When I decided to become a Christian, I knew it would involve conscientious objection to military service. That, in turn, led me to become a Mennonite. Those two decisions have influenced a career of peace teaching and acting. In my journey as a peacemaker, I have tried to remain faithful to biblical principles and to follow after Jesus Christ.
I have no recollection from my earliest years of an association with any church. My mother's parents were Presbyterian. Although her father apparently grew up Baptist, he had little association with any church. My father's parents went to a Christian (Disciples of Christ) church. My mother had a strong "Puritan" ethic no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, no card playing for money though my dad did them all.
My dad was a coal miner. In 1928 when I was in the first grade, he wanted to get out of the mines so he rented a "service station". We would probably call it a convenience store. He had gas but also ice cream, pop, candy, and some groceries. It was on the top of a hill along Route 40, that we called the National Pike. In the spring of 1929 the road was improved by cutting through the hill. We were left with no good entrance. One of the reasons my dad got the service station was because a small, private airstrip was next to it and he thought that was the coming thing. The fellow who operated it had about three planes.
Then the stock market crashed and the banks were closed. Dad and Mom were invested in the stock market and had some savings in a bank, all of which they lost. Furthermore, the man who ran the airstrip was an alcoholic and had run up a considerable debt with my father. He lost his license in Pennsylvania and moved his planes to West Virginia where regulations were more lax. So dad was left with a several hundred dollar debt that was never paid. As a consequence my father went bankrupt and had to have a sheriff's sale. My mother had worked before she was married and most of our household furniture and other goods were bought with her savings so could not be sold. The store was in dad's name.
My dad went back to work in the mines. In the summer between my first and second grade we moved into the parsonage behind the Christian Church in the town where my dad worked. The preacher had his own house so the parsonage was available for rent. Since we lived next to the church we started attending. It was my first church-going experience. I remember the young pastor who had gone to Phillips University in Oklahoma and then to the Yale Divinity School. He was a very attractive preacher.
In the fall of my second grade, rock fell on my dad and broke a vertebrae. He was hospitalized for some time. He had gotten his job when they weren't hiring because he was a good baseball player and most of the mines had teams in the county league and were very competitive. After the accident my dad could not play as well as he once had. So he lost his job. At the beginning of my third grade we moved into another mining town, about a mile or so away. The coal was exhausted but the company still owned the houses built for the workers. We got a small house for our family of five. My grandfather, who had been superintendent of the mine but was now partially retired, was given responsibility for company property. The rent was about $10 per month and cheaper than the parsonage. I suspect that my grandfather either paid the rent or simply did not collect it.
We lived there mainly on relief. We called it living on "Hoover beans" since they gave us sacks of soup beans periodically along with a small stipend. We continued going to the Christian church. We had no car, so we walked most of the time or borrowed grandfather's work car if the weather was bad. The pastor sometimes "taxied" us home, as he did for others, sometimes going back and forth several times to get us all home. The pastor was sent to the area by the Christian church as a missionary to the "Coke region."
The church had a tradition of holding a week of revival services once or twice a year. We, of course, attended. My older sister was the first in our family to "go forward" She had had catechism in her Sunday School class. In the spring of the year when I was nine years old I went forward in a revival meeting, and my mother did also. On my tenth birthday we were both baptized, even though I had not had any catechism or instruction in the meaning of being a church member. I assume my mother had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church when she was born and it probably took her a while to accept adult baptism.
My understanding of what baptism meant was rather naive at best. I thought it would automatically change my behavior. I was somewhat disillusioned when I found I fought with my three sisters as much as before!
The next major step in my faith journey was in my late years of high school. I was lab assistant for chemistry and physics in my junior and senior years. I was disillusioned by the Sunday School teacher for the boys class. He was not a very good teacher. Most of the time the members of the class talked to each other, often about the movie they had seen the day before. Furthermore, he always taught the "temperance lesson" that we had in every quarter. We knew that he had been downtown in a beer garden the night before.
I came to the conclusion that I was an agnostic. If God, heaven, and hell existed, we had no way of knowing it. They did not fit in my scientific cosmology. That along with the problems I had with the church added to my doubts. I developed an ethic whose basic principle was to do what pleased most people. (I later found it to be called eudeamonistic hedonism.) Although I continued going to the church, I quit attending Sunday School. In the year after I graduated and was working in the coal mine, I was elected as president of the Christian Endeavor. I must confess that it was mostly a social gathering for the high school students and recent graduates. Also, I was older, had some money and could drive our car. One night after the Christian Endeavor meeting, the pastor called me aside and suggested that I should become a minister. When I went out to the car to join several of us who were going to the chocolate shop and told them what he had wanted, we all had a good laugh.
