The Young People’s Conference Movement and the Church of the Future

Jason B. Kauffman

Note: The following is an abridged version of a sermon I gave on Sunday morning, April 15, at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, OH) during the congregation’s “Historical Reflections Weekend.” It was the first of three events planned for 2018 to celebrate Oak Grove’s bicentennial.

What does it mean to be the church together in a time of uncertainty and crisis?

Crisis is the stuff of history but, as a community of believers, conflict and confrontation often make us uncomfortable. We want to preserve harmony and unity at all costs so we don’t adequately address disagreements when they arise. It’s often easier if we just don’t talk about it.

But if the history of Christianity is any indication, conflict is unavoidable in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth during a time of significant uncertainty. Factions and competing allegiances were developing and Paul wrote to remind them to put their trust in God instead of themselves.

This morning, I want to share another story of crisis that involved many people from the Oak Grove community. This is the story of the Young People’s Conference movement and its emergence during a watershed moment in the history of the (old) Mennonite Church in North America.[1] I’ll end by drawing some parallels between that story and the crisis that our denomination is facing today.

In the years following World War I, the institutional Mennonite Church was barely twenty years old and its growing pains were readily apparent.[2] The new denomination was in crisis over a polarizing conflict between traditional elements of the church and a new generation of reform-minded leaders.

One well-known example comes from Goshen College. Critics felt that the college was overly influenced by the modernist wave that had overtaken many other Protestant denominations. In 1905, the Mennonite Board of Education took oversight of the college to exercise closer control over its operations.[3] In 1923, ongoing financial troubles forced Goshen College to close for the academic year. Around the same time, Mennonite conference leaders in Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario revoked the credentials of multiple pastors deemed “at variance” with the church’s teachings on things like dress and the purchase of life insurance. In response, hundreds of people left their churches and joined other congregations from the General Conference Mennonite Church. Others left the Mennonite church altogether.

It was within this context that the Young People’s Conference movement was born. Its leaders included many from Oak Grove, including Jacob Conrad Meyer, Vernon Smucker, and Orie Benjamin Gerig. They were part of a new generation of Mennonite men and women who came of age during these first few decades of conflict in the church. Many graduated from Mennonite colleges and embraced new initiatives in home evangelism and overseas missions.

1917 J C Meyer

Portrait of Jacob Conrad Meyer taken in 1917, shortly before he left for France. MC USA Archives

More importantly, they came of age during World War I, the deadliest war in history to that point. During the war, hundreds of Mennonite men lived in work camps as conscientious objectors. Many felt abandoned by denominational leaders who they believed had not equipped young people to face the challenges of being a CO during wartime. They also came away with a renewed conviction that the church should adopt a more outward focus, one centered on service, peace, and engagement with the rest of the world.

After the war, several dozen young Mennonites acted on this conviction by volunteering to assist the reconstruction efforts in France. Here they gained firsthand exposure to the destruction of war. They also met regularly to discuss their concerns about the Mennonite Church. One of the key organizers for these meetings was Jacob Conrad Meyer. He and others became increasingly critical of what they saw as weak leadership and lack of support for the concerns of younger members.

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Attendees at the first Young People’s Conference in Clermont-en-Argonne, France, June 20-22, 1919. MC USA Archives

Eventually, these relief workers organized the first Young People’s Conference at Clermont-en-Argonne in June 1919. At the end of the conference, they produced a list of priorities for the “church of the future.”[4] They also drafted a constitution and elected an executive committee to provide leadership for the emerging movement. Of the six committee members, three were from Oak Grove: Vernon Smucker, J.C. Meyer, and O.B. Gerig.

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However, the YPC movement was short-lived. After returning to the United States, leaders planned and organized three annual meetings between 1920 and 1923. But the movement faced steady opposition from denominational leaders who accused its leaders of unorthodox theology. Ultimately, the YPC movement couldn’t convince church leaders that it sought to work with rather than against them. By 1924, the movement was over.

How should we interpret the failure of this movement?

