I-W men highly desirable appointees. Thousands of young men filled appointments in Voluntary Service, Mennonite Central Committee, Pax, and the Teachers Abroad programs.

Assessments of the I-W program have been generally favorable from both the Selective Service and historic peace church perspectives. Selective Service found the program trouble-free to administer. There were few complaints from the public. For the churches, the I-W program enhanced the growth of service tradition among young people, gave young men opportunity to test new careers, planted many new churches, especially in urban areas, often with creative new patterns of congregational organization and worship. The coincidence of the recovery of an Anabaptist theological vision linked with a broad-based service program, resulted in a remarkably generative period in American Mennonite history from 1950 to 1980.

The relative ease with which young men in the historic peace churches could enter I-W alternative service led to lax behavior by some who lacked maturity and deep conscientious convictions regarding war and peace. Some simply melded into the urban landscape after their service and were lost to the church.

The major shortcoming of the I-W program was the continued focus it placed on staying out of military service rather than a more direct confrontation with military conscription. The Vietnam War brought this issue into focus for Mennonites and other religious COs.

The matter came to a crisis for the Mennonite Church (MC) at their general conference at Turner, OR, in 1969. There the urgent demands of a group of young people requesting a review of Mennonite cooperation with the Selective Service system, placed the issue of how to witness against war squarely at the center of church attention. The response was a movement by the church to acknowledge that refusal of all cooperation with the Selective Service System was legitimate and to offer some church support for such a posture. Widespread endorsement among Mennonites for such a direct challenge by COs to the draft system did not develop.

In 1980 President Carter created mandatory draft registration for all 18-year-old men as a means to send a message to the Soviet Union regarding American commitment to freedom in relation to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The registration law reopened the issue of how COs can best respond to the conscription system. Since there is no actual draft, the matter is focused on whether registration, designed to assert national resolve and military preparedness, is a step appropriate for a CO.

Many Mennonite young men have adopted a stance of non-registration. In 1982 Mark Schmucker, a 22-year-old from Alliance, Ohio, became the first Mennonite to be tried and found guilty by a jury for violation of the Selective Service Act. He was fined $4,000 and sentenced to serve two years of full-time work at Emmaus House, a facility for retarded adults in Marthasville, Missouri, USA).

American Mennonites still overwhelmingly endorse alternative service as the most appropriate form of response to military conscription. A survey made in 1975 showed 71 percent of the Mennonites queried found alternative service their preferred response to military service. Only 3 percent affirmed total refusal of service as an appropriate option (Kauffman/Harder, Anabaptists Four C. Later, 133). Greater support for total refusal is evident since renewal of mandatory draft registration. In 1980 an Assembly on The Draft and National Service at Goshen, Indiana, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, summarized what would surely be a contemporary consensus by the church on conscription. It affirmed two options: (1) alternative service, which must be free of all military involvement, and (2) noncooperation (including non-registration) with any aspect of the conscription system, as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the military system in all its forms.

In 1982 the General Board of the Mennonite Church wrote a letter to President Reagan on behalf of non-registrants. Mennonites, by no means in agreement on the matter of non-registration and draft refusal, nevertheless have moved to a position where the legitimacy of draft refusal is recognized as an appropriate action for draft-age young men.

Since a 1971 Supreme Court decision reversing the Selective Service conviction of boxer Muhammed Ali, three requirements for CO status are in effect: (1) a sincere opposition to war; (2) opposition to war in any form; and (3) CO convictions based on religious training and belief. Sincerity is all-important, but opposition to all wars is also required. Selective objectors are viewed as political rather than religious and are not recognized as legitimate. Since the 1970 Supreme Court case of Walsh versus United States, the CO is not required to believe in a deity. A sincere objector may base his claim on moral grounds.

With the end of the draft in 1973, most CO cases have involved military personnel who have developed convictions against military service while serving in the armed forces. In 1981 there were 449 CO claims. Any military person whose conscientious scruples meet the three criteria of the 1971 Supreme Court decision may elect either an I-A-O status (noncombatant), or a 1-0 classification which carries an automatic honorable discharge.

In the nuclear era with its high-technology volunteer army, new concerns have surfaced regarding conscientious objection in the form of tax resistance. The General Conference Mennonite Church held an unusual session outside the normal triennial pattern to deal with the issue in 1979. Some employees of Mennonite institutions requested their employers to stop withholding tax money from their paychecks, since the employees intend to refuse payment of taxes for war. Because employers are required by law to withhold taxes, such Mennonite institutions find themselves facing contradictory expectations from the government and their Mennonite employees.

Conscientious objection to war has received considerable attention on the international scene during the past decade. In 1978 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing "the right of all persons to refuse service in military and police forces which are used to enforce apartheid," a reference to the plight of COs in South Africa. In 1985 the UN Commission on Human Rights formulated a proposed statement on behalf of COs in connection with the International Youth Year. The proposal is based on article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that "Everyone has the right to life," and hence its corollary, the right not to take life. The resolution also invokes the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion embodied' in article 18 of the Declaration. The proposal enjoins all states to consider legislation which recognizes the right of persons who, for reasons of conscience, cannot perform military service; to release such persons from obligation to perform military service; to develop nonmilitary forms of service; and to refrain from imprisoning COs as punishment for their refusal of military service.

