Life in Community

Conscientious Objector Finds the Gift of Peace

March 9, 2021 by

To be a conscientious objector during World War II demanded conviction. It was a particularly tough call in England. The country had been blitzed and, although Hitler’s focus had turned eastward, England continued to feel the threat of Nazi troops just across the Channel. It is not surprising that COs were often lonely, cruelly mocked, and labelled cowards. Jack Marsden certainly felt alone as the war spirit swept through England, but he had earned the respect of his co-workers and kept it, even when he refused to enlist in a war they supported.

Jack had known since he was a child that he would never be a soldier. His own father had been killed in the First World War when Jack was only three weeks old. Jack’s pacifist convictions deepened as he matured. In the 1930s he sensed war looming and wondered why and how, after the carnage of the First World War, people could throw themselves again into wholesale slaughter.

He could see how hatred and misguided nationalism fueled the bloody aggression of one country against another. More difficult to recognize, however, was that the desire for material security, with its greed and selfishness, divided people and also led to war. Such destructive attitudes were more insidious, Jack thought, since they are difficult to identify, especially in one’s own heart. Material security typically appears positive, even honorable. It appeals to nearly everyone.

Of course, personal concern about material security slips readily into a desire for national security. Unwittingly the seeds of war take root in a person’s soul. Jack knew he needed to do more than just refuse to support this divisive war spirit; he needed to combat it by living for its opposite: the spirit of peace, justice, and brotherhood that he believed would draw people together.

Jack and Mari MarsdenJack and Mari Marsden in 1967

On Christmas Eve 1942 this longing prompted Jack to travel by train to a remote Christian community called Wheathill, in Shropshire. In wartime this proved to be a journey of over twelve hours. Jack was one of few civilian travelers and he listened as servicemen, thronging the trains and platforms, spoke grimly of England’s part in the war.

A bus from Ludlow brought Jack as near to Wheathill as it could. He trudged the final uphill mile through a blacked-out countryside and arrived at the community shortly before midnight. Another Jack (Ellison) and his wife Annie welcomed him warmly and told him that a festive Christmas Eve celebration had begun hours ago with a manger scene followed by a communal meal. If he hurried, Jack could still catch some singing.

As Jack walked into the community dining room, he was bowled over by the spirit of peace – an overwhelming contrast to the militarism he had been surrounded by on the train. When the songs inside ended three sisters slipped out, climbed to the top of the hill and sang, with their heads surrounded by stars, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Jack knew he had found what he was looking for.

Jack joined the Bruderhof at Wheathill and lived wholeheartedly the spirit of community, because he recognized that the spirit of materialism sows the seeds of war. Years later, Jack spoke about how community life had helped him follow Christ more faithfully. 

One aspect of community is that we have no private property. I mean especially no money. . . We read in the Gospel how the rich young man went away sorrowing when Jesus told him to give away all his money to the poor. In Matthew, chapter 19, Jesus speaks of this and also in Matthew we read how a man gave up everything he had to buy the pearl of great price. This life [together] is that pearl.
The call is to follow Jesus. The prophet Micah says: ‘He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God’ (Micah 6:8).

lion and lamb artworkArtwork by Sheera Maendel

Jack walked humbly until his death on December 29, 1998, when he unexpectedly collapsed during a meeting. I was at that meeting. Thomas, a brother who had joined at Wheathill shortly before Jack did, had just spoken of the importance of that time. He had expressed gratitude that in community people can work for and long for the kingdom of God on earth.

Jack, who did not often speak up in meetings, was overcome with tears. He responded, “It was also the end of the war that had gone on for six years, in which millions of men had been killed. The fact that peace came. It was something wonderful – a gift!”

Those were his final words.

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Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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