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Kansas Mennonites and the political order on the eve of World War II.

Abstract: As the United States government approached involvement in World War II, Mennonites in Kansas became unusually aware of the national political scene. Kansas Mennonites were divided into separate ethnic groups and denominational bodies that differed in political party preferences and extent of political involvement. The prospect of warfare and military conscription led Mennonites to organize witness to government officials through letters and visits to Washington D.C. The strongest center of Mennonite political activity was at Bethel College in North Newton. In the election of 1940 the Mennonites, more than other Kansans, shifted toward the Republican Party in protest against the Burkc-Wadsworth bill that instituted military conscription.

Kansas Mennonite awareness of national political issues reached an unprecedented peak in the years immediately prior to the American declaration of war against Japan and Germany in December 1941. The Mennonites were German-speaking religious pacifists who had suffered social ostracism and vigilante violence in World War I (1917-1918). They were alarmed by the approach of another war, especially in September 1940 when Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act authorizing military conscription. The national election in November 1940 marked a major shift in Kansas Mennonite political preferences from the Democratic Party--which controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives and broadly supported peacetime conscription--to the Republican Party, which was generally more skeptical of the growing national enthusiasm for war. (1)

In 1940 there were 12,676 Mennonites in south central Kansas, spread over six counties. (2) Mennonites wrere overwhelmingly rural, centered in southern McPherson County, western Marion County and northern Harvey County. Other more isolated congregations were located on the periphery of the settlement in Reno, Butler and Sedgwick counties. The south central Kansas Mennonites were divided into five larger church bodies.

More than 90 percent of the Mennonites of south central Kansas were descendants of German-speaking immigrants of the 1870s and 1880s, mostly from Poland and Russia. The (Old) Mennonite group, whose larger settlements were east of the Mississippi River, were a small minority in Kansas, although they had their own two-year parochial college and academy in Hesston. Nearly all Kansas Mennonites had begun to speak the English language, but most of them had grown up in families that spoke a north German dialect known as Low German or Piatt Deutsch. The levels of political awareness and involvement of these groups varied widely. The largest group, the Western District General Conference, was more politically engaged than the other four groups. The General Conference denominational headquarters and four-year liberal arts college (Bethel College) were located in Newton and North Newton in Harvey County.

The Mennonites were a minority of less than 25 percent in any county of south central Kansas. Even so, their presence helped make the region distinctively pluralistic in comparison to the vast majority of counties in the United States where single denominations were dominant. (3) Mennonite institutional development--colleges, newspapers, hospitals, retirement homes, business enterprises--strengthened the Mennonite impact on the region. Three Mennonite colleges--Bethel College (North Newton), Tabor College (Hillsboro) and Hesston College (Hesston)-- located within thirty miles of each other, contributed significantly to the educational and cultural standing of the region. Mennonites had public visibility and influence beyond their numbers. Many people considered south central Kansas to be "Mennonite country." Steven Foulke, in a geographical study of "Mennonitism in South Central Kansas," concluded that the region was "strongly influenced by a Mennonite presence for well over a century." In Foulke's view, "Despite the strong presence of Catholic, Methodist, and other churches in the area, the public and often contrary nature of Mennonite ideology makes Mennonitism visible locally in ways not observed in other faiths." (4)

An earlier study of Kansas Mennonite political acculturation from immigration in the 1870s to the 1940s has shown that some Mennonites voted in elections soon after arriving in Kansas, but that until 1940 their voter turnout numbers were below that of other residents of Kansas. Voting by party varied widely. The Alexanderwohl congregation in Marion County, for example, was strongly Republican. The Hopefield-Eden congregation in McPherson County, was more Democratic. Taken as a whole, however, Mennonites before 1940 scattered their votes according to party in a pattern that corresponded quite closely to the numbers of other Kansas voters. One distinctive feature was a Mennonite tendency to vote in unusually strong numbers for candidates who ran against the political establishment, such as Robert LaFollette (1920), John R. Brinkley (1930) and Gerald B. Winrod (1938). (5)

This article describes the Kansas Mennonite political response to events leading up to World War II, in particular their contribution to the national debate over military conscription and a shift toward support for Republican candidates in political election of 1940.