In 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”

For those involved in the YPC movement, its failure after just a few years must have been a big disappointment. Here were young, intelligent leaders ready to offer their gifts to the work of the church, only to see their ideas met with suspicion and rejection. Indeed, O.B. Gerig was so disillusioned that he left the Mennonite church entirely. In a letter to J.C. Meyer in 1921, Gerig wrote, “I have come to the point where I can no longer view all problems only in the light of our own little branch of the church. We have a larger project in view. In the end, our plan will live after all their intrigue has passed on the blemished page of history.”[5]

As we now know, Gerig’s words turned out to be prophetic. One hundred years later, most of the reforms that the YPC movement advocated have been implemented.[6] Indeed, many have become central to the identities of multiple generations of Mennonites who grew up during the twentieth century. For example:

  • The YPC wanted the church to take a proactive stance with the U.S. government on issues of peace and conscientious objection to war. In the 1930s, the denomination worked with leaders from other historic peace churches and the government to create the Civilian Public Service program. During WWII thousands of Mennonites served with CPS as an alternative to military service and active peacebuilding remains a key focus for Mennonites today.
  • The YPC called for a stronger emphasis on service and relief to those in need. Over the course of the twentieth century Mennonite Central Committee has emerged as one of the most highly respected inter-Mennonite institutions in North America and abroad.
  • The YPC called for more dialogue between Mennonites of different national and cultural traditions. Today, Mennonite Mission Network continues its good work and Mennonite World Conference brings together people of Anabaptist faith from across the globe.

It took the fresh eyes of new leaders to articulate a new vision for the Mennonite Church in a complex and changing world. Through these young people, God planted a seed. Over the last 100 years, you at Oak Grove have watered that seed, dedicating your lives to the work of Christ in both large and small ways. Back in 1918, and even more so in 1818, the future of the Mennonite Church was anything but clear, but God has been faithful and God—not us—caused the seed to grow.

Today we are entering a new phase of uncertainty in the history of the Mennonite community in North America. Like the church 100 years ago, our newly merged denomination—Mennonite Church USA—is less than 20 years old and the growing pains are readily apparent. Our Mennonite colleges and universities are struggling financially. Our missions, service, and publishing agencies have drastically reduced operations in the last few decades. And our denomination is experiencing a rapid decline in membership, including the departure of entire conferences. As in 1918, the current crisis grows from a conflict based largely upon differing views regarding the kind of church Christ is calling us to be.

Last summer, MC USA organized the Future Church Summit at the bi-annual convention in Orlando. The goal of the summit was to gather voices from across the denomination to identify core convictions and chart a new course for the church. One tension that I observed throughout the FCS was between denominational leadersusually heritage Mennonites, usually middle agedand younger participants, many of whom did not grow up in the Mennonite church.

I heard resentment from younger leaders about the unwillingness of the “old guard” to let go of control. And I heard older participants lament the exodus of young people from the church and their “indifference” and lack of commitment to MC USA and its ministries. But I was also impressed by the many articulate and passionate young leaders who are committed to working for positive change from within the denomination. Their words echoed many of those voiced 100 years ago at Young People’s Conferences. They were filled with the same optimism, energy, and hope.

It is a fact that church attendance among Mennonites and many other denominations is declining. Many young people no longer see the church and its institutions as relevant parts of their lives. Yet, as I look out over the pews, I am struck by the number of young people and children here at Oak Grove. So, in closing, I want to speak to you and leave you with a few questions.

Why have you chosen to stay connected to the church? What about Oak Grove made you want to invest your lives in this community? Now, more broadly, what is important to you about being Mennonite? What is your hope for the future of the church…here in Wayne County, in North America, and around the world? Do we still need institutions like MC USA, MMN, or MCC to help us do the work of God in the world? I would argue yes. These institutions connect what is now a truly global church and allow us to accomplish much more of Christ’s work than we could on our own.

