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Conscientious Objection in North America (11)

In part 11 Bro. Peter talks about Alternative Service after WW2.


Those who I have talked with about their experiences as a CO during the Korean and Vietnam wars are few. We know from the records of the NIBSCO1National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors: now the Center for Conscience and War that 89 Christadelphians served from 1952 through 1964, and about 75% of the same  numbers were drafted in 1965-1972 as in that period. So I believe about 150 were in Alternative Service after WW2, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Of course the period of service was a fixed 2 years, which was shorter than the average in WW2, which was about 2.5 years, but highly variable and of uncertain duration. Also the conditions were far less restrictive, being as the employment was civilian, usually only 40 hours Monday – Friday and paid (but poorly).   

The draft and alternative service in the USA

Technically, the draft ended in 1947, only to be resumed in June 1948 after a 15-month hiatus. Those granted Conscientious Objector (CO) status in the draft were deferred until the Alternative Service system was organized in the summer of 1952. This was after the start of the Korean war, which began early in 1950, but which intensified after October 1950 when China entered the conflict. By the summer of 1951, when a new draft bill was enacted, the need for additional troops was immense, and it was decided that continuing deferment of COs was no longer viable, so a form of alternative service was needed. The Civilian Public Service Camps of WW2 were rejected largely because the numbers of those deferred, about 12,000 in three years, were too small, and also the Historic Peace churches (Mennonites, Brethren, and particularly Quakers) were strongly opposed to any military involvement. So it was agreed to develop an alternative service program for COs.

It took two years to get going, and in the end executive order 10238 was signed. In brief:2This is taken from Larson, An Unbroken Witness: Conscientious Objection To War, 1948-1953. By Zelle Andrews, a Ph D thesis on the Internet

“The regulations stipulated that objectors would be employed in government or nonprofit organizations that were primarily engaged in charitable, health, welfare, educational or scientific activities. They would not be allowed to work in profit-making businesses, nor could they remain in their own communities except in special instances when the local board decided that their present work served the national interest. They would be permitted to volunteer rather than having to wait for assignment by their local board. Even those who preferred to wait for a call from the draft board would be given some opportunity to choose the service they wished to perform. In most instances, the procedures for individual COs would be as follows. The objector would submit to his local board three types of work he was interested in. If the board found anyone of these choices acceptable, it would assign him to it and place him (as a CO).”

So, beginning in the middle of 1953, around when the Korean Armistice was signed, suitable non-profit work had to be found. There was some difficulty in this initially, but then the economy boomed, slots opened, and in the end COs had a choice — but it could not be near home.

The cold war era saw a great increase in the number claiming CO status, especially compared to the two world wars. In both WW1 and WW2, the percent claiming CO status was only about 0.15%. As can be seen in the chart, the percentage rose to about 10% after the Korean war, and rose to 65% during the final years of the Vietnam war. The chart also shows the number of draftees: the spikes during the two “hot” wars is noticeable.3The Data is from the Semi-annual report of the Selective Service, Jan-June 1973, appendix 12. (Available on Google Books) Interestingly, although about 10% of those drafted during 1960-65 were granted CO status, only about 2% were called to do alternative service, as we shall discuss later. The Vietnam war conflict escalated rapidly in 1965, but the stalemate around 1968 caused a large increase in opposition to the war. The reduction in percentage  performing alternative service around 1965 is probably due to the lag between a draft date, and the actual obtaining of CO status, which is often more than a year. And after 1966, most of those obtaining CO status actually did alternative service.

More than 80% of the COs (and the vast majority of Christadelphians) found themselves working in hospitals, many in mental institutions. It was not easy work, as well as being low-paying, and even so several States circumvented the law and paid less than minimum wage, which itself was only about $35 per week ($350 today). But at least it was civilian work, five days a week, and usually the brethren could find work near an ecclesia. Their wives could also join them, if they were married, so on the whole the two-year period was not unpleasant. It was a great improvement on the primitive isolated camps of WW2, and it was for a defined time, so few complaints about the experience were heard. Better than the alternative, which was often the brutality of infantry service in Korea, or later Vietnam.

Before the Boards

Many different experiences before the draft boards were reported: some endured a strict grilling about their faith, but several breezed through when they mentioned “Christadelphian”.  And quite a few experienced strict scrutiny by the FBI after refusal from their local draft board, although the FBI ceased this after 1967 and the Selective Service itself investigated instead.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that local boards, some of which were biased towards rejection, found quite a few Christadelphians ineligible for CO status, although usually their cases before the appeal boards were successful. On several occasions, however, their applications were rejected at this stage: only if one of the three members dissented could a further appeal be made to the next step, which was a ”Presidential Appeal”. I do not have many records, but I know several were successful at the Presidential Appeal level: however, I know of a least two Christadelphians who failed at either the appeal level or the Presidential level, and were imprisoned for their conscience.

FBI investigations

It seems almost unbelievable the amount of effort that was expended in investigating the validity of the convictions of those appealing for CO status. As far as I can tell, the FBI interviewed several neighbors, investigated school records, checked with several friends, and sometimes, but not always, talked to any named references. Any school discipline incidents, like fights, were investigated, alcohol consumption (if any) was recorded, and in general the applicant’s life was put under a moral microscope. These were young men of about eighteen, and how many of us can look back at our conduct in the years before that age, and not recall any unseemly episodes?

A sample4Search Internet for “FBI_Investigates_Conscientious_Objector.pdf” showed that, at least in one (non-Christadelphian) case, the FBI interviewed perhaps 12 or so people: seven neighbors or friends, two present or former employers, several at his schools, and several pastors of his churches. The report ran to almost 2,000 words, and the only negative items were one punch at school, after much incitement, and a suspicion of “hot-rodding” a vehicle.