On a hot Kansas afternoon of August 4, 1940, at a time normally dedicated to Sunday afternoon naps or to visiting with friends and relatives, the men of the Eden Mennonite Church in southern McPherson County gathered to talk about the impending military draft. (6) Women of the congregation, lacking the right to vote, were not present. Three visiting members of the Western District Mennonite Peace Committee presented to the Eden men information about the Burke-Wadsworth bill then before Congress. The peace committee visitors were Jesse N. Smucker, pastor of the Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton; Peter H. Richert, pastor of the Tabor Mennonite Church near Walton; and Emmet Harshbarger, history professor from Bethel College. In January of that year, Harshbarger, along with other leaders of historic peace churches, had met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to represent the interests of religious pacifists. After discussing the matter, the men of Eden Mennonite Church voted to send telegrams opposing the draft "to officials at Washington" and to encourage members of the congregation to send letters and cards "stating our views on military service." (7)

On August 3, the day before the gathering at Eden, President Roosevelt had for the first time endorsed the Burke-Wadsworth bill. A wily politician, Roosevelt had let others advocate for the controversial measure until after the Democratic Party Convention had nominated him for an unprecedented third term as president. Never before in American history had the country enacted military conscription in peacetime. Roosevelt now argued that a military draft would help keep the United States out of the war that was raging in Europe. Harshbarger, along with many other Mennonites, were convinced military conscription would be another step toward war.

Kansas Mennonite congregations and individual church members who sent telegrams and wrote letters to Congress in 1940 acted not only in response to their regional Peace Committee recommendations. They were carrying out a mandate from the binational (U.S.-Canada) General Conference Mennonite Church denomination. At the 1938 triennial meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the denomination's Peace Committee had recommended that members "write to their Representatives and Senators urging them to support legislation favorable to peace and to oppose measures that are unfavorable to peace" (8) The Peace Committee had offered an optimistic and pragmatic reason for their recommendation: "It is a fact that our national legislators do give heed to the convictions of their constituency."

In 1940 Kansas Mennonites could indeed assume that "national legislators" who represented them in Washington were spokesmen for peace, rather than for war and war preparations. Senator Arthur Capper, a Kansas Republican of Quaker background, vigorously promoted peace ideas from the mid-1930s until December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Capper supported nationalizing the munitions industries, restricting the profits business corporations could make on war and amending the Constitution to require a popular referendum before the declaration of war. (9) In 1937, when the Kansas Institute of International Relations at Bethel College came up $200 short of meeting its budget, Harshbarger, the institute's director, sent a letter to Capper in Washington asking him to make up the difference. (10) Apparently Capper did not send money to the Kansas Institute, but it was clear that peace advocates believed the senator was on their side.

John M. Houston, a Democratic congressman from Newton (1934-1942), spoke out against "sending American soldiers to foreign battlefields" The National Council for the Prevention of War reported that Houston had an excellent, though not perfect, record on peace issues. Edmund G. Kaufman, president of Bethel College, was a good friend of Houston and invited him to speak at Bethel on a number of occasions. In 1939 Houston responded to one of Kaufman's appeals, saying, "under no circumstances will I vote to send American soldiers to foreign battle fields." (11) Kaufman wrote to both Houston and Capper about peace issues, and also sent the senator Christmas greetings and congratulations after election victories. Houston and Capper both voted against the Burke-Wadsworth conscription bill. (12)

Some non-Mennonite newspaper editors in Kansas towns with a substantial Mennonite population also spoke out for peace. Vernard Vogt, the editor of the Moundridge Journal, was a member of the Methodist Church and of German Evangelical background. Vogt warned against insidious pro-war propaganda. On January 13, 1938, he recalled the official lies about the sinking of the Maine (1898) and the Lusitania (1915) that had misled the United States in the Spanish American War and World War I. "Every sane man abhors war" wrote Vogt." Every good American abhors it." Even after Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, Vogt wrote that despite sympathies for the allies, "we are not going to do any killing if we can help it." By the spring of 1941 the Moundridge journal shifted its editorial position to support the war. But it is clear that Kansas Mennonites who made a public witness for peace before the 1940 election were expressing widely held popular views, rather than speaking as a small and separate minority.

