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!


  1. I once led an Adult Sunday School Class using the book, Mirror of the Martyrs, as the basis of discussion. I'm sure most in the class were expecting the stories to come from the 16th century Reformation era, and indeed most of the stories in that book were from that era. But our discussions came surprisingly close to home when we discovered an example of Anabaptist martyrdom not far from where we live in Kansas City, the story of the deaths of Michael and Joseph Hofer in Fort Leavenworth.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Clif.

    2. Jesus Freaks, by dc Talk, is another excellent read on the subject.

  2. I appreciate the clarion call of the final statement. Yet how amazingly variant, divergent, and sometimes antithetical that call may be.

    1. In this case, the great Christian warriors (soldiers) of both Christ's day and our own. Or the great wealth of some devout Christian business people, and the life of poverty chosen by others - again, in Christ's day and our own...

  3. This is an interesting and sad story you've shared with us, Leroy. I'd recommend another book, one from the Vietnam War era that doesn't involve pacifists as much as political war resisters: Willard Gaylin's (1970) In the Service of Their Country: War Resisters in Prison. It's another sad story of a war-like nation wasting lives of the young.

    When I was in college and taking the Bible fairly literally, I became convinced that the New Testament is thoroughly pacifist. I still think it is. But when we take seriously an other side of faithfulness and responsibility, we can come down on the side of the possibility of a just war or a least-unjust war ethic. I think of the arguments of Reinhold Niebuhr and the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two who exemplified an ethic of a more historical and material reality. I find very convincing the argument that the biblical ethic permits no indulgence in violence. On the other hand, I find the argument that we're responsible for history also very convincing which could include violence.

    That being said, I've seen very few, maybe no, wars in my lifetime that I would consider clearly justified, although a case could be made, in my view, for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Tanzania's ouster of Idi Amin in Uganda.

    In a recent sermon, I said: "I'm not ready to counsel pacifism in foreign relations. What I can ask of leaders, though, is that they first sweat blood in thorough examination of themselves and the circumstances before they send our children off to kill and be killed. Surely one of humanity's greatest crimes and most unforgivable sins is when national leaders exploit the passion of the heroic by squandering their lives in misguided and unnecessary wars."

    Whether we take a pacifist or a least-unjust-war position, I'm convinced that the world would be a much happier place if the burden of proof were greater for the war-makers than for those who refusal to participate.

    1. Anton, thanks for once again making "meaty" comments that stimulate my thinking, and that of other readers of this blog.

      Recently I ran across a distinction John Howard Yoder, the leading Mennonite theologian of the 20th century, made between war and police action. As a pacifist, he rejected the former, but had some willingness to recognize the legitimacy of the latter.

      Of course, we have seen in the uproar in Ferguson is the problem of violence being done (probably) unnecessarily by police, so maybe it is not possible to differentiate clearly between war and police activity.

  4. Local friend David Nelson shares the following comments:

    "Thanks for sharing the story of the Hutterite Martyrs. I hold them in respectful honor for their witness.

    "I continue to seek to nurture a nation where we honor those who serve by resisting not just by conforming to a military system.

    "In McPherson County Kansas there are many Mennonites who are pacifists. For five years I serve a rural Lutheran Church founded by Swedes in the 19th century. Many of the men had served in the military in America's many wars.

    "During Vietnam, one young man in my congregation sought conscientious objector status and was at first refused. 'No Mennonite serves. No Lutheran refuses.'

    "After several appeals we were able to support him for alternative service. We can learn from each other how to nurture a 'beloved community.'"

  5. This morning I wrote Duane Stoltzfus, the author of the book mentioned in the article above. Before noon I received this reply from him:

    "Thank you so much for your reflections on "Pacifists in Chains" -- and for taking time to write to tell me about it. I was impressed by the number and thoughtfulness of the responses to your blog post. You must have a faithful following.

    "The world seems small as I sit here in Lima, Peru (directing Goshen College's program till next August) and think about the fact that both of us were hosted so graciously by Norm Hofer in South Dakota. His passion for Hutterites and this story in particular has brought many people together.

    "Best regards and blessings from Lima."