Sunday, November 30, 2014

In Memory of the Hutterite Martyrs of 1918


As was commemorated earlier this month, World War I, which began 100 years ago this past summer, officially ended on November 11, 1918. But it didn’t come to an end then for four Hutterite men from South Dakota.
David, Michael and Joseph Hofer, three brothers, and Jacob Wipf, Joseph’s brother-in-law, were inducted into the U.S. army in May 1918 and sent to Washington State.
Upon reaching Camp Lewis there, the four Hutterites, who in allegiance to the Anabaptist tradition were stanch pacifists, refused to don military uniforms or follow other orders.
Consequently, they were court-martialed, tried and convicted, and then in June sent to solitary confinement in the dungeon of Alcatraz.
Three days after the war ended in November, the four men were sent by train to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. There on Nov. 29 Joseph Hofer died at the age of 24, and on Dec. 2 his 25-year-old brother Michael also died.
The cause of death for the two brothers was listed as pneumonia. It may have actually been the “Spanish flu,” which was so deadly in 1918-19.
But malnutrition and their weakened physical condition due to the torturous treatment they received at Alcatraz were, doubtlessly, the main reason for their untimely deaths.
David Hofer, the oldest brother, was released from prison the next day, but Jacob Wipf was held until April 13, 1919. From his hospital bed in Dec. 1918, Jacob shared the story of the shameful treatment the four Hutterites received; that disconcerting story can be read here.
The complete, sad narrative of the Hutterite martyrs is engagingly told by Duane C. S. Stoltzfus in his book “Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War” (2013). (Stoltzfus, b. 1959, is a professor of communication at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana.)
Part of the indignity of the situation is depicted by Stoltzfus on pages 173-4 of his book. After Joseph Hofer died, the guards said that family members could not see him. But Maria, Joseph’s wife persisted, and was finally granted permission to see her husband’s body. Stoltzfus writes,
With tears in her eyes, she approached the coffin, which was set on two chairs. When the lid was opened, she found Joseph in death dressed in a military uniform that he had steadfastly refused to wear in life.
As I wrote in my 5/30/12 blog article, in May 2012 June and I visited some Hutterites in South Dakota. Norman Hofer, a relative of the Hofer brothers mentioned above (but not a Hutterite), was our most gracious host/guide.
(On page xvii of his book, author Stoltzfus thanks Norman Hofer for sending him materials and for taking him on a tour of several Hutterite colonies.)
Norman told us the touching story of the Hutterite men of South Dakota whose pacifism cost them their lives. He also took us to the cemetery where we saw the grave markers pictured here.



In his opening chapter, Stoltzfus points out that for the Hutterites “there could be no just war.” They took Jesus’s words in Matthew 5 literally, so they “were obligated by their faith to refuse” military service (p. 8).
I am most grateful for the faithful witness of people such as the four Hutterites in 1918, two of whom became martyrs because of the seriousness and fortitude with which they followed the words of Jesus.
Would that all of us Christian believers were as dedicated to the one we call Lord!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thankful for This Passionate Advocate for Children

During this Thanksgiving week, I am thankful for many things and for many people—such Marian Wright Edelman, a passionate advocate for children over the last 40 years.
Marian Wright was born in South Carolina in 1939. Her father, a Baptist minister, died when she was 14. His last words were, “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.” She didn’t.
Marian went on to earn a law degree at Yale and then in 1964 became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. That year she was very active in civil rights activities in Mississippi, leading in what came to be known as Freedom Summer.
In 1968 Marian married Peter Edelman, a lawyer from Minnesota. They made an interesting couple: she a black Baptist, he a white Jew.
The Edelmans have three grown sons, including Jonah (b. 1970), their second son, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford and is the co-founder and CEO of Stand for Children, an education reform organization.
 Ms. Edelman started the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, and it has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Here is CDF’s mission statement:
The Children’s Defense Fund Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Hillary Rodham was one of the first staff lawyers for CDF, and then after she married Bill Clinton in 1975 she was the Chair of its Board of Directors from 1986-92.
Ms. Edelman was one of the featured speakers at the 2008 New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta. I heard that talk and was much impressed by her—and have been on CDF’s mailing list ever since.
I also enjoyed reading some of her latest book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation (2008).
One of CDF’s ongoing activities has been sponsoring summertime Freedom Schools across the country. Since 1995, more than 100,000 K-12 children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience. (Here is the link to CDF’s website.)
The church June and I are members of has sponsored a Freedom School for six weeks each summer for several years now. It is a considerable expense and takes a lot of work, but it is a wonderful ministry to the children in the church’s neighborhood, the majority of whom are Hispanic and African-American.
This year for the first time I read a story to the nearly 100 children enrolled in our Freedom School, and I was impressed by the children’s attention and to the way the leaders were teaching/leading them.
The first Freedom Schools were held in Mississippi as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights activities mentioned above. So this was the 50th anniversary year—as you can see from the picture I took the morning I was at our church’s school in July.

