BOOKS, FAITH, WORLD & MORE
Remembering the Civil War
Upon the Altar of the Nation, by Harry S. Stout. Viking, 2006.
Mennonites, Amish and the American Civil War, by James O. Lehman and Stephen M. Nolt. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
on the Civil War proliferate. I got the first of these from a remainder
house and found the second listed on a brochure promoting tourism in
Amish country. About all the two books have in common is the war. Their
purposes and development are quite different. But taken together they
provide grist for reflection.
Stout has set out
to develop a thesis. At the beginning he identifies himself as a just
warrior. He evidently operates within the prevailing Calvinism of our
American culture: violence and war are necessary even though
regrettable. He does not quarrel with the Civil War as such but with
the conduct of the war when it went beyond what he considers the rules
Lehman and Nolt have a different
agenda. They wish to inquire what happened to descendants of the
Anabaptists who were persecuted for their beliefs and who declined to
defend themselves. These immigrants had never felt completely at home
in the American system. What would they do when the unity of the system
broke down and the separate sections fell upon each other? The book is
based largely on diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts. Not many
church statements were available from this era.
much should be said on Stout’s behalf: He goes beyond the level of the
typical reenactment with uniforms and guns where no one gets hurt
unless he slips in the mud. The book delivers what it promises. It
documents how each side in this bloody conflict was absolutely
convinced that God was on its side. If either side’s soldiers won a
battle, it was a blessing of God. If either side lost, this was a
lesson for it.
Stout reports that most of the
generals on either side had been classmates at West Point. They began
with an intention to observe the rules of war. As time went on and the
issues became more desperate, they bent the rules by persecuting
civilians, foraging, and destroying property in most wanton fashion.
Also, some of the battles involved what could only be described as
butchery when a general threw his men into an impossible assault.
was aware of Sherman’s campaign from Atlanta to the sea which
devastated the countryside. Stout reports an angle I had not
understood: Sherman separated from his supply line and turned the
troops loose to forage from the land. Destruction was a strategic
Some 620,000 soldiers died in the war. More died from disease than from bullets. A summary on page 447 provides these details:
Killed in action and died from wounds:
Died of disease
Union dead: 359,528
Confederate dead: 258,000
all the foolishness and ruthlessness he describes, Stout continues to
defend the just war. The book is dedicated "To the memory of my father,
Harry Stober Stout (1923-2009) a warrior sailor in a just war. And to
my grandchildren. . . . It is to the coming generation and the moral
conclusions they reach that this book is ultimately dedicated." The
"just war" Stout has in mind is, of course, World War II, considered by
some the "good war." Numbers of us believe there is no such thing.
asks whether the 620,000 Civil War dead died in vain. He cannot believe
that this would be so and indulges in what I consider questionable
theologizing. "Just as Christians believe that without the shedding of
blood there can be no remission for sins, so Americans in the North and
South came to believe that their bloodletting contained a profound
religious meaning for their life as nations" (459). Whether or not this
is his own perspective, he does not appear to object to it.
he does object to are the immoralities committed by leaders. "Americans
don’t want to concede the unforgivable wrongs committed by the likes of
Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Forrest, Early and Davis. . . . The web
of lies, suppression and evasion that developed in the Civil War not
only shock but also bear witness to the power of war to corrupt,
especially at the top. . . ."
In the end, Stout states his case. "Judging the Civil War
is not a brief for pacifism. Rather it is an endorsement of the just
war. There are no ideal wars. . . . In a less than ideal ideal world,
however, in which we sometimes labor under a moral imperative to war,
we cannot do less than demand a just war and a peaceful outcome" (461).