But these are tough questions, ones that I continue to struggle with as a 35-year-old Mennonite by choice. As you seek answers, I challenge you to take inspiration from Oak Grove’s history and consider the “cloud of witnesses” that has gone before you. For 200 years, the community of believers gathered at Oak Grove has found a way to remain in fellowship, even in the midst of crisis. In 100 years, how will your grandchildren and their children look back on you? What will you do to help continue this work? We aren’t perfect and we will make mistakes but I pray that we will “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

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[1] Originally an Amish Mennonite community, Oak Grove was part of the Eastern Amish Mennonite Conference from 1893 until 1927 when the conference merged with the Ohio Mennonite Conference to form the Ohio Mennonite and Eastern Amish Mennonite Joint Conference (later the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference), affiliated with the “old” Mennonite Church. From 1947 to 1970, Oak Grove held no conference affiliation. In 1970 the congregation became a dual affiliate of the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference and the Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The Young People’s Conference movement engaged leaders mostly from the “old” Mennonite Church.

[2] Before the establishment of the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1860 and the (old) Mennonite Church in 1898, Mennonite communities in North America functioned mostly as a loose association of local districts and conferences without any centralized institutions.

[3] Most of the context and background for this section comes from a well-researched essay by Anna Showalter, “The Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement, 1919-1923: The Legacy of a (Failed?) Vision,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85:2 (April 2011), p. 181-217.

[4] The full list is printed in Showalter, “Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement,” 196.

[5] Ibid., p. 182.

[6] Anna Showalter and James O. Lehman make this same point in their analyses of the YPC. See Showalter, 212-217, and James O. Lehman, Creative Congregationalism: A History of Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Wayne County, Ohio (Smithville, OH: Oak Grove Mennonite Church, 1978), 211-212.

Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.

“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1

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The Vanguard, 1 no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1945)

I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2

The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4

To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5

The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9

It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.

But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.

Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.

But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.

David and Wilma Shank 1974

David and Wilma Shank, 1974

Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?

Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.

But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12

It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.

Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15

I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.

Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.


  1. David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. 
  2. “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. 
  3. James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. 
  4. Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. 
  5. Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. 
  6. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  7. A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), [2]. 
  8. Horst, 284. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. 
  11. Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. 
  12. Shank, 2. 
  13. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). 
  15. Shank, 2. 

Are you in this? Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today

Laureen Harder-Gissing

4540“Are you in this?” asked a popular British propaganda poster from the First World War. A nattily dressed young man, hands in pockets, walks through a landscape in which other men and women are actively fighting, nursing, and manufacturing armaments. Their society is fully engaged in war. His non-participation is clearly shameful.

From October 19-22, 240 delegates gathered at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City to hear 70 presentations. Historians described forgotten voices of dissent and conscientious objection, while today’s defenders of conscience and civil liberties drew connections between the long-ago war and their current work. Music began the conference with a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, and ended it with hymns and songs of peace sung by the Hutterian Baker and Silverwinds Youth Choirs from Manitoba. Their music accompanied the moving story of two American Hutterite conscientious objectors who died in prison.

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Inscribed brick to be added to the museum’s Walk of Honor (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

The site of the conference added to the atmosphere. The museum sits at the base of a dramatic Egyptian Revival-style monument, the Liberty Memorial, which opened in 1926. The state-of-the-art museum, constructed in 2006, tells the story of the war to a modern audience. On Sunday morning, a memorial service for war dissenters was held at the entrance–a glass bridge spanning a field of poppies. The conference ended with a bus tour of Fort Leavenworth where 16 imprisoned conscientious objectors died.

Did the conference succeed in unmuting voices? While the traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience” told stories of peace witness in the Great War, conference participants observed that voices of dissent are nearly absent from the museum’s permanent exhibits. During the memorial service, Hutterite delegates partially rectified this by unveiling a stone in memory of the Hofer brothers who died at Fort Leavenworth. The stone will join the “walk of honor” at the museum’s entrance.

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A base historian at Fort Leavenworth describes wartime conditions in the former prison hospital. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

Some religious voices were unmuted. In addition to papers about traditional peace church members, papers about Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and mainline church members uncovered additional stories of religious dissent.

While the conference predominantly focused on American and British history, papers on opposition to the war in Germany and African diaspora communities hinted at a broadening of diversity. While the role of women in leadership in the anti-war movement was explored, much ground in terms of gender was left untouched.

