Military Participation

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The ancient Mennonite principle of nonresistance has often led to conflicts with the state, until in the course of the 19th century, partly under compulsion and partly from conviction, the principle was abandoned almost completely in Europe. This change was at the same time the result of the change in the form of warfare. Formerly war was the business of mercenary troops; now it was the affair of the entire nation. Hence the Mennonites of Europe in their adjustment to the society surrounding them reached the point where they sacrificed their nonresistance.

The Swiss Mennonites with some difficulty preserved their full nonresistance for a long time. The regulation of 3 September 1815 granted them the privilege of hiring substitutes for their service in the army. When their nonresistance was denied them in 1874, they secured the privilege of noncombatant service in the army, which they have used in most cases.

In the Netherlands the "fine Mennonites" (Fijne Mennisten) strictly maintained the principle of nonresistance, while the "coarse Mennonites" (Grove Mennisten) in the late 17th and 18th centuries considered a war of self-defense justified, but nevertheless forbade their members to become soldiers. By considerable (more or less) voluntary gifts of money they induced the government to continue to grant them freedom from military service (union of Utrecht, 1579). During the wars with England in 1606 and 1672 they paid about 500,000 florins. During the siege of Kampen, Groningen, Deventer, etc., they fulfilled their civic duty by fighting fires under a constant rain of bullets. But in the arming of the civilians in North Holland and Friesland in 1785 some Mennonites hastened voluntarily to bear arms, and even though this step was frowned upon by the brotherhood, and some Mennonites were actually expelled from membership for serving on a warship in 1793, and others were not admitted to baptism, nevertheless nonresistance was no longer a required article of faith. In 1796 a law was passed which abrogated the old privilege given to the Mennonites by Prince William I of Orange, but which still made it possible to avoid military service by sending a substitute. In 1810 Napoleon invaded the "Batavian Republic" and compelled the Mennonites to bear arms. But it was not until the war with Belgium (1830) that the practice of nonresistance was generally abandoned, though not by all. At the end of the 19th century the tenet of nonresistance was abandoned and in its stead the obligation to "Christian meekness" was adopted. The system of employing substitutes was abolished by a law of 1898; from that time on, military service was compulsory for all, including the Mennonites, who accepted it without much objection. After World War I the principle of nonresistance was revived in certain small circles and the "Arbeidsgroep tegen de Krijgsdienst" was organized, followed by the "Vredesgroep" after World War II. (See Conscientious Objection.)

The Mennonites of France were permitted by a decision passed in the French Revolution to perform their military service in building fortifications and roads or in transportation or to purchase their release. Thus until the reign of Napoleon III they were free of the obligation to render full military service.

The Mennonites of Galicia were given a promise of freedom from military service in 1789, which was rescinded by Austria at the close of the 19th century.

Most consistent in their refusal of military service were the Hutterian Brethren. They even refused to perform services indirectly supporting war. In Russia the substitution of forestry for military service did not satisfy them, and they (with many Mennonites) immigrated to America.

In South and West Germany the Mennonites enjoyed the privilege of voluntary freedom from military service until 1806. As late as 1803 the Ibersheim conference passed the resolution that "bearing arms is contrary to the teaching of Christ and of our faith." But Napoleon paid no attention to creeds when he conscripted all the young men of the age of 21 in the territory of the federation of the Rhine. To hire a substitute for 2,000 florins was possible only for the wealthy. Thus the law of 7 January 1805, in Bavaria, 17 December 1820, in Hesse, and 22 August 1818, in Baden, meant the end of nonresistance in those countries, although the provision was made for the hiring of a substitute.

The Mennonites of East Friesland lost their freedom from military service under the reign of the Hannoverian kings. On the basis of the more liberal position of the Rhenish Mennonites, Hermann von Beckerath, a member of the Krefeld congregation and minister of state in 1848, declared in the Parliament of Frankfurt that the Mennonites were willing to perform armed service. Immediately a protest was made by the Mennonites of West Prussia (Heubuden, 14 September 1848), stating that for most of their members it was still a matter of deepest conviction not to bear arms. (The document is printed in complete form in Mannhardt, 192.) The Mennonites of West Prussia fought longest to preserve nonresistance. Under the Polish government they could employ a substitute; only the Danzig Mennonites had to serve in guard and fire-fighting duty in 1733-1734, and were then released upon payment of 5,000 florins, later reduced to 2,000. Serious difficulties arose when West Prussia was incorporated into militarized Prussia. In 1723 the recruiting agents of Friedrich Wilhelm forced some young Mennonites living in Lithuania to enter the army for a short time. Under the tolerant reign of Friedrich the Great, however, they were granted freedom from military service "forever." In return for the privilege they had to pay 5,000 Thalers annually to the cadet school in Culm after 1773. In the Wars of Liberation they collected voluntary sums of 10,000 and 30,000 Thalers; nevertheless they had to suffer much annoyance, especially on the part of minor officials. A graphic picture of these struggles is given by Elder Heinrich Donner (Gem.-Kal. 1932). They maintained the principle of nonresistance and expelled several young Mennonites from membership for performing military service.