Sometime during my eighth grade the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) had come into our area to start a Homesteading project. They called it community rehabilitation. The AFSC had worked in government projects in the coal mining regions in West Virginia and at Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, not far from Scottdale. A Quaker was the manager of the project at Mt. Pleasant and became the new AFSC manager.
To familiarize themselves with the conditions in our areas, three of the families lived in different communities. In addition, the Carl Landes family came with the intention of living in the homestead. The Landes family lived in the house next to us in the coal mining town where we lived. They were the first Mennonites our family ever knew. Through them we learned of the AFSC project, made an application, and were accepted. We moved out there at the end of the summer before my sophomore year. That experience was transforming for our whole family. The Quakers and Carl and Martha Landes became role models for us. They got us to work cooperatively to build the community, including the infrastructure and our houses.
Bluffton College became important in our family. My oldest sister, Betty, two years older than I, graduated in 1938. It was always assumed in our family that we would go to college but we had not recovered enough from the depression to know if we could afford for her to go. In 1938, when Carl Landes was appointed Acting Executive Secretary of the newly formed Mennonite Peace Society he moved to Bluffton, more central to his work. The Landes family knew of our situation and invited my sister to live with them and receive her board by babysitting their three children. Their mother, Martha, was a nurse working the Bluffton hospital. Betty also did some light housework for her board and room.
I graduated from high school in 1940. Because my sister was in college, I stayed out for a year to work in the mine where my dad was working. Also my dad and I stalemated about where I would go to college. The main choices were California State Teachers College of Pennsylvania near our home, or Phillips University, one of our church colleges in Oklahoma. I didn't want to be at home where my work would keep me out of college sports and other activities. I wanted either to go away for college, or not to attend college at all.
In July of 1941 Roland Moser, who was recruiting students for Bluffton College, stopped at our house on a recruiting trip to eastern Pennsylvania. He arrived in the middle of an afternoon when both my dad and I happened to be at home. Bluffton was far enough away so I wouldn't get home every weekend, but close enough I could get home for major holidays. Roland also assured me I would have a $200 scholarship spread over the four years i.e. $25 per semester and I would have a 10 hour per week job at 35¢ per hour. That sounded like we could afford it with the one thousand dollars I had saved from my work
I came to Bluffton intending to stay two years and then to transfer to Ohio State University since I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. The military draft was underway and I intended to volunteer for the Air Force if drafted. A cousin who was a year older had learned to fly at Phillips University and intended to go in the Air Force. I wanted to follow him.
My sister, Betty, along with Bert Smucker and other people such as their classmate Dick Weaver, had started a peace group. Betty became a passionate pacifist because of Quaker and Mennonite influences. It seemed that during my first year at Bluffton she arranged for a member of the peace club to sit next to me at every meal in the dining hall. I was engaged in a running debate about pacifism. I attended the Peace Club meetings because I found it the most vital and exciting group on campus.
The first semester every student was required to take a Bible course. As part of the assignment we were to read through the New Testament and sign a pledge at the end of the semester that we had done so. At Christmas time I had not even started on the assignment. So I came back a day early and read it putting the question to it as to whether it taught pacifism. When I got done I had concluded that the question wasn't whether I was a pacifist but whether I was a follower of Christ. If I was, then it followed I had to be a pacifist. I wrestled with that question and finally sometime in April I made the decision to recommit myself as a Christian. I did not share that decision much because I intended to go back home for the summer and work in the coal mine to test whether I was living in an unrealistic ivory tower.
The contrast between the members of our church with whom I worked in the mine showed no real difference from the non-churched workers. Their morals were about as low and dark as the 300-800 feet we worked under ground. All most all conversations were about drinking, fighting, or sex. It contrasted so much with the Quakers I knew and faculty members at Bluffton College. Russell Lantz, for example, had been a CO in World War I, spent time in prison and then went to do relief work in Europe after the First World War. J. P. Klassen, professor of art, had lived through the revolution in Russia and maintained that the Mennonites there had maintained a good witness against it. President Lloyd Ramseyer, who spoke in chapel every week, was a man of insight and integrity. Dick Weaver, the student who was designated my "big brother," was the most intelligent person I knew well. He was still a Christian and a pacifist. There were others as well.
So in July 1942, when I turned 19 and had to register for the draft, I applied for CO status. When I came back to campus many of the men had been drafted. The fellow who was to be president of the Peace Club had been drafted and had chosen to go into the military. I was elected to replace him. That year was intense for grounding me in Christian pacifism. As president of the club I hosted some people, such as John Swomley and Bayard Rustin from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was impressed by their convictions and ability to explain and defend their position. Since I was not a Mennonite, I decided to join the FOR as my support group. I am still a member.
