The Price of Conscience

AS THE U.S. mobilized for World War I, a wave of patriotic fervor and xenophobia swept the country. Anything German was suspect, and those who were German-speaking and refused to fight against Germany were doubly suspect. Resentment and anger were directed at Anabaptist groups; several churches were burned and pastors beaten.

Inevitably, the demands of the state conflicted with the rights of conscience. Christian pacifists who only desired to be true to their beliefs by not serving in the military faced a militarized state that saw them as disloyal and disobedient. There was no legally recognized right to conscientious objection—if drafted, the only alternative for objectors was to go into the military and then refuse to participate.

Hutterite leaders had agreed that their young men would register, but if drafted and required to report for military service, their cooperation would end. They would refuse any orders making them complicit in war. Pacifists in Chains is the story of four young men—David, Michael, and Joseph Hofer, and Jacob Wipf—from the Hutterite colony in Alexandria, S.D., who faced that choice. Duane C.S. Stoltzfus, a professor at Goshen College in Indiana, was given access to previously unpublished letters from these men to their wives and families; the book is built around those letters.

Upon being drafted, the four reported in May 1918 and were sent to Fort Lewis, Wash. When they arrived, they immediately faced the test. Ordered to sign an “enlistment and assignment card” and line up as soldiers, they refused and were taken to the guardhouse. Following a brief court-martial, they were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years. Two weeks later, they were in chains and with armed guards on a train headed south to Alcatraz prison in the San Francisco Bay, then a military “disciplinary barracks.” Once there, they again refused to put on the uniform—in this case a military prison one—and were placed in solitary confinement in “the hole,” a basement dungeon. The cells seeped water and were infested with rats; the men were given bread and water to eat and subjected to beatings.

After four months, they were transported to Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., again in chains. Likely already sick, in his last letter to his wife, written from the transport train, Joseph wrote: “My dear wife, since we will no longer see each other in this troubled world, then we will see each other yonder through the power of God. With this we must be satisfied with that which God allows to happen.”

Upon arrival, Joseph and Michael complained of chest pains and were taken to the hospital. A week later, Joseph died, followed in a few days by Michael. The official cause of death was given as pneumonia—the common designation for the “Spanish” influenza (part of the global flu pandemic of 1918-20) that was then raging in the prison and to which their weakened condition from mistreatment made them more susceptible. David Hofer was released to accompany his brothers’ bodies home. Jacob Wipf was finally released the following April.

Stoltzfus places this story in its context—the national xenophobia in wartime, the attacks on peace churches, the Army draft and buildup, the history and operations of Alcatraz prison, and efforts by church leaders to secure exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. The book is grounded in detailed research and well-crafted writing, making it an informative history of the World War I era. And the story comes to life in the men’s letters to their wives and families back in South Dakota. They only allude to the sufferings they were enduring but are firm in their trust in God.

In the U.S. today, claims of violations of religious liberty can often seem trivial compared to the life-and-death matters in other countries. Pacifists in Chains reminds us that we have experienced similar stakes in our own history. Joseph and Michael Hofer are among that great cloud of witnesses who gave their lives in order to follow the Prince of Peace. They now lay under grave markers inscribed with their names, dates of birth and death, and the single word “Martyr.”

Duane Shank is an associate editor of Sojourners. Motivated by his Anabaptist beliefs, he was a draft resister during the Vietnam War.

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