Three young men--Bill Juhnke, Elmer Ediger and Robert Kreider--illustrate the Mennonite political witness against war. In 1940 Bill Juhnke was a high school social science teacher in Moundridge, where Vernard Vogt was a school board member. (13) In September of that year, after the wheat harvest and the annual Western District Mennonite youth retreat, Juhnke had begun a systematic file that he labeled "clippings on compulsory military service." He pasted and stapled newspaper stories, mostly from the Wichita Eagle, onto scrap pages of 8(1/2)-by-ll-inch paper. On the first page of Juhnke's clippings file was an Associated Press release of July 23 that said the Burke-Wadsworth bill would provide for "registration of 42,000,000 men, of whom 1,500,000 would be drafted in the first year." (14)

Juhnke was alarmed. He was subject to the draft--28 years old, married and father of a 2-year-old son. He was convinced that a peacetime military draft would be a step toward war. He and his wife, Meta Goering Juhnke, lived near Elyria four and a half miles north of the Eden Church on a farm he inherited as the oldest son in a family of ten children. Juhnke spent part of each summer at Kansas University (Lawrence) working toward a master's degree in public school administration. He was a popular teacher at Moundridge High School, noted for his quick wit, love of debate and willingness to defend controversial causes. His master's thesis focused on the teaching of controversial issues in Kansas high schools.

In addition, Juhnke was the president of the Western District Young People's organization, and the editor of its quarterly youth publication, which he had founded, Western District Tidings (circulation 1,500). In the summer of 1940, while living at Kansas University in Lawrence, Bill and Meta wrote letters to Washington against military conscription. Meta regularly listened to the "Farm and Home Hour" radio program, where commentator H. R. Baukhage held forth on leading issues of the day, and she wrote to Baukhage, arguing that "peace-time compulsory military training" was "not democratic but is based on the Hitler type of regimentation." Likewise, Bill wrote letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt; to the Kansas senators, Clyde M. Reed and Arthur Capper; to John M. Houston of the [] District in Kansas; and to the Kansas governor, Payne Ratner. He told them he agreed with aviator Charles Lindbergh's "idea of staying at home. We do not want to spill more American blood on European soil."

Although Bill and Meta Juhnke were clearly Christian pacifists whose peace convictions were grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus, in their letters to public officials they did not quote the Bible or use religious arguments. Instead, they spoke a secular language and used practical arguments about the futility of war. In some of his letters, Bill bolstered his authority by writing on Moundridge Public School letterhead and signing as "Head of Social Science Dep't Moundridge High School." Mr. Curt Siemens, the Moundridge superintendent of schools, whose name appeared on the letterhead, was also a Mennonite pacifist.

In July 1940 Elmer Ediger, a recent Bethel College graduate who had been inspired by Bill Juhnke's youth leadership, also wrote to Washington to oppose military conscription. Ediger was born in Greensburg, Kansas, and raised on a farm near Buhler, the seventh oi eleven children in his family. When Ediger attended Buhler High School, his school principal had been Edward E. Kaufman. Like Curt Siemens at Moundridge, Kaufman was a peace-minded Mennonite, who advocated the teaching of Bible in public schools. (15) As advisor of the Buhler school Hi-Y club, a Christian young men's organization, Kaufman had encouraged Ediger and other Hi-Y activists to put up a poster on the school yard in support of the Kellogg-Briand Peace Treaty to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy. (16)

In the summer of 1940 Ediger, single and 23 years old, was even more vulnerable to the military draft than was Bill Juhnke. He had graduated from Bethel College that spring and spent part of the summer living with an experimental pacifist communitarian group in Suffern, New York. In his letter to a Kansas congressman, Clifford Hope, Ediger wrote that it wras his "sincere conviction that such a thing as democracy cannot be protected and preserved in the long run by killing those who have conflicting and destructive views. Hitlerism is an idea and cannot be destroyed by killing physical beings." Moreover, he went on record that he would not join the military: "As a Christian, as a sincere patriot of the United States, as a Mennonite I am willing to sacrifice myself binding wounds, but I will not bear arms, I'll not Kill!" (17)

In the summer of 1940 Robert S. Kreider was between two years of graduate study in Chicago and earning money at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. Like Juhnke and Ediger, Kreider was a graduate of Bethel College. But he did not come from a large rural Mennonite family. His father, Amos E. Kreider, taught Bible classes at Bethel College, where he also co-taught a class titled "Peace Principles." There were two children in the Kreider family, a sign of the lower birth rate that the Mennonite transition from farm to town to city would bring. Kreider was a brilliant and brash student leader. As editor of the Bethel College student newspaper, he had challenged the president of the college, Edmund G. Kaufman, on athletic policy. Kreider had traveled in Europe the summer after graduating from Bethel and critiqued John Thierstein, the editor of the denomination's main periociical, The Mennonite, for his inadequate understanding of Hitler and National Socialism.

