American Mennonites in the First World War

As I mentioned , Jonas S. Hartzler wrote a book about Mennonite conscientious objection during the first World War. This book, Mennonites in the World War, or, Nonresistance Under Test, was published in by the Mennonite Publishing House and Hartzler was “Assisted by a Committee Appointed by Mennonite General Conference,” so this was something of an official endeavor, akin to the “books of sufferings” produced by Quaker meetings to commemorate the travails of those who held fast to the faith while under threat of persecution.

There are sections of the book that concern themselves with Mennonite conscientious objection to the purchase of Liberty Bonds, and I’ll reproduce some of those today.

Misrepresented Motives

Some have made capital of the position of the nonresistants, charging that they would not work in the [training or detention] camps because they were lazy, stupid, dull, bovine, or because of a number of other reasons not very complimentary; that they would not buy liberty bonds nor war savings stamps, not donate to the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., etc., because they refused to part with their money. This is so far from the truth that it would be useless to try to refute it. Witnesses to the contrary can be produced by the hundreds. The issue was not money, not work, not mental incapacity, but the unscripturalness of war.

A few did not take this position. A small percent considered it a duty to buy bonds and donate to Government. Some of the young men thought that they owed it to their government and to their fellowmen to take some part, even though they could not kill. They applied for noncombatant service on arrival at camp.

There were members who did not live up to the standard of nonresistance upheld by the Church. Here and there were those who thought it their duty to support such war measures as the purchase of liberty bonds, war stamps, etc., some of the draftees took noncombatant service willingly.

On the other hand there were those who put a more rigid construction upon the doctrine of nonresistance than the body of the Church was willing to do, even questioning the right of nonresistant people to register, and in camp absolutely refusing to do anything, even to keep their own quarters clean or to prepare their own food.

Application of the Principle

Some of the brotherhood made stringent applications of the nonresistant doctrine, refusing to sell horses for war purposes or to sell their produce to parties who were known to buy expressly for the war. They refused to in any way support war measures except in the payment of taxes, etc. Some of the young men in the camps refused to do anything, even to keep their own quarters clean or prepare their own food. (The latter were principally from one of the smaller branches of the Mennonite Church.)

All along the line between these two extremes the greater body of the Church was to be found. Some with very little persuasion were ready to donate to war charities or purchase interest-bearing war papers; others yielded only at the threat of violence, while the great majority stood for the principle of doing nothing which would have for its prime purpose the helping along of the war and suffered rather than yield to what they believed to be wrong. All believed in the main issue — nonresistance — but in minor details they did not all make the same application of that issue to the conditions at hand.

President Wilson asked the people of this country to refrain from all mob violence, but in spire of the request during the drives for the Y.M.C.A., Red Cross, Liberty Bonds, etc., mobs were quite frequent. At first private homes, business places, and church buildings were daubed with yellow paint. Such expressions as, “Slacker,” “You love the Kaiser,” “You are stingy,” and other things of a worse character were written on the doors and windows. Like other cowardly acts, these things were usually done at night.

These acts were intended to anger, to cause some unbecoming remarks, and immediate action to remove the paint. In most cases where it was put on church buildings it was simply left. One church thus daubed had a large Sunday school conference in it which brought all classes of people to the meeting. The paint was still on. Public sentiment branded it as a disgrace to the community, and the paint became a reprimand to those who put it there.

Several brethren in Jasper County, Missouri, received yellow slips of paper with the following printed on them:

First and Last Warning

You have been reported to the All American Squad as a person who has failed in your obligation.

Your Country Is at War!

This committee does not tolerate slackers. Do your full duty to your country now! Or get out of Jasper County or suffer the consequences.

All American Committee Strong Arm Squad

It would have been more in keeping with the spirit manifested in the paper, as well as the way they were sent out to have used the word “mob” instead of squad.

As the feeling became more intense, mobs were more frequent and more violent. It is sad to know that some of our brethren who plead conscientious scruples against the support of war measures, when they were facing the mob supplied with tar and feathers or a rope, or both, they yielded to buying war papers or donating to some war charity. In some cases they claimed that they yielded because some of the other members of the family plead so hard, but whatever the cause, they yielded to that which they felt was wrong, or they were not true in making the claim of conscientiousness against it. An opportunity was lost, but let us cover it all with the mantle of charity. Both the perpetrators of the deeds and those who yielded need our sympathy. At the same time let us look closely to the admonition of Paul, “Considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”

A few experiences are given herewith. They are taken from widely different localities and show the different methods used. No one claims perfection for the sufferers nor are the things recorded here to hold them up as objects of glory and virtue. You may see some weakness in their actions, but in most cases decisions had to be made quickly and under very unfavorable circumstances. Two things should be considered: First, one is not quite sure what he will do under pressure, hence the need of being thoroughly grounded in Christ Jesus so that character is so deeply rooted that only the right thing will be done even if there is no time for careful, premeditated decision; Second, in many cases at least some of these perpetrators are known. Many of them have had time to consider their actions and are now thoroughly ashamed of them — and surely they should be ashamed — but the highest good will be attained by showing that there is absolutely no ill feeling harbored but that all persecutors have been fully forgiven. The following speak for themselves:


Dear Brother M⸻

I was asked several times during the liberty loan campaign to buy bonds… I gave the same reasons for refusing to buy in every interview — that I could not possibly loan money to carry on war any more than I could give my boy or go myself.

