A Church of the Brethren minister is among 78 people granted pardons for sedition convictions in Montana during World War I, the fruit of a Sedition Pardons Project at the University of Montana’s schools of Journalism and Law. The project was directed by Clemens P. Work, professor of media law and director of Graduate Studies at the School of Journalism.
Sedition charges were filed against the late Church of the Brethren elder and minister John Silas (J.S.) Geiser on July 2, 1918, stemming from statements he made on Sunday, May 5, 1918, opposing the war. The statements were most probably made as part of a sermon.
The sedition charges against Geiser were “extremely unusual,” said Work. Geiser was “the only one of these cases of a minister being convicted, and a minister convicted for what he said during a sermon.”
At the time, Geiser served the Grandview congregation near Froid, Mont. He was charged under a law passed by the Montana legislature in 1918, that “criminalized all sorts of negative speech,”according to Work. In all, 79 people in Montana (one pardoned in 1921) were convicted for criticizing the government during wartime.
Geiser was reported to the authorities for making the following statement: “All war is wrong. It is all wrong to buy liberty bonds or thrift stamps. We should remain firm; and I urge you not to buy or purchase any liberty bonds or thrift stamps…. I believe it is wrong to kill one’s fellow man. One who buys Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps to furnish ammunition for the killing of people is as bad as it would be to kill one’s self. I believe that one who buys Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps to aid and support the war is as bad as those who hire gunmen in the city of New York to kill their fellow man.”
“It sounds like he was proclaiming the Brethren peace stance, doesn’t it?” commented Ralph Clark, a current member of the congregation who is interested in church history. Clark has carried out research about Geiser’s sedition conviction on behalf of the pardons project.
Geiser moved to Froid in 1915 from Maryland, where he had started a mission that later developed into Baltimore First Church of the Brethren, according to an obituary in the Church of the Brethren magazine “The Gospel Messenger” of April 27, 1935. Geiser also worked as a dentist, and continued to practice dentistry to support his family while he served at Grandview. When Geiser arrived in Montana the name of the congregation was Medicine Lake; it is now named Big Sky American Baptist/Brethren Church with joint Brethren and Baptist affiliation. In 1927, illness forced Geiser’s return to the lower altitudes of the east coast, where he died in 1934, the obituary said.
The obituary makes no mention of Geiser’s sedition conviction. But according to Clark’s research, church minutes reveal more. In a congregational meeting on May 14, 1918, Geiser retracted part of his statement of May 5, saying that he had misunderstood Annual Meeting rulings on the purchase of war bonds. Clark said that “reading between the lines,” Geiser may have been referring to an Annual Meeting minute from the Civil War era allowing the purchase of government bonds.
At the May 14 meeting, the congregation voted to continue Geiser in his office and to help him seek legal assistance for the sedition charge. Then in June, Geiser handed in his resignation to the church after having declared bankruptcy. The district elders made a ruling in July 1918 undoing Geiser’s ordination, Clark said. In Sept. 1920, however, he was reinstated to full ministry. Annual Meeting frowned on declaring bankruptcy and that was probably the factor that led to the ruling undoing Geiser’s ordination, Clark said.
Geiser did not do jail time for his conviction but was fined $200. “As far as I can determine they (the Geiser family) continued to live in their house and three church members signed for the $5,000 bail bond and one member paid the $200 fine,” Clark said.
Of the 79 people convicted of sedition in Montana, 41 went to prison and the others were fined. The range of prison sentence was 1 to 20 years, the range actually served was 7 months to 3 years. Fines ranged from $200 to $5,000.“My position is that they shouldn’t have served a day in prison,” Work said. The sedition law was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria, he said, because of fear of disruption of the war effort by labor radicals. “People were just hysterical at the time about the war and apprehending spies and enemies of the war effort,” Work said.
Those convicted of sedition were for the most part not radicals or connected with labor. “These were ordinary people who said critical or derogatory things about the government, people who today we’d call blue collar or rural, agricultural farmers,” Work said. The group also including a few newspaper editors and clerks. Most of the comments for which people were charged were private comments, or off-hand outbursts, some made in anger and some perhaps under the influence of alcohol. In all cases, “somebody listening took offense” and turned the person in because “there was this law they could be charged and sent to prison for,” Work said.
Many times the person was not charged for what they said, but for “who they were,” according to Work. For example, some of those convicted were German immigrants. “Or the person who reported them used the law as permission for revenge or payback, or exercising a grudge,” Work said. “We don’t know how many fell into that category.”
The pardons project grew out of research for Work’s 2005 book, “Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West.” He began the research in 2000. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was “deep into it,” he said. “I was reading the same kind of rhetoric I was hearing on television, that ‘black and white,’ you’re either with us or against us, rush to patriotism, rush to pass laws that ostensibly make us more secure. I saw several parallels after Sept. 11.”
Later, as he promoted the book, questions he was asked about the end result of the work prompted the notion of seeking pardons. With professor Jeffrey T. Renz, of the University of Montana’s School of Law, and a large group of people including law and journalism students, historians, and genealogists, the project obtained an executive pardon from Governor Schweitzer of Montana. More than 40 relatives of those convicted of sedition were present May 3 when the governor issued the pardon.
As for Geiser, the minister’s obituary hints that he did not let the sedition conviction affect his love for ministry. “He loved the great northwest, but above all he loved his church and the souls of men. He wanted to see our church established in this pioneer country,” the obituary said. After Geiser became ill in 1927, “How reluctantly he bade farewell to his many friends of the west,” the obituary continued, “and with his family turned his face again toward the east.”
For more information go to http://www.seditionproject.net/.