Kreider eagerly read the Detroit daily newspapers for news of the European war and the progress of the Burke-Wadsworth conscription bill. In the fall of 1940, he became more directly involved in national electoral politics than any other Kansas Mennonite. As president of the Socialist Club on the University of Chicago campus he had opportunity to meet Dr. Robert Hutchins, the anti-war president of the university. He also met the Socialist Party candidates for president and vice president in 1940--Norman Thomas and Maynard Krueger--and he chaired a wellattended public meeting with Thomas and Krueger as main speakers. In the November elections, Kreider voted for the Socialist ticket. He said it was a "protest vote" against Democrat and Republican national political leaders who lacked the wit or will to resist the drift toward war. (18)

Despite the heady cultural and political environment of the University of Chicago, Kreider was not seduced away from his Mennonite community of origin by the promises of upward academic mobility and urban worldly glory. In letters to his parents and to his fellow students at Bethel College, he wrote of a deepening appreciation for his Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage. His teachers at the university were indeed inspiring, but he also realized that he had gotten an excellent undergraduate education at Bethel, and he fantasized about the prospect of returning to teach there. (19) To his idealistic student friends back at Bethel College, Kreider wrote that the Socialist Party did not have all the answers. Nor was the liberal theology of the social gospel necessarily adequate to resolve the dire world crisis. (20)

Bill Juhnke, Elmer Ediger and Robert Kreider were part of a remarkable generation of idealistic peace activists at Bethel College. As future denominational leaders they were unusually aware of world political and social events, and convinced of the relevance of Mennonite ideals for addressing world problems. In the late 1930s the Bethel campus became, in the judgment of historian Perry Bush, "a hubbub of peace and service activism that would not appear on Mennonite campuses again until the 1960s." (21)

At the center of activist peace idealism on the Bethel campus was Emmett L. Harshbarger, professor of history and social sciences from 1933 to 1942. Harshbarger was something of an outsider to the insular Kansas Mennonite community. Born in Ohio to an acculturated Mennonite family, he could not speak either Low German or High German, the mother tongues of most of his students. His Ph.D. dissertation at Ohio State University (1933) was on a non-Mennonite topic, "African Slave Trade in Anglo-American Diplomacy." Yet Bethel students were dazzled by his political sophistication, his knowledge of international affairs and his dynamism in the classroom. Esko Laewen, one of Harshbarger's student admirers, reported that by 1941 a quarter of the entire student body had become history majors. (22)

In his teaching and public speaking, Harshbarger's passion was for a Christian peace witness to the public order. He was an internationalist, not an isolationist or an "America Firster." In a summary of his personal "Stand on Peace," Harshbarger wrote:
 Realizing that the Christian conscience is the strongest
 personal and social motivation for righteousness, I
 believe that the spread of the Christian ideal for peace
 is an all-important factor in achieving world peace. ...
 We must use our privileges as citizens to influence
 Congressmen and other leaders to formulate national policy
 in harmony with peaceful relations; we must educate youth
 away from the glories of war to the glories of peace; we
 must build a strong permanent international organization
 which can settle peaceably the inevitable international
 disputes; we must consolidate the mighty influence of the
 Christian Church on the side of peace; and, we must, in
 every way possible, increase the agencies and occasions
 for cooperation instead of friction in our social and
 economic relationships. (23)

Harshbarger had a double mission. One task was world-transformation--to carry the Gospel of Christian peace to a war-making world. Another task was to awaken the Mennonites to their political responsibilities. Some traditionalist Mennonite church leaders, including some who had been influenced by American fundamentalism, were inclined to be suspicious of political activity and to focus on change through personal religious conversion. Some Mennonites worried that modern pacifism "seems to be aligned, if not identified, with political movements, such as Communism and the like." (24) In answering such fears, Harshbarger typically did not build primarily upon Bible texts, theological analysis or Mennonite history in a traditional Mennonite fashion. He was rather a modern Christian social scientist who used the language of sociology and politics. (25) He was a mediator of new ways of thinking to traditionalist Mennonites in rural churches. In connection with the annual Bible Week lectures at Bethel College in 1934 Harshbarger offered a five-session daily "course for ministers on modern social movements and their religious implications" His topics were Communism, Fascism and Hitlerism, Socialism, Recent American Trends and The Peace Movement. (26)

