During World War II most Ontario Mennonites and Amish either had farm deferments or went in to alternative service work camps like the one at Montreal River that was building roads, or camps in British Columbia to fight forest fires, construct trails, or the like. In April 1942, men in alternative service camps were told they would be “in for the duration” of the war.
The turmoil created by the disappointment in the make-work nature of alternative service camp life and the impact of having their service extended for the duration of the war led many Mennonite young men to enlist in the military. The peak in the number of Canadian Mennonites enlisting in the military came in the second half of 1942.
Throughout Canada at least 30 percent of military-age Mennonite young men joined the armed forces during the war. The percentage may have been slightly lower in Ontario, but not significantly so. Within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, its Peace Problems Committee calculated after the war that almost 20 percent of young men from their congregations had voluntarily enlisted. In the large First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, fully one-third joined the military, and in the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church 25 percent did so.
Among the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren the situation was similar. It appears that about 20 percent of Ontario Mennonite Brethren young men joined the military; among the United Mennonites the percentage was closer to 25 percent. At the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church, nine of its young men originally registered as conscientious objectors but subsequently joined the military. Out of 107 men of service age in the Leamington United Mennonite congregation, 24 served in the military, including five in the medical corps. Isaak Lehn, one of the latter, died in Europe in January 1945. John Unger, from the Virgil area, was shot down over Europe in 1944.
Within the Ontario Amish Mennonite community probably a smaller percentage joined the military, though half a dozen men enlisted from the East Zorra congregation. Two young men from the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church were killed in action. One of these, Frederick Shantz, was the son of Elven Shantz, secretary of the Committee on Military Problems from the middle of 1943 through the end of the war. Of all the Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the most divided on the question of military service; approximately one-half of the Canadian young men of that denomination joined the military. The rest entered alternative service or had essential work deferments.
Some men joined the military reluctantly. Sheldon Martin, for example, was called to alternative service in British Columbia in mid-1942, just six weeks after his wedding. His wife, Mary Ann, followed and found work in a Vancouver shoe factory. She developed health problems after nine months and required expensive treatment by specialists. To earn more to help pay the costs, Sheldon left the alternative service work camp and joined the army.
Other men joined because they believed in the cause. Gerhard “Gerry” Thiessen was a young man from the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church who served both at Montreal River and in British Columbia, before finally joining the Air Force in 1943. He had already felt in Montreal River that shoveling gravel was useless work. Although he thought some of the firefighting in British Columbia served a good purpose, he abhorred shoveling snow out of the ditches next to mountain roads in the winter time. While waiting for his enlistment papers to go through, he had a conversation with a Mennonite minister who cautioned him that serving in the military was dangerous. This only reinforced Thiessen’s decision, because he believed Mennonites shouldn’t hide to avoid getting killed; he believed he should be doing something about the war. He served in Canada as a mechanic in the Air Force for the remainder of the war.
Even a few women joined the military. One such was Mary Faust, from the Leamington United Mennonite Church, who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and served until 1946, achieving the rank of sergeant. This was unusual since women (except for nurses) were not subject to registration and service.
The consequences for those who joined the military during the war varied depending on the denomination with which the young men (or women) affiliated. In all cases, church discipline was administered only to young men who were baptized members. Many who joined the military had not joined the church. Among the more conservative, culturally less assimilated groups, the act of enlistment by a baptized member automatically removed one from church membership rolls.
To regain good standing in the church, a confession for violating the church’s teaching was required. This was also the formal position in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Ontario Amish Mennonite congregations, but some congregations did not require a public confession for full reinstatement. The United Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations had their own variations. Of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren who joined the army during the war (estimated at 34 in 1945), only seven were baptized members. These were excluded from membership. The United Mennonites, who had 67 of their members join the military, with another dozen joining the medical corps, took a more inclusive approach, but only after considerable debate within the conference. The ministers strongly encouraged the peace position, but stopped short of calling for exclusion of members who joined the armed forces.
The Mennonite Brethren in Christ no longer made pacifism a matter of church membership, and men in alternative service and in military service were treated the same.
One consequence of the Mennonite stance was that young Ontario Mennonite men and women who joined the military received little spiritual counsel or support from their churches while they were in the military. No Mennonite chaplains served in the army, nor did Mennonite ministers visit their parishioners in the military as they did those in alternative service camps. There were a few exceptions, however. A small group of United Mennonites living in Toronto tried to maintain contact with enlisted Mennonite men at Camp Borden. In spring 1942 the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite congregation established a committee to keep in touch both with the men in alternative service and those in the military. Families also kept personal contact, but the church provided no organized effort to work with men and women who may have been quite conflicted about the decisions they had made.
Some more recent writers have claimed the percentage of Mennonites who joined the military is closer to 50%. These include Peter Lorenz Neufeld, whose book is shown above, but he tends to see Mennonites as an ethnic, not religious, community. A 2010 MA thesis by Nathan Dirks, “War without, Struggle within: Canadian Mennonite Enlistments during the Second World War” also argues for a higher percentage. In any event, I believe “Mennonite” would include those who grew up attending a Mennonite church, whether or not they eventually became a member. I do not count as “Mennonite” those who are a generation or more removed from participation in a Mennonite church.
For more information on Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.