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.