The official statements of the district and conference peace committees, on which Harshbarger served, reflected a compromise of different voices. On one hand was the traditional Mennonite pietistic language of conservative leaders such as Peter H. Richert and Henry P. Krehbiel. On the other hand was Harshbarger's more political language. In September 1939 the Western District Peace Committee adopted a letter to send to members of Congress, and published the letter in the denominational periodical, The Mennonite. The letter contained specific policy recommendations, surely drafted by Harshbarger, regarding the war in Europe. It called for "positive neutrality" between the warring nations, a prohibition on sending military supplies, and the exertion of national influence "in a non-partisan spirit toward the peaceable adjustment of all differences," But the statement also had traditional Mennonite language supplied by other committee members: "As followers of Jesus Christ we are convinced that war is sin, both against God and Man." It also called the nation to live by a Christian ethic: "... as a Christian nation our country should not engage in war with any other nation." (27)

Kansas Mennonite letters and statements to government on the eve of World War II, mostly written by second-generation immigrants, did not have clear positions about Mennonite identity and about church-state relations in a democratic society. Was the United States a Christian nation or was it not? Cornelius H. Wedel, the first president of Bethel College, had provided a theology for Mennonites before World War I. (28) But Wedel had died untimely in 1910, and his writings had not been translated from German into English. The most extensive peace statement by a Kansas Mennonite before World War II was Henry P. Krehbiel's book, War, Peace, Amity (1937). Krehbiel, who before World War I had served a term in the Kansas House of Representatives, was a progressive optimist who believed that international warfare was passing away. But he rejected political and economic efforts to end war as inevitably coercive. Peace would come by spiritual transformation, through a worldwide revival of Christian peace-minded teaching and behavior. In the judgment of a later critic, the thinking of men such as Krehbiel and Harshbarger, as different as they were from each other, undermined Mennonite minority consciousness and proved inadequate to the crisis of a w?or!d war. (29) To be sure, Kansas Mennonites were not theologically sophisticated. Nor can it be said that Christian theology in Europe or America in general was prepared for the crisis of global warfare.

In their peace witness to the national government, first to keep the United States out of the war and then to protect the interests of conscientious objectors in case of the military draft, Mennonites worked together with the two other largest pacifist denominations--the Friends/Quakers and the Church of the Brethren. Groundwork for cooperation of the historic peace churches had been laid in a meeting held in Newton, Kansas, in the fall of 1935, at the invitation of Henry P. Krehbiel. Harshbarger served as vice chairman of a new "Mennonite Central Peace Committee," created in 1939. On January 10, 1940, a historic peace church delegation met with President Franklin Roosevelt and delivered two statements about the prospects for military conscription and military service. The Friends, more than the Mennonites, were concerned about policies to protect absolutist and nonreligious conscientious objectors. President Roosevelt charmed the delegation and led them to believe, falsely as it turned out, that he appreciated their position and would help to protect their interests. (30)

One measure of Mennonite political attitudes was in the Mennonite weekly newspapers published in Hillsboro and Newton. Those newspapers in 1940 reflected a readership in rapid transition from the German language to the English language. The Hillsboro Journal, an eight-page paper edited by Peter H. Berg and A. J. Voth, was a dual-language paper. Pages 2, 3, 6 and part of 7 were in the German language. Most of its readers were from the Mennonite Brethren church. The Herald Publishing Company in Newton, reaching a primarily General Conference Mennonite constituency, published separate newspapers in German and English. Gerhard H. Willms, who in 1922 had immigrated to Kansas from the Mennonite Molotschna colony in South Russia, edited the German language newspaper Der Herold. Most of Der Herold's readers were in Canada. It ceased publication at the end of 1941. Menno Schrag, who had attended Hesston Academy, Bethel College and Wheaton College, edited the Mennonite Weekly Review. None of these Mennonite editors commented extensively on the presidential candidates, or upon issues in the campaigns. But these editors all chose news articles that favored the Republican Party and its candidates. The editors traditionally leaned toward the Republican Party, an inclination that was strengthened by their opposition to the Burke-Wadsworth bill.