When universal military conscription was introduced in Prussia, an order of cabinet of 3 March 1868 gave them the privilege of serving in the non-combatant functions of the armed forces. This provision became valid for the entire German army in 1871. Only in Bavaria and Wurttemberg was military service forced upon the Mennonites. But in the Franco-Prussian War some of the Mennonites voluntarily took up arms, and in World War I only a few Mennonites took advantage of the order of the cabinet. One report states that about one third of the West Prussian Mennonites took noncombatant service in World War I. In World War II the German Mennonites as such no longer asked for noncombatant service.

After 1918 until 1945 there was among the German Mennonites no thought of refusing military service. All the Mennonites without exception accepted the call to military training in 1933. For later developments see below.

The Mennonites of Russia were released from military service in 1800 "for all time." In gratitude many young Mennonites served in the hospital units during the Crimean War; several lost their lives. When military service became compulsory in 1874, lengthy negotiations with General Todtleben led to the enactment of a law permitting the Mennonites to perform their service to the state in forestry service. In World War I many voluntarily accepted service in the medical corps, which was at that time still under the Red Cross and not a part of the army.

Under the treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1917, the Germans occupied the Ukraine for a time. When they were preparing their withdrawal self-defense military units (Selbstschutz) were organized in the German settlements, particularly in the Mennonite settlements of Chortitza and Molotschna. After the withdrawal the Mennonite Selbstschutz did a small amount of fighting with the Makhno guerrillas but were speedily overcome. After the re-establishment of the Russian army under the Soviet government the Mennonites were granted the privilege of noncombatant service until about 1933-1935. (See Nonresistance)

North America

During 20th century wars, Mennonites in the United States and Canada represented the vast majority of conscientious objectors. But many Mennonite young men opted for military service in each war. One of the unsettling discoveries in World War II was to find that despite the excellent alternative service opportunities available to Mennonites in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program in the United States and alternative service work camps in Canada, more Mennonite young men chose military service than alternative service.

During the period 1940 to 1947 in the United States 9,809 Mennonites were drafted. Of those 4,536 chose CPS and 5,273 joined the military. That is, 53.8 percent chose military service. This article concentrates on data from United States Mennonites.

In reflecting on these figures Guy F. Hershberger (Mennonite Church in the Second World War, Ch. 4) suggested peer pressure as a major factor in many decisions for military service. From an analysis of the data it is clear that a much higher percentage of men who attended high school entered military service than did those with grade school or Mennonite college educations.

Military participation was also affected by the degree of acculturation and Americanization; for example almost no men went into the military from the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonite groups. They were simply not as aware of and subject to the wartime patriotic blandishments as their compatriots who attended high schools, or were in other ways more closely knit into their local communities.

Data on Mennonite military participation during the Korean and Vietnam wars is not readily available, but the percentage of military participation seems to have declined substantially. The 1-W program with its attractive features of pay-for-service and easy entry, and the considerably less popular enthusiasm for the wars all helped reduce the lure of military service for Mennonite young men.

How did Mennonite congregations deal with members in military service? In 1944 the editor of the Gospel Herald concluded that the plain teaching of the Scriptures and the stated position of the Mennonite Church (MC) made it impossible to retain in good standing in the church someone who was part of the military. The editor observed that some congregations expel members in the military while others leave the issue open until the return of the young man to the community.

The Mennonite Church (MC) Peace Problems Committee in World War II recommended to district conferences that young men in the military be treated as out of fellowship with the church, but that efforts be made to restore the men to fellowship. Most district conferences took action on the matter along lines outlined by the Peace Problems Committee. In most cases congregations required public confession of error and repentance before reinstatement was carried out (discipline).

One of the tragedies of military participation has been the fact that as many as two-thirds of the military participators did not return to the church after military service. This represents a heavy loss to the church which can never be replaced.

See also Conscription



Brons, Antje. Ursprung, Entwickelung und Schicksale der altevangelischen Taufgesinnten oder Mennoniten: in kurzen Zügen übersichtlich dargestellt. Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1912. Available in full electronic text at:

Händiges, Emil. Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart: nach den Quellen dargestellt nebst einem Ueberblick über die heutige Verbreitung und Organisaion der mennonitischen Gemeinschaft. Kaiserslauten (Pfalz): Buch- und Akzidenzdruckerei Julius Lösch, 1921.

Hartzler, Jonas Smucker. Mennonites in the World War: Or, Nonresistance Under Test. Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Pub. House, 1921.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 135 f.

Horsch, John. Die biblische Lehre von der Wehrlosigkeit. Scottdale, Pa., 1920.

Mannhardt, Wilhelm. Die Wehrfreiheit der altpreussischen Mennoniten Eine geschichtliche Erörterung. Marienburg: Im Selbstverlage der Altpreussischen Mennonitengemeinden, 1863.

Neff, Christian. "Die Wehrlosigkeit der Mennoniten und der Weltkrieg." Die Eiche (April 1924).

Zijpp, N. van der. De vroegere Doopsgezinden en de Krijgsdienst. Wolvega: G. Taconis, 1930.

North America

An Annotated Bibliography of Mennonite Writings on War and Peace, 1930-1980. Willard Swartley and Cornelius J. Dyck, eds. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987: 350-405, 651-716.

Hershberger, Guy F. The Mennonite Church in the Second World War. Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Pub. House, 1951.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Harder, Leland, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 130-135.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Albert N. Keim
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Albert N. Keim. "Military Participation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 18 May 2022.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Albert N. Keim. (1987). Military Participation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 688-689; v. 5, pp. 587-588. All rights reserved.

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