I find Stout’s analysis of the Civil War useful—but not his shallow
perspective on war.
the American occupation of Iraq was winding down, it was reported that
more than 4,000 American soldiers were killed and some 32,000 injured
along with an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed. It would appear
that a majority of Bush’s Methodist Church and Obama’s United Church of
Christ generally supported this war although some years ago the UCC
declared itself a "peace church."
and Nolt have a message but it is more subtle than Stout’s. They want
to tell a story. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mennonites
and Amish were not accustomed to making public statements, although a
notable exception was "The Sonnenberg Petition," which appears in their
book as Appendix A on pages 235-236.
useful learning from the book is to account for the perspective on the
relation between a peace church and the dominant culture which I
experienced when I was growing up. We were wary of getting too close to
the political system, and numbers of Mennonites did not vote. The book
shows how this point of view was developed and became for a time the
dominant position for our church. In later generations, it has been
modified pragmatically and theologically, for example, in John Howard
Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State (Faith and Life Press, 1964; Herald Press, 2002).
and Nolt observe that "large majorities of Mennonites and Amish found
resources in their faith to resist complete identification with Union
or Confederate causes" (7). But this response was not uniform and was
only developed over time. It is particularly helpful to learn that the
dynamics involved in seeking to be faithful to the Anabaptist tradition
varied in different geographical contexts. The experiences in three of
these are described: eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Midwest.
The political relationships for these peace churches were different in
each of these three contexts.
Pennsylvania, Mennonites were politically active and received support
from certain politicians. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and
Congressman Thaddeus Stevens are mentioned. With such friends in high
places, Mennonites were able to negotiate special status for
were also affected by their place in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
"In many ways Mennonites and Amish found a comfortable ethnic niche,
since Pennsylvania German culture could set them apart from the
American mainstream without entirely isolating them" (23).
in the Shenandoah Valley faced a different culture. "Virginia was
influenced by values rooted in both English and cavalier society and
rough-and-tumble backwoods life, both of which differed from
specifically Anabaptist and broader Pennsylvania German orderly ideals"
(25). They were to face the problems without political friends.
Mennonites generally objected to slavery and secession, although these
objections were not completely uniform.
and Mennonites from Ohio to Iowa faced a context different from each of
these and their responses developed from this context. They were less
protected than eastern Pennsylvania and less vulnerable than Mennonites
Of course in all of these areas
responses to the military option varied. Some young men signed up right
away. Pictured on page five is Gideon M. Nice (1844-1916), who "was
reared in a Mennonite home but donned a Union uniform. Nice saw combat
at the Battle of Gettysburg."
After the draft began, alternate
options included a commutation fee, generally $300, or hiring a
substitute. Either of these seems like less than a clear-cut testimony
against war. A third option followed by some was to flee to Canada.
Quakers were of two minds. Some were ready to fight against slavery
while others tried to get complete exemption for persons whose
convictions would not permit them to kill.
authors observe that the problem of hiring a substitute "was ethically
ambiguous for some peace people, who wondered if it represented too
proximate a position with the military" since it "contributed directly
to war-making ability." Some also were reminded of the war’s violence
when their substitute was killed. The authors cite the experience of
John S. Stoltzfus (my great-grandfather) who "still kept as a tragic
reminder the uniform his draft substitute had worn before dying in
Since the war came only
marginally and temporarily to Pennsylvania except for those in the
areas near Gettysburg, the issues were less urgent and direct than
those facing Virginia. "Now three possibilities lay before them: accept
forced service against conscience, face court-martial (and perhaps
death) as deserters, or go into hiding" (57). Both the first and the
third were practiced, but the account indicates that "apparently
threatened court-martial never happened" (58).
well-known story of Christian Good is included. According to the
report, he was drafted and went into battle but refused to fire his
gun. "Incredulous, the officer asked if Good was not able to ‘see all
those Yankees over there’ to which Good is said to have replied ‘No,
they’re people; we don’t shoot people’" (58). However, some were able
to get exemptions. Appendix B provides a list of "Men exempt as of
October 1, 1863."
Hiding and attempting to get
away to Union territory were common responses. John Heatwole is
reported to have "walked backwards up a mountain in the snow so as to
baffle scouts on his trail" (69).
