Remembering cost of following Jesus at May 15 service for WWI conscientious objectors

Stones honoring conscientious objectors during World War I. Photo by Collette Gray Langford

By Paul Cesare

On May 15, International Conscientious Objection Day, a group representing local congregations from each of the historic peace churches and the Community of Christ (an emerging peace church) came together for a memorial service honoring the conscientious objectors during World War I. Approximately 84 people attended from local congregations and Scott Holland attended from the faculty of Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind.

The service held at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., followed a 2017 symposium at the museum titled “Remembering Muted Voices,” coordinated by Andrew Bolton of the Community of Christ, a Christian denomination formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). The symposium focused on numerous aspects of the war’s effect on the US including the ability to demonstrate peace in a time of war. Each of the historic peace churches played a role in the symposium that brought various scholars and presenters from around the country and from other countries–some from a secular perspective and some from the perspective of the Christian faith. Videos of those presentations may be found online. 
After some research into the Swarthmore College database of conscientious objectors, compiled and maintained by Anne Yoder, well over 2,000 names were found, the vast majority from Amish, Brethren, Hutterite, Mennonite, or Quaker affiliation. The May 15 ceremony specifically recognized those historic peace churches from whom conscientious objectors emerged, as well as some from the Community of Christ. There was acknowledgment of other conscientious objectors not from any of the aforementioned denominations.
The memorial service harnessed the strength of a combination of ceremonial and worship resources including piano and violin accompaniment, responsive readings, songs of faith, candle lighting, and a poem titled “Conscientious Objector” written by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Conscientious Objector.”

Planners for the event were reminded that out of the often horrific conditions for pacifists during World War I came later efforts of the historic peace churches to provide a framework for the protection of pacifists. Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers worked directly with the US government to create Civilian Public Service, allowing conscientious objectors the ability to serve others while not becoming directly involved in the next world war. From that work, similar programs such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps were formed. Without such organizational cohesion among the peace churches, these types of programs would not have existed.

May 15 then, was not simply a means of remembering those who were conscientious objectors, but also a call for remembrance of what churches can do when they unify over the issue of peace. 
Two stones were dedicated at the ceremony and have been laid on the grounds of the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The stones, which were required to have no more than a specific allotment of characters in each line, read as follows:
Stone 1:
F. Henry Edwards and 
Charles Dexter Brush 
Community of Christ/
RLDS Conscientious 
Objectors in World War I
“Love your enemies” 
Stone 2:
We remember the Amish, 
Brethren, Hutterites, 
Mennonites, Quakers, 
and all conscientious 
objectors of World War I
Isaiah 2:4, Luke 19:42
— Paul Cesare is peace coordinator at First Central Church of the Brethren in Kansas City, Mo.

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