Left Justified: Churches lock up pacifists

During World War II, Christian congregations, including the historic peace churches, locked up their conscientious objectors. Church leaders negotiated with the Selective Service to keep their boys who refused to fight out of jail. On Sept. 30, 1939, Lt. Col. Lewis B. Hershey, head of the SS, asked the Quakers and the other historic peace churches, which included the Brethren, Mennonites and Amish, to run camps for the COs who selected alternative service.

They came up with Civilian Public Service camps (CPS) that would house all draftees who refused, but accepted alternative service instead of jail. Most of the camps were left over from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), although some of the COs found themselves assigned to mental institutions and hospitals where they became human guinea pigs for the study of disease. 11,997 men were assigned to work in the Civilian Public Service program. For this work, the churches contributed more than $7 million to keep their young men out of jail. That’s right—these camps were not run by the government but by the congregations themselves under the watchful eye of Selective Service.

Most of the camps were administered by the American Friends Service Committee, the Brethren Service Committee, and the Mennonite Central Committee. These church agencies furnished food, laundry, clothing, medical care, educational and religious service for the men in the camps. The men were never compensated, though, for their work, and their dependents did not receive any allowance.

Thirty-three of the men died while under assignment, and an undetermined number were permanently injured. Most associated with the project came under public scorn, from the neighbors down the street to the congressmen who tried to exorcise the camps from their district or worse.

A lot of good came from the work. The improvement of public lands was the greatest good. Thousands of COs who worked in mental hospitals were largely responsible for improving its attendant service, and brought more humane treatment of the mentally ill. And those men who gave their bodies to be used in medical science allowed the doctors to learn about diseases like pneumonia, and how much a body could take under extreme conditions.

It was more than a year after the war ended that most of the men were finally released from their self-imposed prisons. The final CO was officially freed on March 31, 1947. There is a PBS special that just touched upon the reasons these young men refused to serve in the war. Of course, the majority was penned up because of their religious beliefs, but there were some political, secular and non-Christian objectors as well. After the experience, most of the church leaders and a majority of the non-combatants fought for a greater recognition of the role of the CO and refused to ever run another camp again.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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