Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When Religious Freedom Was In Danger in America

Friedhof Cemetery in Washington
Township, Douglas County SD
site of the graves of Joseph and
Michael Hofer, Anabaptist Martyrs
We hear a lot about the threat to religious liberty in the United States today and while researching the Anabaptist movement for a class that I am teaching, I came across an interesting story about a threat to religious freedom in the United States 95 years ago.  It wasn’t Catholics being threatened with mandatory contraceptive coverage, but a far more dramatic story of Anabaptists who gave their lives rather than surrender to the laws of the United States.    First, some background.
The Hutterites are a Anabaptist denomination that emigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century from the Russian Empire—though they were not ethnic Russians but Tyrolean Austrian.  Founded in the Austrian Tyrol in the sixteenth century by Jakop Hutter, a hat-maker and itinerant preacher, the Hutterites had left their native Austria for Moravia (in today’s Czech Republic) to escape persecution by the Catholic Hapsburg rulers of Austria.  Hutter himself was eventually captured by the Hapsburgs and burned at the stake in Innsbruck in 1536.  When Moravia fell under the Hapsburg empire, the colonies of Hutterites in Moravia eventually fled first to Transylvania and then to the Ukraine to avoid persecution and military conscription.
Like many Anabaptist groups, the Hutterites are and have always been radical pacifists.  Their religion prohibits them not only from bearing arms, but from wearing military uniforms, following military orders, or paying taxes that support war.  In the Ukraine—then a part of the Russian Empire—the Hutterites had long been exempted from military service but in the second half of the nineteenth century, were required by the Russians to do alternative service in forestry.  Even this was a conscience problem for them as they saw their alternative service as an indirect participation in the war effort. 
Four hundred Hutterites emigrated from the Ukraine to South Dakota in the 1870’s.  There they established their radical way of life which, based on the Acts of the Apostles, requires that property be held in common. That marked them as very odd ducks in American society that has long had a paranoia of anything “socialist” including religious communitarianism.  Four men from this colony in Freeman, South Dakota—the brothers Joseph, Michael, and David Hofer and a relative, Jakob Wipf—were drafted in 1917 to fight in World War I.  Community leaders were in a quandary as to what they should do.  The decision was that they should report to the induction center as ordered but neither put on a uniform nor carry a gun.  They were forcibly shaved of their beards and had their hair cut contrary to their religious customs and sent to Fort Lewis Washington where they were court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison for their refusal.  (The sentence was later reduced to 20 years.)  They were sent to Alcatraz, then a military prison, where they were chained to the ceiling of a cold and damp underground cell.  Uniforms were left in the cell and the prisoners told that if they were cold they could dress in the uniform—they stayed cold rather than compromise their beliefs.  They were transferred to Leavenworth Kansas but Michael and Joseph Hofer were so weakened by the cold and by the near-starvation they had had to endure, that they died three days apart.  The bodies were shipped back to their families in South Dakota.  When their coffins were opened, the bodies had been dressed in the military uniforms they had refused to wear as a mark of contempt for the martyrs and their religious convictions.  
After reading a story like this I am not impressed at the charges of attacks on religious liberty coming from some voices today.  And as usual I am very impressed at the stories of how Anabaptists—Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish—stand faithful to their beliefs in spite of the disadvantages it causes them in our modern society.

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