In issues before the election, Berg (and perhaps also associate editor A. J. Voth) revealed his partisan preferences with a gratuitous insult of Eleanor Roosevelt (who allegedly told reporters, "I've nothing to say about anything"), and with news items favorable to Willkie ("He Stands for Peace" and "More Jobs, Less taxes is Willkie's Pledge"). The front page of the issue before the election featured photographs of Willkie and of Payne Rather, the Republican candidate for governor of Kansas. "Vote for Wendell Willkie and Payne Rather, and rest assured that our national and state problems will be solved properly." (31) The paper did not identify this as a paid political advertisement. The paper also announced a "Republican Rally" to be held in Hillsboro City Hall on Saturday evening.

Meanwhile, Willms, the editor in Newton, ran front-page news reports of Wendell Willkie's claim that President Roosevelt was associating with "little Hitlers," (October 17), and that a third term for Roosevelt would be "the last step toward dictatorship" (October 24). The following week (October 30) Schrag, the editor of Mennonite Weekly Review, obliquely endorsed Willkie on the basis of the third-term issue. "It is an especially fateful decision," wrote Schrag, "because of the totalitarian trends which have been set in motion all over the world. It is not the personalities involved that counts. Neither Republican or Democratic candidates will be able to guarantee prosperity or peace. ... But it is the trend which is all important." (32)


The actual votes in precincts with substantial Mennonite population reveal that the 1940 election was a watershed in Kansas Mennonite political identity. From the time of their immigration to Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s, Mennonites had generally distributed their votes to Republicans and Democrats in numbers that did not diverge widely or consistently from the voting patterns of other Kansans. (33) But in 1940 Mennonites voted overwhelmingly and distinctively for the Republican ticket. After 1940 Mennonites quite consistently returned a Republican majority that was about 15 percent higher than the Kansas state average.

Four years earlier, in the 1936 presidential election, these same Mennonite precincts had favored the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, by only 55.4 percent. Landon had been governor of Kansas. What can account for this radical shift from 1936 to 1940 of more than 25 percentage points to the Republican candidate? And why was this shift so much more dramatic than the Kansas statewide shift of only 11 points? The answer must be that the pacifist Mennonites thought that the Democrat president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was leading the country toward war. The convincing evidence was the national draft registration of young men between ages 21 and 35 on October 16, 1940, and the subsequent draft lottery of October 29, just one week before the election. To be sure, Winkle had by no means campaigned as a peace candidate. Nor did Mennonite leaders acclaim him as such. This was a protest vote against the Democrats more than an embrace of the Republicans. But it set an enduring pattern.

Mennonite communities in Kansas did not all vote exactly alike. As in previous elections, in 1940 the strongest Republican majorities were in the Dutch-Russian townships in Marion County. Menno and West Branch townships voted 97 percent Republican. These were primarily Mennonites of Dutch-Russian background in the Alexanderwohl settlement. The Republican majority was smaller among the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites in southern McPherson County. Albion Township in Reno County, which included the town of Pretty Prairie and a minority of Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites, actually gave a 56 percent majority to the Democrat Roosevelt. Kansas Mennonite diversity in voting preferences along ethnic/church body lines had been established for decades. It was rooted in choices made by the immigrant generation.

More evidence of Mennonite diversity surfaced on the Bethel College campus in North Newton. A student straw poll, taken after a meeting at which two Newton attorneys made their cases for the Democratic and Republican parties, resulted in 146 votes for Willkie (R), 42 votes for Roosevelt (D) and 65 votes for Thomas (Socialist). The Bethel vote of 30.5 percent for the Socialist candidate may have reflected the activity of the student Socialist club on campus, and a greater awareness that Norman Thomas was the only strong anti-war candidate. A few Bethel faculty members, including Amos E. Kreider, Bible professor, probably also voted Socialist as a protest. (34) In any case, despite the larger undeniable Republican trend, there was some variety among Mennonites in their political preferences. Conservative Mennonites who feared the allegedly corrupting and radicalizing tendencies on Bethel's liberal arts campus apparently had good reason for their fears. There was a gap between Mennonite farm and Mennonite college campus.

