Duane Stoltzfus – Pacifists in Chains [Feature Review]

October 25, 2013 — Leave a comment


The Principles of Religious Community

A Feature Review of

Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War.
Duane Stoltzfus

Paperback: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]


Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney


I’ve been telling friends about this book for weeks, ever since the advance reading copy arrived at my house. The story is compelling, troubling themes resonate with recent events in our country, and it can be summarized quickly.
Four young men from South Dakota, three of them brothers, all Hutterites, refused to serve in the military as America was up to its neck in the First World War. They were “absolutist objectors,” which means they refused to even work in the kitchen or behind the scenes in any sort of alternative service. So they were sent to prison, first at Alcatraz, and then to Leavenworth. Their creed and consciences dictated that they wouldn’t even wear government-issued clothing bearing a military label, so they spent most of their time in their underwear. Not only were they sent to high security prisons where they were among the worst of criminals, but they were tortured – hung from their wrists with chains, malnourished, and kept in tiny cells full of rodents. Some of the murderers actually pitied them. Two of the four men went home in caskets. All four wrote letters home to their wives and Stoltzfus uses the epistolary evidence to tell this amazing story.

A total of five hundred and four conscientious objectors were court martialed during World War I. These Hutterites were among them. Sentenced to twenty years, if the year had been 1968 instead of 1918 Bob Dylan would’ve celebrated their faith and witness in folk songs. Instead, they were victims of their era, which saw prisons focusing on “reforming” and “rehabilitating” COs.


It is remarkable that they were called up in the first place, and it only happened because they lived by the principles of religious community. All four were married and had children, and yet, when asked on the draft questionnaire if they had any dependents, each responded “No.” That was the truth, according to their vows, because members of an intentional community in which property and goods are shared in common all take care of each other.


Hutterites were religious minorities who ran afoul of their government, as well as the majority of their fellow citizens, during a time of national crisis. They went from being the misunderstood outsider to the persecuted other. Similarities are striking between what happened to them in 1918 and what happened to Muslims (or Sikhs or Hindus etc. – darker-skinned people who might have a religious affiliation) in the months and years following 9/11. For example, the State of South Dakota outlawed the public speaking or reading of the German language during World War I, a measure aimed at conforming the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish, who were all made suspects of aiding the enemy. Books were burned. Slurs were thrown around. Mob rule became a common method, for instance, of forcing Hutterites to buy war bonds. Clearly, they were not only deeply misunderstood, but feared, which explains why other men on the train headed to basic training held the four Hutterites down one-by-one, forcibly shaving their heads and shoring their beards.


In prison, the men seemed to cherish apocalyptic views of their situation. Given their training in the Bible and understanding of the history of Hutterite martyrdom, they couldn’t help but see what was happening to them in prophetic terms. There is no question that they were undergoing religious persecution at the hands of their government, and they wrote home often to say so, but one also comes away feeling that perhaps they possessed a spiritual arrogance as well. The letters home are full of language that shows they believed in their righteousness, that they’d fallen into the hands of great sinners, and that it all might signal the end of the world as foretold in scripture.

I had only one quibble with the book and that was the bias that showed when the author stepped back to tell the broader story of how Hutterite faith originated. His portrait of the religious upheaval of sixteenth century Europe comes across as distinctly Protestant and Anabaptist, to the exclusion of all nuance. In other words, according to Pacifists in Chains, all of Christianity was rotten and corrupt in the century leading up to the Reformation, there wasn’t faith to be found anywhere, so thank God Martin Luther came on the scene, and after him, the even greater purity and truth of Zwingli and Hutter. Recent historians such as Eamon Duffy have shown definitively how this isn’t true, and yet I wonder if the story of the Protestant Reformation is still told that way at Goshen College, where Stoltzfus teaches.


Nevertheless, Duane Stoltzfus has written a real page-turner, a necessary book. It’s almost a shame that Pacifists in Chains has been published by a university press that has higher retail prices, making it unlikely that you’ll find it at your local bookseller. But it is an important work that deserves to reach a wide audience.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope Who Quit, which has been optioned by HBO, and The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of An Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church with Phyllis Tickle, due out in January (Baker). He lives in Ann Arbor, MI.