Mennonite Conscientious Objectors of World War 1

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John Neufeld

John Neufeld was born and raised in Inman, Kansas, in 1895. Around the age 25 he came to Chicago to study architecture, motivated by his experience as a missionary in the area around Inman as a builder and carpenter. After moving to Chicago, Neufeld joined the Grace Mennonite Church where he served as a youth leader and Sunday school teacher. Two years later, he was ordained as an elder and minister, and eventually assumed leadership of the church when the lead pastor died. The decision to devote his life to the service of the church had been deeply shaped by his experience as a conscientious objector during World War I. In June of 1918 Neufeld was drafted to serve in the United States Army. After receiving a draft notice to report to Camp Funston, Kansas, along with other conscripted Mennonite young men from the area, he 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. —a choice “that would prove a momentous decision,” since he might have avoided a prison sentence had he traveled to Camp Funston. When Neufeld arrived he was unaware that Camp Cody had a history of abuse towards conscientious objectors. Officers and fellow soldiers routinely mistreated conscripts who refused to participate in training exercises or who were struggling for recognition as COs. To make things worse, Camp Cody was one of the few military bases in the country too far removed for Mennonite leaders to visit conscientious objectors from their flock.

Along with one other Mennonite objector who arrived on the same train, Neufeld immediately tried to gain an audience with the officers at Camp Cody to announce their pacifistic stand. But they not permitted to speak with a commanding officer. Instead, subordinate officers forced them to put on the military uniform, to participate in drills, and to perform other forms of noncombatant service. Initially the two men refused. But after seeing what happened to another objector, Daniel Miller, who had been subjected to a mock hanging, and hearing threats from the officers about experiencing the same treatment, they reluctantly agreed to chop wood and drill.

However, Neufeld soon became uncomfortable obeying these orders. He had originally thought that the commanders would recognize his stance as a conscientious objector and grant him the rights afforded to registered COs by the Secretary of War . When it became apparent that this was not going to happen, he and his decided that they would no longer work at the camp and would no longer drill with the other soldiers.

Consequences followed immediately. As soon as Neufeld stepped out of line from his platoon, officers attacked and viciously beat him. They them took him to the camp’s commander, Major Philpott, who urged Neufeld to drill with the other conscripts. Neufeld again refused. He was placed under arrest and moved to the camp stockade. Halfway through his first month in Camp Cody, he stood trial. Although admitting openly under examination that he had deliberately disobeyed officers’ orders, he argued on the stand that the orders themselves were unlawful in light of the legal rights guaranteed to conscientious objectors by the War Department.

Neufeld ended up convicted to fifteen years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. While in prison, he felt that free from the army, he could conscientiously participate in the drills that were required of him in the prison. Hardships came, however, when his work crew received orders to report to work on Sunday. Thirteen men, including Neufeld, disobeyed the order. As punishment, the prison guards chained them to the men who were about to go out to work. When the group left the prison walls, guards chained those who had disobeyed the order to a row of posts and left them there while the others worked. Within an hour or so, farm machinery began to break down. Stuck with no work left for the prisoners, the guards took them home. In Neufeld’s understanding this was miraculous, and convinced him of God’s assurance for his cause, for “God had kept his promise, and brought to naught the plans of men against his people and against his word” by not allowing the prison guards to keep them working. During Neufeld’s time in prison he survived numerous diseases and medical difficulties—from influenza to diphtheria—mostly because of inadequate housing and unclean living quarters. Disease was rampant at Fort Leavenworth, and many prisoners did not survive their sentences.

In January 1919, more than two months after the conclusion of the war, Secretary of War Baker began to reverse sentences of conscientious objectors incarcerated during wartime. Neufeld was in the first group to be released. After completing his training in architecture, 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

[2]

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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