Many of the early Mennonites who migrated to North America did so precisely because they were concerned about the preservation of nonresistant faith.
Quakers, Mennonites, and other groups (Moravians, Schwenkfelders) who came to colonial America came precisely in order to practice their religious beliefs as they saw fit. Quakers were influential in early Pennsylvania government. Because one of the main tenets of Quaker faith was nonresistance, there was general, official tolerance for these beliefs.
Although the great majority of Amish and Mennonites took a dim view of the revolution, very few violated their peace principles, and came through the American revolution with their commitment to nonresistance intact.
As the American Revolution heated up, there was more and more pressure to join associations of rebels or patriots. Fines and taxes levied on nonassociators grew, and the horses and wagons of quiet Mennonite farmers were pressed into service. While patriots talked of liberty, this talk probably sounded hollow to those who desired religious freedom in order to follow the words and example of Jesus to “love your enemy.”
Although the great majority of Amish and Mennonites took a dim view of the revolution, very few violated their peace principles, and came through the American revolution with their commitment to nonresistance intact. In some ways, the revolutionary experience broadened the peace stand of Mennonites and Amish. Prior to 1777, the laws provided exemption from both militia duty and militia fines. But during the revolution they had to take stands on whether to provide substitutes, give nonmilitary support to the war effort, and pay special war taxes. These stands were opportunities for expanding their peace testimony. In a few instances, people were jailed, their property was seized, or they faced mob violence or public humiliation.
In 1789, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a famous physician of Philadelphia, made reference to the testimony of nonresistant groups in Pennsylvania and said, “Perhaps those … Christians among us who refuse to bear arms for the purpose of shedding human blood, may be preserved by divine providence as the center of a circle, which shall gradually embrace all nations of the earth in a perpetual treaty of friendship and peace” (quoted in War, Peace, and Nonresistance, Guy F. Hershberger, Herald Press, copyright renewed 1981, p. 101).
The issue of whether to help pay for war is still a struggle for some of today’s Mennonites. The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund website explores some of the issues dealing with conscientious objectors and war taxes.
Additional Resources for Revolutionary War period:
- Land, Piety, Peoplehood: Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America 1683-1790, by Richard K. MacMaster, Herald Press, 1985.
- Nonresistance in Colonial Pennsylvania, Wilbur J. Bender, Eastern Mennonite Publications, 1990 revision. 431 Royer Road, Lititz, Pa. 17543.