This year a scholarly book honoring Ms. Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund was published under the title “Improving the Odds for America’s Children.” On the back cover are these words by Hillary Clinton:
In the past forty years, the Children’s Defense Fund has tirelessly worked to improve the lives of children in America. There are dozens of laws on the books protecting children and supporting families that simply wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the Children’s Defense Fund.
Please join me in giving thanks for Marian Wright Edelman and her indefatigable advocacy for the nation’s children.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Remembering Isaac Backus


The New England Puritan Isaac Backus was born in 1724 and died 208 years ago today, on November 20, 1806. As an outstanding advocate of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, he is well worth remembering, and honoring, on this anniversary of his death.

Backus was the most influential Baptist in British North America after Roger Williams (1603-83), founder of the first Baptist church in the “new world” in 1638.

He became a Christian as a teenager in 1741. Five years later he became a preacher and at the age of 24 was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. In 1748, however, he was baptized by immersion and became a Baptist.

In 1756, Backus started a Baptist church in Middleborough, Mass., where he served as pastor until his death fifty years later.


Backus joined with others in 1764 to found the first Baptist institution of higher learning in the Colonies, the school now known as Brown University. It was the third college in New England and the first Ivy League school to accept students from all religious affiliations.

As a Baptist pastor, Backus became involved in the lengthy battle for separation of church and state in Massachusetts, opposing the “ecclesiastical tax” that had been imposed upon all citizens of that state to support the Congregational churches.

Even those who opposed the beliefs of those churches were required to pay the tax, and those who refused to do so had their personal property seized. Many people were even imprisoned because of failure to pay the tax, including several members of Backus’s own family.

Backus’s strong advocacy for the freedom of religion is best articulated in his published sermon of 1773, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.”

Religious liberty is always a problem for minority groups—such as the Baptists in New England during Backus’s lifetime and religious groups in the U.S. now, such as American Muslims.

Thus, being an advocate of religious liberty today means supporting the freedom of Muslims and all other minority groups. That liberty includes freedom from the heavy-handedness of the religious majority.

Those in the majority usually don’t easily give up their position of privilege. Massachusetts didn’t amend the state constitution to give religious freedom to all people until 1833, some 27 years after Backus’s death.

At present, some religious conservatives, or traditionalists like those in 18th century Massachusetts, generally don’t like social change when that means giving up their privileged position. Thus, we hear clamor for upholding the religious convictions of the nation’s founders.

Without question, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed in 1630 was based on Puritan religious convictions. In a sermon even before landing, John Winthrop, the colonists’ spiritual leader, proclaimed a vision of a Christian society that was to be an exceptional “city on the hill.”

Such a society, however, could not tolerate even the dissident Puritan minister Roger Williams, who was banished in 1636. Nor could it tolerate the outstanding, but unusual, Puritan religious leader Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Boston in 1638.

But it was the freedom of religion and separation of church and state established in Rhode Island by Williams and then bravely backed by Backus over 135 years later that became a part of the U.S. Bill of Rights ratified in 1791.

I am grateful for Baptists like Backus and their emphasis on religious liberty for all.

Let freedom ring for all religious groups in the U.S. today!


Some of the material in the above article is similar to that found on pp. 167-8 of my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism” (2007).


Remembering Stanley Grenz
In doing research for the above article I used Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz’s “Isaac Backus—Puritan and Baptist: His Place in History, His Thought, and Their Implications for Modern Baptist Theology” (1983). This work was originally Grenz’s doctoral dissertation that was written under the supervision of Wolfhart Pannenberg and submitted in 1978 to the University of Munich.
So this article was also written in memory of Grenz (b. 1950) as well as Backus.
In April 2004, mostly through my efforts, the Department of Theology of Seinan Gakuin University hosted Dr. Grenz for special lectures. I found him to be “a prince of a fellow,” and I told him that in a year or two I would like to visit him in Vancouver, Canada, where he lived and taught at Regent College.
It was a shock and a great grief when I learned that Grenz had suddenly passed away in March 2005. He was a fine man and a good scholar; his passing was a great loss to Baptists and the theological world.