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Expert discusses the 'Plain People'

April 07, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - They were called the "Plain People" - Amish, Mennonites and Quakers who made up a large part of the American Colonial population - and they lived by a code of peace.

But when able-bodied men were asked to take up arms against the British in the Revolutionary War, the Plain People refused, saying their religion prevented them from doing harm to anyone. They were branded as traitors.

The plight of these peaceful people, most of whom sought religious freedom in Pennsylvania, was the topic of a lecture Thursday by Richard MacMaster. He spoke to an audience of about 50 people at Renfrew Museum.

MacMaster holds a doctorate in American History, is a member of the editorial board of the Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage and is a speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

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He told of some Quakers in from Winchester, Va., who were forced to march with a company of volunteer militiamen to Pennsylvania to meet up with Gen. George Washington's troops.

Weapons were tied to Quakers and they were marched north with the company. They agreed that since they didn't consider themselves to be in the army they should not eat army food or drink army water. Were it not for Amish, Mennonite and Quaker families they passed along their way who fed and gave them water, they would not have survived the march, MacMaster said.

"Washington discharged them when he saw that they were in earnest and were willing to die for their beliefs," MacMaster said.

Members of German Baptist and other Mennonite sects were forced to take an oath of allegiance to the British king upon their arrival in America. When the American militia tried to press them into military service, many refused, saying they could not go back on their promise to be loyal to the king.

Late in the war, escaped British prisoners, mostly Hessians, sought refuge with Amish, Mennonite and Quaker families because they knew they would be cared for and not turned away.

Many of those families were jailed for helping the enemy, MacMaster said.

James Madison tried to include the right to be a conscientious objector in the Bill of Rights, but the issue finally was left to the states to include in their constitutions, MacMaster said.

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