Brethren Capitulate to the Liberty Loan during World War Ⅰ

In our perusal of Brethren periodical archives, we now reach the point of the U.S. entry into World War Ⅰ. The U.S. funded its participation in the war in large part through the Liberty Bond program, in which citizens could loan the government money to carry on the war by buying specially-issued bonds. The program was legally voluntary, and so an obvious way for pacifists to decline to participate in funding war, but the record in the U.S. peace churches is mixed. I found little evidence that Quakers resisted the temptation to go along with bond drives, for example; while among Mennonites it differed from congregation to congregation, with some Mennonites suffering mob violence for their refusal to go along with the bond drives. Now we’ll have a chance to look at how Brethren fared.

I warn you: it’s not pretty.

Our College Times

The edition of Our College Times, the campus newspaper of Elizabethtown College (which was founded as a Church of the Brethren college, and which still claims to “foster the values of peace, non-violence, human dignity and social justice” today), included this sad note (source):

The Alumni Association decided to purchase two one hundred dollar Liberty Loan Bonds with part of the Endowment Fund which is lying idle.

An article pointed out that “[m]any brethren and sisters solicited thus far have given us their Liberty Bonds for the permanent endowment fund. Have you thought of doing the same? Give them and thereby help to maintain a Christian college that will send out church workers at home and abroad.”

And a note about the Endowment Campaign early the following year read: “Hold your Liberty Bonds for us and get credit for their face value.”

A late- issue of that paper included some rah-rah about the Music Department that tried to explain the value of music to society by noting, for example, how “[t]he soldier goes to the front with song, his spirit is stirred, and he does not falter in his purpose” and “[t]he Community Singing is doing much to unite communities in thought and effort in the Red Cross Work and Liberty Loan Drives.”

In short, I saw no evidence of shame, pushback, or dissonance about the Liberty Bond program at Elizabethtown College.

The Gospel Messenger

Meanwhile, at the Gospel Messenger, the U.S. entry into the war arrived with regret (editorial, ):

Through increased taxes and living cost we shall, whether we will or not, make our share of the money offering. But for many of us, since we are an agricultural people, this will be more than offset by the war prices the farmer will receive for his produce. How do you feel, brother, about coining money to your own profit out of your neighbor’s blood and the anguish of the widow and the orphan? Can you contemplate the prospect with a comfortable conscience?

How to soothe such a conscience? By “giving freely of our money and, as opportunity offers, of the service of our hands, for the relief of that tremendous load of human suffering which now weighs upon the world,” or, you know, by donating to church fundraisers.

In a article, A.B. Miller explained the conscientious objection status that Brethren draftees were applying for on “Registration Day” when draft-eligible men across the country were required to register. He reassured America that in “this day of the nation’s sore need”…

We request no exemption from our share of taxation, that the people of this nation will be called upon to shoulder because of the stupendous expenditures incurred.

The Things That Are Cæsar’s was the lead editorial of the issue. It at least addressed taxpayer complicity, but with a what-can-you-do shrug of the shoulders:

How far shall a Christian, who holds war itself unchristian, give his support to a government at war? If he can not bear arms himself, can he do anything that helps to make it possible for others to bear arms? Does it not seem that the only logical answer to this question is an unqualified “no”? But you will not have followed out your logic very far, in that case, until you will see that you “must needs go out of the world.”

Not only can you not pay your taxes, nor sell the produce of your farm, you can not even buy your groceries, without contributing, in some measure, to the war’s support. But for the payment of tribute we have the high sanction both of Jesus and of Paul, while the buying and selling of foodstuffs are bound up with the very necessities of existence. It is folly to talk of doing nothing that can help along the war. That the logic of our position seems to make such a conclusion desirable, merely shows that, in our reasoning, we have been unable to take account of all the facts. In such a world as we are living in, the right course for us must often involve a choice of the least of two or more evils.

