In a world filled with war and killing, what is the point of being a voice for peace? What can one small person do in the face of armed resistance, in the face of powers and systems? Does one voice matter? Today on this peace Sunday, I want to tell three stories of individuals, led by God, who faced those questions, and who decided to make a stand for peace. I’m going to talk about a king’s daughter, a British Columbia pastor and an Ohio farmboy. One of them lived long ago, and two of them lived during the First World War.
The king’s daughter is Jehoshabeath, and we find her named in 2 Chronicles 22. But before I can tell you about Jehoshabeath, I have to tell you about her mother Athaliah. Athaliah was a powerful woman from the northern kingdom of Israel who married into the royal family of Judah, the southern kingdom, as part of a political alliance.
She married Jehoram the king, one of the descendants of David. When Jehoram died, Athaliah and Jehoram’s only surviving son Ahaziah came to the throne. But Ahaziah died in battle shortly after becoming king. That’s where Athaliah’s true colours shone through. She decided she would kill all of Ahaziah’s children, her own grandchildren! and step onto the throne herself! Kill all her own grandchildren…the whole line of David! That’s where Jehoshabeath comes in. Jehoshabeath was the daughter of Athalia and King Jehoram, brother to Ahaziah killed in battle. And that’s where we pick up the story: 2 Chronicles 22:10-12
Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah. But Jehoshabeath, the king’s daughter, took Joash son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king’s children who were about to be killed; she put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Thus Jehoshabeath, daughter of King Jehoram and wife of the priest Jehoiada—because she was a sister of Ahaziah—hid him from Athaliah, so that she did not kill him; he remained with them for six years, hidden in the house of God, while Athaliah reigned over the land.
I think this is one of the most exciting stories about women in the bible. It’s also one of the shortest. The children of the dead king are put in a room, waiting for execution by Athaliah. Athaliah’s daughter, Jehoshabeath, the aunt to the children, steals in and quickly steals away one of the babies, Joash, and his nurse, and hides them in a bedroom. That’s how the baby, this little last remaining descendent of the royal line of David, avoids the slaughter of his family. He is smuggled away and is raised in the temple by Jehoshabeath’s husband who is a priest. Joash later becomes king of Israel. You can read that exciting story in 2 Chronicles 23.
Jehoshabeath is a woman of courage, who defied her wicked mother to save a future king. If Athaliah was willing to kill all her grandchildren, no doubt she would have killed her daughter too, if she got in the way. Yet Jehoshabeath risked her life to save the baby. The voice in her heart was, “This baby will not be killed this day,” and she risked everything to make it so.
Even though we only hear her name in one verse in the Bible, she changed the course of history. Jehoshabeath joins other female heroes of faith like Shiphrah and Puah, (the Hebrew midwives in Egypt who wouldn’t kill the baby boys), Moses’ mother who hides her baby in a basket, and even Mary who flees with her baby to Egypt, out of reach of murdering soldiers. A courageous woman.
Now we move to the story of a British Columbia pastor. His name is James Woodsworth. James was born in Etobicoke, Ontario in 1874, but because his father was a Methodist minister, they moved to Manitoba while James was a young boy. When James was still a young man, he determined that he wanted to go into ministry too, so he moved to Toronto and then Oxford, England to pursue his studies. Always of an inquiring mind, he tried not just to believe his faith, but to understand it as well. And to understand its place in a world that was complicated by poverty and violence.
He was particularly moved by the economic poverty he saw in the slums of both Toronto and Oxford, where new immigrants faced very harsh conditions. He worked alongside other people of faith in alleviating these conditions. In the early part of the twentieth century he was part of developing a social gospel. A hope that the message of Jesus really should be good news for the poor, and a release from captivity for those who are in bondage.