The Federal Republic of Germany had 63,334 applications for CO status in 1983. A new law adopted in February 1983 raised the length of alternative service from 16 to 21 months (the length of military service was 15 months). The new law also replaced test of conscience with proof of sincerity based on acts which validate the CO convictions.

In France a law recognizing COs was passed by the national assembly in 1963. CO status was granted, on the basis of religious and philosophical reasons, to anyone who, in all circumstances, opposed the use of weapons. Alternative civilian service for two years is possible with employment administered through the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1984, 1,866 COs entered alternative service.

More recently Argentina introduced a bill which offers COs an option to do social and humanitarian work in lieu of military service. A similar provision is in effect in Colombia. Brazil wrote a provision for alternative service for COs into its new constitution, adopted in October 1988.

Most nations in the world do not recognize conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate position. Countries in this category with significant Mennonite populations include the Soviet Union, and, until 1988, Switzerland (see below). In almost no case is total exemption possible. In most cases where the CO position is acknowledged, provisions are also in effect requiring some form of alternative civilian or noncombatant service.

A recent survey of American Mennonites found that only 69 percent would adopt a CO position. That suggests that the issue of conscientious objection to war is not merely a matter between church and world, but an ongoing challenge to the church at the center of its convictional and theological life.

Thus the worldwide Mennonite Church continues to encounter a variety of contexts in which fidelity to conscience and commitment to the way of love and nonresistance continues to be challenged. -- Albert N. Keim

Switzerland. Historically all men in the Swiss Confederation were required to do military service. The service program was regionally administered before 1800. While there was no alternative service option, those objecting to military service for reasons of conscience could be freed from it through the payment of a substantial sum of money, or through the securing of an alternate representative. After the political changes in Switzerland ca. 1788, in the wake of the French Revolution, and particularly after the new Swiss constitution was adopted in 1874, these latter options were no longer available.

The present (1987) constitution reads: "Every Swiss male is required to fulfill military service" (article 18); "Freedom of faith and conscience is guaranteed" (article 49, section 1); "Faith convictions do not relieve a person of his responsibilities as a citizen" (article 49).

It is, therefore, the duty of every Swiss man between the ages of 20-50, to render military service. Until 1988, those who refused, served up to three years in prison and were entered in the register of criminals. If the refusal was based on "religious or ethical convictions" and the objector suffers "severe pangs of conscience," he might be required to serve only six months of the prison term. Those who could not serve for health or other reasons were required to pay the full amount for a substitute, including his equipment. Refusal to do this led to imprisonment, listing in the criminal records, and the posting of bond. Military tribunals heard 686 CO cases in 1985. In a modest way consideration was given to COs by the army in assigning them to the medical corps or air defense troops. There was no legal way, however, to avoid military service. Arrangements for alternative service were being introduced for the first time in 1988 (Brücke [Mar. 1988], 45).

The Articles of Faith adopted by the Swiss Mennonite Conference in 1983 reaffirmed the historic nonresistant position, stating: "As followers of Jesus we reject the use of force and encourage the witness of peace, beginning in our own personal living." Apparently a considerable majority of Swiss Mennonites wished to be nonresistant, but understandings of what this means differ considerably. As of 1987 it was estimated that one-half of Swiss Mennonite men fulfilled their military obligation, and that the other half did this also within the context of the army, but without weapons. Approximately 24 had refused military service up to 1987.

The numerous different understandings of the meaning of conscientious objection have their roots in theological, sociological, and cultural developments. Originally, many suffered martyrdom because of this conviction. Later, geographical and cultural withdrawal from society gave some respite, but led to theological paralysis. Privileges were purchased at the price of their own identity. Beyond this it may be that those who felt strongest about this issue immigrated to the Palatinate and North America, while those more ready to compromise stayed. Eventually, Pietism and revivalism entered the congregations and further marginalized the Anabaptist heritage. After centuries of isolation Mennonites increasingly wished to be like others, to be recognized for their hard work, professional achievements, and morality. Thus they were seen as biblical people in the world, but were also increasingly of the world. Remaining convictions about counterculture issues were internalized.

In recent years a new concern for spiritual and social relevance and renewal in keeping with the Anabaptist heritage has emerged. One expression of this is the founding of the commission for military affairs by the Swiss Mennonite Conference in 1970. Since 1982 this has been changed to the [[Schweizerisches Mennonitisches Friedenskomitee/ Comité Mennonite suisse pour la paix (SMFK/ CMSP; Swiss Mennonite Peace Committee)|Schweizerisches Mennonitisches Friedenskomitee]] (SMFK; Swiss Mennonite Peace Committee), which has undertaken further' work in this areas. -- Hanspeter Jecker


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Author(s) Guy F. Hershberger
Albert N. Keim
Hanspeter Jecker
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

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Hershberger, Guy F., Albert N. Keim and Hanspeter Jecker. "Conscientious objection." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 Feb 2020.

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Hershberger, Guy F., Albert N. Keim and Hanspeter Jecker. (1990). Conscientious objection. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 February 2020, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 692-699; vol. 5, pp. 186-190. All rights reserved.

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