On the county and local level, Mennonites were not strongly represented in comparison to their numbers. Their people were settled on the edges of four counties (McPherson, Marion, Harvey and Reno), rather than primarily in one county. They were far from a majority, representing at most 25 percent of the population in any one county. The evolution of Mennonite involvement in local and county politics would have been significantly different if any one or two county boundaries had enclosed a strong Mennonite majority. McPherson County had three commissioners elected according to district, and the Mennonites were a majority in the southern district. In that district Gerhard Zerger, a member of the Eden Mennonite Church and a member of the Democratic Party, served as commissioner for five four-year terms, from 1937 to 1957. In 1940 three additional Mennonite Democrats of Swiss-Volhynian background, ran for office in McPherson County and were defeated: J. D. C. Goering (state representative), Jacob A. Wedel (county treasurer) and David T. Stucky (county clerk).


The political activism of General Conference Kansas Mennonites surely belies the typical image of Mennonites as a withdrawn and apolitical people. Although some smaller groups in Kansas, such as the (Old) Mennonites and Church of God in Christ (Holdeman) Mennonites continued to hold to a stronger dualism of church and world and were reluctant to speak out politically, the dominant General Conference majority of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia were clearly more inclined toward political involvement than were (Old) Mennonites and Amish folk east of the Mississippi River.

The passage of Burke-Wadsworth conscription bill, and the approach of the general election in 1940, prompted a higher level of political commentary and activity among Kansas Mennonites than at any time since their immigration. Some Mennonites had been arguing about American politics and voting in elections already in the 1870s and 1880s. A new generation of leaders in the 1930s and 1940s--men such as Emmett Harshbarger, Bill Juhnke, Elmer Ediger and Robert Kreider-were generally better informed about national politics, and more likely to write letters to their national legislators, than were Kansas Mennonites a quarter century earlier in the run up to World War I. The disillusioning experience of that Great War, both for Kansas Mennonites and for political leaders such as Arthur Capper and John Houston, had made opposition to war and military conscription an attractive political option in the late 1930s.

Yet despite this flurry of energetic engagement, even the political involvement of General Conference Mennonites remained qualified. In the wake of the November election of 1940, Peter H. Berg, editor of the Hillsboro Journal, expressed a typical Mennonite distaste for politics. "As a nation," wrote Berg, "we can be thankful that Presidential elections only occur once every four years." (35) Berg was heartily tired of noisy political meetings, garish posters and unsightly political buttons on the coat lapels of men walking the streets of Hillsboro. Even during the fall of 1940 Kansas Mennonites did not generally have high expectations from the decisions of government. Their voices registered a protest rather than an affirmation of the course of public policy--both in their witness to government about impending military conscription and in their rejection of President Roosevelt and the Democratic Party at the polls on November 5.

(1.) See James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms, The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1975). That book covered the Kansas Mennonite experience from immigration to World War II. This article on Kansas Mennonites and the election of 1940 is a version of one chapter in a book that will continue the story from World War II to the twenty-first century.

(2.) The number was compiled from the church directories of Mennonite conferences in or around 1940. It includes the following counties: McPherson, Marion, Harvey, Reno, Butler (Peabody and Fairmont townships) and Sedgwick (Wichita city). It does not include smaller, more isolated congregations such as the Amish in Reno County and other congregations in western Kansas.

(3.) See the map "Religion in America: 1950" accompanying Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).

(4.) Steven Vail Foulke, "Shaping of Place: Mennonitism in South-Central Kansas" (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1998), 292, 30.

(5.) Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms, 153-157.

(6.) Eden Mennonite Church Record Book, Congregational Meeting Minutes 1926-1980, 70.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Minutes and Reports of the Twenty-Eighth Session of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America, 1938,141.

(9.) John W. Partin, "The Dilemma of 'A Good, Very Good Man': Capper and Noninterventionism, 19364941," Kansas History 2 (Summer 1979), 87.

(10.) Letter from Harshbarger to Capper, June 23, 1937. International Relations Institute Collection, MLA-B.

(11.) John M. Houston to Edmund G. Kaufman, Oct. 26, 1939, Kaufman administration, box 50, folder 187, Bethel College files, MLA-B.

(12.) James C. Juhnke, "Edmund G. Kaufman, Minister of Peace in a World of War," Kansas History 18 (Spring 1995), 52-53.

(13.) James C. Juhnke, So Much to he Tliankful For: The Bill and Meta Juhnke Story. (Wichita, Kan.: privately published, 2009), 77, 89-94.

(14.) William E. Juhnke Collection. Folder "Clippings on Conscription," author's collection.