James came back to Canada, got married and served in various parishes and even government organizations that were working to relieve poverty. But all was not smooth sailing for James in the early part of the 1900s. His clear-eyed assessment of poverty in the cities was not appreciated by all the members of his churches. He talked a lot about the dangers of wealth, and the responsibility of the rich to care for the poor. He abandoned any theology that was only concerned with people’s souls: he knew that the gospel also cared about the social conditions in which people lived.
On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, and Canada as part of the British dominion was included in that conflict. James was against the war because he believed it was contrary to the teaching of Jesus. In Winnipeg at a large meeting of young men, he declared that military force would not bring peace. His views were reported in the two major newspapers in Winnipeg, and he was accused of being a pacifist. The headline read, “Does Mr. Woodsworth really believe that the Allies are wrong in trying to whip Germany?”
For some Christians, supporting the British empire was an obvious duty to God and country. When the government instituted a registration of men, as a manpower survey to assess the workforce for the army, many churches were active in promoting the registration. Churches also encouraged the purchase of war bonds (that was the way the government was paying for the war). But James Woodsworth and others who believed in a social gospel, spoke up against the registration.
James looked at Canadian society, and he saw that parts of the economy were thriving on the war. James was convinced that registration was the first step to conscription. In a letter to the Free Press in Winnipeg he wrote: “Since ‘life is more than meat and the body more than raiment’ conscription of material resources should in all justice precede an attempt to force men to risk their lives and the welfare of their families.” His view was that everyone has one life to give, it’s the most precious thing we have. It is only fair that all the profits of money that people make from war should be conscripted long before lives were called up. James saw that war was good for business, and that many rich people got richer. But the poor man can only give his life.
In 1917, James lost his job with the government because of his outspoken views against the war. He had become very unpopular in Winnipeg because of the patriotic sentiment that ruled there. He decided a change of scenery was in order.
He went back into ministry, this time to Gibson’s Landing on the coast of British Columbia. There he jumped into small town life, concerning himself with the lowest and the least. In addition to holding religious services, he noticed that prices were terribly high for basic necessities in this remote place, so he helped to organize a co-op. Unfortunately, this put him on a collision course with an important family in his congregation who owned the main store in the town.
His economic activities, and his continued opposition to the war, had the consequence that his contract was not renewed in that parish. James was unemployed again. He had a family to feed, he was educated to be a minister, but he did not seem to fit in the church. He sent a letter of resignation to the Methodist national denominational office. In the long letter, he wrote, “The devil of militarism cannot be driven out by the power of militarism without the successful nations themselves becoming militarized. Permanent peace can only come through the development of good-will. There is no redemptive power in physical force.”
He went on to say that when Christians face a government, even a nominally Christian government, that wants you to go against the teachings of Jesus, you must choose God rather than man. “As a minister I must proclaim the truth as it is revealed to me. I am not a pro-German; I am not lacking, I think, in patriotism; I trust that I am not a slacker or a coward. I had thought that as a Christian minister I was a messenger of the Prince of Peace.”
And so after 22 years in ministry, he left that role, and started to work in manual labour on the docks in Vancouver. There he quickly started working for the longshoremen’s union…and the rest is history. James or J.S. Woodsworth as he came to be known, went on to become a prominent figure in the formation and leadership of the Co-operative Commonweath Federation (CCF) party that came to power in 1944 in Saskatchewan (the first social democratic government in North America). It eventually evolved into the New Democratic Party. Many years later, J.S. Woodsworth raised his voice in the House of Commons, urging Canada not to enter the Second World War, for the same reasons he fought against the first world war. His peace position marginalized him from the rest of the CCF party that he had helped to form.
J.S. Woodsworth is one of my personal heroes, a voice for peace, even when no one would join him, even at great personal cost. A courageous follower of his leader, the Prince of Peace.
