June 1, 2017

The Brethren in World War I

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Despite the rumblings in Europe, no one on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean was ready for the Great War. President Woodrow Wilson originally hoped to avoid war by seeking the establishment of an international peace organization.

Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers were not prepared either. They had published little about their peace positions since the Civil War. In the previous 30 years, Brethren had applied “individual conscience” to choices of dressing in the garb, attending public schools, and other Brethren distinctives. World War I was the first time Brethren were permitted to respond to the draft with “individual conscience” rather than fearing excommunication from the church should they choose military service.

Without gradual preparations, President Wilson resorted to a strong draft law to quickly raise an army. Men ages 18-45 were conscripted. The government intended that conscientious objectors (COs) could establish their status after induction, where they were immediately subject to military law. The government assumed all COs would accept noncombatant military service as cooks and medics. Some did, even though they saw it as a compromise. Other CO inductees would not wear the uniform nor follow any military orders.

Conscientious objectors found no sympathy within the military and many were mistreated. Some officers tried flattery, then shame, then threats, and some cajoled COs with promises of dropped court-martial charges if they would cooperate. Long prison sentences were designed to discourage others from following the conscientious objectors’ example.

A war hysteria led to the passage of the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917, and the Sedition Act on May 16, 1918. The first allowed a postmaster to confiscate “treasonable or seditious” mail, such as the Mennonite Gospel Herald periodical. The second criminalized speaking out against purchase of Liberty (war) Bonds, which resulted in charges against Brethren pastors J. A. Robinson of Iowa and David Gerdes of Illinois.

Between the enacting of these two laws, the Brethren met in a special conference in Goshen, Ind., to clarify what advice should be given to the church’s young men. Members of Standing Committee, the Peace Committee, and ministers who had visited military camps, drafted a statement that affirmed loyal citizenship while also asserting the church’s traditional peace stand.

The paper was hand-delivered to secretaries of President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Baker was married to a woman whose grandfather was an active member of Coventry Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania. He gave orders that conscientious objectors were not to be treated cruelly, but as the fortitude of the conscientious objectors became apparent, he became impatient and the number of court-martial cases increased (Bowman, 221, 224).

A courteous letter of reply from President Wilson was published in the Gospel Messenger of March 2, 1918. However, one line of the paper stated, “We further urge our brethren not to enlist,” to which Third Assistant to War Kepple objected. He charged the Brethren with a “clear cut case” of treason under the Espionage Act.

Asking for 48 hours to respond, and after a “long season of prayer,” the Central Service Committee replied. They reminded Kepple that the Goshen Statement included a profession of loyalty to the government and clarified that it was intended to help church members express the church’s stand when they were called before a draft board.

The case was heard by four Advocates General. One, Judge Goff, received the Central Service Committee for a one-hour discussion and succeeded in swaying the other three judges to drop the charges.

An article in the Gospel Messenger was published immediately, instructing the Goshen Statement should no longer be used if the church would avoid further trouble.

The outcome was that when at last the denomination did make a definitive statement to guide young Brethren, the leaders of the church allowed the government to intimidate them into recalling it. At the same time that Brethren leaders continued to admonish draftees to “stand firm,” they themselves did not exemplify the stand.

Four hundred fifty conscientious objectors were courtmartialed during World War I. Those on trial were seldom represented by counsel. In addition, the Brethren and Mennonite COs refused to take an oath or enter a plea. Some were told that they were no longer citizens, so First Amendment rights did not apply to them. By contrast Maurice Hess, who later taught at McPherson College in Kansas, documented his defense during court-martial proceedings at Camp Funston.

Call of Conscience

Call of Conscience is a free, online curriculum created to help Church of the Brethren youth develop their beliefs about peace and conscientious objection to war. Sessions include:

  1. The difference between allegiance to God and the state
  2. Biblical teaching on war and peace
  3. The church’s historic and living peace position
  4. Making a case for conscientious objection

These sessions are designed to be led by an adult and include full session plans and downloadable resources. The sessions culminate in a project in which youth compile personal files full of evidence that they firmly believe in the teachings of Jesus on violence and peace and have demonstrated even as young people that they are conscientious objectors to war.

Go to “Call of Conscience”

The charges brought against the COs were never for their beliefs, but for disobeying a specific military order such as wearing a uniform or drilling with a weapon. Brethren Alfred Echroth testified that wearing a uniform “would advertise militarism, the very thing we oppose.” These charges were viewed equivalently to desertion by a combat soldier.

