“Darkness Seems To Be All Over This Earth”: William J. Swigart and the Church of the Brethren in World War I

By Andrew Pankratz

While the entrance of the United States into World War I in 1917 challenged the very beliefs of the young Brethren men caught up in the draft, the war also challenged the leadership of the Church of the Brethren. During the war the church faced two major challenges. The first was how to inform the government and the public about Brethren beliefs while also demonstrating patriotism. Second was how to best serve and strengthen the Brethren men called into military service. This second challenge served as a complex and difficult issue for church leadership.

Juniata College Faculty of 1901, William J. Swigart is third from left in the second row.

William Joseph Swigart was the church leader that soon took on the difficult task of aiding the church and its members through the difficulties of war. Swigart was born on March 19, 1850 near McVeytown, Pennsylvania in the Spring Run Church of the Brethren. In 1876 Spring Run called William Swigart to the ministry, which started his public ministry for the next sixty years. Then in 1878 Swigart became a trustee of the Brethren’s Normal School, which later became known as Juniata College. He continued as a trustee of Juniata until his death in 1939. Besides serving as a trustee at Juniata, William Swigart also served at Juniata as a teacher of Bible and elocution from 1880 through 1920, as treasurer from 1880 on, and as faculty chairman.

While constantly active at Juniata College, William Swigart also participated actively in the church. From 1885 through 1912, William Swigart actively carried out evangelistic work throughout Pennsylvania. By 1939 at the time of his death, William Swigart had baptized over six hundred people and preached at twenty-six dedication services for new Brethren church buildings. He would represent his home congregation at the district meeting nearly thirty times while also serving as moderator of the district seventeen times. William Swigart served four different times on the standing committee of Annual Conference. Through his active involvement at Juniata College and in the Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania, William Swigart became a respected and well-known leader amongst the Brethren in the years before, during, and after World War I.

His role as a major leader of the Brethren in Pennsylvania in the years prior to World War I recommended him as a key figure that could help the church navigate the challenges of war. On January 9, 1918, the Church of the Brethren held a special conference (later called the Goshen Conference) in Goshen, Indiana to determine how to best help the members of the Brethren called by the draft into the military camps. After much discussion, the delegates at the Goshen Conference created the Central Service Committee and called William Swigart to serve as the head of the committee. The Central Service Committee was charged with protesting the military draft law, arranging camp and prison visitations of Brethren conscientious objectors, advocating the position of the Brethren conscientious objectors to the government, and keeping the Church of the Brethren congregations informed on governmental legislation.

William J. Swigart 1915

William Swigart, though busy teaching at Juniata College, spent much of his time during 1918 trying to fulfill the mission of the Central Service Committee. He was personally in charge of arranging and overseeing all camp visitations of Brethren conscientious objectors, as well as conducting interviews with the War Department. Due to his position of chairman, William Swigart met multiple times with administrators of the War Department in Washington D.C., as well as President Woodrow Wilson once. While carrying out his extensive negotiations with the government, William Swigart also kept in close contact with many of the Brethren conscientious objectors in the military camps. Many Brethren conscientious objectors sought the advice and help of William Swigart during their time of trial in military camps or even prison.

During a recent exploration of the storage room of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, a collection of letters was found that consisted of letters written to William Swigart by various members of the Church of the Brethren who had been called up by the draft. These letters help demonstrate the struggles of the Brethren men in military camps, as well as the efforts of William Swigart to aid them in their troubles. A few short excerpts from some of these letters will help shed light on Swigart’s role, as well as the hardships faced by the Brethren in military camps.

On December 11, 1917, Raymond Brumbaugh wrote a letter to his father, M.F. Brumbaugh. M.F. Brumbaugh then passed Raymond’s letter on to William Swigart. Raymond Brumbaugh stated that “…tonight we have orders to keep awake ready to move anytime. I don’t know where to, but, as I said, I fear the worst. You can’t imagine what I’m enduring. Darkness seems to be all over this earth, I can’t see the light shining….Where ever I am, won’t you always pray for me? I can’t understand why it all is.”

Another Brethren conscientious objector (Orvin Smith) wrote Swigart on March 14, 1918 that “the next step I must take will be to refuse to drill, and that will put me in the guard house….If it comes to a test I must disobey or refuse to engage in these things [military drill, etc.]. That is or must be my last resort. I hope, and pray, that this may come out all right.” On March 23, 1918, Orvin Smith wrote Swigart that “I will answer your most welcome letter that I received yesterday. It certainly is strengthening to me to hear from somebody that can advise me thru this trouble….I feel that Jesus is with me each hour as I can feel happy thru him. I am glad that you can advise me along this trouble. We must keep on praying for the end of the war and I guess, and I know, that God will answer our prayers.”

On May 17, 1918, R. Gottschall wrote William Swigart that, due to the refusal of some of the Brethren men in the camp to carry out some work on the military camp, camp officers had forced the Brethren men to “run until they couldn’t go any longer, then made to stand at ‘attention’ for a long while and even had some on their knees in the position of ‘attention’ and in a couple of cases the boys were so exhausted they were unable to stand at all. We regard this as punity [sic] and hardship unnecessary and it seems funny, after receiving orders from Washington not to give us any punitive hardship, the officials don’t pay any attention to it here.”

In a letter to William Swigart on September 29, 1918, M.H Kuhleman wrote that “I feel to thank you heartily for the action you have taken in helping me to secure my rights in the army. I assure you that I shall remember your kindness. I have done all I can through our company officers and success must come through your efforts in my behalf. I have done my best with God’s help to show them that we are anxious to serve where we can….I solemnly respect my vow to the church not to take direct part in war or bloodshed and if I were forced to continue here [in the military camp] I would defend it with my life….Please do all within your power to get action before we leave here because you can appreciate my anxiety and concern in the matter being brethren of the same faith.”

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