Uncertainty in the CommunityUncertainty in the Community
By the late 1930s, it was clear that the world was, once again, heading for war. No one welcomed this new horror, but it seemed inevitable. People who fought in or lived through the First World War could scarcely believe that there would be another such war in their lifetime.
Each nation began to prepare. Canada steeled itself for battle. It ordered more weapons for the army, the air force, and the navy. In southern Manitoba, Mennonites met to discuss another type of preparation.
On 15 May 1939, representatives from nine Mennonite groups gathered in Winkler, Manitoba. They met to discuss their response to the coming war. American Mennonite churches had held a similar meeting a few months earlier. The purpose of both meetings was to discuss the coming war. The churches wished to be united in their response to the government. During the First World War, many problems had arisen because of a lack of unity. Everyone wished to avoid a similar situation now.
Men from the nine church groups discussed how to respond when war came. Looking back at the notes from the meeting, one can see that they anticipated many of the major issues for COs during the war. They discussed alternative service, service in the medical corps, suspicion towards those who spoke German, and the importance of giving a good Christian witness at all times, not only during war.
The notes from the meeting also show that there was disagreement between the groups. They were unable to come to a common understanding. What were the major stumbling blocks for each of the groups?
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Although all Mennonite groups share the foundation of Biblical teachings on peace, they do show variations in practice. This soon became evident at a meeting in Winkler. The primary issue was alternative service. All agreed that Mennonites could not participate actively in war, but what ought they to do instead?
B.B. Janz, the representative from the Mennonite Brethren reported that his church had considered this question carefully over a number of years. Janz said that his church was willing to provide alternative service, including service in the medical corps. By this, Janz wished to show that his church was “willing to save life, but not to destroy it. Should the government require it they are willing to help nurse the wounded to relieve pain” [Reimer, 41].
The Mennonites who came to Canada from Russia in the 1920s were known as the “Russlaender”. This group had done alternative service for the Russian government. During the First World War, about seven thousand Mennonite recruits had worked in forestry camps and related service, and about the same number in medical aid units. One hundred twenty Mennonites died while providing medical service to the wounded. This group of Mennonites was willing to do similar service for the Canadian government.
The Swiss Mennonites who came to Canada from the US starting in 1786 and the Mennonites who came from Russia in the 1870s, had not performed such alternative service before. In fact, the reason they came to Canada was to avoid such dealings with the military. During the First World War, the Canadian government had exempted Mennonites from any military or alternative service. This right had been promised them starting in 1793 through the Militia Act and to the Russian Mennonites another promise in 1873. Now, in 1939, they called for the government to once again fulfill its promise. Read a short history of conscientious objection in Canada.
Two years earlier, in 1937, the Mennonite church had published its views on peace, war, and military service. They committed themselves to relieving distress and suffering, regardless of the danger. They would not, however, work under military control. The Mennonite church also thanked the government for allowing freedom of conscience in Canada.
As you can see, the meeting in Winkler did not solve all the problems connected with alternative service, but the delegates were able to agree on a number of other things. In the evening session, they did agree to the following statement:
“As disciples of Christ and as citizens of Canada we are grateful to our country that it not only took us in when we were in need but also granted freedom of religion and conscience in an exemplary manner. It is our desire to remain loyal to our Canada as God's Word teaches us to be” [Reimer, 51].
Since King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were visiting Canada that month, the assembly agreed to express to them also the gratitude of the Mennonites for privileges they enjoyed in Canada. Read newspaper article about the letter. Read the royal letter.
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The Mennonites promised to be loyal to the King, but not if it meant compromising their faith. The Mennonites had long believed in the separation of church and state. That meant that Mennonites would support the government as long as it did not mean disobeying their Mennonite faith. If the government, or state, passed a law that violated the faith of the Mennonites, it was more important to obey God than to obey the law. Mennonites knew that they might get in trouble for this, but they were willing to risk that.
The church advocated for the peace position and the majority in the Mennonite community agreed.
The Mennonites stood beside their peace position and generally agreed that they would not support active service in the military. As a young man Wilson Hunsberger agreed with the church's position, but understood it was not always clean cut.
If they did not agree with military service what other options did they have?
They would have to work that out with the government.