Mennonites and Amish in the Midwest lacked the political clout of those
in eastern Pennsylvania, they were to provide more articulate peace
writing. One notable feature was "The Sonnenberg Petition," included in
the back of the book as "Appendix A." The Sonnenberg Mennonites of
Wayne County, Ohio, were recent immigrants from Switzerland. They
called a special meeting and produced a statement which "the church
presented to the Wayne County Military Committee, who in turn forwarded
it to Gov. David Tod" (235).
paragraph in the statement is as follows: "We shall endeavor to do our
duty toward God and our Government, and hope that we will not be
compelled to do any thing which to avoid we would, and are resolved to,
suffer the penalty of the law rather than to violate our faith, but
that we will be allowed to satisfy the demands of Government by
Commutation instead of doing Military Service" (236).
other responses were to have ongoing significance for Mennonite ethical
thought. First was that of John F. Funk, a Mennonite lumber dealer in
Chicago who taught in a Presbyterian Sunday school. The authors report
that Funk had been "an enthusiastic patriot at the time of Fort
Sumter’s fall. . . . He hesitated to go as a soldier, though in 1862
his reasoning was ambiguous. . . ."
"Funk’s feelings about war began to shift in October 1862." He went to
Elkhart, Indiana, where "he heard the powerful preacher and bishop,
John M. Brenneman, who expressed concern for how peace principles were
playing out among Mennonites" (175).
Funk had begun to write a statement entitled "Warfare: Its Evils, Our
Duty" and in July that year he had 1000 copies printed. This tract of
16 pages "did not rely on explicitly religious rationale, but instead
used graphic word images to portray the senselessness and inhumanity of
killing. . . . Yet the message also developed an unmistakable
theological center around Jesus, who provided the message and model for
peaceable living" (178).
Brenneman also would
write a peace statement, "Christianity and War." It was three times as
long as Funk’s tract, and he published it anonymously, perhaps in fear
of negative attention. He took an opposite approach from Funk’s,
beginning with "the essence of Christianity" and he "wrote at length
about the nature of repentance and selfless contrition that led
believers to ‘deny ourselves, to take up our cross.’"
contrast to Mennonites of eastern Pennsylvania, Brenneman called for
separation from the political system. "‘Is it not enough for us to be
Christians?’ he asked. ‘Or must we also be called, or call ourselves,
after a worldly name—a Democrat or a Republican? Surely we ought to
guard against this evil’" (179).
In another year, Funk would begin to publish a magazine, Herald of Truth
which for more than 40 years would provide a gathering place for
Mennonite thinking on ethical issues. Thus Funk’s work "would cast
peoplehood in more clearly theological and ideological terms" (231). As
time went on, "A two-kingdom people in a world of multiple identities,
Mennonites faced the challenges of faithfulness and relevance, and
formulated divergent responses to that tension" (233).
authors observe that "the war had demonstrated the lack of consensus,
coordination, and systematic communication among Mennonite and Amish
Americans. . . . If the war had not formally divided Mennonites and
Amish (as it hadn’t Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and
Episcopalians, perhaps it was because there was too little real unity
to begin with" (231).
wars following the Civil War, peace churches have found it necessary to
contrast the conflict with their values and seek to forge a response.
Support for the young men in World War I was later deemed inadequate.
They were inducted into army camps and persecuted for their position.
My father-in-law, Eugene Yoder, found the experience so painful that it
was reported he wished to have no sons. As it happened, he had only two
Before World War II church leaders
negotiated Civilian Public Service, which was set up to provide work of
national significance at no pay for the conscientious objectors. Some
considered it as a compromise, but the experience provided
opportunities for young men to sharpen leadership skills and numbers of
them later served with distinction as leaders in the Mennonite
The Korean War and the Vietnam
War followed, but today the American military is able to function
without a draft. This puts people of peace in an odd—and potentially
dangerous—position. As long as they order their lives quietly no one is
likely to bother them.
The book closes by quoting Vincent Harding,
an African-American historian who wondered whether American descendants
of the Anabaptists may have "‘forgotten what it is to rejoice in
suffering for Christ’s sake, forgotten our comradeship with the
outcasts, forgotten how it was to be fools for Christ’s sake?’"
authors conclude that "The heirs of those who fought and those who
refused to fight in the 1860s, along with all who probe the moral
dimensions of human conflict, still live with such questions" (233).
Indeed, we do.
Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, Sunday school
teacher, and instructor for the correspondence course, Pastoral Studies