When Mennonites were harassed for their beliefs


Example of war bond poster

By Burton Buller

World War I proved a watershed era for Mennonites for two reasons. One, Secretary of War Newton Baker’s requirement that all conscientious objectors report to military camps where they were “encouraged” to enlist caused many Mennonites to put on the military uniform, mostly to serve as non-combatants but frequently as full military inductees. Doing so distanced these young men from the historic teachings of the church forbidding military service. Two, the Mennonite communities themselves came under attack, ramping up the rate of acculturation to unprecedented levels.

From the time of their arrival in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683, Mennonites with a few exceptions had settled in small, often isolated communities intent on preserving their German culture and Anabaptist faith. They muddled their way through the Civil War with their communities and cultural isolation intact. But when Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo introduced war bonds to the public, Mennonite communities became targets. The impact would have far-reaching consequences.

In the lead up to the war, McAdoo who was also President Wilson’s son-in-law, expressed concern that England and France were nearing the end of their ability to pay for the war material they were purchasing from the United States. By declaring war, McAdoo believed that a way could be found to extend additional credit to these allies without sending their economies into a depression that could impact the U.S. economy. When a reluctant Wilson finally entered the global fray, McAdoo turned to his past experience as an entrepreneur and promoter to find a way to fund not only additional supplies for U.S. allies but to also fund General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces headed for the European front. He had funded the construction of the immensely successful rail road tunnel under the Hudson River connecting Manhattan with the mainland by issuing bonds. He thought the same method could be used to fund this new war. Rather than raising distasteful taxes, bonds would be a “voluntary” investment in the war effort by the population, relieving the government of the need to impose additional taxes.

Combining his own proven ability as a promoter with the propaganda machine set in motion by the federal Committee on Public Information, the newly minted Liberty Bonds were an immediate success. Liberty bond posters appeared everywhere, urging everyone to buy into the war investment. The war bond propaganda machine created competitions in local schools to see which class could sell the most bonds. It was useful as part of a larger effort to fully militarize the nation.

Already under suspicion for being sympathetic to the German enemy, German-speaking Mennonites’ refusal to purchase bonds incensed their patriotic neighbors. In one case, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which hosted a heavy concentration of Mennonites was the specific target of a war bond campaign. Mobs began to appear at Mennonite homes insisting that Mennonites purchase war bonds to prove their allegiance to the American cause. Some Mennonites were tarred and feathered. In Kansas, a crowd nearly hanged one reluctant Mennonite until he was taken to jail for safekeeping. Barns, even churches, caught fire in mysterious, and sometimes not so mysterious, ways.

The first issue of Liberty Bonds soon sold out. Additional issues continued raising dollars for the war. In the end, $21.5 billion was raised for the war effort, primarily from institutional investors.

In the face of such pressure, some Mennonites reluctantly purchased McAdoo’s bonds. In doing so they and their communities, like their young men in the camps, were reluctantly compromising their historic beliefs and precedents. The government, in waging war on German culture in America (German-speaking Lutherans were also hard hit) re-channeled Mennonites toward the cultural mainstream. When young Mennonites returned home after the war, they reentered a compromised community. Leaving as draftees, they knew their participation in the uniformed military put them at odds with the church. By the time they returned, many found their church and their families less critical of their decisions in the face of harassment and persecution.

Smarting from the beating they had taken during the war, Mennonite communities came to realize they would need to set aside their isolation from one another and began to speak to both government and society with a more united voice. The next quarter century saw the growth of Mennonite institutions and structures designed to reach beyond their own communities. It appears that in some cases these new structures may have been partially funded by the maturing war bonds they had been forced to purchase. By the time WWII commenced some 20 years later, Mennonites had coalesced into something that began to look like a denomination. Emerging leaders, speaking as a united voice with other faith groups, made sure during this war that conscientious objectors to military service had an alternative to military camps and uniformed service.

Posted originally at The Mennonites Film blog curated by Burton Buller, producer. Used by permission. Watch for Burton’s film by following his blog.