Mennonite Conscientious Objectors of World War 1

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John Neufeld

John Neufeld was born in Inman, Kansas, in 1895. He grew up in Inman, and stayed there until when he turned 25 and moved to Chicago to study architecture. His experience of “mission” in his hometown – where he had worked as a builder and carpenter – made him want to keep building houses for people.

After moving to Chicago, Neufeld joined the Grace Mennonite Church. There, he initially served as a youth leader and Sunday school teacher. Two years later, though, the church ordained him as an elder and a minister. And when the lead pastor died, Neufeld served Grace Mennonite in his place.

One key event in Neufeld’s earlier life made him want to devote himself to service in the church: During the last year of World War 1, the US Army called him for service, and then imprisoned him as a conscientious objector. Here’s how it happened. Neufeld received a draft summons in June of 1918. He was ordered to report to Camp Funston, Kansas. Many other Mennonite young men had received the same order. But Neufeld asked to be sent instead to Camp Cody, New Mexico, so that he could travel with his cousin, Abraham Neufeld, also a conscript bent on conscientious objection. Neufeld later called this choice “a momentous decision” since if he had agreed to go to Camp Funston, he might have avoided prison.

He arrived at Camp Cody totally unaware its horrible history of abuse of conscientious objectors. Officers and fellow soldiers routinely beat or tortured conscripts who refused to participate in training exercises or who couldn’t attain the CO status they were looking for. To make things worse, Camp Cody was too far away from any Mennonite congregation for ministers to visit Mennonites who were there – which was a custom with many other military camps.

As soon as Neufeld got off the train at Camp Cody, he and a fellow Mennonite tried to speak with the commanding officer. They thought that they could avoid trouble if they made their pacifist stand clear from the start. But Camp Cody’s commander did not give them an audience. Instead, subordinate officers forced them to put on the military uniform, to participate in drills, and to obey other routine commands. Initially they both refused. So the officers tried to scare them. They pretended to hang Daniel Miller, another Mennonite CO. Subordinate officers told Neufeld and his friend that they would experience the same treatment, if they didn’t obey orders. After that, Neufeld and his friend reluctantly agreed to chop wood and participate in drills. But this did not last long. Soon, Neufeld grew uncomfortable with simply chopping wood at the orders of his superior officer. At first, he had thought that his commanders would give in – that they would eventually recognize his CO status. Now, it seemed like that was not going to happen. So he and his friend decided that they would completely stop obeying any orders from any superior at Camp Cody.

Neufeld started disobeying at the first chance he got: during drill. As soon as he stepped out of line from his platoon, officers attacked and viciously beat him. Then, they took him to the camp’s commander, Major Philpott, who urged him to drill with his fellow conscripts. Neufeld again refused. So the officers placed him under arrest, and imprisoned him in the camp stockade. Thus it happened that barely two weeks after receiving his draft notice, John Neufeld stood before a military tribunal at Camp Cody, accused of disobeying orders.

He made his case like this: he had disobeyed orders deliberately. He wasn’t disputing that. But the orders themselves were illegal, he argued, in light of the rights Secretary of War Baker had guaranteed to conscientious objectors, such as the right to refuse to obey orders if they violated conscience.

But the judges at the tribunal weren’t buying it. They convicted him to fifteen years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. While in prison, he decided that free from the army, he could conscientiously participate in the drills that were required of him, since he was no longer acting as a soldier under military command but as a prisoner.

This didn’t work very well either. Once, his work crew received orders to report to a work site on a Sunday. Thirteen men, Neufeld among them, didn’t show up. As punishment, the prison guards chained them to the men who obeyed orders. Then, when they arrived at the work site, the officers chained the thirteen disobedient men to posts, while the others worked. Within an hour or so, farm machinery began to break down. Eventually, all the machines broke down, and none could be fixed. Stuck with no work for the prisoners, the guards were obliged to take them home. Neufeld knew this was a miracle; he was sure God had broken all their machines, to show the prison guards that the men who refused to work were right. The experience convinced him of God’s assurance for his cause, for as he wrote in a letter, “God had kept his promise, and brought to naught the plans of men against his people and against his word.”

During his time in prison, Neufeld survived several bouts of disease – including influenza and diphtheria – because of the prisoners’ filthy living conditions. Many Fort Leavenworth prisoners did not survive their sentences because of diseases. In January 1919, months after Armistice Day, Secretary of War Baker began to reverse the sentences of many conscientious objectors incarcerated during wartime. Neufeld was in the first group to be released. He returned home immediately, and tried to get on with life.

After completing his training in architecture in Chicago, he went on to a life of ministry, teaching, and mission. John Neufeld died in 1961 at the age of 66.


Bibliography

[1] Mennonite Weekly Review Obituary 1961 July 27 p. 8

Melanie Springer Mock, Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors (Pennsylvania: Pandora Press US, 2003), 204.

Court martial record of John Neufeld (qtd. in Mock, Writing Peace, 207-8)

Neufeld to Krehbiel, 3 March 1919. (qtd. in Mock, Writing Peace, 210)


Submitted by Timothy Keiderling

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