The conference did not succeed in unmuting all voices, but I believe it helped participants sharpen our hearing. Whether we are primarily engaged as historians or activists (or both), becoming attuned to muted voices of conscience and dissent is a valuable skill. After all, there are many ways in which we are “in this” still.

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Sunday’s memorial service took place on the museum’s glass bridge. The bridge floats over a simulated field of poppies. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

Would There be Peace Without Mennonites?

By Anne M. Yoder

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought up on stories of Mennonites as peace-keepers, makers, builders, and more. There was nothing wrong with those stories, except that they left out all the non-Mennonites who were doing the same thing around the world throughout time. For me, and for many people I know, it led to a sort of blindness from which it can be hard to recover unless we are confronted with the truth.

One example of this relates to the history of conscientious objection. I remember as a sixteen-year-old reading Noah Leatherman’s published diary about being a conscientious objector (C.O.) during World War I and the struggles he had in the army camp where he was sent. My notion while reading it, and for years afterward, was that other than a few Quakers, all WWI C.O.s were Mennonites, like Leatherman. I expected that all these C.O. witnesses would have had pretty much the same narrative of being persecuted for their peace stance, and prevailing through all the difficulties with God’s help.

I would not have had any argument with James Juhnke, who wrote back in 1970: “In the past, Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren have had the pacifist action pretty much to themselves. To be sure, there were always some humanitarian and socialist pacifists around who did a lot of talking about pacifism, especially between  wars when talk was cheap. But every time war rolled around the humanitarian pacifists evaporated, and it was up to the Mennonites to provide the conspicuous majority of refusers of military service.”1

Many Mennonites I talk to in this day and age still believe this assertion. It is true that the majority of WWI C.O.s were from the Historic Peace Churches, but that does not by any means describe the full picture.

I came to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection to be its archivist in 1995. Five years later we received a shipment of boxes from Seymour Eichel, who was donating the WWI papers of his father, Julius Eichel, and his uncle, David Eichel, both of whom had been C.O.s. These texts changed my life, and became my primary research interest since then. There were diaries and dozens of letters written by both brothers, as well as other documents. Immigrant Jews from New York City, the Eichels had embraced socialism as their lens for analyzing what was happening in the world. This philosophy led to them becoming C.O. absolutists, unwilling to accept any orders from the military, and they were sentenced to prison for it

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Eichel brothers with a friend (I don’t know which is Julius and which is David), circa 1919 [DG 131: Eichel Family Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection]

What a fascinating group of papers, and so helpful in expanding my view of conscientious objectors! Julius and David Eichel were extremely detailed in describing their experiences in camps and prisons, the other C.O.s they met, and their viewpoints about all that was happening on the C.O. front. They gave voice to the political and humanitarian objectors who did not have the protection of being from a pacifist church tradition. I learned to admire the depth of the Eichels’ convictions and their tenacity in faithfully holding these beliefs, despite the pressures to conform, to which many others succumbed. I started searching for C.O.s who were not from the Historic Peace Churches and found that there were far more than a few — so many, in fact, that it puts to shame any notion that without the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren, there would be a very small number of conscientious objectors.2

The Historic Peace Churches have done a wonderful job of archiving and making known the stories of C.O.s from their traditions. But, again, this gives us a limited view of what was happening. The full account is far richer, and far more complex. Because of my unique position as a Mennonite at an archives where the non-religious C.O. material finds its way, I have the privilege of filling in some of the gaps. I’m not an historian per se, but see myself as a revealer of sources. As such, I’m currently working on a website where the personal writings of the Eichels and other non-religious C.O.s will be made available, both as scans of the original pages and as transcriptions. I hope to add some Quaker and Mennonite sources too, at some point. This site will be open to the public in October 2017, along with a presentation about it to be given at the World War I Museum’s conference the same month. I hope that it will help to round out the works about WWI conscientious objection that have been published up until now.

