Wartime Persecution of Mennonites
The stalwart endurance and courage of Mennonite Christians in western and northern Oklahoma during World War I constitutes one of the supremely heroic sagas in the history of the state. The irony of their harsh, sometimes violent, and occasionally murderous treatment at the hands of a citizenry striving to “make the world safe for democracy” illumines a chapter of Sooner State history whose shame is excelled only by the valor of these simple pacifist folk of the land.
Once President Woodrow Wilson led America into the war, he created a colossal propaganda agency, euphemistically titled the Committee on Public Information. This organization churned out vast amounts of material, some of it truthful, some not, intended to spur the national war effort and raise the necessary supplies of men and funds.
The committee’s goals and perspectives, which Oklahoma historian O. A. Hilton described early in the next world war—which exploded into conflagration just two decades after the “winning” of the first one—seem now as fanciful as they were lofty:
“Publicity and propaganda were the magic media through which the enthusiasm of the masses, their money, labor, hates and loves were to be mobilized to Make the World Safe for Democracy and a decent place to live in, to drive the monster Wilhelm II off the Prussian pedestal, and bring about permanent peace, international good-will and the brotherhood of man.”
Committee chair George Creel exponentially extended its reach and power by mandating local and state Councils of Defense, comprised of volunteers, to foster patriotism, motivate and sustain the war effort, and, as it turned out, quash even lawful dissent—as firmly as necessary.
“Unfortunately, in Oklahoma,” according to Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame member Marvin E. Kroeker, “the self-appointed council members operated as extralegal snooping committees who targeted Germans for abuse and sought to enforce their own versions of loyalty and patriotism.”
Historian Hilton artfully conveyed the Councils of Defense determination to prevent even the United States Constitution from getting in the way of what they deemed “desirable”:
“Lack of legal authority was not of primary importance to the Oklahoma Council…During the war years, lack of statutory powers was a bar to "patriotic effort" only where official organizations lacked the imagination or the audacity to accomplish those things which they considered desirable…the question of legal authority was of academic importance, only.”
What did this frontier brand of patriotic justice look like? Mennonite historians such as Kroeker, Sharon Hartin Iorio, and Guy Herschberger gathered a pitiable roster of outrages committed during the war against law abiding Oklahoma Mennonites. A sampling follows. It does not include the many episodes of property damage committed against them. The majority of mistreatment was no doubt lost to history due for several reasons, including the Mennonites’ periodic language difficulty in accurately expressing their problems to authorities, those same authorities’ frequent lack of sympathy, and the Mennonites’ reticence to cause trouble or bring attention to themselves.
Numerous Mennonite homes were smeared with yellow paint, the color intended to suggest cowardice for the pacifist believers living inside.
A Mennonite man was kidnapped from his home by a mob and his body painted yellow.
One, and possibly more, Mennonite man was tar-and-feathered by a mob.
Local persecution forced the closure of fourteen of the sixteen German-language newspapers in Oklahoma, most of them published by devout Christians.
One man was “strung up on a telephone pole by a mob, although he was rescued by the officials.”
Collinsville farmer Henry Reimer was hanged by a lynch mob after protesting the local Council of Defense’s shuttering of a German-speaking Christian school. The courageous assistant police chief rescued his unconscious body in time to save his life.
A vigilante group marched into the Mennonite Church near Fairview, ordered all services, including prayers, be conducted in English, and posted notices on church doors which read “GOD ALMIGHTY UNDERSTANDS THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE. Address HIM only in that Tongue.”
The towns of Inola and Cordell left legacies of unchristian hatred and cruelty conspicuous even for an era of historically supercharged emotions and “patriotism.” A General Conference Mennonite Church near Inola was burned to the ground. Two months later, the barn where the congregation had temporarily moved its worship services was burned down. A Mennonite Brethren Church in Inola was razed.
An Inola man was forcibly kidnapped and held prisoner for several days because he had not purchased war bonds. No charges were ever brought against his abductors, nor against anyone who committed crimes against Oklahoma Mennonites. Conscientious objector John Jantzen of Inola was warned that if he failed to comply when drafted, he would be lynched. He, his Mennonite Brethren father and lay minister Franz, and the entire Jantzen clan, escaped “under cover of darkness” for Canada, never to return.
Spite and Savagery
The non-Mennonite people of Cordell, meanwhile, forced the shuttering of Cordell Christian College, a Church of Christ institution with no Germanic connections but which believed the Bible admonished against involvement in worldly affairs, including both politics and war. Two of these college students were imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth for refusing roles where they would be expected to kill, and brought before a firing squad, likely with Mennonites, before receiving a last second reprieve. The town also outlawed speaking in the German language, including in private homes and telephone conversations, most of which took place over shared party lines and could be easily monitored.
