I Wish I'd Been There: Sonnenberg's
Civil War Petition
by James O. Lehman
The American Civil War was all fired up and
going strong. Now, in the summer of 1862, government officials began to
threaten a draft to get more men. At the Sonnenberg Mennonite Church in
eastern Wayne County, Ohio, which was made up of Swiss emigrants from
only twenty-five to thirty-five years earlier, real alarm arose. The
large congregation became so worried that on Wednesday, August 6, a
special meeting was called to expressly consider "the present sad state
of the Country, and to deliberate upon the duties of all good and Loyal
Out of that meeting arose a fine petition, most
likely drafted by Ulrich Welty, a schoolteacher who knew English well
in this very Swiss/German church. The petition, with the names of the
two bishops at the end, was sent to David Tod, governor of Ohio. It is
now located in the Ohio Historical Society Library and Archives at
Columbus. It was a very clear statement of Mennonite thinking of that
era. It informed the governor that for two or three centuries "our
ancestors" were persecuted by governments of different European
countries because of our belief that it is wrong to "make war against
our fellowmen under all circumstances." However, we know that in this
country we have enjoyed religious liberty "unlimited and unmolested."
We know it is our duty to support the government in all things which do
not conflict with our confession of faith. Thus we offer thanks for our
liberties, but we "condemn all rebellion and insurrection" against our
government. We also know that we "owe tribute to whom tribute is due"
to our government. We want to obey government in every way possible
except where we must obey God. To do military service "conflicts" with
"As a matter of conscience we cannot consent to
violate our faith." Therefore, we are willing to aid the government "in
contributions of money." In fact, we will "sacrifice property and all
that we possess in case of necessity rather than to make use of the
sword." We will "suffer the penalty of the law rather than to violate
our faith," if only the government will be satisfied in charging us a
commutation fee to excuse us from doing military service.
Which is exactly what happened. In the state
draft that fall, Ohio levied a $200 commutation fee to excuse people.
Later federal government fees were $300. To our knowledge not one of
Sonnenberg's young men went off to war. But about three-fourths of the
men of the congregation, including a minister who shortly became
bishop, contributed money to the Wayne County Military Committee. More
than $1,600 was contributed.
I would have been proud (in the good Mennonite
sense!) to have been in that meeting to help take a strong stand
against serving in the military. Though today's outlook regarding the
financing of a monstrous military machine might be different, for that
time and place it was a classic statement of obeying God rather than
men as they understood it at that time.
James O. Lehman, Harrisonburg,
Va., is part-time archivist for the Virginia Mennonite Conference, and
is writing his ninth congregational history, this one of Grace
Mennonite Church, Pandora, Ohio.