Much as we deplore the war, we are obliged to admit the impossibility of avoiding all indirect participation in it. But we can avoid direct participation in it, — thanks to the good government under which we live, — and by so doing, we can be a constant protest against war. At the same time, we can and must leave no ground for question of our sincere desire to be good, loyal citizens. In the matter of taking up arms, the position of the church is clear, as it has been from the beginning of its organization. Beyond this, she has, not seen fit to prescribe the course of the individual member in time of war. Hence it is left to the conscience of each one to decide for himself his duties in this regard.

“How far one may go in serving the Government, at this time, without violating the Gospel doctrine of peace is one of the important problems to be solved,” wrote editor D.L. Miller in the issue (source). How far? Pretty far, it turns out. Excerpt:

Our Government brings us in close touch with the war. We must pay our taxes, and the money will be used to carry on the war. The farmer must raise grain, and much of it will be used to feed the soldiers. These men had to be fed before they were in the army and it takes no more to feed them now than it did before. Always keep in mind that it is never wrong to serve the Government, so long as no Gospel principle is violated.

This was reiterated by H.H. Nininger in the issue (source). Excerpt:

[O]ur nation is at war. Against our wish it is at war; and in many ways we are assisting in that war. We may succeed in securing the exemption of our boys from the bearing of arms, but we must aid the war machine. We are paying the taxes and supplying the food which makes possible our army’s success in this wholesale killing of our fellows. We might refuse utterly and throw ourselves as a burden upon society by going to prison, but this would only be aiding the enemy by lowering our own national efficiency. Is it inevitable that we take a part in this warfare which we believe to be wrong? Is there no way out of this terrible dilemma? And ringing in our ears, more and more loudly, comes the unwelcome reply to this question.

For the edition, Leo Blickenstaff wrote “A Plea to the Drafted” in which he tried to draw the line thusly:

We, as Christians… can not willingly enter into anything that would help war in any way… We will only contribute to war when we can not help ourselves… as from necessity of circumstances, — such as buying our daily bread at the high war prices; or when forced by the Government… to pay war taxes or buy revenue stamps… The Government can take our money and property from us, but we dare not give our services in any way that will help war, except when forced to, and only then in the things in which we can work with a good motive.

Were that even that much had been true. Instead, the Messenger kept ratcheting the argument in the other direction, until finally it would endorse the enthusiastic voluntary funding of war by Brethren.

The issue brought this news (source):

Referring to a request for a statement of the church’s attitude to the purchase of Government bonds we give herewith the latest action of the Conference, bearing on the subject. It was passed in and in response to a request for a reconsideration, was reaffirmed . This is the decision: “Is it right, and according to the Gospel, for a brother to invest money in Government bonds? Answer: We consider it not wrong to do so.”

In the issue, J.M. Henry again touched on the complicity of noncombatants (source). Excerpts:

[I]t is maintained by some that we should have absolutely nothing to do with any service under military control. A very sharp distinction is made, in the mind at least, but not so clear, sometimes, in action, between civil duties and duties controlled by military power. The fact should not be overlooked that most of our civil duties, as citizens, are now made subservient to winning the war. You buy a postage stamp, make a note, purchase a railroad ticket, etc., and in each case you pay the revenue, which is no longer for civil but military necessity.

Finally, Liberty Bonds are purchased. Well, why not? — says the noncombatant to himself or his banker. The investment is safe and the interest fair.

In a “Peace Address Delivered at the Hershey Conference” that led off the issue, an H.C.E. sidestepped the war-funding issue this way (source):

I shall make no effort to settle the question as to whether noncombatants should support the war, financially, or the difference, if any, between financial and personal support. Already fabulous sums have been spent, and there is an unprecedented demand for more money to win the war. There is confusion in the minds of some. However, it may be said that members of the Church of the Brethren have bought Liberty Bonds and War-Saving Stamps. But the question can not be regarded as a proper subject for discussion here, and so it must rest.

