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Eighth Street Mennonites in War and Peace

“In two weeks’ time after the notice came to serve in the military, my husband, Alden, and son, David, and I had to move all our furniture back to Middlebury [from Goshen]. David and I moved into an apartment above my parents’ home [in Middlebury],” recalled Helen Plank in 1984.

Alden was in the navy and ended up stationed in a hazardous post in the Philippines. Back home, Helen relied on friendships with women in similar circumstances, such as Arlene Holdread, whose husband, Gordon, was in the army. “We shared letters, problems, and anxiety. Some of us did not know where our men were because of censored messages. … However, all was not bad. We had good times too, and I will say we never felt discriminated against by the church people who might have felt that the men should have been conscientious objectors.”

Conscientious objection and alternative service in lieu of the military is the common narrative in Mennonite history. But Helen Plank’s experience points to another, less-often recognized part of that history. The Mennonite story of war and peace has often been complicated, and Eighth Street Mennonite Church tried to bear that complication with grace.

Peace (or nonresistance, the more common term in an earlier era) has long been a key theme in Mennonite life and theology, and Mennonite responses to war and military conscription have highlighted it importance. During the mid-twentieth century, however, that pattern was less pronounced and sizable numbers of Mennonite men fought in World War II. In the early 1900s nonresistance had often been presented as an expression of separation from the world rather than as part of a broader theology of Jesus example and God’s shalom, and so when other markers of separation (German language, rural isolation) faded, nonresistance was also, in some cases, set adrift. Among so-called “progressive Mennonites,” which included Eighth Street, this tendency was even more pronounced because progressive Mennonites believed that Anabaptist values and American values were largely congruent. Defending their country seemed, to some in the church, a duty compatible with their faith. In the Central Conference of Mennonites, of which Eighth Street was a part, only about a quarter of drafted men registered as conscientious objectors during World War II. At Eighth Street itself, the breakdown of military service and Civilian Public Service was about half and half.

Mennonite peace theology had never been entirely neglected at Eighth Street. Back in 1938, as war was raging between Japan and China and conflict was brewing in Europe, the church board appointed John E. Weaver, Mary Hooley, and Russell Hartzler to draft a statement of the congregation’s peace principles. The lengthy document affirmed that “We have genuine respect for those who believe that armaments area a necessary adjunct to peace, but we cannot share their conviction,” but also insisted that “War is directly opposed to the teachings and purposes of Christ.” Printed versions of the statement were distributed to all households in the church and sent to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, although the board declined to have it printed in the Goshen News, sensing how unpopular the position was.

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941 the youth of Eighth Street were practicing for their annual Christmas drama when news arrived of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The drama script that year had a pronounced peace theme. “Some of the people in the church said, ‘We can’t put on that play now!’” pastor George Stoneback later recalled. “I asked ‘Why?’ ‘Because the war is on,’ was the reply. I felt we needed the anti-war message more than ever to help us keep our balance. We gave the play as planned. It was very effective.” Stoneback, who was pastor until 1943, was known for his forthright pacifist convictions, which not all members appreciated.

Military conscription had actually begun twelve months prior to Pearl Harbor. Conscientious objectors could apply for Civilian Public Service (CPS) and work in one of more than a hundred government-approved labor camps. CPS participants were assigned to work in soil conservation, the fish and wildlife service, understaffed mental hospitals, and the like. Joe Weaver was the first from Eighth Street to choose CPS, in June 1941, followed by Ed Brookmyer and others. Meanwhile, other young men volunteered for the armed forces or elected military service when they were drafted, and Ruth Whirledge—as a woman she was, of course, not liable to the daft—volunteered for the navy through the WAVES program (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Some Eighth Street men in the military asked for noncombatant roles, such as Kenneth Plank who was a medic.

Men in CPS did not face the risk of death, but they did live with financial insecurity, since CPS work was unpaid and dependants received no government benefits. Thus, churches were asked to support the families of CPS participants “for the duration,” as well as cover the administrative costs of the CPS program itself. Eighth Street more than met the financial quota assigned to it by CPS directors. Not everyone was happy with the congregation’s financial ties to CPS, however.  Church member Jay Wambaugh, who was a U.S. postmaster, wrote that “any public acknowledgement of my affiliation with CPS would definitely result in my forced resignation [from my job].” Wambaugh thought that those with conscientious scruples should serve in noncombatant roles within the military system “and for that reason I could give [CPS] only half-hearted support.”

