For more than 200 years, the government of Canada has graciously extended the privilege of exemption from military service to members of religious denominations which objected to participation in warfare for reasons of faith and conscience. At first, the law required conscientious objectors between the ages of sixteen and sixty to register annually and pay a special tax. These provisions were dropped in the 1850’s.
When the Parliament of Canada passed a conscription act in July of 1917, there was some confusion at first as to how this exemption should work. The Mennonite churches advised their members that when a young brother received notification that he was being called up for military service, he should report to the place assigned and submit to what was required of him Meanwhile, a committee of ministers would present a claim for his exemption.
Before long a system was worked out whereby a member would be given a certificate stating that he was a member in good standing of a specific congregation. The certificate would be signed by a minister of the congregation and this certificate was recognized by military officials as sufficient evidence to grant an exemption.
Before this system was put in place, one young Mennonite lad in Ontario received his call, but his mother would not let him report to the military as the church had asked. She probably thought she was protecting him, but it backfired. The army picked him up and carried him off to training camp. Minister Thomas Reesor was asked to intervene on his behalf.
Thomas Reesor and the young man were granted a hearing with the commanding officer. The officer questioned the lad closely, then turned to Thomas Reesor. “I am going to grant this exemption,” he said. “But I think you are wrong in your attitudes. You are living under the protection of the best government on the face of the earth and you are doing nothing to show your gratitude or appreciation.”
Those words rang in the ears of Thomas Reesor all the way home. He shared them with other ministers and leaders in the Mennonite churches of Ontario. In November, 1917 a committee was formed to help relieve some of the suffering of the war and to express in a practical way their gratitude for the privileges granted to them. The Non-Resistant Relief Organisation set a target of raising $100 for every young man granted exemption from military service.
Thomas Reesor was made treasurer of this organisation. In the early stages, one congregation sent a cheque for $130. He returned it, with a letter saying that if this was all their privileges meant to them they might as well keep the money. Not long after, he received a cheque for $3,500 from the same congregation. $75,000 was raised by the end of the war. This was a very impressive sum 100 years ago.
The money was dispersed to the Merchant Seaman’s Relief Organisation for the relief of widows and children of men lost on torpedoed vessels, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission of Ontario for help to wounded and disabled returning soldiers and to relief agencies working in the war ravaged countries of Europe.
I believe Mennonites have always endeavoured to be good neighbours, but it took the reproof of a military officer to launch us into organized relief efforts in Canada. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, young men and women are encouraged to volunteer for a term of service in one of the many programs operated by the church: children’s homes, guest homes for families with a loved one in the hospital, units that repair or rebuild homes after a disaster, or Christian Public Service units in a number of cities where young people volunteer in hospitals, rehab centres, nursing homes, etc.