The next to the last day of the fourth drive, five or six men came to our home and when the girls told them that I was not at home they seemed very angry. They left papers and said that I must sign them and send them that day so they would get them in the morning. I ignored them, and on Saturday we thought that we were through the trial for this time; but about seven o’clock in the evening three automobiles came, and four men came to the door. When my wife opened it they bolted in, and one of the men began to use abusive language and to say that I had refused just as long as I could, that the time had come when I must. I tried to reason but got little chance to have a say until I flatly refused. Several shots were then fired outside, and one of the men went to the door and called, “Come on, George.” Then two or three others and “George” came in. He threw off his overcoat, laid his revolver on a chair and shouted and stormed like a mad man, calling me all the abusive names that came to his mind, such as, “liar,” “thief,” “slacker,” “pro-German,” “income-tax-dodger,” “dirty dog,” etc.

Among them was one who claimed to be an officer from Washington, sent to see whether these men did their work right, and he sat down beside my wife urging her to try to persuade me to buy, as there was no telling what they will do, for they were making all kinds of threats — to tar and feather me, take me to jail, drive away my cattle, burn my barn, and compel my boy to take up military service, etc.

The officer pretended to check them at times but they told him to keep quiet till they were through, then he should have his say. When his turn came he asked us to go into another room where he began to “taffy” us and said that I should sign up this note for five thousand dollars, and that I might write across the end of the note, “To be used for Belgian relief work,” and promised that it would be used for that. I decided to do that since it was to be used for relief. After that they treated me fine. They deplored the necessity of doing such work, but said that it must be done or Germany would come over here and destroy our property, take our men, drive out our women and children. We told them that was just what they threatened to do, and asked where the difference was. They claimed to be hungry. My wife told them that our Bible teaches us to feed our enemies, and that if they would wait she would get supper for them. But they refused.

Your brother, …


Dear Brother, Greeting:

After the bond drives became quite insistent I received some threatening notices that unless I supported all these war measures I would suffer for it. I always gave Gospel reasons for not doing so, but showed that I gave freely to war sufferers through our own Church channels and through the Friends.

About the middle of , I was called by telephone by a government officer at Kansas City, demanding my reasons for not supporting war measures. I gave him the same reply that I did the others. On , a flag was nailed to our church, and , possibly fifty masked men drove into the yard of my former home, then occupied by my son C⸻. The mob called him out of bed and asked where I lived and several questions about the flag. They then compelled him to remove his underwear and smeared him over with tar after which they applied the feathers.

They next went to the church and daubed the door and steps with tar, after which they came to my house and called me to the door. Two men grabbed me and pulled me out. They demanded that I buy bonds and support the Red Cross and other war measures. I replied that I could not conscientiously do that but would give to war sufferers through channels not under military control. I was then tarred and feathered and left with threats of a repetition if I did not support war measures.

On the night of , a second mob of thirty-five or forty came to my home, called me out and threatened to pound me to pieces, using most abusive and ungodly language. They demanded that I sign a check at once for the Red Cross. Because of the condition of my wife, who was nearly prostrated, and who at this writing is still suffering from the shock, I signed a check for fifty dollars for the Red Cross, but stopped payment on it in the morning. The next day, in company with one of our bishops, I met our banker and the county officials of the drive, and they agreed to accept a check for the Friends Reconstruction Service. I gave them a check for seventy-five dollars. I thought that this would settle the matter; but on the night of , another masked mob of about twenty-five came to my home and called me out. They said that they would daub my entire premises with “dope” if I did not promise to support war measures. On my refusal they ransacked the house from cellar to garret. They took my watch and what money they found. They daubed my new house with yellow paint, inside and out, and did the same to the automobile. They tore off my underwear, struck me a dozen times or more with a large strap, bruising my flesh and cutting the skin open. I was dragged to the barn and abused, after which they applied carboline roofing paint to my body followed by feathers. The carbolic acid in the paint made me very sore, and my body, face, and hands were badly swollen. I was left with the threat that they would hang me the next time.

The men then went to the home of my son, C⸻, and used him in a similar manner, ransacking the house, daubing it and the automobile with yellow paint, and applying carboline and feathers to his body.