My final story is about a Ohio farmboy. John Witmer was born into a Mennonite family in 1897. Their family farm was situation on the beautiful rolling hills around Columbiana, Ohio. His father Daniel, a prominent farmer in the area, had been chosen by lot to serve as minister of their local congregation. Daniel grew up in a devout environment, and was baptized upon the confession of his faith on June 3, 1917 at the age of 20 at White Mennonite Church. Last year I had a chance to visit Columbiana, and saw the beautiful rich soil and this church building. It’s called White Church because the building is white. I was visiting there with James Reesor, a friend from Niagara, who is the great-nephew of John Witmer.
I was there as twenty members of the extended family, some in their eighties, gathered together to talk about the family memories passed down to them about John. John was the eldest son, and in 1918 he was in the process of going into farming with his father. It was just over a year after his baptism that he got the letter. It was a letter from the United States War department, telling him that he was being called to military service. He was to report to Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio at the beginning of September 1918.
In the United States at that time, if you were a conscientious objector (CO) to military service, your claim was processed at the military camp. CO’s had different experiences depending on what camp they went to, and who their commanding officer was. Before he left for Camp Sherman, John did a lot of soul searching. He wrote a letter to a friend explaining why he felt he could not fight. In it he quoted numerous scripture verses. As a follower of Jesus he knew that his conscience would not allow him to serve in the military. I chose our scripture today from the verses that were on his mind as he was preparing to go to Camp Sherman. [see responsive reading below.]
There was another young Mennonite man who arrived at Camp Sherman at the same time as him, whose name was Harvey Blosser. I’ve listened to a taped interview that Harvey gave in the 1960s about his experiences at Camp Sherman.
The first thing that happened at the military camp was that everyone was given a uniform and told to change out of civilian clothes. John and Harvey refused to put on the uniform. They said they could not join the army, they were conscientious objectors. At this point, their clothes were basically torn off them and all their personal possessions confiscated. They could choose either to go naked, or wear a uniform. They reluctantly put on the uniforms.
John basically refused to do anything they told him. He wouldn’t line up to be counted, he wouldn’t sweep the barracks, he wouldn’t answer commands. Harvey was less strict about doing things that didn’t seem to be military in nature. Harvey said he couldn’t see how sweeping the barracks floor was contributing to the war, but John was adamant, he would not follow military orders.
Persecution from both those in command and recruits was direct and brutal. John especially was abused. Because he had only been baptized the year before he was called up (and after the war had started), the men accused him of getting baptized as an excuse to get out of fighting. Wherever they went men jeered and yelled them, calling them “Yellow” or “Slacker”.
But the persecution went far beyond name-calling. John and Harvey were told by their commanding officer that they would be shot if they did not drill with the other recruits. At one point they were lined up in front of a firing squad, and were told they were about to be killed. But they did not change their position. They were not shot.
Another time a group of soldiers came and grabbed Harvey and hung him upside down out of the top storey window of a barracks by his feet. They told him that they would drop him on the count of four. But they didn’t kill him. Another time, a man charged at John with a bayonet pointed at his head, John managed to duck at the last second and narrowly escaped being killed.
After a week or so, when none of this intimidation worked, John and Harvey were each given their bibles back, and ordered to stand on a box for hours and read their bibles out loud. Or they were told to walk behind one of the officers all day and read it out loud, all the while people yelling at them, “Slacker”, “Yellow”.
It was around this time, a few weeks after they came to the camp, that John got sick with Spanish Influenza. It was a terrible flu that raged through the camp. He became sick with a high fever. He was weak and worn down because the barracks were very cold, and he had no other clothes than his uniform, because they had confiscated all his other clothes.
One evening, while he was still recovering from the fever, a group of soldiers grabbed him and threw him fully clothed into the showers and soaked him with cold water. John had no other clothes to change into, and only one thin blanket in the below freezing temperatures–their barracks were unheated. The next day Harvey and John were given permission to move out of the regular barracks into the tents set up for conscientious objectors. John could hardly walk the mile to where the tents were set up. His temperature was 103. Two days later, his parents received a telegram that their son was very ill and they should come immediately to see him. John’s father Daniel and his uncle arrived at the military hospital. They were able to say a few words with John before he slipped into unconsciousness. He died the next day. Thirty-three days before the end of World War 1.
