Conscientious Objection

What is a conscientious objector?

A conscientious objector, or CO, is a person who refuses military service on the grounds that he or she cannot in good conscience participate in the machinery of war due to personal beliefs. Although recognition of CO status by national governments is a relatively recent development, individuals from many denominations and time periods have refused military service on the grounds that it violates their religious or moral principles.[1]

Why choose conscientious objection?

Photo of COs clearing wood for the forestry department, May, 1942[9]

Photo of COs clearing wood for the forestry department, May, 1942[9]

There are a variety of reasons why an individual may claim status as a conscientious objector, including a belief in pacifism not based in religious convictions. However, the most historically common reason for choosing CO status has been religious. Members of several denominations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Roman Catholics, and various Anabaptist groups, including Mennonites, have claimed CO status on religious grounds.[2] Mennonites have traditionally seen CO status as a way to uphold the practice of nonviolence, following Menno Simons’s admonition that “the regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife” and the current Mennonite Confession of Faith, which reads, “as disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service”[3].

History of CO status in the Mennonite church

Although Mennonites have historically seen nonresistance as a cornerstone of their faith, their refusal to serve in national militaries was generally untested until universal military service began to replace professional armies in the 19th century. As European nations began requiring military service from every citizen, those Mennonites with a strong commitment to nonviolence immigrated to the United States, Canada, and Russia.[4] The low point of European Mennonite attitudes toward nonresistance came in 1937, when the German Mennonite churches endorsed the goals of the Nazi government, abandoning the last vestiges of the nonviolent tradition. There is no record of a German Mennonite refusing military service during World War II.[5]

John T. Neufeld, a CO, photo with parole pass.[10]

John T. Neufeld, a CO, photo with parole pass.[10]

For those Mennonites who immigrated to the United States and Canada, the first significant instance of conscientious objection was during the US Civil War. Although Northern states allowed Mennonites to provide a substitute for military service, Mennonites in the South had fewer options. Refusing military service, many young Mennonites went into hiding, while others refused to fire their weapons when forced into the military[6].

A significant number of Mennonites also refused military service during the First World War. As a result, some, especially in the United States, were imprisoned. Others performed work service terms on farms or in hospitals. By World War II, both the United States and Canada adopted policies allowing CO exemptions from any military service and instead allowed alternative service in work for various government organizations, including the health department and the forest service[7].

Conscientious objector status today

Since The United States and Canada both currently use professional volunteer armies, CO status has not been an issue since the late 1960s, the last time the United States used a general military draft. However, males 18 years and older in the United States are still required to register with selective service so that they could be conscripted in the event of a general military draft. With this in mind, many in the United States who consider themselves committed to peace take steps to assure that they are prepared to claim CO status if a general draft were enacted.[8]

[1] Hanspeter Jecker, “Conscientious Objection,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, accessed August 15, 2014,
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Article 22,” Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, accessed August 15, 2014,
[4] Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd Edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993), 211.
[5] Jecker.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service,” Selective Service System, accessed August 15, 2014,
[9] Photo of COs clearing wood for the forestry department, May, 1942. Used under fair use clause from
[10] John T. Neufeld, a CO, photo with parole pass. Used under fair use clause