The issue warned Brethren that “[a] man is entitled to his opinion and to the exercise of his own conscience, but he is not always at liberty to give utterance to or exploiting his opinion, or to urge his conscience on the attention of others” and that in particular “advice or reference to Liberty Bonds that could, in any sense, prejudice their sale, may involve one in trouble.” Following this were printed excerpts from the Espionage Act that said “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall… say or do anything except by way of bona fide and not disloyal advice to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States… shall be punished…” (source). So it’s worth keeping in mind that the absence of evidence of resistance to the Liberty Bond drives may partially be because such talk was legally suppressed.

D.W.K. wrote a piece on “The Moral Problem” for the issue. After giving the reader a whirlwind tour of the history of ethical philosophy, he says that what ethics all boils down to really is choosing the lesser evil. During the war, therefore, the dilemma for Brethren in the U.S. is that you either support the war effort or you support the Kaiser. “That is all that is left to us.” Clearly, supporting the war is better than supporting the Kaiser, so support away without regret! “I think the Brethren did right in helping, cheerfully and liberally, the Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A., and the Liberty Loan. This does not mean that all that is connected with this work is the Divine Ideal. But we are in a world where the ideal can not always be realized. I believe it is better to help these causes than not to help, because not to help is helping the enemy, — a much greater evil.”

The issue surrendered all qualms and gave full-throated editorial support for buying War Savings Stamps (source):

The President Calls for Volunteers

He does not ask for fighters in this call, but for volunteers in the home line. Every-one, from the oldest man to the youngest child, is eligible. is the day set for the completion of the recruiting all over the United States. It is the army of thrift, of war savers, that is being recruited. Appealing to “every man, woman and child to pledge themselves on or before June 28 to save constantly, and buy War Savings Stamps as regularly as possible,” the President asks that “there be none unenlisted on that day.” War Savings Stamps can be purchased at every postoffice and from every mail carrier. There is scarcely a bank which does not handle them. As loyal citizens, and in obedience to the “powers that be,” it is but just and right that each one do his share in the task allotted

The issue extended this to Liberty Bonds (source):

“The Things That Are Cesar’s”

the Government of the United States will start its Fourth Liberty Loan campaign, and the most systematic arrangements are being made to have every citizen assume his share of the burden. During the days of the Civil War many of our members assisted the authorities in that way, and no criticism was urged against it by our Annual Conference. As citizens of the United States we enjoy great privileges, and now it would seem but right to show our appreciation in a fitting manner. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.… Ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also, for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.”

And an follow-up went further in tangling the church with the war bonds:

A Good Investment

Just now, while the Government of our country expects every one to come to its assistance by the purchase of as many Liberty Bonds of the Fourth Loan as possible, no one who is able to help, should refuse his assistance in some way. At the same time let us not forget the claims of the Kingdom, which, as some one suggests, may be amply met by a “Liberty Loan for Soul Freedom.” To advance that most desirable work, you simply purchase a Liberty Bond and donate it to the General Mission Board for World-wide Missions. In many churches that practice is rapidly gaining in favor, and we see no reason why the Church of the Brethren should not follow that plan. It is a splendid way of helping your country and also aiding the extension of the Kingdom.

A Mrs. H.M. Sell wrote in the issue (source):

I believe that a great many Brethren purchased Liberty Bonds. Whether a direct or indirect violation of our well-established and well-known peace principles, is not the question for discussion now. Brethren have them, and will doubtless keep them until they fall due. It would not be surprising if the Government today should have a million dollars borrowed from Brethren.

A regional report from Rocky Ford, Colorado, carried in the issue, noted that “[m]uch assistance is being given to the War Savings Stamps, Liberty Loan and other movements” by the church in that district.

Continuing the shame, on the front page of the issue was “A Thank Offering” from the General Mission Board, exclaiming its gladness that the war had finally come to an end, but mostly being a plea for money, including this: “Since your Liberty Bonds have helped to assure the peace of the world, why not turn them over to us, to assist in liberating the world from the thralldom of sin and heathenism?”