Ron Lora: Complexities of conscience during World War I

By Ron Lora - Guest Columnist

“Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” an exhibit on display in Bluffton University’s Musselman Library, runs through March 31. Produced by the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kansas, the traveling exhibit is in the midst of making stops at more than a dozen locations.

Not since the military draft ended nearly half a century ago have young American men had to search their conscience as to whether to fight in our nation’s wars. Matters were different during World War I after President Woodrow Wilson called upon the U.S. Congress to declare war against Germany.

Most Americans had hoped to avoid war, but once in it war fever brought a powerful wave of intolerance against dissenters. Violence erupted against pacifists, socialists, and secular opponents of war, especially in places where the German language was still spoken and religious groups such as Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Hutterites were concentrated. Half a dozen Mennonites died while in prison.

Carrie Phillips, archivist at Bluffton University, has curated an accompanying exhibit, “Of Bronze and Bravery: Local Voices of Conscience,” that illuminates Bluffton College’s experience during the “war to end all wars.” Included are works created by John P. Klassen, Bluffton College art professor who experienced the war in Russia before escaping to America.

At the university earlier this month, Phillips discussed her exhibit and the experience of college students and personnel during those troubled years. With a military draft established, students faced urgent questions: Should I enter the draft? Declare as a conscientious objector? Request noncombatant service? How best to meet the expectations of my church and of my parents?

It’s touching that some wrote college president S.K. Mosiman asking for advice. He readily responded, acutely aware, Phillips pointed out, that he “walked a careful line.” The president acknowledged to college trustees that the war was “a hard test for a Mennonite Institution” whose base of support respected the principles of pacifism.

At the same time Mosiman was alive to the “love of country, and loyalty to it” that animated not only students but also himself. Ever the pragmatist, he wrote Ohio’s governor emphasizing that it was “the duty of each citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of its perils…. Assign me to any work that I can do.” Such a position was politically understandable at the time, but it also weakened belief in pacifism, a key principle of Mennonite faith.

Believing that no one answer fit all, Mosiman encouraged students to pursue their noncombatant rights but insisted that they serve their country in some way. Several dozen names in the 1918 college yearbook, “Ista,” were listed as serving in noncombatant roles with the Red Cross, YMCA or hospitals; still others were stationed at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe or fighting with American forces overseas. Not surprisingly, in September 1918 student enrollment at Bluffton College dropped by nearly a third from what it had been a year earlier.

On campus, students helped to raise money for the YMCA War Fund and wrote letters of encouragement to their departed classmates. Women in Ropp Hall dorm sewed outfits for the Red Cross and produced surgical dressings for the local chapter.

Support for the war somewhat lowered the temperature of anti-German sentiment in Bluffton and the Swiss-German settlement that spread for several miles outward between it and Pandora. Nevertheless, old timers remembered that people of Swiss-German descent were yelled at when they shopped in town: “You filthy people stay out, go away,” one farm couple was told.

A local memoir relates that the Bluffton Telephone Company “threatened to disconnect the Greding Hardware telephone if Lee Greding continued to talk the German language over his phone.” Greding countered that it was necessary as many customers “conversed mostly in German when they called in by telephone.”

Even the town’s public school students sometimes joined the suppression. In spring 1918, The Bluffton News reported that approximately 40 students had “collected all of the available books, notebooks and papers used by classes studying the subject (German) and burned them on the bank of Big Riley Creek.” The newspaper concluded that “classes in German will probably be discontinued next year and French and Spanish substituted.”

There were tensions aplenty in the community, though nothing like the deadly violence that appeared in the Great Plains and elsewhere. This was in part due to an ongoing softening of ethnic German identity as well as the pragmatic leadership President Mosiman exercised at the Mennonite-related college.

A major motif in the stories Carrie Phillips gathered is that even as they embraced uncertainty, the young men of Bluffton College said “yes” to the journey of life. Risking their real selves in the context of countrymen who often chose differently, their voices of conscience did not die. A century later, we continue to hear them.

By Ron Lora

Guest Columnist

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]

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