Rev. Michael Klaassen was the only pastor that the Cordell-area Herold Mennonite Church had ever had since its inception in the late 1800s. Local officials assured him his son John, whom they knew was a pacifist Christian, had poor eyesight and was needed to run the family farm, would be not be inducted into the army if he registered. When John reported to Council of Defense officials at the courthouse in Cordell, however, he was immediately conscripted and given a date to report for infantry training at Camp Travis in Texas. His father recalled the “spite and savagery of war” that marked these officials.
John consented to perform duties that would not ensnare him in the process of killing, but he refused to don a military uniform. Despite the fact that U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker had excused Mennonite young men from doing exactly that, John was thrown into prison at Fort Leavenworth—where he died in the terrifying Spanish Flu epidemic that ravaged American military installations.
When John’s body arrived back at Cordell in his coffin, dressed in a uniform by a U.S. army “displaying utter contempt for his conscientious stand,” his father removed it. He spoke to his son as though he yet lived, declaring, “If you have refused the uniform in life, you shall not wear it in death.”
Knowing that John was the third child Rev. Klaassen had lost to death that year, including a two-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter, the community of Cordell nonetheless exhibited such venom toward him that he feared he would be killed and thus leave a widowed wife and his other children fatherless and without a financial provider. When two close friends alerted him the same day he buried John that a gang of men was about to murder him, Michael gathered his family and they tearfully left Cordell to join Mennonite relatives in Canada who had already fled there. He would never again see the Oklahoma he had come to revere and where were buried numerous of his beloveds, including the wife of his youth.
“O God, Thou God of Thy people!” Rev. Michael Klaassen wrote in his diary. “Strange are Thy ways with Thy people. This horrible war was the reason. I had learned to love my home in Oklahoma and had become so intimately bound to the Herold Church and then to be torn away so suddenly!...Torn from home and church and landing in the land of midnight.”
Gone for Soldiers
On the military front, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker assured concerned Mennonite leaders that “We will take care of your boys” once the church’s young men registered for service and reported to military camps when called. The government’s definition of “care” proved rather different than Baker had suggested. Drill instructors employed pressure, sometimes brutally, to coerce them into fighting.
Scores of Mennonite boys refused to be cowed and were sentenced to life sentences in the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas prison. More of them hailed from Oklahoma than any other state. Leavenworth’s commanding officer commuted the sentences to 25 years hard labor. After the war, the government granted the Mennonites amnesty, though the Oklahoma legislature passed a resolution harshly condemning that decree. By then, five Mennonites had died as prisoners in Leavenworth.
As chronicled elsewhere in this chapter, Mennonites were far from the only law-abiding Oklahomans violently persecuted during the Great War by “patriots.” Robert Carlton Scott, grandfather of future U.S. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, provides just one of innumerable examples. Albert recalled in his memoir how “self-styled patriots” demanded that his independent-thinking grandpa, a devout Christian evangelist, nail a flag to his McAlester home to demonstrate his loyalty. When Scott pointed out the flag already flying from his mailbox and invited his accusers to nail up all the flags they wanted, they left. As Albert recounted, however, they returned:
This time they wanted him to sign a card swearing loyalty to the president and everything it took to go into war…He would sign no card. He would give his country his loyalty. But he would not swear to any man. In fact, he would not swear at all. In his view, swearing violated the Commandments and that card was the mark of the beast, Revelation’s symbol of fealty to the Antichrist.
So they arrested him and threw him in the Pittsburg County Jail. There a gang of patriots, joined by common drunks and thieves, bound him and whipped him, two hundred lashes in all.
Legacy of Valor
Mennonite courage and steadfastness at home and away during World War I casts a long valorous legacy. The church emerged from World War I with a bond of shared experience and struggle. But their marginalization, mistreatment, and abuse by the society around them, many if not most of whom professed belief in Christ, took an enormous toll.
German language newspapers, worship services, and other cultural customs withered away. More importantly, many young Mennonites, having witnessed the searing persecution foisted upon their parents and others by classmates, neighbors, and fellow townspeople, and growing more integrated into English-language American culture, gradually distanced themselves from those practices that stirred societal controversy, though not necessarily from their devout Mennonite, even non-violent, faith.
By World War II, the Daily Oklahoman of publishing titan E. K. Gaylord, exemplar of the “Bible in one hand, rifle in the other” philosophy possessed by countless Oklahoma Christians, could assure its readers in a series of major articles that young Mennonites were assimilating well into the surrounding culture and contributing faithfully and sacrificially to the nation’s military effort in the new, even more terrible world war.
Yet the uniquely Oklahoman, American, and Christian valor of these Christ-followers bears remembrance, as eloquently written by Sharon Hartin Iorio:
“What the Mennonites did not give up during World War I was their practice of nonresistance. They offered no retaliation for the pain they suffered, demanded no payback for unpunished acts of violence toward them or economic losses incurred, voiced no public recrimination, uttered no acrimony outside the group, sought no counterspin of positive publicity. They suffered in silence, and they obeyed the draft law. They also held to their principles and stood firm in a quiet, unyielding, nonaggressive peace position against the purchase of war bonds and participation in military service. Through this, the Mennonite belief system remained intact.”