In one case, CPS participants served the wider Goshen community. In March 1942 a tornado ripped through Goshen and damaged scores of homes, including those of Arlene and Woodrow Risser and several other Eighth Street members. Ed Brookmyer, then assigned to a U.S. Forest Service CPS camp in Wells County, Indiana, asked if he and fellow CPSers could come to Goshen to clean up the disaster. The Goshen Red Cross at first rejected the offer, unsure if it wanted to be associated with unpopular COs, but eventually relented and Brookmyer’s team played a major part in cleaning up the town’s wreckage.

The church board appointed Russell Hartzler to keep in touch with all CPS men from the congregation and report their needs to the church. But the church intentionally remained in contact with all those away from Goshen, sending church bulletins to those in the armed forces as well as those in CPS and posting everyone’s mailing addresses on the bulletin board. One way the church acknowledged the different responses to the war was to use memorial gifts given in honor of men who did died overseas to purchase a new pulpit after the war and then affixed a small plague to it bearing the men’s names. Of the dozen from Eighth Street in the military, six did not survive the war.    

In some Mennonite churches, men who had joined the armed forces were not welcomed back after the war ended or they returned only after making a public renunciation of their choice to fight. Eighth Street, and its pastors A. E. Kreider and Robert Hartzler, did not take that approach. Kreider and Hartzler were remembered for combining pastoral concern for veterans and survivors, while also being clear about their own commitment to a gospel of peace. Hartzler could compassionately conduct funerals for some of those who died in combat and also deliver sermons that articulated a clear peace theology that was no longer tethered to cultural separatism. One month into the Korean War, for example, in a sermon on “Korea and the Gospel,” Hartzler declared “The fighting in Korea is not the will of God.  The ends may be wonderful, but the means are wicked. … I am hoping that none of you will ever be persuaded that there are some things more important for you than the Gospel of our Lord.” And in a 1952 sermon: “When a man accepts military service, or a Christian supports war, he admits defeat as a Christian.” Echoes of the tension Hartzler navigated appeared again in the December 2001 Messenger when pastor Myron Schrag wrote, “Frankly, preaching since September 11 has been difficult.” He was “aware that some have not agreed with what they have heard from the pulpit,” but he could “not apologize for preaching the gospel of peace.”

As the 2001 piece suggests, different perspectives on war and the gospel remained part of the mix at Eighth Street, with veterans from World War II through the Gulf War being part of the congregation alongside principled pacifists and people who were unsure where they stood. Sometimes different responses existed within the same family. For example, Lowell Bechtel proudly served in the Navy, aboard the destroyer escort U.S.S. Hunt, during World War II, but in 1963 his son, Tom, chose two years of alternative service with Mennonite Central Committee’s PAX program in Congo, with his wife Jeanette.

Indeed, offering a year of two of one’s life in voluntary service, either in the United States or abroad, became one of the chief means by which Mennonites, at Eighth Street and beyond, came to construe a positive and engaged Christian witness in the decades after World War II. Already in 1946, Eleanor F. Weaver left for two years service with Mennonite Central Committee, first in Pennsylvania and then in Puerto Rico, and Ernie Yoder (who had been in CPS) volunteered to accompany two ship loads of farm animals being sent to devastated parts of Poland and Italy. The cold war draft (from 1951-1975) propelled some young men into alternative service, while for others—especially young women—conscription was not part of the calculus. Saying “no” to war was not enough; they wanted to express their faith in active service to others.

Today, Eighth Street Mennonite Church begins each worship service with a prayer for peace. The diversity of requests for and understandings of peace evident in those prayers—peace in families and personal lives, nationally and internationally, spiritually and politically—suggest a breadth of understanding of God’s shalom, as well as a humble recognition of dependence on God in whatever paths toward peace we choose.

Sources: Rachel Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987);

Rachel Nafziger Hartzler, No Strings Attached: Boundary Lines in Pleasant Places, a History of Warren Street/Pleasant Oaks Mennonite Church (2013); summaries and notes of Robert Hartzler sermons complied by Ed Kauffman; list of CPS and voluntary service participants in Eighth Street’s 75th anniversary booklet (1988).

Steve Nolt