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Mennonite witness leads to lasting change in U.S. mental-health care

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Aaron Barnhart’s long interest in American pacifism led him to explore Civilian Public Service, an alternative service program operated during World War II, and its effects on the present day.

Barnhart, a former journalist and a freelance writer from Kansas City, Missouri, was on the Bethel College campus July 19 to present “From Resisters to Reformers: How Kansas Mennonites Changed Mental Health Care” to what he called “the most Mennonite audience [I’ve had] for this talk.”

Barnhart has been giving the presentation over the last year as part of the Kansas Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. He came to Bethel’s Kauffman Museum for its periodic Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum series and was greeted by a full house and then some in the museum auditorium.

Although his religious heritage is “Dunkard” (Church of the Brethren), Barnhart says he grew up essentially unchurched until, at about age 17, he embraced pacifism and began reading the work of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

That led him eventually to Reba Place, a Mennonite congregation and intentional community in Evanston, Illinois. For the past decade, Barnhart and his wife, Diane Eickhoff, have been members of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas.

Mennonites were woefully unprepared for the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1918. In Kansas, many were recent immigrants who still spoke German in their homes and churches and had come to North America because they had lost the right to conscientious objector status in Russia.

Harvey County, Kansas, became “a hotbed of anti-German sentiment,” Barnhart said, citing examples of mob violence directed at Mennonites in Hesston and Burrton.

When the storm clouds of World War II began looming high on the horizon, the churches most persecuted during World War I, the historic peace churches (Church of the Brethren, Quakers and Mennonites), began working among themselves and then with federal officials to develop a structure for alternative service.

Civilian Public Service was written into the Conscription Act of 1940. It was “an experiment in democracy,” Barnhart said. “There wasn’t another example before this of religious freedom extended to conscription.”

About 12,000 men served in CPS, more than a third of them Mennonite. They were to do “work of national importance,” though at first it wasn’t specified what that was.

It soon became clear, Barnhart said, that there was a crying need in medical facilities, especially hospitals and even more particularly state mental hospitals, which were “almost criminally understaffed.”

The state hospitals housed several times over their capacity. They were staffed by “overworked, poorly trained, shamefully underpaid employees.” Physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

Most of the CPS men who went to work in mental hospitals across the East and Midwest “weren’t reform-minded,” Barnhart said. “They responded [to the need] the way you’d hope men raised in the church would do, with compassion.”

But a handful of those CPSers could not forget what they had seen and experienced in the hospitals. And some of them contacted Albert Maisel, a writer for Life magazine, whose investigative reporting had already exposed deficits in care at Veterans’ Administration hospitals.

May 6, 1946, Life published Maisel’s article “Bedlam 1946,” an exposé of Byberry State Hospital in Pennsylvania and Cleveland (Ohio) State Hospital, with photos by Jerry Cooke (taken at Cleveland) that evoked the scenes from Nazi concentration camps that had so recently horrified Americans.

The CPSers “bore witness, and they got the authorities involved,” Barnhart said. This would have been significant all by itself, he said.

But there was more. Efforts to reform mental-health care in the United States were not new, Barnhart said, but “the Mennonites realized this was an idea whose time had come again.”

After a series of meetings and article publications between 1944 and 1947, Mennonite Central Committee appointed a group (that eventually became Mennonite Mental Health Services) to plan for three new mental-health hospitals.

These facilities were to operate according to a “moral view” of mental-health care, in which individuals have agency for their own care.

The first was Brook Lane, in western Maryland. There would ultimately be seven more, in California, Indiana, Manitoba, Pennsylvania and Kansas (Prairie View in Newton). Many of those in Barnhart’s Kauffman Museum audience had worked in CPS mental-health units or at Prairie View.

Barnhart is the co-author, with Eickhoff, of The Big Divide: A Travel Guide to Historic and Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region (Quindaro Press, 2013, updated 2015). His research interests are in history, civil society and rural America.

For more about the Kansas Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, see the council’s website,

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.