History Ph.D. Dissertations

Conscription Policy, Citizenship and Religious Conscientous Objectors in the United States and Canada During World War One

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Gary Hess

Second Advisor

Rebecca Mancuso

Third Advisor

Beth Griech-Polelle (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Edgar Landgraf (Committee Member)


In democratic societies, governments often assume extraordinary powers during wartime, thus redefining, at least temporarily, the relationship between citizens and the State. During the First World War, the democratic governments of the United States and Canada conscripted their citizens to fight on the distant battlefields of Western Europe. Conscription created unique challenges for both governments as a number of eligible men, in both Canada and the United States, refused to recognize their government's authority to compel them to take up arms. Though the number of conscientious objectors was rather small, they were a remarkably diverse group that was highly visible. This created challenges for policy makers. The war would not wait and these almost unprecedented conscription policies was being made and revised even as they were being implemented.

The war years were a difficult time to oppose government policy as both Canada and the United States employed impassioned rhetoric and expanded coercive powers to encourage all citizens, and resident aliens, to give the government their full cooperation. The young men who would later become religious conscientious objectors were peaceful, industrious and law abiding. They were generally considered to be highly valued members of society. The war, and specifically conscription, changed this positive perception. Complicating matter even further was the fact that many conscientious objectors were German immigrants, or the descendents of German immigrants. They frequently read and spoke German, often more fluently than they read or spoke English. These men, and their co-religionists, were now viewed as unpatriotic, untrustworthy, ignorant and dangerous.

This dissertation examines the manner in which conscientious objectors challenged, either directly or indirectly, the basic authority of the state. It explores how conscientious objectors were identified as a threat, and how the governments of Canada and the United States tried to contain that threat. It also examines the ways in which citizenship was a contested and evolving concept in both Canada and the United States during the war, and particularly during the period of conscription, especially for recent immigrants and their descendants whose ethnic background and religious beliefs made them a highly visible minority and set them apart from the dominant culture.

Examining conscription policy, and how it applied to conscientious objectors, during this particular moment in history not only sheds greater light upon the creation and implementation of conscription policies, but is crucial to answering larger questions about cultural attitudes in the United States and Canada toward vulnerable and marginalized populations. These issues remain highly relevant as both the United States and Canada become more diverse and continue to attract large numbers of immigrants.