Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Would You Have Fought For The Rebel Cause?

In June of 1861 a Confederate army captain interrupted the Sunday morning service at the Weavers Mennonite Church just west of Harrisonburg with a chilling order. All males between the ages of 18 and 45 were to report for military service that coming week.

The pacifist congregation was traumatized as their worst fears about the recently formed secessionist government were confirmed.

From what we know about what happened next, many Mennonites and Brethren under extreme pressure did respond to orders and became a part of Confederate army units during that summer, although few saw active duty at that time. Then in the fall many were given passes to return home to help harvest their crops, after which they were to return to their units.

While some did, others went into hiding or went to live with relatives in the North or emigrated to the West. And still others who rejoined their units under duress, according to the late Harry Brunk's "Mennonites in Virginia", simply took a pledge to never to shoot an enemy combatant.

One such enlistee actually informed his captain that he and others would be obedient in every way possible except to inflict harm on a fellow human being. This resulted in their being threatened with being court martialed and executed if they didn't take correct aim and shoot to kill when ordered to do so.

One local Mennonite, Christian Good, when asked by his officer after a subsequent battle whether he had fired his gun, replied that he didn't see anything to shoot at. He was asked, "Didn't you see all those Yankees over there?" To which Christian replied, "But they are people. I don't shoot people."

According to Brunk's history, a frustrated General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson wrote, "There lives a people in the Valley of Virginia that are not hard to bring to the army. While there they are obedient to their officers. Nor is it difficult to get them to take aim, but it is impossible to get them to take correct aim. I therefore think it better to leave them at their homes that they may produce supplies for the army."

The moral dilemmas the Civil War posed for peace-loving Mennonites and Dunkards (Church of the Brethren) were many.

1) Foremost among them was the fact that their faith forbade them from taking part in any kind of insurrection against a duly formed government. Thus any rebellion, especially against the United States, which had afforded them the right to practice their faith as they saw fit, was unthinkable. The following is a part of their 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith:

XIII. Of the Office of the Secular Authority  

We believe and confess that God has ordained power and authority, and set them to punish the evil, and protect the good, to govern the world, and maintain countries and cities, with their subjects, in good order and regulation; and that we, therefore, may not despise, revile, or resist the same, but must acknowledge and honor them as the ministers of God, and be subject and obedient unto them, yea, ready for all good works, especially in that which is not contrary to the law, will, and commandment of God; also faithfully pay custom, tribute, and taxes, and to render unto them their dues, even also as the Son of God taught and practiced, and commanded His disciples to do; that we, moreover, must constantly and earnestly pray to the Lord for them and their welfare, and for the prosperity of the country, that we may dwell under its protection, earn our livelihood, and lead a quiet, peaceable life, with all godliness and honesty; and, furthermore, that the Lord would recompense unto them, here, and afterwards in eternity, all benefits, liberty, and favor which we enjoy here under their praiseworthy administration. Rom. 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; I Pet. 2:17; Matt. 22:21; 17:27; I Tim. 2:1. 

2) In addition, Mennonites believed that to take up weapons of war was contrary to the teachings of Christ, as also stated in their Confession:

Article XIV: On Revenge

As regards revenge, that is, to oppose an enemy with the sword, we believe and confess that the Lord Christ has forbidden and set aside to His disciples and followers all revenge and retaliation, and commanded them to render to no one evil for evil, or cursing for cursing, but to put the sword into the sheath, or, as the prophets have predicted, to beat the swords into ploughshares. Matt. 5:39, 44; Rom. 12:14; I Pet. 3:9; Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3; Zech. 9:8, 9.
From this we understand that therefore, and according to His example, we must not inflict pain, harm, or sorrow upon any one, but seek the highest welfare and salvation of all men, and even, if necessity require it, flee for the Lord's sake from one city or country into another, and suffer the spoiling of our goods; that we must not harm any one, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate. Matt. 5:39.
And, moreover, that we must pray for our enemies, feed and refresh them whenever they are hungry or thirsty, and thus convince them by well-doing, and overcome all ignorance. Rom. 12:19, 20.

3) Furthermore, even though slavery wasn't the direct cause of the war, Mennonites and Brethren did not own slaves, and regarded slavery as advocated by the Confederacy as being totally contrary to the will of God. While the Brethren did not believe in creeds or confessions, and the Mennonite Confession didn't directly address the issue of human chattel, neither group felt there was the slightest question about whether the institution of slavery could be justified.

As unpopular as their position was 154 years ago, few of us today believe Mennonites, Brethren and others who opposed taking up arms against the Union were wrong to do so. But how would we respond if we faced a similar dilemma today?

Here's a link to information about a local drama being performed this weekend on the impact of the Civil War on local peace churches. Don't miss it!
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