Iowa Peacemakers: The Mennonites and Quakers Example

One October morning in 1864 during the Civil War a group of men in Confederate uniforms led by Jim Jackson from Missouri rode through Iowa's Davis County on horseback. They raided the homes of several members of the religious sect known as the Amish Mennonites. The uniformed men stole money and food while they searched for men who had served in the Union Army.

The Mennonites did not resist Jim Jackson's raid, as it came to be called. Mennonites and other religious groups in Iowa such as Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) believe that the Bible teaches that it is wrong to resist or to take revenge on someone who treats you wrongly. They believe "Peacemakers are the children of God."

People who belong to peace-loving religious sects in Iowa have contributed much to the state’s history. Some have had to make tough decisions about their faith and their country. Some have offered safety to refugees from war-torn countries when others turned them away. Sometimes their actions have been ridiculed or questioned by people outside their religion.

Mennonites and War

Because their religion teaches that war is wrong, most Quakers and Mennonites have not served in the armed forces. In 1917 when the United States was fighting in World War I the government had no way for Mennonite men to avoid military service. When they said they did not believe in war and could not serve in a military that asked them to kill, some were arrested.

By the time World War II was fought in the early 1940s, the U.S. government allowed men to refuse to take part in military actions. They were called conscientious objectors. These were people whose conscience would not allow them to kill someone. They believed that there are better ways to solve problems than fighting a war.

Because more than 40 percent of all conscientious objectors in World War II were Mennonite, the Mennonite Church was very active in asking the government for alternative service. This meant that they could work in humanitarian service instead of serving in the military for two years.

The conscientious objectors were assigned to work in health, education or agricultural development in poorer countries. They were called "Pax Boys" because they chose peace. Pax is the Latin word for peace.

Scattergood—A Place of Peace

Four German refugees rode in a station wagon from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to West Branch, Iowa, in 1939. They were escaping the threat of war and anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) in their homeland.

Their destination was the Scattergood Friends School, a Quaker-run school for children that opened in 1890. From 1939 to 1943 the school served as a hostel for 186 European refugees. Many of the refugees were Jews who were escaping persecution in Europe. Others were forced to leave their homelands for political reasons. Many families with children came to Scattergood in Iowa.

Life at the Scattergood Hostel was like a Quaker boarding school. People shared responsibilities like cleaning, preparing food, doing laundry, washing dishes and gardening.

People came and went at the hostel. Many found jobs in other cities in the Midwest. A few went to New York City, while some eventually returned to their homes in Europe. But the Quakers at Scattergood offered a safe temporary home for these refugees. Scattergood was "a place of peace in a world of war, a haven amidst a world of hatred," wrote a former guest.

Still Peace-making in Iowa

The United States has been involved in other wars since World War II ended in 1945. Sometimes men were drafted for military service. When the government drafted men to fight in the wars, Iowa’s Mennonite men had to think seriously about what they believed about war. They listened to stories about World War I and their Mennonite parents and grandparents who were arrested for refusing to fight in the military. They knew about Mennonites who performed alternative service during wars instead of fighting. They have had to ask the question: "What will I do if my government asks me to go to war?"

Today the Scattergood Friends School is a private high school in rural West Branch. Children from all over the world live on the school campus where "people are accepted for who they are."

Sometimes it takes courage not to serve in the army when friends and neighbors strongly believe in the nation's cause.  Many soldiers show great courage by serving in the military when the country goes to war. Conscientious objectors can be courageous in standing up for their beliefs regardless of the circumstances.

Sources:

  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.
Adapted from original article written by Nancy J.T. Guthrie, The Goldfinch 13, No. 1 (Sept. 1991). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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