Nonresistance under Test

Nonresistance under Test

“Our church taught that it is wrong to engage in strife, that Christians should follow the footsteps of Jesus. But the church also taught that we should pray for rulers, pay taxes and be good, law-abiding citizens.”  Emanuel Swartzendruber, a Mennonite young man, struggled to practice these teachings in the midst of World War I, under the pressure of a military draft.

Emanuel received his call to report for military service on March 4, 1918. He and seventeen others boarded the train at Bad Axe, Michigan for the long trip to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.

At his assigned unit, Emanuel took his first opportunity to explain his religious beliefs and convictions against war to his commanding officer. The officer was understanding, and respected Emanuel’s refusal to wear the uniform or participate in drills. Emanuel also declined kitchen duty, saying, “I am not opposed to work, but I can’t be a member of the army.”

After several weeks, Emanuel was transferred to another company where the presiding officer had successfully forced another conscientious objector (CO) to wear the military uniform. He expected the same results with Emanuel, and tried hard to force his cooperation.

Swartzendruber's Story

The sergeant ordered me to put on a uniform. At the same time, another young man appeared on the scene without a uniform. I made no effort to put mine on.  But between kicks and cuffs I received, I could see that he didn’t put his on either. Finally, the soldiers forced part of the uniforms on us.

“Get your breakfast. We’ll have some fun later,” the sergeant told us. By the time breakfast was over there were four Cos. We were taken outside and asked to tear down an outhouse. The first thing I knew, someone grabbed me by the seat of my pants. My head struck the roof of the building. I don’t know what happened—boards were flying everywhere. After the building was removed, the sergeant said, “Now we’ll show you what your Jesus can do when you are in our hands.”

So he threw one of the boys into the cesspool. He stood in the filth nearly up to his armpits. They took a shovel and shoveled excrement on his head saying, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus.”

One of them, looking upwards said, “Can you see Jesus?”

The sergeant told us, “If he is your brother, pull him out.” We pulled him out, took him to the bathhouse and cleaned him.

The sergeant threw soap at me and pushed me into a corner, choking me.  He said, “Come with me.” I followed him to the cesspool. He asked me three times if I was ready to accept military service. I answered only once, “No.”

He took me by my legs and put me into the cesspool head first. I heard the soldiers yelling, “Don’t put him in any further, you’ll kill him!”

The sergeant pulled me out, not saying a word. He stood shaking his head while I lay on the ground. Finally he said, “Go and wash.”

We were taken before a group of higher officers, and asked who we were and what denomination we belonged to. The spokesman told the sergeant, “Put these men on bread and water.”

We went to our stalls. As I sat on my bunk, the sergeant came to us and asked, “Do you still love me?”

I said, “Yes, I do.” He walked away from me.

After the military saw that we had not changed our minds while in the guard house, they told us that we would be court-martialed. They ordered a general court-martial to be held at Camp Forrest on June 11, 1918.  Eight Cos were court-martialed and sentenced to prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for ten years of hard labor, forfeiting all payments and allowances.

En route to Fort Leavenworth by train, we were detained in a Memphis jail for several hours.

The jailor soon asked us why we were prisoners. After we told him, he said, “That’s strange. We put people in jail because they fight and you are here because you think it is wrong to fight. If we all believed as you, we wouldn’t need this jail at all.”

On the way to Kansas I had a nice visit with the sergeant. He said, “When you were first put in the guard house, I thought you were nothing but war dodgers. Since watching you day by day, I have changed my mind. I used to be a Sunday School boy, but could it be possible that you are right and all the rest of us are wrong about war? I hope they treat you well at Fort Leavenworth.”

Two months later the armistice was signed and  I was released.

Reprinted from Seeking Peace by Titus Peachey and Linda Gehman Peachey. © by Good Books ( Used by permission. All rights reserved.