Yours in His service, …

Dear Brother ⸻, Greeting:

A very unfortunate thing occurred in our community between an over enthusiastic patriotic school teacher and some pupils with reference to saluting the flag. This created considerable prejudice which spread from school to school… When the different drives came on we were watched very closely, especially leaders. Newspapers misrepresented our position. I was visited only a few times by solicitors and usually when my position was stated it was accepted and respected, but one came who held a prominent position, and he would not be convinced; failing in his undertakings, determined to get even some way. He created still more envy and hatred.

We endeavored to do our part by giving liberally for relief work through our own channels. When the fourth liberty loan drive came, we took bank certificates in lieu of bonds in an amount equal to our supposed share of the third and fourth loans. After the signing of the armistice another drive was made, and on a solicitor came to my home. I wrote him a check for ten dollars and filled out my card, designating that my money should be used for the support of the Salvation Army work. a mob came, consisting of forty or fifty men, unmasked, crowded around the door and rapped. I opened the door wide. The leader admitted that I had given to the cause but claimed it was not enough, and demanded a check for one hundred dollars. I tried to reason with them and showed that I had done more than my share. They began to hiss and gnash at me, took hold of me and pulled me out into the yard. With the crowd and a part of my family around me the conversation continued. I was accused of influencing people, going to camps and encouraging the boys not to wear the uniform, and they called me Kaiser. I was given one more chance to sign up or suffer the consequences. I flatly refused, stated my position, and said that if they wanted my life they could have it; but that I would give nothing to a crowd like that, quoting a number of scriptures and referring to the President’s message, but to no avail.

They pulled me away from my wife and daughter who had hold of me and took me across the road where horse clippers were applied to my head, taking everything clean. My life and buildings were threatened. They claimed to have lots of work and must make haste, so they went to their machines and the entire crowd went east, stopping at two other places before disbanding.

A number of young people were at our home, learning some new songs, and when they saw what was going on they held a prayer service before leaving the room; but one of the young sisters present was obliged to take treatment for four months because of the shock upon her nervous system. We praise God for still caring for His own.

Fraternally, …


Dear Brother, Greeting:

I was solicited for the various war measures, but usually an explanation of my position was all that was necessary. I made a bank deposit in lieu of buying liberty bonds in the fourth drive. When the war-chest-drive was on an organization was formed with the motto, “Every man a subscriber.” Two men came to my home one evening the latter part of , called me out and asked me to go with them to the county seat. I told them that I could not go because my wife’s mother was very sick, and that I must help her and the children to get to her bedside; but they showed me the silver star on their vests, claiming to be United States deputies, and said, “You must go.”

They went to the home of my brother-in-law and got him. Other automobiles joined in. On the way back past my home they asked me to take my machine. We did so, and with two others in my machine we proceeded to the county seat.

On reaching the city we were ordered to leave my machine near the police station and get into their machine. They took us through a dark alley and into a large hall where from six to eight hundred men were assembled. All except a few in the back part of the hall were masked. I was to answer questions only.

I was questioned as to why I could not sign up for this fund. When I explained that I thought it was wrong to support war measures, they asked me whether I did not sell produce at war prices and said that I could not hide behind the cloak of religion. They had no respect for my convictions and decided that I must sign up for a specific amount. Some said one thousand dollars but finally agreed on fifty dollars. I told them that I had some money along and that they might take that, but they said that they wanted my voluntary signature. I refused. The card was made out and I was given one minute to sign it. The chairman, also masked, held his watch in one hand and his pen extended toward me in the other, but when they found that availed nothing I was ordered to go back to the machine, followed by many epitaphs [sic] too vile to put on paper. Kicks and cuffs were in evidence. After I was out my brother-in-law was taken into the hall… He yielded, and that made them more fierce toward me… Finally we were taken back to our machine and allowed to go home.

On , near midnight,… A man wanted some oil. I got up and got it for him. Then he wanted me to hold the lantern while he poured the oil into his machine. He and several others caught hold of me, put me into the machine. I had very little clothing on and was barefooted. They went about a mile to a woods and asked each other whether this would not be a good place to string me up. After a time they drove very fast. I got very cold and asked for some extra clothing. They answered me by putting me under their feet while they drove wildly on. When they stopped, about seven miles away from my home, they placed a rope around my neck and led me to the side of the road. They asked whether I wanted to pray before being hung. I knelt down and prayed. References were made to the war-chest but they intimated that it was too late now. They asked me whether I was sorry that I had not signed before. I said that I could not do it even now… They took off my shirt and painted the upper part of my body. They clipped from the front to the back of my head, and from ear to ear, the strip being about an inch and a half wide. They cut so close that in several places they took off the skin. Then they put on my shirt and took off the rope, and told me to make tracks toward home. About half a mile from the scene I inquired the way home… After going about a mile farther I inquired the way to my cousin… I awoke him, told him the whole story. He gave me clothes and took me to my home.