I recently re-read Noah Leatherman’s published diary. Once again I was moved by his witness to his faith and pacifist principles, but I was also shocked (and embarrassed) by how much I had considered unimportant in my earlier reading of the text. Many of the details had a deeper meaning to me now that I’ve been immersed in similar texts for a number of years. But I was also amazed at how many non-Mennonite C.O.s he mentioned – he was aware of them, and we would do well to note their presence as well.

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Group of Socialist C.O.s at Ft. Douglas U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1919 [CDGA: Philip Caplovitz Collected Papers]

It is ironic to me that David Eichel was one of the most staunch in his refusal to work for the military in prison and was one of the very last C.O.s to be released, in 1920. If only he had been a Mennonite, how we could crow over it! But he didn’t use religion as his reason for being willing to endure whatever it took, for however long it took, to stay true to his convictions. We can certainly admire and gain spiritual conviction from our Mennonite forbears, but we can also open the door to admire and learn from all the others, such as the Eichel brothers. They, too, suffered much for the sake of peace. They have also passed down to us an important legacy of conscientious objection to war and militarism.

Would there be peace without the Mennonites? I would give a resounding yes to that question. I celebrate all who have been, and are now, motivated to give themselves to this cause, no matter what their reasoning may be.

Anne M. Yoder is the archivist of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.


  1. James C. Juhnke, “The Agony of Civic Isolation: Mennonites in World War I,” Mennonite Life 25, no. 1 (January 1970): 33. 
  2. I curate a database whereby I list information about every C.O. I come across, Mennonite or otherwise. This helps to document the variety of men involved, as well as the differences in their experiences (2300+ names so far; see http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/peace/conscientiousobjection/WWI.COs.coverpage.htm). 

Call for Papers: Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today

remembering-muted-voicesThe World War’s profound effect on the United States is often overlooked. Although the United States actively took part in the conflict for only 18 months, the war effort introduced mass conscription, transformed the American economy, and mobilized popular support through war bonds, patriotic rallies, and anti-German propaganda. Nevertheless, many people desired a negotiated peace, opposed American intervention, refused to support the war effort, and/or even imagined future world orders that could eliminate war. Among them were members of the peace churches and other religious groups, women, pacifists, radicals, labor activists, and other dissenters.

Intolerance and repression often mute the voices of war critics. Almost overnight in 1917, individuals and groups who opposed the war faced constraints on their freedom to advocate, organize, and protest. The Selective Service Act of 1917 made few concessions for conscientious objectors. The Espionage Act of 1917—reinforced by the Sedition Act of 1918—prohibited many forms of speech and made it a crime to interfere with the draft. Peace advocates, antiwar activists and conscientious objectors confronted not only external hostility from the government, the press, and war supporters, but also internal disagreements over how to respond to the war and advance the cause of peace. The experience of American dissenters was not unique; their counterparts in other belligerent countries and colonial dependencies found themselves in comparable situations. Yet, those who opposed World War I helped initiate modern peace movements and left a legacy that continues to influence antiwar activism.

We invite proposals for papers, panels, posters, roundtables, and workshops that engage in diverse ways with issues of conscience, dissent, resistance, and civil liberties during World War I, in the United States and around the world. We encourage proposals that examine historical and contemporary parallels to the war. Strong conference papers will be given consideration for publication in special issues of Mennonite Quarterly Review and Peace & Change.

Topics Might Cover:

  • War Resistance as an Expression of Religious Conscience (Amish, Brethren, Catholics, Hutterites, Latter Day Saints, Mennonites, Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Quakers, etc.)
  • Secular Dissent and Resistance to War (feminists, socialists, and other movements and communities)
  • The Costs of War (economic, political, social, physical, psychological, etc.)
  • Civil Liberties in World War I and War Today
  • Race, Empire, and World War I
  • The Legacy and Relevance of World War I Peace Activism to the Present
  • The Causes and Prevention of War: World War I and Since
  • Teaching World War I and Peace History in High School and College
  • Memory, Memorialization, and the Public History of World War I

The program committee invites interested participants to send a 1-page proposal focused on the theme of the conference by January 31, 2017 to John D. Roth at johndr@goshen.edu.

For more on the conference, click here.