After conviction, the government denied conscientious objectors were incarcerated, since none were tried on that charge. Sentences ranged from three years to life for disobeyed military orders. Seventeen were sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out. Among the Brethren, 14 from the Church of the Brethren were sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, as were 9 from the Old German Baptist Brethren. Two Church of the Brethren men were sent to Alcatraz in California.

Prison experiences varied, from having friendly guards to undergoing brutal torture. Molokan Russian conscientious objector prisoners were routinely beaten, sometimes so “beastly that even authorities were shocked.” Philip Grosser, John Burger, and unnamed prisoners at Fort Riley in Kansas were beaten while tied with ropes around their necks. Duane Swift was shackled in half-inch irons while moving rocks from one place to another. At Fort Jay in New York, COs were stretched and chained to their cell doors for nine-hour periods with only bread and water to sustain them, and scrubbed with brooms until their skin came off. Sass and Swartzendruber were “baptized” in the latrine of Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. At Alcatraz, COs were confined in solitary cells with bread and water diets, and only sometimes with a blanket to come between the cold cement floor and their bodies while sleeping.

Interestingly, the CO casualties in prison were nearly equal to the military casualties: 3.8 percent of the 450 COs died in prison, and 4.1 percent of the 2,810,296 active duty soldiers were killed in battle. The COs who died in prison were Charles Bolly, Frank Burde, Reuben Eash, Julius Firestone, Daniel Flory, Henry Franz, Ernest Geliert, Joseph Hofer, Michael Hofer, Hohannes Klassen, Van Skedine, Walter Sprunger, Daniel Teuscher, Mark Thomas, Ernest Wells, John Wolfe, and Daniel Yoder.

Often repeated stories recount the experience of two Hutterite brothers, Joseph and Michael Hofer, who refused to wear a uniform and were sentenced to the dungeon of Alcatraz. After four months of brutal treatment there, they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth. Arriving aroundprison, where they were again chained to their cell doors. Within days, they contracted pneumonia and died. The body of the first brother, Joseph, was presented to his wife clad in the military uniform he refused to wear in life.

This event set off a prison strike at Fort Leavenworth. On his own initiative, Fort Leavenworth Warden Rice took the prisoners’ demands to Washington, D.C. When he returned, more than 60 percent of the conscientious objectors received reduced sentences and a third were released immediately.

After the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the government continued to try to break the will of the COs. Some still remained in dark cells day and night, forbidden to read, write, or talk, and still sleeping on cement floors, chained to cell doors, and subsisting on a diet of bread and water despite orders to cease this treatment.

The conscientious objectors of this period “exhibited true courage and heroism in the face of torture, mistreatment, and social isolation.” Even if the CO position was not accepted, it did make the United States government take notice at a time when it was in the height of its power and glory. The government would need to negotiate with men possessed of scruples against fighting. Avenues for conscientious objectors to provide “works of mercy” and other tasks of importance would be necessary in the future.

Brethren learned the need to educate their youth in conscientious objection from the World War I experience. Over the next several decades, the Brethren benefitted from the leadership of M. R. Zigler, Rufus D. Bowman, Dan West, and C. Ray Keim, who took an active role in addressing youth. Brethren also recognized the importance of greater cooperation with the other peace churches.

For further study, Bill Kostlevy, director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, recommends two books available from Brethren Press. In Fruit of the Vine: A History of Brethren, 1708-1995 Donald Durnbaugh sets the stage and explains why the church acted the way it did. Steve Longenecker’s The Brethren During the Age of World War includes the statements, sets them in their historical context, and offers an excellent discussion.


Alexander, Paul. Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009.

Bowman, Rufus D. The Church of the Brethren and War. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1944.

Durnbaugh, Donald F. “World War I” in The Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. 2. The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., 1983.

Kohn, Stephen M. Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Krehbiel, Nicholas A. The Civilian Public Service Story: Living Peace in a Time of War. http://civilian publicservice.org (accessed August 22, 2011).

Longenecker, Stephen L. The Brethren During the Age of World War. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2006.

Morse, Kenneth I. “Peace Witness at a Court Martial” in The Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. 2. The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., 1983.

Shubin, Daniel H. Militaristic Christendom and the Gospel of Peace. February 2007. www.christianpacifism.com (accessed August 22, 2011).

Stoltzfus, Nicholas. Stories of Conscientious Objectors in World War I. (np, nd).

Thomas, Norman. Is Conscience a Crime? New York: Vanguard Press, 1927.

Diane Mason is a member of the denomination’s Mission and Ministry Board and is on the pastoral team of Fairview Church of the Brethren in Northern Plains District. She is a retired college math teacher. A fuller version of this article can be found in “Conscientious Objection in the American 20th Century”.