I must skip over my experience as a CO in alternative service and a consequent commitment that led Willadene and me to do a two year term in relief and development work in Europe 1948-50. While I was in Civilian Public Service two major steps occurred in my faith journey. Willadene and I had started going together in my second year and her first. We corresponded throughout the time I was gone and she finished a second year at Bluffton and then three years in nurses training at the Mennonite Hospital in Bloomington, Illinois. Sometime about the middle of the CPS experience I began to consider staying in the Disciples denomination and trying to convince them about the peace position. That meant that if we were married Willy would have to leave the Mennonite Church, which would be very hard for her. She finally agreed that if that was my calling, she would accept it.
My last assignment in CPS was in Philadelphia. That was the first time I spent any time outside of Mennonite circles since I had gone to Bluffton. I used some of the time to attend Disciples churches. I even went home and went with our pastor there to visit the nearest Christian college to my home in Pennsylvania where some of our pastors had gone. I was considering the possibility of transferring to finish my college work there if I were going to work in that denomination.
In the meantime I had occasion to visit some CPS friends in eastern Pennsylvania, especially Marvin Wasser and Irene Bishop, while I was in Philadelphia. I gradually came to realize that I was not enough at home with the Disciples of Christ churches I attended. I missed the sense of community I had experienced with Mennonites. I was also not sure I would have the strength to stand very much alone as a pacifist.
I also respected the way Mennonite theology dealt with the reality of evil but still had a faith that evil was not powerful enough to overcome a follower of Christ who lived in confidence that evil could be overcome. That was in view of the persecution in the 16th century or the steadfastness of persons such as Lantz, who was in prison in World War I and went to France with the AFSC to do relief work afterward.
As a consequence I decided to become a Mennonite. I attended a summer program at Bethel College in Kansas and then finished my final year at Bluffton. Willadene and I were married in October of that year. We jointly became members at the First Mennonite Church of Bluffton in December 1947. We graduated in the spring of 1948. I had switched to a major in Bible and a minor in psychology.
In July we went to Europe to do relief work under the MCC. We spent a little over two years, first in Germany and then in the Netherlands. When we returned to the United States in November, 1950, I enrolled at the young Mennonite Biblical Seminary (MBS) that was then affiliated with Bethany Biblical Seminary - the Church of the Brethren's seminary. Earlier I had consulted by letter with Willadene's father R. L. Hartzler about going to seminary, though I did not think I wanted to be a pastor. I was planning to concentrate in pastoral counseling because of my work with the mentally ill during CPS. He advised me to take the full program since it would be basic to any work in the church. In the process of my work at the seminary I became increasingly interested in the pastoral ministry and moved more into biblical and theological studies.
We became charter members of the Woodlawn Mennonite Church, associated with MBS. J. N. Smucker was finishing his service at First Mennonite in Bluffton and was invited to become the pastor at Woodlawn. He accepted but could not come until fall, so I was asked to serve as interim pastor during the summer until he came. That drew me closer to interest in the pastoral ministry.
In the fall of my middler year, President Ramseyer came for a board meeting at the seminary. He stopped briefly to see me. I thought it was a "courtesy call" but instead he told me that Harry Yoder, Assistant to the President at Bluffton, had gone to the Mennonite Church at Washington, Illinois, in 1950, and they had been unable to replace him. He invited me to take Harry's place. I was, of course, flattered and astonished at the request, but I told Ramseyer that I could not interrupt my education again or I might never finish. I had been out of school a year after high school and was interrupted for four years by CPS before I finished college, and then spent two years in Europe before coming to the seminary.
A year later he came again to a board meeting and came to see me. They still had not filled the position and wondered if I would accept the position and teach a course each semester in the Bible department when I graduated the next May. I really had become interested in the pastoral ministry and was already considering exploring churches to go to after I graduated. But I felt an obligation to return to Bluffton College for what it had done for me and my sisters, and also to help support the many young faculty members whom I had known in college and elsewhere. So after considerable hesitation, I accepted.
In June of 1953 we moved to Bluffton. Again we became members of First Mennonite. In the next year the position of Director of Admissions was added to my assignment. Increasingly I found that I liked teaching better than administration and began thinking of going for a doctorate. I thought that degree was needed to teach full-time. We had two children and I was spending two-thirds to three-fourths of my time on the road. Also I said that if I didn't start on the doctorate by the time I was thirty-five, I would give up the dream.
So in the spring of 1956 I submitted my resignation. One day Ramseyer called me in and indicated that the college would give me some support if I would commit myself to coming back to Bluffton College when I finished my studies. The financial support would be repaid if I did not come back, or would be forgiven so much per year if I did. In August we moved to Hartford. I was interested in church history and theology and was considering a Th.D. Dr. Spinka suggested I should pursue a Ph. D. in historic theology - which was his field. Otherwise I would have to get the equivalent of two doctorates in the Th. D. program. Sol Yoder had been in the Netherlands and on a visit with us in Bluffton suggested to me that no work had been done on Dirk Philips and thought it needed to be done. He indicated resources were available, especially a critical volume in Dutch of all Dirk's then known writings.
