World War 2


One of the effects of the first World War was to arouse all of the peace churches to the need for an aggressive program of peace teaching and action among their members. The various Mennonite, Brethren, and Friends (Quakers) groups appointed official peace committees who were responsible for carrying on this program.

In 1937, representatives of the “Historic Peace Churches” presented a letter to President Roosevelt stating their views on war and peace, and giving the reasons why those who adhere to this faith cannot conscientiously bear arms. The various groups realized that with the international situation escalating in Europe, a single plan of action would be best. A Mennonite Central Peace Committee was organized. A second visit with Roosevelt in 1940 offered concrete proposals for alternative service in the event of a draft. As a result of these efforts, the provision for conscientious objectors in the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was more generous and satisfactory than that of the draft law of 1917. Under the new law, all persons who “by reason of religious training and belief were conscientiously opposed to all forms of military service, should, if conscripted for service, be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction.” Persons of many religious groups (not just Mennonite) who were absolutely opposed to any killing were able to follow the dictates of their conscience under the provisions of this Selective Service Act. (Note: some were conscientiously opposed to participating in a system that was civilian in name, but administered by selective service (the military) and paid for by the “peace” churches. Also, there was no provision in the act for those whose conscientious objection was not religiously based, or whose objection was to participating in a particular war.)

Administration of the Selective Service program including decisions about who qualified as a conscientious objector were put into the hands of local draft boards, with provision for appeals to a higher board.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 proclaimed that all persons who “by reason of religious training and belief were conscientiously opposed to all forms of military service, should, if conscripted for service, be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction.”

Civilian Public Service (CPS)camps were set up and operated by the Mennonite Central Committee, the Brethren Service Committee, and the American Friends Service Committee, in cooperation with the Selective Service agency of the government.

The CPS camps were maintained without cost to the U.S. government, and the large relief program conducted by the camps was financed entirely by the church. The CPSers worked in forestry, soil conservation, and eventually in mental hospital service, public health and various agriculture projects. Some participated in voluntary starvation experiments for medical research, the only ones ever conducted on human subjects. The experiments were written about in Life magazine. The performance and sensitivity of CPS service workers in mental hospitals during World War II led to widespread public awareness of the woeful state of treatment of patients in mental hospitals at that time, bringing about much needed reform and stories in the national media.

One outcome of the CPS mental hospital work was a movement which eventually resulted in the establishment of the National Mental Health Foundation. The impetus for this came from the Friends unit at a hospital in Philadelphia. Four men published a magazine called The Attendant, which eventually became a professional journal, The Psychiatric Aide.

Mennonites developed a number of excellent, front-line mental health facilities in various communities, which continue to give attention to the needs and treatment of the mentally ill throughout North America. (The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service, Albert N. Keim, Good Books, Intercourse, Pa., 1990)

A book written by Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point, is a comprehensive chronicle of contributions made by conscientious objectors (COs). The mental hospital experience triggered the most significant crusade on behalf of the mentally ill that has occurred in this country. (1993 American Psychiatric Press, Inc.)

Mennonite women were also active conscientious objectors. One was Lois Gunden, a 26-year-old French professor at Goshen College (Ind.), who went to Marseille, France to assist at a refugee children’s home during the war. When she arrived, the area was unoccupied. Her duties included shielding Spanish refugee children from German deportation. Following the German occupation of southern France in 1942, Gunden was taken by German security forces and interned for over a year in Baden-Baden. (From Culture for Service, Susan Fisher Miller.)

Most of the stories at this web site involve Mennonite conscientious objectors in the North American context. They are part of a centuries-long, geographically widespread tradition.

For instance, when Czarist Russia imposed universal military conscription in the 1870s, Mennonites were able, after great difficulty, to create an alternative service for their young men known as the Mennonite Forestry Service. Their task was the reforestation of southern Russia; their length of service was the same as the military. The men worked out of base camps operated by the Mennonite church there, but the work was supervised by the chief forester in each district. The church paid the men’s living expenses. This model of alternative service helped Mennonites in North America formulate alternatives for conscientious objectors during World War II (where many young men worked also on forestry projects).