Most Mennonites have traditionally supported pacifism and non-resistance instead of war. In the past, Mennonites have died instead of betraying these principles. At other times, they left everything they owned to move to a different country to keep their faith. In times of peace and prosperity, however, Mennonites did not have to actively practice these values. At the start of the Second World War in 1939, young Mennonite men were tested for the first time. Would they join the army to defend the country that had given them shelter and protection? Or would they remain true to their centuries-old faith?
Although some choose to join the army, most decided to become conscientious objectors. For them, this experience strengthened their faith and turned out to be a time of personal transformation. This was the case for Ben Bergen.
“The conscientious objector experience changed my life. Camp experience has broadened my understanding of other denominations, their teachings and beliefs. I learned to show more patience and to cooperate with my fellow man.” [ASM, 55-58]
Cornelius Dueck also sees the CO experience as pivotal in his life.
“As I look back, this experience was a turning point in my life. I got to know Christian fellows from other districts and backgrounds. Many of us had the same goal in life: to live for Jesus Christ and to prepare for eternity. One thing that I appreciate tremendously was, that we had ministers at camp to help us, give guidance, and preach the Word of God… These ministers were willing to give of their time to help us. It has been a highlight for me spiritually. From a self-centered, self-righteous life, it changed to a more broad outlook on life, and accepting my fellow brethren even though they did not speak, think, and do exactly as I did. I realized that God looks at the heart and not at the outward appearance. This led me to have high regard for all believers and our church.” [TTbP, 97-98]
J.W. Nickel, who served in the CO camps as a worker and as a religious director, gave this evaluation of the experience.
“What did camp life do for the conscientious objectors? For one thing, it taught those, who because of previous isolated church life held the members of another denomination in narrow esteem, to respect and love their brothers…. Through discussion and observation these men had a wonderful opportunity to free themselves of denominational bigotry. By the same means, they arrived at destinations in their spiritual development in which they experienced in a broader way what their religious leaders and teachers at home had often only hinted at and some had in vain attempted to instill.” [Toews, 103]