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John L. Horst (right) talks about his experiences in Civilian Public Service in the 1940s as his grandson, Pete Brenneman, listens. (MCC Photo/Brenda Burkholder)

John L. Horst (right) talks about his experiences in Civilian Public Service in the 1940s as his grandson, Pete Brenneman, listens. (MCC Photo/Brenda Burkholder)

Civilian Public Service website to be launched May 15

Ed Nyce
May 13, 2011


AKRON, Pa. – When John L. Horst was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, he heard stories from men in his congregation who tried to remain true to their beliefs about peace and nonresistance while being pressured by society and the government to fight in World War I.

The stories of these people who attended Horst’s congregation, Ephrata (Pa.) Mennonite Church, played a large role in his own decision not to participate in the military when he became a young man in the 1940s, the days of World War II. Instead he served with Civilian Public Service (CPS), an alternative to the military.

Years later, Horst would tell his own stories to his grandchildren. Pete Brenneman, Horst’s grandson, Kinzers, Pa., said he too was influenced by his grandfather’s conscience on matters of war and peace.

“My Mennonite upbringing taught me that we should not kill. Grandpa’s views and stories made that conviction of mine more firm.

“Grandpa has always been one of my biggest heroes,” he said. “He felt he should help his country in a time of war, but by way of his convictions. He has always been a man of his convictions – not to take others’ lives. I respect that.”

Recognizing the power of one person’s experience to influence and inspire many others, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. is hosting a new website that chronicles the experiences of thousands of participants in CPS during World War II.

The web site, civilianpublicservice.org, will launch on May 15, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the opening of the first CPS camp, a Quaker camp in Patapsco, Md. A cooperative effort of Mennonites, Friends (Quakers), Church of the Brethren, historians, archivists and the Center on Conscience & War made the website possible.

“The website will be a great resource for historians, students and family members of CPS workers who want to learn more about the experiences of conscientious objectors during World War II,” said Titus Peachey, director of peace education for MCC U.S. “It will inspire curiosity about the past even as it sparks discussion about how to nurture and protect conscience against killing in our day.”

The website has four main sections:

“The Story Begins” tells of conscientious objectors in the U.S. during World War I, when no provision for alternative service existed. As World War II approached, leaders of Church of the Brethren, Friends and Mennonites helped to form the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), which continues today as the Center on Conscience & War.

The service board helped these and other groups negotiate alternative service options with the federal government so that conscientious objectors to war could perform, under civilian direction, “work of national importance,” as Congressional legislation instituting a military draft phrased it. On Feb. 6, 1941, Roosevelt signed the executive order that gave birth to Civilian Public Service (CPS).

The second and third sections of the website are, together, its “centerpiece,” according to Peachey. Both feature databases. One is a searchable listing of all CPS workers. The other is a searchable listing of CPS camps, with descriptions of the people and tasks at the more than 200 sites where work was done. Conscientious objectors spent several months to several years living and working in these camps.

While the government’s Selective Service System had ultimate oversight of the program and determined who qualified as conscientious objectors, church denominations administered most of the camps. MCC, representing a variety of Mennonite denominations and the Brethren in Christ Church, administered the camps for which Mennonites were responsible.

Finally, as the website develops, the fourth section, “The Story Continues,” will include information on present-day work related to conscience against war. Peachey and others are working to gather these accounts and to provide resources for those who are grappling with similar issues today.

Horst, now of Akron, hopes the website will bring attention to CPS and inspire others to learn from the experiences of those who chose alternative service.

His CPS experience began at the MCC-administered camp in Grottoes, Va., in October 1943. A primary task of his was to build fences around farms.

Later, he was sent to Mulberry, Fla., where Horst and colleagues built sanitary privies (outhouses) to combat the presence of hookworms. In addition, among other tasks, he spent two weeks helping to clean up after a hurricane in Bartow, Fla.

Also while in Florida, Horst and a colleague took care of teen, migrant fruit pickers after the teens contracted measles. “We acted like nurses for them,” Horst said, including dispensing medicine. “One of us was available to them in the day and one at night.”

Horst was released in May 1946, to “CPS reserves.” He spent several months traveling on ships with cattle or horses to Europe as part of a relief effort for civilian victims of war.

By the time CPS ended in 1947, approximately 12,000 conscientious objectors from about 231 religious traditions and more than 400 men with no religious affiliation had taken part in CPS. They worked in forests, soil conservation efforts, state mental hospitals, public health matters and other projects.

More information on MCC’s peace education work, including resources for youth and young adults on conscientious objection and alternatives to military enlistment, can be found at mcc.org/usprogramservices/peaceeducation.

Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