Few in the mid-1930s could have imagined another global conflict as horrendous as World War I, with its 20 million casualties. Even fewer would have believed that another global conflagration would triple that number of deaths and that two-thirds of the victims would be civilians.
But by 1935, leaders of the historic peace churches saw a war coming.
To consider their response, 79 representatives of the historic peace churches — Mennonites, Brethren and Friends (Quakers) — gathered in the City Auditorium on West Sixth Street in Newton, Kan., Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 1935. H.P. Krehbiel, a leader in the General Conference Mennonite Church and founder of Mennonite Weekly Review, called the meeting.
During the 1920s, peace-minded churches cooperated with a strong, broadly based national and international peace movement that resulted in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. This pact, which abolished war as a national policy, was ratified a year later by a Senate vote of 85 to 1.
Peace was popular. Peace was patriotic. As David Swanson points out in his 2012 book When the World Outlawed War, politicians could not afford to oppose the peace movement. How quickly the national mood changed.
Krehbiel called the 1935 Newton peace conference to order with a ringing challenge to prepare for the worst. Had God not preserved the “historic groups of disciples of Jesus” for such a time as this to consider how to “clasp their hands for the promotion of Christ’s peace”?
How soon would war come? Quaker Ray Newton believed it could be as early as six months, but surely within three years. He was not far off.
Delegates agreed that, in fact, they did share a common basis for peace testimony anchored not on secular visions but on the life and teachings of Jesus. They disagreed, however, on the application of that common vision. Quakers insisted on the option of absolute refusal to cooperate with the state.
Two committees were elected, one to draw up a statement on Christian patriotism and the other to write a common peace statement. Mennonite leader Orie O. Miller’s committee (of Cooperative Action), reported its agreement that “war is sin” and “violence must be abandoned.” True love of country did not mean “hatred of others.” Moreover, “only the application of . . . peace, love, justice, liberty and international good will” could create “the highest welfare” for “humanity everywhere.” They did not hesitate to apply these eternal principles to the state. They were, in fact, “the only foundation of stable government.”
Mennonite leader Harold S. Bender’s committee called on Christian peacemakers to urge the government to do all it could to prevent war. They affirmed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war, as the statement that should continue to guide the U.S. and Canada in their relations with the global community. They too affirmed a “deep love for our country,” but warned that they absolutely could not participate in military service.
The gathered assembly approved the work of both committees and appointed yet another — the Joint Committee on Peace Action. Its members were Orie Miller of the Mennonites, C. Ray Keim of the Church of the Brethren and Robert W. Balderston of the American Friends Service Committee.
Their task was to build on the 1920s ecumenical and secular peace efforts and to consider acceptable avenues of wartime service. With a plan in hand, they were to approach the U.S. government, as a Canadian committee was doing in Ottawa.
The Newton meeting of 1935 set the stage for an incredible, five-year burst of activity — education, planning and negotiations that led to the World War II Civilian Public Service program. The 12,000 conscientious objectors who served in CPS understood, as did those meeting in Newton 80 years ago, that patriotism can be peaceful.
John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.