Pacifism and the Soldier – Part 2

Anabaptist Pacifism in the Western World : a Few Definitions and a Little History

Next week we will take a look at “Going to War.” We’ll see the close friendships, patriotism, and sense of purpose that military life can bring. Today we’ll visit a brief history of pacifism in the Europe and the U.S., in which friendships, faith, and purpose have bound the peace churches together.

Definitions and history from “Living the Anabaptist Story” by Lisa D. Weaver and J. Denny Weaver, Cascadia Publishing House, 2015 

My apologies for truncating:

Nonviolence: the refusal to use violence.

Nonresistance: a principle based on a translation of Matthew 5:39-48, in which Jesus says to ‘resist not evil.’

My addition (NRSV):

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

Nonviolent Resistance: action-focused but uses only nonviolent methods to witness, or to bring about change. Interprets Matthew 5:39 as ‘ do not mirror evil, but instead use creative means to change the situation.’

Pacifism: a commitment to nonviolence; a refusal to be part of the military.


The Reformation + the Peasants’ Revolt + the Radical Reformation = a European mess:

Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

The early Anabaptists tried to follow the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount and honor the Beatitudes, not easy things to attempt. 

Anabaptist (Radical Reformation) codifying began with the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, in which Michael Sattler and others developed seven articles, one of which was nonviolence. The Anabaptists decided to eschew violence, not only against others but also against each other if they disagreed on points of theology. This stance was revolutionary.

At that time, the church and the government were one; thus, those who went against an established church were treasonous, and their fate was set in blood.

Competing religions fought each other with armies. It sounds fantastical now, but much of Western history is a record of horrible behavior among religious groups, i.e., governments.

Oh my, the present Islam vs Judaism vs Christianity vs revolutionaries vs terrorists thing slipped my mind. It was a relief to forget today’s religious wars for a micro-second.

Michael Sattler and others were martyred—he by tongue cutting, ripping of his flesh, and finally burning while still alive. His wife, and many others throughout the Radical Reformation years, were treated to various forms of torture and death. They support each other and held their movement together as best they could.

Several years ago, my husband and I made the pilgrimage to Zurich, Switzerland, and sat drinking solemn cups of coffee on the banks of the Limmat River where Anabaptists were drowned. We peered past black-clad Goth kids lounging in the sun to where the early entrance gateway must have been, under which the angry Anabaptist George Blaurock was whipped out of town.

What survives of those years of European martyrdom are the historic peace churches: Mennonites, Brethren, and groups such as Amish and Hutterites. (The Quakers, also a peace church, grew out of a separate movement in England.) Their journeys haven’t been easy.


 In the American Revolution, Anabaptists received rough treatment from townsfolk, losing their lands and belongings. In response to a demand for noncombatants to pay an extra tax, Mennonites and Brethren wrote that the taxes must go to ‘feed the hungry and give the thirsty drink.’ I’m sure the missive was received with gracious  generosity. (I took care of my mom’s taxes during her last years, and I honored her wishes to include a letter to the government that stated her objection to having any of her tax money go toward the waging of war. There have been church people who intentionally live below the poverty line so that they won’t have to pay taxes for wars.)


During the Civil War, resisters to military service were jailed. But it was in World War I that the military rejected decency. Not only were conscientious objectors jailed, but some of those in military camps and prisons were mistreated to the point of torture and death.

Photo by George Coletrain on Unsplash

 Hutterite CO’s in World War One, Spring Prairie Printing, 1996 compiles the accounts of abuses suffered at Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Camp Funston, Camp Dodge, and other facilities by peace church men. These men wouldn’t wear the uniform or perform work for the military. “The case of [–] four Hutterite brothers is one of indescribable suffering, but hundreds of Mennonites and other defenseless people were treated with disgrace and cruelty in the guardhouses, the military training camps, and in the military prisons.” pg 39.

It is difficult reading, so I will simply make a list: beatings, being dragged and thrown through windows, chaining of hands above the shoulders while forced to stand for long periods, little water or food, being held under a faucet with mouths forced open, hours in wet clothing and freezing cold. “They pulled the sitting men up and pushed them back down, not once or twice, but many times and they hit and kicked them.” pg. 74. “He was so badly beaten about his face with fists that he was not able to eat anymore. He became very weak and soon was not able to walk anymore.” pg. 14. “A stone would have had more compassion than these godless people.” pg 19. Throughout this terrible time, the men held together, praying for and helping each other.  Two Hutterite brothers died from the abuse.

I have to apologize to you for not providing more detail, but reading the accounts brings up what we peaceful folk call ‘much sadness’ or ‘great disappointment,’ when those of us who struggle with kindness actually mean ‘anger.’ So, I’ll leave it to you to find out the ugly details, if you wish.

