Kansas Mennonites and the Political Order on the Eve of World War II

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Abstract: As the United States government approached involvement in World War II, Mennonites in Kansas became unusually aware of the national political scene. Kansas Mennonites were divided into separate ethnic groups and denominational bodies that differed in political party preferences and extent of political involvement. The prospect of warfare and military conscription led Mennonites to organize witness to government officials through letters and visits to Washington D.C. The strongest center of Mennonite political activity was at Bethel College in North Newton. In the election of 1940 the Mennonites, more than other Kansans, shifted toward the Republican Party in protest against the Burkc-Wadsworth bill that instituted military conscription.

Kansas Mennonite awareness of national political issues reached an unprecedented peak in the years immediately prior to the American declaration of war against Japan and Germany in December 1941. The Mennonites were German-speaking religious pacifists who had suffered social ostracism and vigilante violence in World War I (1917-1918). They were alarmed by the approach of another war, especially in September 1940 when Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act authorizing military conscription. The national election in November 1940 marked a major shift in Kansas Mennonite political preferences from the Democratic Party--which controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives and broadly supported peacetime conscription--to the Republican Party, which was generally more skeptical of the growing national enthusiasm for war. (1)

In 1940 there were 12,676 Mennonites in south central Kansas, spread over six counties. (2) Mennonites wrere overwhelmingly rural, centered in southern McPherson County, western Marion County and northern Harvey County. Other more isolated congregations were located on the periphery of the settlement in Reno, Butler and Sedgwick counties. The south central Kansas Mennonites were divided into five larger church bodies.

More than 90 percent of the Mennonites of south central Kansas were descendants of German-speaking immigrants of the 1870s and 1880s, mostly from Poland and Russia. The (Old) Mennonite group, whose larger settlements were east of the Mississippi River, were a small minority in Kansas, although they had their own two-year parochial college and academy in Hesston. Nearly all Kansas Mennonites had begun to speak the English language, but most of them had grown up in families that spoke a north German dialect known as Low German or Piatt Deutsch. The levels of political awareness and involvement of these groups varied widely. The largest group, the Western District General Conference, was more politically engaged than the other four groups. The General Conference denominational headquarters and four-year liberal arts college (Bethel College) were located in Newton and North Newton in Harvey County.

The Mennonites were a minority of less than 25 percent in any county of south central Kansas. Even so, their presence helped make the region distinctively pluralistic in comparison to the vast majority of counties in the United States where single denominations were dominant. (3) Mennonite institutional development--colleges, newspapers, hospitals, retirement homes, business enterprises--strengthened the Mennonite impact on the region. Three Mennonite colleges--Bethel College (North Newton), Tabor College (Hillsboro) and Hesston College (Hesston)-- located within thirty miles of each other, contributed significantly to the educational and cultural standing of the region. Mennonites had public visibility and influence beyond their numbers. Many people considered south central Kansas to be "Mennonite country." Steven Foulke, in a geographical study of "Mennonitism in South Central Kansas," concluded that the region was "strongly influenced by a Mennonite presence for well over a century. …