For the Amish, nonresistance means a number of things, including refusal to do violence upon others and abstaining from litigation. Today, Jim Cates looks at the Amish response to war, and the expectations of society during times of conflict.

 I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

The quest for peace will always move in step with the drive for war, too often overshadowed by the demand for aggressive action. The Amish are well-known as pacifists, a people who refuse to support the saber-rattling, much less the actual combat nations employ to retain their status.

And yet “pacifism” is not easily defined. Nonviolence becomes a moving target in its own right, a source of dissension and controversy, both for the Amish who attempt to stay true to their Biblical principles, and the state that must come to terms with their decision.

The popular perception of Amish pacifism is an ebb and flow, loosely tied to patriotic fervor, and more closely tied to the institution of the draft. Their history since migrating to the United States has been contentious, beginning with the Revolution and culminating with Vietnam (for an excellent history of the tensions in the mid-19th century see Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War by James O. Lehman and Steven M. Nolt, 2007).

World War I was particularly tense as no groundwork was laid for conscientious objectors. American entry into a modern war fought with antiquated tactics brought horrific casualties, and even greater enmity toward those who “refused” to serve.

amish-carriage-on-the-road

The world was rapidly disillusioned in the belief that the major powers had fought “the war to end all wars.” As tensions in Europe mounted, a meeting of what is now considered the historic peace churches occurred in North Newton, Kansas in 1935. Comprised of the Church of the Brethren, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites (including the Old Order) and the Amish, the churches agreed to advocate pacifism and Biblical nonresistance by their members rather than active military duty.

Their organized efforts led to civilian public service in World War II, and Amish as well as other conscientious objectors were more likely to substitute in non-military positions rather than assume even a noncombatant role. (This history is discussed in The Amish and the State, 2nd edition by Donald Kraybill, ed. 2003; a 3rd edition is soon to be released.)

The same principle of civilian public service was practiced in both the Korean conflict and Vietnam, both periods in which the draft remained in force. However, the Amish expressed concern that too many of their young men were leaving for alternative service and failing to return to the settlements and join the church. In some cases restrictions were again eased to allow Amish young men to remain in or near their homes.

The Amish fundamentally abhor war as the murder of another. One of their quintessential stories of martyrdom, well-known among many Anabaptist groups, is that of Dirk Willems. Held prisoner in a castle for the act of adult baptism, he escaped and was crossing a frozen expanse of water, pursued by a guard. The heavier guard fell through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems turned and rescued his pursuer, only to be recaptured and burned at the stake as a heretic on the 16th of May 1659.

anabaptist-martyr-dirk-willems

The selfless desire to save the life of another flies in the face of the atrocities committed in the name of war. However, beyond the act of killing is the ultimate means of gaining power over another. War exerts control and authority by force, an overarching act that the Amish also deplore. Both the nature of the act and its consequences then, are anathema to their beliefs.

They are not alone, as the history of Judeo-Christian thought suggests. The prophet Isaiah spoke 3000 years ago, illuminating a peaceful future in his poetic words by saying “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4b).

The words of the African-American spiritual “Down By the Riverside” borrow from this vision, and the start of its refrain is the title to this blog. Even men of war understand the horror of the practice. William Tecumseh Sherman, famous in the American Civil War for demonstrating one of the first modern “scorched earth” policies, wrote to the citizens of Atlanta as he prepared to take the city, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it…”

Still, as mentioned earlier, the Amish do not consistently agree on “pacifism.” Christ ministered in human form for three years in a tiny country that suffered under the oppression of a much greater power. The Romans were thorough, efficient, and brutal in their bid for control, and the hope of many who waited for the Messiah was a leader who would openly defy the lion of Rome.

Instead, Christ preached humility and passivity in the face of governmental oppression, including support of the military (His admonishment in Matthew 5:41, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile as well” refers to the authority of Roman soldiers to conscript civilians to carry their armor and belongings for one mile.)

The Amish, in contrast, have thrived over the past three hundred years in the United States and Canada, republics founded on democratic principles. There is internal dissension – quiet, often unspoken, but dissension – about the willingness of the Amish to play a role in the military industrial complex. Whether “pacifism” means withdrawal from all activities that support the military, the most conservative view, or whether it is acceptable to provide indirect support remains ambiguous and a source of unrest for Amish leaders. The next blog discusses these difficult decisions.


Jim is author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.