Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War.
The war presented Mennonites and other conscientious objectors with unique challenges in dealing with a democratic state in a time of a popular war. Russian Mennonites, who had come to Canada in the 1870s, had been given a specific promise of military exemption while Swiss Mennonites, who had come to Canada in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, were granted exemptions under the militia acts of Upper Canada. Along with Mennonites, other religious groups also claimed exemption, as did individuals from denominations that were otherwise enthusiastic supporters of the war.
Shaw's study of conscientious objection in World War I is a careful analysis of the dynamics of objection to participation across the range of religious opposition to war. Along with giving readers a sense of the experiences faced by individual objectors, Shaw also carefully illuminates the development of government policies, religious group sensibilities, and public perceptions of the individual objector who declined to participate in the war. Her analysis not only deepens our understanding of the conscientious objector experience during the war, but also explores the implications of group rights in a democracy and the duties of citizenship.
As Shaw points out, Mennonites, Quakers, Tunkers, Doukhobors, and eventually Christadelphians and Seventh-Day Adventists were granted exemption from military conscription on the basis of membership in a group, while members of the International Bible Student's Association (Jehovah's Witnesses after 1931) and Plymouth Brethren were not. Individual objectors from mainstream religious groups, absolutists, and those who objected to the war on political grounds faced the most difficult challenges from Canadian society of any objectors.
In an introduction that reviews the historiography of conscientious objection, Shaw points out the relative lack of discussion of the subject in relation to World War I when compared with the abundant scholarly examination of the World War II experience. She makes the case that the experience of World War I is critical to an understanding of the movement toward the "rights revolution" (7) in Canada after World War II. In the second chapter, Crisis of Conscience sets out the path to conscription in Canada during World War I and explains how the state came to define exemption on the basis of membership in a religious group rather than strictly individual belief.
After setting out of the problem in the first two chapters of the book, there follows an analysis of three groups of objectors: members of the historic peace churches; members of the smaller denominations; and individual objectors from the mainstream denominations. Of greatest interest to Mennonite readers will be her analysis of the historic peace churches. Shaw characterizes the stance of the historic peace churches as one of "religious dissent and secular obedience" (63). Draftees from the historic peace churches approached objection as a group, stressed their stance against war in religious terms, and emphasized their obedience to the state in other matters. Shaw argues that the Mennonite aversion to "universalizing their behavior" (56), their "quietism," and their refusal to link their "non-resistance to secular pacifism" went a long way in preventing the kind of organized anti-conscription movement from emerging in Canada that became important and influential in Britain (71).
Unfortunately, most of the descendants of the 1870s Mennonites, while they were conscientious objectors, escape much of her analysis because they were exempted as a group and never appeared before tribunals. Shaw seems also not to have had access to primary sources for the 1870s group. While the writings of S. F. Coffman from Ontario are quoted from archival sources all the references to the 1870s migrants are taken from secondary source literature. The result is a somewhat detached analysis of one of the largest groups of conscientious objectors during the war.
The second focus of Crisis of Conscience is on the smaller denominations, the Christadelphians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Plymouth Brethren, whose exemption she argues depended on "their denomination's respectability, including its history, ties to Britain," and perceived degree of organization (72). Christadelphians, for instance called upon their ties to Britain and their well-documented history to press for, and gain, exemption. The Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, were not successful. Unlike the historic peace churches, which mitigated the tension inherent in conscientious objection by demonstrating generosity and exemplary citizenship, the Jehovah's Witnesses were considered to be strange and foreign. For individual Jehovah's Witnesses the refusal of exemption caused arrest and ill treatment. One of the most disturbing stories Shaw tells is of Robert Litler Craig, a 32-year-old Jehovah's Witness objector who was submitted to successive ice cold showers in Winnipeg's Minto Street Barracks until he lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized (89-90).
Individual objectors from mainstream churches faced the greatest challenge. The government's restriction of exemption to members of recognized groups put these objectors outside of the law, and the enthusiasm for the war exhibited by their churches seriously challenged the legitimacy of their claims to conscience. Shaw argues that the wave of pacifist sensibility in Canada just before the war quickly eroded after the war began and the conflict was recast as a holy war that opposed evil itself. This transformation in mainstream churches quickly isolated those whose conscience continued to trouble them.
Crisis of Conscience closes with a chapter that paints a picture of the objector in Canadian society. For the most part the conscientious objector was viewed as "unintelligent unimaginative, and obdurate" (148). Portrayals of the conscientious objector in literature, newspaper editorials, and letters suggested an effeminate man who thought too much, thereby offending Canadian sensibilities with regard to masculinity, duty, and citizenship. In her conclusion, Shaw acknowledges that in spite of the challenges they faced, conscientious objectors generally fared better than their counterparts in the United States and were the "vanguard of individual rights in Canada" (165).
Crisis of Conscience fulfills its objective of adding to our understanding of the development of Canadian approaches to dissent, individual versus group rights, and the duties of the citizen. It is both nuanced and careful in its placement of conscientious objection within the history of Canada's World War I experience.
Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War. by Amy J. Shaw. Vancouver: university of British Columbia press. 2009. Pp. 255. $32.95, can.; $37.95, U.S.
University of Winnipeg HANS WERNER
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|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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