An investigation of one (unbaptized) Christadelphian found more to criticize: one fight, a few beers consumed, and a somewhat poor school and employment record, but many of his friends commended him as a devout religious boy, often quoting Bible passages.

Both were granted the desired exemption from any military service, as were most of those Christadelphians who went through this experience.

It seems clear that the FBI investigations essentially ignored the question of baptized or not, and instead focused on interviewing neighbors and those who knew the individual at school, including an examination of his school record.

The experiences

Harold Lafferty received his draft notice in 1950, and passed his physical exam, so had to appeal to obtain CO status, which required obtaining form SSS-150, as it was known. There was difficulty in obtaining it: he had to visit the local Selective Service office, and see the colonel in charge, who reluctantly gave him the precious document. This was submitted, but as expected the local draft board refused to grant CO status. He appealed, and this provoked the FBI enquiries among his friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and ecclesial members. He had made it known where he worked that he was going to apply for CO status, and this caused problems: his ultimate superior was one of those interviewed by the FBI, and his disdain for COs caused Harold to be fired.  In the end, the FBI report was favorable, and Harold was granted his CO status, but his termination caused him grief. In the end, of course, Alternative Service had not yet started, but Harold spent the next four years unable to plan for the future, expecting to be called each month.   

Ken Sommerville was drafted and appeared before his local board on September 13, 1955. Refused CO status, he appealed, and the FBI investigated. His appeal was heard on Jan 20, 1956, where he was accompanied by his father. The FBI investigation makes interesting reading: any reported slight misdeeds were probed, and at least 13 individuals were interviewed, which must have taken several days. In any case, his appeal was accepted, and on October 2, 1956 he started work at the Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry), a mental institution, almost exactly 100 miles away from his home.  This was a notorious institution, and the experiences of the COs here ultimately caused great changes to this, and similar, mental hospitals.

Byberry Hospital Ward

Ken spent a year in an environment  that was very difficult for both the patients and those serving them. Shown above is an example of a ward at Byberry. The ward that Ken served in was for incontinent patients.

He recounted an episode during his service in The Tidings, Dec 2010.

David Williams. This is his account, slightly edited.

“Appearing before the draft board was an ordeal, I was very nervous and I had to appear before it myself. Looking back it was probably good for me, and the board in general were very courteous to me, although they denied me CO status and told me I would have to go before the Appeal board, this involved being examined by the FBI, although the local board told me they would go with the decision the Appeal board made. A couple of things stick in my mind regarding the FBI investigation First, they interviewed my neighbors, my teachers at high school, my employer, my high school pals, but to the best of my knowledge, never interviewed any Christadelphians. Their purpose, as one of my friends told me, was to see if my manner of life was consistent with being a conscientious objector. Second, they just weren’t interested from my baptism on, they were especially interested in my teen years. Bro. John Wilson (our recording brother) and myself appeared before the Appeal board and they gave me a favorable decision,  and a few months later the local board granted me a 1/0 (CO) classification.
“I worked in a hospital, the Good Samaritan Hospital Vincennes Indiana, 1955-57. The first six months as an orderly on a men’s ward, and during hours I was not working the hospital trained me to be an operating room technician, so the last year and a half I worked in the operating room assisting doctor’s operations. Among other things, my last duty each day was to mop all the operating room floors and the hall floor.”

During the Vietnam war era, there seemed to be more choice of locations and occupations: some worked in Goodwill locations, at least one as assistant to a Catholic priest, and others in similarly diverse occupations. And, in general, those who experienced alternative service found it an acceptable service, especially compared to the rigors of service in Vietnam. The concern about the service board and the potential of an investigation of their behavior as a teenager was of as great a concern as the actual required service, which was essentially a two year, very low paid,  interruption of their lives.

In several cases, brethren went through all the trauma of appearing before the local board, successfully appealing, being granted CO status, but never heard anything more, so they lived in suspended status for years, fearing the call to report, but never receiving it. This is clear from the chart above: during 1960-65, only about 20% of those granted CO status ever did alternative service.

After the Draft

With the end of the daft in 1973, much of our focus on military service has slowly dwindled. There has been no Military Service Committee among the Amended in the USA since about the mid-1990s, although “The New England Christadelphian Religious Conscientious Objection Committee” issued a CD in 2003. The Unamended have been more active: they last issued their information CD in 2013, and Bro. Harold Thomas still occasionally posts. In Canada, the Military Service committee has also been dormant, although Bro Martin Webster is still a contact. In the UK, on the other hand, their Military Service Committee is still quite active, planning a National Awareness Day for Sept. 19, 2020. It has expanded its area of interest to include advising applicants for asylum in the UK, and expressing an opinion on cremation.


The involvement of Christadelphians with wars in North America has extended over 100 years: from the Civil war to the failure of the war in Vietnam, the draft in the United States has been in force for about 35 of those years, and during all that time statistics show that Christadelphians have been one of the most consistent denominations in opposing any form of military service. In WW1, this came with a great price, both in the United States and Canada, as all those drafted became subject to military discipline: at least one died in prison as a direct result. And in WW2, the brethren were banished to primitive camps, often thousands of miles from home, and, in the case of the United States, had to pay for this incarceration. Two also died during that conflict. We must be grateful for their sacrifice, and although Military Service seems to have faded from the awareness of most, we should be prepared at all times to make an answer for our faith. We should also remember the scrutiny that many underwent as the authorities made exhaustive enquiries into their behavior, going back many years, as we advise our young people, male and female alike, to conduct themselves in appropriate ways.   

Peter Hemingray

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