College students these days learn what a wise leader President Woodrow Wilson was, a good progressive. An example of the positive summary of his work is the historical summary of President Wilson offered in the Obama White House Archives at Archive.org. Nothing to dislike there. But President Wilson needs to be remembered every time we think about religious freedom, for reasons you aren’t going to hear from the progressive media or from typical college professors.
Wilson’s stance on religious liberty is one that should give us more than pause. It should motivate us to stand up against the increasing spirit of hostility toward religious liberty that is rising in this and other nations. More on that later, but first let’s review what happened to religious liberty under Wilson. We’ll see that we Latter-day Saints, as much as we love to recall the religious persecution our people faced in the distant past, aren’t the only ones who have suffered and even died for our religion within the borders of this free land. The story of the Hutterites, the small religious group that ended up fleeing from our nation to seek relief from religious persecution, is one that we need to review and teach to our people, our families, and our communities that we may not let such persecution arise again.
Please read “How Woodrow Wilson Persecuted Hutterites Who Refused to Support His War” by Lawrence W. Reed at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE.org). It describes the background of the Hutterites, a religious minority that came to the US to escape persecution in Europe. Their refusal to participate in war would make them a target when Wilson sought to bring “unity” to America to ensure that everyone supported World War I, the war Wilson claimed would make the world “safe for democracy.” The Hutterites, however, due to their religious beliefs, were not willing to take up weapons and support his war. Lawrence Reed’s article explains the price they paid for following their religion. Here is an excerpt:
Wilson signed the Selective Service Act
into law in May 1917, setting the stage for the administration’s
inevitable conflict with conscientious objectors, for whom no provision
or exception was made. A quarter century later during World War II,
objectors were offered alternative service, but not under Wilson, the
At induction centers where young men reported for military duty,
Hutterite men were pressured both physically and psychologically. This
passage from Hostetler’s book will leave you wondering how such a
travesty could ever occur in the land of the free and the home of the
At Camp Funston some of the men were
brutally handled in the guardhouse. They were bayoneted, beaten, and
tortured by various forms of water “cure.” Jakob S. Waldner, who retains
an extensive diary of his experiences in the camp, was thrown fully
clothed into a cold shower for twenty minutes for refusing a work order.
After such cold showers, the men were often thrown out of a window and
dragged along the ground by their hair and feet by soldiers who were
waiting outside. Their beards were disfigured to make them appear
One night, eighteen men were aroused
from their sleep and held under cold showers until one of them became
hysterical. Others were hung by their feet above tanks of water until
they almost choked to death. On many days they were made to stand at
attention on the cold side of their barracks, in scant clothing, while
those who passed by scoffed at them in abusive and foul language. They
were chased across the fields by guards on motorcycles under the guise
of taking exercise, until they dropped from sheer exhaustion. In the
guardhouse they were usually put on a diet of bread and water. Such
experiences were common to all sincere conscientious objectors,
including Mennonites and those of other religious faiths.
A delegation of Hutterite ministers traveled to Washington in August
1917, hoping to advise President Wilson personally of their concerns.
The most they got was a meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, who
blew them off with meaningless assurances and did nothing. The guilt for
what happened next lies not only with the men who personally
perpetrated the deed, but also just as surely with the administration
that allowed it to happen and that cared nothing for those to whom it
At Fort Lewis, Washington, four Hutterite men reported as ordered but
refused to sign admission papers or put on army uniforms. For their
sincere, faith-based convictions, they were tossed into the guardhouse
for two months, then sentenced to 37 years in prison. Hostetler reveals,
They were taken to the notorious
military prison at Alcatraz, attended by four armed lieutenants who kept
them handcuffed during the day and chained by the ankles to each other
at night. At Alcatraz they again refused to put on military uniforms.
They were then taken to a ‘dungeon’ of darkness, filth and stench and
put in solitary confinement out of earshot of each other.
Four months later, the men were remanded to Fort Leavenworth in
Kansas to serve out the remaining years of their sentences. The abuse
heaped upon them there was unspeakably worse than at Alcatraz. Two of
the men—brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer—became so ill from the
experience they required hospitalization. Their wives, suspecting the
worst, traveled by train to Kansas to see their husbands. Citing
Hostetler once again,
After losing a day, the women arrived
at midnight to find their husbands nearly dead. When they returned in
the morning, Joseph was dead. The guards refused his wife, Maria,
permission to see the dead body. In tears, she pleaded with the colonel
and was finally taken to the casket only to find that her husband’s body
had been dressed in the military uniform he had so adamantly refused to
wear. Michael Hofer died two days later. The wives and a few other
relatives accompanied the bodies to their home community, where their
enormous funeral seared Hutterite minds with the price of true apostolic
All through the summer and fall of 1918, the Hutterite colonies in
the Dakotas and Montana suffered intolerable abuses from local citizens
and officials for their German ancestry, their opposition to military
service in general, and their refusal to buy the government’s Liberty
Bonds in particular. Their sheep and cattle were seized and sold at
auction to purchase the bonds their rightful owners would not buy.
Finally, the Hutterites did what they had been forced to do so many
times before: Nearly the entire population of Hutterites in America—an
estimated 11,000—left the country. They migrated to Canada.
What did Woodrow Wilson say or do about the atrocities against the
Hutterites? Sadly, just about nothing. Historian Stoltzfus reports that
when businessman Theodore Lunde published pamphlets about what occurred
at Leavenworth, Wilson tried to silence him and the journalists he was
…Wilson urged Attorney General
Gregory to consider charging Lunde with treason for publishing
criticisms of the government. “There are many instances of this sort and
one conviction would probably scotch a great many snakes,” the
Wilson had no qualms about jailing people he disagreed with, even
after the war was over in November 1918. With Wilson’s full support, the Palmer Raids
rounded up thousands of Americans in 1920—the vast majority of them for
no greater offense than opposing the Wilson administration.
May we remember the Hutterites, their courage and their pain. May we resist increasing intrusions of religious liberty in our day. Fortunately, conscientious objectors to military service are treated better these days. But I worry at the numerous governors and mayors who see religion as such an annoyance or threat that religious communities need to be forbidden from meeting while massive marches and protests are viewed with approval, while gathering by the hundreds at Walmart and other well-connected establishments is a sacred privilege. In many communities, rules for religious gatherings have been imposed that are far more stringent than rules for liquor stores or marijuana ships, and some have the gall to lecture religious people about the adequacy of praying in private.
Government has no right to tell us how to worship. The vast majority of our nation’s religious groups have show a willingness to take the COVID virus seriously, and many have shown that gatherings can still occur without creating great pubic danger. American’s religious groups in general have taken the virus far more seriously than the politicians and petty tyrants who tell us to stay home while they travel freely, who tell us to celebrate the holidays alone while they and their families gather together, who arbitrarily tell us which businesses must be shut down and be sacrificed while their pay checks are secure at our expense, who tell us to quit traveling while they vacation where they want to, who tell us to eat at home while they eat out in groups at the lucky restaurants they haven’t destroyed yet. And then these great theologians tell us that we don’t need to gather as religious communities, because the important thing is that we can always pray to God while we cower alone in our basements hiding from the world and from life as they command.
Let them worship as they will, but respect the religious liberty that is supposed to be at the heart of this nation.
May we not forget the Hutterites. It happened to them under the watch of a supposedly compassionate, humanitarian man who proclaimed the importance of liberty and democracy. It can happen again, in different ways, for different reasons, if we neglect our rights and allow them to be trampled upon.