We praise God for His protection, and for permitting us to meet again as a family after such a siege.

Your brother,…

The case of Brethren L.J. Heatwole and R.W. Benner will be given somewhat in detail. The first is a letter which Bro. Heatwole wrote and which was the basis for prosecution [under the Espionage Act]:

Dale Enterprise, Va. .

Dear Brother Benner, Greetings:

Your letter of is here… The clipping I enclose is no doubt a similar proclamation by the governor of your state. The tenor of this proclamation is that all people of the state and nation exercise the spirit of self-sacrifice. (Good). To pledge themselves to economy and thrift for the balance of the year. (Also good enough). To buy to the extent of their means as an evidence of their patriotism, war saving stamps for the support of boys in France. (Here comes the test.)

The advice given by our brethren of the General Conference Committee is that our brethren–

Do not aid or abet war in any form.

Receive no pay while held in detention camps.

Contribute nothing to a fund that is used to run the war machine.

In a number of places where brethren have refused to contribute to the different war funds, outlandish threats have been made and in a few cases have been put into execution — such as, tar and feathering, painting houses yellow, decorating autos and buildings with flags to test them out on their principles of nonresistance.

I have continued to give the advice of the General Conference committee to the brethren here, and would do the same to the brethren in West Virginia were I there, and take the consequences whatever they may be.

Some of our brethren here have yielded under pressure, others have subscribed to Red Cross funds and taken out war saving stamps, but of these so far as I know there are only a few.

If our brethren in camp can stand true to the faith of the Gospel, why should not we at home bear part of the pressure…

Hurriedly, L.J. Heatwole.

Bro. Benner acted upon the instructions of Bishop Heatwole, advised his members as to what is the position of the Mennonite Church on these questions, with the result that both were later brought before the U.S. district court at Martinsburg, W. Va.

A description of the case, which was heard on , follows. The district attorney, Stewart W. Walker, said that the above correspondence, and Benner’s action in conveying the instructions to his congregation, were sufficient such that “the grand jury finds a case in which the honor and dignity of the United States government has been disregarded in maintaining its Espionage laws.”

State Senator George N. Conrad was the attorney for the defense, and entered a guilty plea, urging clemency. The prosecutor reduced the penalty he was seeking from tens of thousands of dollars to “one thousand dollars and costs for each, with the understanding that the offense be not repeated,” which the defendants’ attorney agreed to.

However neither of the defendants themselves pled guilty or agreed to the terms of the sentence. Heatwole was not even in attendance. He had been informed that the trial was to occur by Benner’s attorney and went to Martinsburg on his own to attend the trial (Benner had been arrested and released on bail), but found that a guilty plea had been entered on his behalf before he got there!

Conrad, allegedly attorney for the defense, tried to explain himself thusly:

There was no dispute as to what the facts were. Inasmuch as the representatives of government had concluded that the writing of these letters and mailing them was a violation of the law, it was considered proper for both Rev. Benner and Bishop Heatwole to accept the conclusions that government officials had reached, and to pay such fine as might be placed upon them.

A plea of guilty was therefore entered and a fine of one thousand dollars each with costs was placed upon Bishop Heatwole and Rev. Benner respectively, granting them thirty days, however, within which to pay the fine and the costs. It was considered by representatives of the government that these fines should be imposed, not so much as a punishment to Bishop Heatwole and Rev. Benner, but as aa precedent and a warning to all other persons belonging to the Mennonite Church, or persons holding similar doctrines.

It became necessary to employ an attorney in behalf of Bishop Heatwole and Rev. Benner in connection with this matter, and the fee to be paid to the attorney, together with the costs and the fine amount to two thousand two hundred fifty six dollars.

Hartzler continues:

Mine, yet not Mine

Before the war it was a common thought that if one had money, that he was at liberty to use it as he pleased so long as he did not violate the laws of the land. Independence was prominent. “This is mine,” was a common expression and usually meant that no one had any right to dictate in regard to the use that was made of it, and if someone was presumptuous enough to try to do so, no attention would be given to the demands. When liberty bond or Red Cross drives were on, regardless of one’s conscientious scruples against abetting war, others came and said, “You will donate so much to the Red Cross,” or, “You will buy so many bonds.” To refuse, in many cases, meant persecution. In some cases cattle were driven away, homes ransacked, houses daubed with paint inside and out, bodies covered with tar and feathers or otherwise tortured, and all done in the name of “loyalty.” But it was a kind of loyalty which received no sanction from the war department nor from any right-thinking people. At the same time it showed how insecure was all that was earthly. The sad part about it is that it took the horrors of war to teach such a meager lesson — one that all should have realized and acted upon without a war, either small or great.