I got an S.T.M. degree my first year. In the next year I finished my residency requirement and the course work, and passed my preliminary exams for the Ph.D. We returned to Bluffton in the fall of 1958. I spent the summer researching and doing writing on my dissertation while teaching and being Director of Publicity a quarter time - part of my assignment when I was Assistant to the President. In the spring of 1959 I submitted my dissertation, had the defense of it, and was granted the Ph.D.
In early 1961 Bill Snyder, MCC Executive Secretary, and Elmer Neufeld, staff person for the MCC Peace Section, came to visit me. They wanted me to return to the Netherlands to spend about half time relating to the Dutch Mennonites. The other half I was to chair the MCC European Peace Committee. We then had all four of our children. After considerable hesitation, but with counsel of the Bluffton College administration, including a two-year leave of absence, I accepted the assignment. This flowed from my belief that when the church calls, one should respond. So we packed up again and went back to the Netherlands.
During my second year in the Netherlands, in December of 1962, I was appointed by the General Conference Mennonite Church to be its representative on the MCC Peace Section, to be effective when I returned. Harold S. Bender had been chair of the section from its forming, but he had died that fall. At the annual meeting in January 1963, none of the present members of the section were willing to be Bender's replacement. I was absent, and was elected by default. So I became chair of the MCC Peace Section via the back door.
In 1968 I was invited to serve as academic dean at Bethel College. The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of upheaval generally in higher education, including the Mennonite colleges. In 1972 I took the position of provost. In my time at Bethel, my shifting work assignments included experiential learning, contract degrees, and peace internships.
Ever since I had become a CO I had always been involved in some way in peace interests. The appointment to the MCC Peace Section and chairing it involved me more deeply. I only resigned that position when MCC asked us to go to South Africa to work with the Council of Churches on peace and reconciliation issues. After much deliberation and consultation with Bethel I took a two year leave of absence, agreed to rent of our house, and the administration arranged for someone as temporary assignment for my position as provost.
Then three weeks before we were to leave at the end of June 1972, I received a two line letter from South Africa saying that the government had refused my visa. The South Africa Council of Churches tried everything to get the decision reversed, going all the way to the cabinet ministry. Later they published a protest in a Capetown newspaper.
What should we do? It seemed too late to undo all the arrangements. MCC asked me to become a study secretary for the Peace Section and AMBS agreed to have me be a fellow at the Institute for Mennonite Studies. The MCC wanted me to prepare a book on peacemaking and AMBS arranged for us to live on campus and have an office. So we moved to Elkhart. During that year I made a three week trip to Europe evaluating the work of the European Peace Committee after 25 years and to suggest further work. I went there in the fall and made visits to MCC personnel and other peace groups in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, including the World Council of Churches in Geneva that was engaged in a study of non-violence.
I prepared a folder on peace issues for distribution at a national meeting of students in Urbana, Illinois. That document was later reprinted several times and used by such places as Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster and at Behalt in Ohio. I also prepared a script for a series of thirteen audio tapes which were then produced by professionals in Canada. Two hundred copies were bought by the Canadian conference and distributed to their congregations. It was also used by a number of Sunday School classes in the U.S. Then people began asking for prints of the scripts. With some modifications, it was published as Lordship as Servanthood: Thirteen Lessons on the Biblical Basis of Peacemaking.
I returned to Bethel in the fall of 1973. I was given administration assignments, mainly in developing continuing education. and service-learning programs for students. I also taught in the peace studies classes that I had helped Duane Friesen start when I was academic dean.
In 1975 Bethel agreed to host a fairly new professional organization called COPRED (The Consortium on Peace Research, Education & Development). I was given half time to serve as the Executive Director. After two years Bethel was no longer willing to host the office. Kent State University offered to host COPRED and was interested in keeping the same executive director. Kent State offered me a full-time teaching position with the possibility of still being half-time for COPRED. I wanted to get back to full-time teaching and to Ohio since all of my and Willadene's family were east of the Mississippi. I spent ten years at Kent State. There I had the opportunity to be a consultant to a number of colleges and universities, and to have influence on three statewide programs. I resigned from the COPRED position after six years, including the two at Bethel. After retirement from teaching, and moving back to Bluffton, I have found ways to be involved with peace-related issues.
I came into the Mennonite church five years after I decided to be a Christian and a conscientious objector. It was in the name of Jesus Christ that I found the answer to my search for knowledge of what is most real and true. Christian discipleship seems to me to answer best the questions raised but not answered in an ambivalent patriotism, a humanitarian liberalism, and an agnostic scientism. My journey of Christian peacemaking has been along paths of religious faith and community support.
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life