(15.) Edward E. Kaufman, "The Bible in Public Schools" Mennonite Weekly Review, Oct. 30,1940, 3.

(16.) Transcript of interview by Roger Juhnke, Oct. 9, 1978. Elmer Ediger Collection, MLA-B.

(17.) Elmer Ediger to Clifford R. Hope, July 22,1940. Ediger Collection, MLA-B.

(18.) Robert S. Kreider, My Early Years, An Autobiography (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2002), 265-268.

(19.) Kreider, My Early Years, 271.

(20.) Esko Loewen, Oral History Interview. MLA-B.

(21.) Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 51. That same spirit of peace idealism also found voice at Tabor College in Hillsboro, though it was not as well organized. Shortly before the 1940 election Vernon Vogt, editor of Tabor's student newspaper, wrote a fervent editorial insisting that American young people had rejected war. They were not showing up at military recruiting offices. Why not? Wrote Voth, "It is the result of education. Young people ... have their own ideas of democracy and they want to live it out. They don't want to stoop to war as a means to stop war; neither do they believe that dying for our democratic principles will save them."--"Youth Accepts Challenge," Tabor College Bulletin," Hillsboro Journal, Oct. 17,1940, 7.

(22.) Esko Loewen interview.

(23.) Statement in the summary for a Bethel College class, 'The Peace Principle," 1937-1938. Edmund G. Kaufman collection, box 33, folder 418, MLA-B.

(24.) Western District Conference Report of 45th annual meeting, Beatrice, Neb., "Peace Committee Report," 2167.

(25.) For an example of Harshbarger's language for a scholarly academic audience, see his essay, "Can America Be Neutral?" The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (March 1938), 1-10.

(26.) "Program for the Bible Week at Bethel College," Bethel College Bulletin," Feb. 1934.

(27.) "Letter to Members of Congress," The Mennonite, Oct. 3,1939, 3.

(28.) On Wedel's theology see J. Denny Weaver, Keeping Salvation Ethical, Mennonite and Amish Atonement Theology in the Late Nineteenth Century (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1997), 78-91, 221-224; and James C Juhnke, Dialogue With a Heritage, Cornelius H, Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College (North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College, 1987), 63-75.

(29.) Rodney James Sawatsky, History and Ideology: American Mennonite Identity Definition through History (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2005), 107-114.

(30.) Albert Nl. Keim, The Politics of Conscience, The Historic Peace Churches And America at War, 1917-1995 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988), 77.

(31.) Hillsboro Journal, Oct. 17, 1940, 4; Oct. 24,1940, 7; Oct. 31, 1940, 1.

(32.) Mennonite Weekly Review, Oct. 30, 1940, 5.

(33.) James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms, The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1975), 3-7, 125-126.

(34.) Robert Kreider interview with the author, Nov. 11, 2008.

(35.) Hillsboro journal, Nov. 7, 1940, 4.
Group 1940 members Percentage

Western District of the General

Conference Mennonite Church 8,355 66%

Mennonite Brethren 1,666 13%
Church of God in Christ

Mennonite (Holdeman) 1,216 10%
(Old) Mennonite South Central

Conference of the Mennonite Church 890 7%

Krimmer Mennonite Brethren 549 4%

Total 12,676 100%

1940 Presidential Vote
In Selected Precincts of Substantial Mennonite Population

Republican - Willkie 3,607 81%
Democrat - Roosevelt 783 17.6%
Socialist - Thomas 37 .8%
Prohibition - Babson 26 .6%

1940 Presidential Vote in Kansas Overall

Willkie 489/169 56.8%
Roosevelt 364,725 42.4%
Thomas - Babscon 6,403 .8%


Prof. Dawn S. Bowen, Dept. of Geography (Annex B), University of Mary Washington, 1301 College Avenue, Fredericksburg, VA, 22401. E-mail:

Prof. James C. Juhnke, 737 S Chautauqua Ave, Wichita, KS, 67211-3010.


Prof. Steven M. Nolt, Dept. of History, Goshen College, 1700 S. Main St., Goshen, IN, 46526. E-mail:

Prof. Gerhard Rempel, 601 Mainsail Circle, Jupiter, FL, 33477-1406. E-mail:


* James C. Juhnke is a professor of history emeritus at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.
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Author:Juhnke, James C.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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