At the Columbiana train station, his family gathered to receive John’s body home. Because he had never been interviewed and formally recognized as a conscientious objector, John was treated with the honour of a regular soldier. His casket came off the train draped in an American flag. When his father Daniel saw the flag over his son’s casket, he walked over and without a word, took the flag off the casket and folded it up, to the dismay and anger of the people in the town who were watching. They buried him in the churchyard cemetery outside White Mennonite Church in Columbiana, Ohio, the place where he had been baptized one year before.
John wasn’t the only person to die of Spanish Influenza: in Camp Sherman alone over 1100 recruits got sick and died. This fact did not make the Witmer’s family grief any less real. They had lost their son.
It was a beautiful sunny day when I visited the cemetery where John rests. Pastures and fields surrounded the church, cows still mooing, the harvest ready to be taken in. A scene very like the scene that John Witmer would have seen as he came out of that church the last time before he headed out to Camp Sherman. Except now there was a white gravestone in the cemetery, with his name and dates on it.
As I gathered in Columbiana in a circle with his relatives, they remembered this young man who lived only twenty-one years. They remembered the strength of his deep faith and how it inspired their faith today. And they told another story.
In the 1960s, around 40 years after John died, an older man appeared in Columbiana. He stopped in town and asked whether there were any immediate relatives of John Witmer, who died in 1918, still alive. Being a small town, people knew exactly who he meant, and they knew where to direct him. John’s youngest sister Ida was still alive. The man went to her house and knocked.
When Ida came to the door, and he found out who she was, he said he wanted to talk to her. He explained that he had been in Chillocothe, at Camp Sherman with John in 1918. He said he had come here to confess to her that he had been one of the men who had taken John into the showers and soaked him with cold water when he was so sick. Ever since that day, and since John died, he had regretted that he had done that. He told her he was coming now to say sorry to the family, all these many years later, for his role in the abuse John had received. And he came to ask for forgiveness.
Ida offered her forgiveness on behalf of the family.
John Witmer died one month before Armistice Day; the new recruits he was at camp with likely never served overseas. In the large scale of violence that took place in World War One, the unkindness shown to John was a very small thing. But this young man who had chosen to be unkind, regretted his actions for forty years. Finally, he had the courage to face the family, he chose to make it right. How much did his action stem from John’s quiet acceptance of the suffering that was laid on him, his quiet conviction in a saviour who was the Prince of Peace?
There are so many stories of suffering from that world war. Sixteen million deaths, twenty-one million people wounded. So many stories that died with the people who lived them. Among those people there were those who were a voice for peace, Christians living out their faith, like James or John.
Every action for peace makes a difference. Even saving the life of one baby, like Jehoshabeath did. Amidst great violence, people can find their humanity. We can choose to be kind, rather than commit an act of violence. A person not shot, shelter given, someone comforted, a cup of cold water shared.
The voice for peace may seem small, it may seem inconsequential, it may seem like a lost cause, a true crossroad you face on a lonely hill. If a voice is crying in the wilderness, does anyone hear? We trust in a God who sees and hears our suffering, and who rejoices in faithfulness, and in kindness, no matter how small.
I also used this responsive reading:
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people… [Psalm 85:8]
…let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16]
Therefore, whoever breaks
one of the least of these commandments,
and teaches others to do the same,
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven
but whoever does them and teaches them
will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:19]
Indeed, we live as human beings,
but we do not wage war according to human standards;
for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human,
but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. [2 Cor. 10:3-4]
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who promised is faithful. [Hebrews 10:23]
A sermon preached at
Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
November 9, 2014
by Carol Penner
 Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), p. 76.
 McNaught, Prophet, p. 83.
 Most of this story can be found in Lily A. Bear, Report for Duty (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Christian Light Publications, 2003).