'A responsibility to fight': Why a WW II-era judge jailed Mennonite pacifists

During the Second World War, Manitoba Judge John E. Adamson confronted Mennonite conscientious objectors, who he claimed were theologically naive and not sufficiently committed to what they professed to believe, says historian Ken Reddig.

Judge was 'annoyed' by conscientious objectors, claimed Mennonite elders 'brainwashed' them, historian says

Most Mennonite conscientious objectors were sent to work camps. But Judge John E. Adamson questioned their dedication to their faith, and their loyalty to the country. (Refuge 31 Films)

Manitoba Judge John E. Adamson was an astute judge, who was known for usually fair, but also swift judgements.

Then came the Second World War. His no-nonsense disposition soon became evident when he sparred — sometimes aggressively — with young Mennonite men who came before him requesting conscientious objector status. 

Most had history on their side: their families had earlier requested that privilege prior to immigrating in Canada, during the 1870s.

The real test, however, came during the Second World War. 

It was not clear if this privilege applied any longer. And so at the outset of the war, Canada created the Mobilization Board, which determined eligibility for military service or exemptions. 

If men claiming conscientious objector status were granted an exemption, they were expected to serve their country in other ways. They would be sent to one of 13 mobilization districts, and assigned "alternative service" work — hard labour within hospitals, or in manufacturing, farming, federal parks, forestry or road construction. 

In most cases the men were paid 50 cents per day and provided with food and lodging. If their work earned them more than the 50-cent per diem, that extra money was sent to the Red Cross. (By the end of the war, more than $300,000 had been contributed to the Red Cross.)

In Manitoba, Mennonite men requesting this alternative service had to appear before Judge Adamson, who chaired the local mobilization board.

But Adamson was not what the Mennonite elders had prepared them for. 

Barraged by questions, pushed on convictions

The young conscientious objectors had simply been told by their elders that they were exempt as per the 1870s immigration agreement. But Adamson's first contention was that this exemption did not extend to later Mennonite immigration. 

His second contention was whether these self-proclaimed conscientious objectors had sufficiently strong religious beliefs to back their claims. 

[Judge Adamson] pushed them on their religious convictions. Many were shocked at his questions.

He was annoyed with this parade of young men who assumed they had the right to postponements. And being a man of strong religious convictions himself, he set out to deflate their religious understandings.

He would barrage them with questions and biblical quotations to prove that their biblical convictions were incorrect. He pushed them on their religious convictions. Many were shocked at his questions.

He even blamed the Mennonite bishops and elders of having brainwashed these young men with false biblical theology. He actually went so far as to chastise the bishops and elders to leave these young men alone, and let them prove their biblical convictions on their own, without interference.

In fact, Adamson felt so strongly about this that he co-wrote a book entitled Should a Christian Fight? In the book, he attempted to answer the claims of these young conscientious objectors and the Mennonite leadership.

Replete with many biblical references and mainline historic church propositions, one by one he addressed the convictions of the conscientious objectors who appeared before him. 

He felt he had proved … that Christians had a responsibility to fight for their country.

Adamson sent a copy of the book to every young conscientious objector, as well as the Mennonite leadership, throughout Manitoba. Proudly, he even sent copies to all the mobilization boards across the country and to relevant government departments in Ottawa. 

In his mind he felt he had proved, once and for all, that Christians had a responsibility to fight for their country and engage in war with the enemies of the Christian nation. 

Most responded politely, and noted the hard work he had gone to in addressing this situation. But the book was never republished by the federal government as he had hoped.

See the story of Frank Peters, a Mennonite jailed for refusing to fight:

'Jailed for his faith': Pacifists were jailed for refusing to fight in the 1940s

4 years ago
Duration 4:00
The story of one Canadian Mennonite who was jailed in the 1940s because he refused to become a soldier when he was drafted.

And in August of 1946, with the war now over, the National Resources Mobilization Act was revoked. 

More than 5,000 Mennonite conscientious objectors worked in alternative service during the Second World War. The largest number of them were from Manitoba. 

'Theologically naive'

Adamson, in the end, was acting on his own convictions. 

He was convinced that conscientious objectors had to present a strong case, and in his opinion, be totally committed to their convictions.

And when it came to the young men who appeared before him, he felt that these young men often were theologically naive and certainly not as committed to what they professed to believe.

Judge John E. Adamson was not empathic to what they said before him.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ken Reddig

Mennonite historian

Ken was a longtime archivist and historian for the Manitoba government and two Mennonite archives. Later he served as the director of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba. He is a board member of the Canadian Mennonite Magazine.


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