In fairness, it must be stated that the treatment of COs was varied, depending upon one’s community and/or willingness to make compromises. But isn’t it interesting that almost no one outside the peace churches knows this story? I remember my hot face and uncomfortable body the first time I walked into a military commissary in D.C., during my husband’s service. Soon of course, I realized that most military folk were just people–sometimes good, other times not so much, just like me. The men who willfully hurt our young men were craven bullies and criminals. They themselves were not in Europe fighting the Kaiser, as they insisted the COs do. They were ‘godless men,’ emboldened by permission and a flawed sense of patriotism.


Largely because of the suffering endured during WW I, COs gained full recognition in WW II. Some conscientious objectors did go to jail rather than register for the draft, but others served in national forests as fire jumpers and trail blazers, and in mental hospitals, where they were instrumental in bringing about changes for the better. Some women served beside their men. As stated last week, others from peace churches went to war as medics or in other noncombatant roles, while some served as soldiers in the military. 


There was a draft in effect during the three-year Korean War (approx. 35,000 U.S. deaths,) but by the 1960s and the Vietnam War, the general populace and the Baby Boomers contained many anti-war activists. Many young men my age did alternative service throughout the world with Mennonite Central Committee, but others refused to register. In the early 1970s the draft was ended. Volunteers have fought our wars since. More about them next week.


I leave you with a thought. Our pacifist men were not running off to fight imaginary enemies or giving away state secrets. They were simply saying No to fighting or to participating in war in any manner. The results were varied, but in the worst cases the suffering was great. You see, I taught junior high school, and for all the wonderful kids I met, I did get to know some bullies. Bullies are weak and mean. They are closer to primates’ tendencies to beat on the ones in the group who appear weak. Pacifist men are as strong as oak trees, but they choose not to fight back. Bullies consider them fair game. Our guys follow a higher calling. 1 Thessalonians 5:15 NRSV: 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Imagine the strength that takes.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

There is a story in the Hutterite CO book about a horrible sergeant who one day was given an apple by one of the men he had been hurting. The CO man said, “Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.” The sergeant is then said to have become the CO men’s best friend. I should feel happy when I hear this story. Love won out. But—never, ever as good as I should be—I am just ‘saddened’ and ‘disappointed’ by the whole darn thing.


For further reading:

Down in My Heart by William Stafford – ‘From 1942 to 1945, William Stafford was interned in camps for conscientious objectors in Arkansas and California for his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army.’

A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford by Becca J.R. Lachman.

and for watching:

This Evil Thing by Michael Mears, a gripping monologue about British conscientious objectors, recently performed at Bluffton University in Ohio. A ten-minute trailer at: 


I welcome your comments: Please enjoy a few short stories on the Home page, as well.

{Thank you to my niece, Addie Liechty, for taking the picture above that is this blog’s featured image. Her blog is:}

Best wishes and have a good week.


Greta Holt


  1. Ruth Naylor on June 14, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Luke’s story about the night on the Mount of Olives when soldiers came to arrest Jesus records what Jesus, facing great peril, said to his disciples when they asked, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” One of them struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. Jesus responded, “Stop! No more of this!” He touched the slave’s ear and healed him.” –Luke 22: 50-52 CEB

    • Greta Holt on June 14, 2018 at 12:35 pm

      Such a clearly defined response to violence.

  2. Ruth Naylor on June 14, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Recent protests about the removal of our country’s Civil War monuments in the South have got me to thinking again about the possibility of substituting our national anthem, which was written during the Civil War, with a song that doesn’t glorify war.

    In 1976 when the U.S. was celebrating the bicentennial of our country’s birth, The Mennonite, our church magazine, published a poem I wrote for that occasion. I’ve modified it very slightly to make it less dated but the message is the same. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would replace the warring image of our country with either “America the Beautiful” or something in a less violent vein than “The Star Spangled Banner”?

    Gory Glory

    The blood of war
    Still blots headlines
    While our national banner
    Braves breezes of protest
    And discontent.
    Citizens mechanically stand
    For “bombs bursting in air”
    –Our national anthem
    In the twilight’s last gleaming.

    God bless America
    With morning news
    That sings “Oh beautiful
    For spacious skies”
    Where amber waves
    Of surplus grain
    Are being used to
    Crown our good
    With brotherhood.
    Glory, Hallelujah!

    –Ruth Naylor

    • Greta Holt on June 14, 2018 at 1:07 pm

      Thank you, Ruth! Congratulations on the publication of this poem in The Mennonite. Yes, I too like ‘America the Beautiful.’

  3. Nicola Mendenhall on June 14, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    Greta – It is important to feel sad and disappointed about these happenings.
    Out of these feelings can come the energy that can fuel action. Thanks for
    such a full report!

    • Greta Holt on June 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm

      Real emotion can fuel action. Energy comes from both knowledge and I guess a sense of being genuine. Thanks for your insights, Nicky!

  4. Diane Gottlieb on June 15, 2018 at 2:53 am

    Fascinating and tragic history. I learned a great deal from this post. Courage takes many forms.
    Thanks, Greta.

    • Greta Holt on June 15, 2018 at 7:26 am

      You hit the nail on the head. There are many different ways to practice both courage and humility. Thank you, Diane.

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