A Petition to the President in
a Time of War
America is at war-once again. This time President
Bush has declared war on terrorism, an enemy more elusive than
clearly bordered nations. Unlike the divisive Vietnam War, most
Americans approve of the current military action, Mennonites
among them. How can Christians, who want to maintain a legacy
of nonviolence, respond to the new wave of patriotism?
A look at history can be instructive. We've been here before.
In 1862, during the war America declared on itself, Mennonite
bishop John M. Brenneman (1816-1895), Allen County Ohio, wrote
a petition to President Abraham Lincoln. It is not clear that
this classic statement on nonresistance ever reached Washington,
but the petition was preserved, and later discovered by Wilmer
D. Swope, Columbiana, Ohio.
Brenneman sent the petition with an accompanying letter to Jacob
Nold (1765-1834, Columbiana County, Ohio). In the letter Brenneman
wonders if too much confidence is being placed in the president.
After all, he writes, even the president is "But a poor
dying mortal like ourselves, and if we lean entirely upon him
for help, I fear we would lean on a broken reed."-jes
(Allen County, Ohio)
August the 19th, 1862
A Petition to Mr. Abraham Lincoln, President of the United
We, the undersigned, heartily wish unto our most noble President
grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, and of the Lord
Jesus Christ. May the good Lord abundantly bless the President
with wisdom and knowledge from on high and enable him to rule
this our great nation with prudence.
This petition is from the Jacob
Nold Collection, Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen, Ind.,
and was first published in the Mennonite Historical Bulletin,
October 1973, pp. 2-3.
We would humbly pray the President not to consider us too burdensome
by presenting to him this, our weak and humble petition, thereby
humbly praying and beseeching him to take into consideration
our sore distress.
We would herewith inform the President that there is a people,
scattered and living mostly in the northern parts of the United
States - Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana-and some few in
Illinois and Iowa - called Mennonites, who are greatly distressed
at the present time on account of the war. As it is against their
Confession of Faith and also against their conscience to take
up arms therewith to destroy human life, the President must not
mistake us to be secessionists or rebels against the government,
as we are entirely free from that guilt.
The Mennonites are generally, as far as we know, in favor of,
and wellwishers to, the Union. We greatly abhor the present rebellion
against the Government, and the Mennonites would certainly be
among the last to rebel against so good a government as that
of the United States. We would say, that if any of our brethren
should be found guilty of this rebellion or [of] aiding any of
those who are engaged therein, then let them be dealt with as
rebels. We would be far from holding such as brethren in our
church. Would to God that we were all as clear from all guilt
as we are of the present rebellion, or of being secessionists.
We consider it a great duty earnestly and heartily to pray for
the President and for all who are in authority under him, that
the Lord God might bless them in their administration and help
and aid them in restoring peace and harmony again in our once-favored
land, and in upholding the government - as we believe and acknowledge
that government is an ordinance and institution of God, a power
ordained by Him, to promote and establish good policy, rules,
and laws among nations, in lands and in cities, and to be a terror
to the evil and a praise to the good, and that thereby civility,
morality, peace and concord be supported in the world, and without
which the world that lieth in wickedness could not subsist.
It is therefore the unbounded duty of all faithful Christians
to be subject to higher powers, not only for fear of punishment,
but rather for conscience's sake, and to submit to those who
have the rule over them, with due respect and reverence as good
subjects to obey them in all the ordinances and laws of men that
do not militate against the Word of God, and render to all their
dues - tax, custom, and toll - with a ready mind and without
murmuring and repining; also with humility of heart to make supplication,
prayer, and intercession for all that are in authority, and thus
implore God for the prosperity, welfare, and happiness of the
land, the community, and the place of their residence.
And should it be that such Christians were, for [the sake of]
the Word of God, persecuted by the Government, so as to forfeit
their property or to suffer death, they would not be allowed
(in the Mennonite Church) to calumniate, slander or defame, or
with weapons of war to oppose or resist; but by faith to look
up to God, to whom vengeance belongeth, and seek comfort of Him,
and eternal blessings beyond the grave.
And in case the government will, from [i.e., in line with] Christian
principles, allow freedom of conscience in all points to believers,
so that they may worship God in their religious ordinances according
to their truth and the voice of conscience; then they should
be the more gratefully submissive and obedient - which we feel
in duty bound to do, in all points that go not against the voice
of conscience and the doctrines of Christ.
We therefore beseech our good President to favor us in this respect
and not allow us to be forced or compelled to take up arms against
our consciences, as we would thereby have to renounce our faith
and break our promise to God, who alone has power over our consciences.
We sincerely hope and trust that the President and the Government
will bear us with patience; as we would by no means wish to censure,
judge, or condemn other denominations or Christian professors
who differ from us in their faith and practice, leaving that
between them and God to decide, as everyone must give an account
of himself to God. We wish simply and sincerely with all our
heart to do the will of God, our heavenly Father, as well as
we can and know how, and as much as lieth in us to live peaceably
with all mankind, but by no means to aid or uphold any in rebellion
We feel truly grateful and thankful to God and the Government,
for the Christian privileges which have hitherto been granted
to us in the United States, and we humbly pray God and the Government
that the same might still be granted to us in the future, that
we might still be allowed to exercise ourselves unmolested in
the liberty of conscience, to worship our God agreeably to our
feelings. Of this liberty we would most thankfully accept.
But we do by no means expect or ask to be entirely screened from
the burden of the war. But we pray and beg for God's sake that
the liberty may be granted us to pay a fine when drafted, instead
of taking up arms. This privilege has been granted to the Mennonites
heretofore, in the United States in time of war. Our brethren
in Canada have also been exempt from military duties by paying
an extra tax. So likewise in Europe they are generally allowed
the same privilege. Our Mennonite brethren in Eastern Virginia
have been taken by force by the rebels, some of them tied and
loaded on wagons, and hauled off to the Rebel Army. But as they
would not fight for them upon any conditions they were kept awhile
as prisoners, and finally sent home by laying a heavy fine upon
them, besides [an additional] two percent [tax] on all their
property, as we have been informed. Now we have the confidence
in our President and his officers that they are fully as kind
and merciful (and we trust much more so) as they of the South.
We would not prescribe to the President how to deal with us.
But we humbly pray and beseech him that upon some terms or other
we may be allowed our religious liberty. Should it be deemed
proper to lay an extra tax upon all of us and our sons as are
considered fit subjects for military duties or so much percentage
on all their property, we will not murmur or complain at all.
We feel that we are dependent creatures: depending upon the mercy
of God and also upon the mercy of the President and the governors.
We would also herewith promise to be liberal and charitable to
those poor women and children whose husbands and fathers are
gone to the army, if they are in needy circumstances; as we deem
it especially incumbent upon all Christian professors to be kind-hearted
to all the needy and helpless.
We hope and pray that the President will be so kind as to issue
immediate orders to the several governors of those states wherein
the Mennonites reside, instructing the governors to be favorably
inclined to us poor creatures of the dust - especially to the
governor of Ohio, as the Mennonites in Ohio seem to be in the
most danger. By so doing the President would do us a great favor,
never to be forgotten, and we hope and pray that God the judge
of all the earth will richly reward him for the same, with an
unfading crown of glory.
We are your humble servants, most respectfully.
May God bless the President with all needful blessings is our
sincere prayer. Amen.