Monday, July 31, 2006

Brethren receives posthumous pardon for WWI sedition charge

Brethren minister among group pardoned for (WWI) sedition convictions

Source: Church of the Brethren Newsline, July 19, 2006

A Church of the Brethren minister is among 78 people granted pardons for sedition convictions in Montana during World War I, the fruit of a Sedition Pardons Project at the University of Montana. The project was
directed by Clemens P. Work, professor of media law and director of Graduate Studies at the School of Journalism.

Sedition charges were filed against the late Church of the Brethren elder and minister John Silas (J.S.) Geiser on July 2, 1918, stemming from statements he made on Sunday, May 5, 1918, opposing the war. The statements were most probably made as part of a sermon.

The charges against Geiser were "extremely unusual," said Work. Geiser was "the only one of these cases of a minister being convicted...for what he said during a sermon."

At the time, Geiser served the Grandview congregation near Froid, Mont.
He was charged under a law passed by the Montana legislature in 1918, that "criminalized all sorts of negative speech," according to Work. In all, 79 people in Montana (one pardone
d in 1921) were convicted for criticizing the government during wartime.

Geiser was reported to the authorities for making the following statement: "All war is wrong. It is all wrong to buy liberty bonds or thrift stamps. We should remain firm; and I urge you not to buy or purchase any liberty bonds or thrift stamps.... I believe it is wrong to kill one's fellow man. One who buys Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps to furnish ammunition for the killing of people is as bad as it would be to kill one's self. I believe that one who buys Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps to aid and support the war is as bad as those who hire gunmen in the city of New York to kill their fellow man."

"It sounds like he was proclaiming the Brethren peace stance, doesn't it?" commented Ralph Clark, a current member of the congregation who is interested in church history. Clark has carried out research about Geiser on behalf of the pardons project.

Geiser moved to Froid in 1915 from Maryland, where he had started a mission that la
ter developed into Baltimore First Church of the Brethren, according to an obituary in the Church of the Brethren magazine "The Gospel Messenger" of April 27, 1935. Geiser also worked as a dentist to support his family while he served at Grandview. The congregation he served is now the Big Sky American Baptist/Brethren Church with joint Brethren and Baptist affiliation. In 1927, illness forced Geiser's return to the lower altitudes of the east coast, where he died in 1934.

The obituary makes no mention of Geiser's sedition conviction. But according to Clark's research, church minutes reveal more. In a congregational meeting on May 14, 1918, Geiser retracted part of his statement saying he had misunderstood Annual Meeting rulings on the purchase of war bonds. Clark said Geiser may have been referring to an Annual Meeting minute from the Civil War era allowing the purchase of government bonds.

The congregation voted to continue Geiser in his office and to help him seek legal assistance for the sedition charge. Then, in June 1918, Geiser handed in his resignation to the church after having declared bankruptcy.

The district elders made a ruling in July 1918 undoing Geiser's ordination, Clark said. In Sept. 1920, however, he was reinstated to full ministry. Annual Meeting frowned on declaring bankruptcy and that was probably the factor that led to the ruling undoing Geiser's ordination, Clark said.

Geiser did not do jail time for his conviction but was fined $200. "As far as I can determine they (the Geiser family) continued to live in their house and three church members signed for the $5,000 bail bond and one member paid the $200 fine," Clark said.

Of the 79 people convicted of sedition in Montana, 41 went to prison and the others were fined, Work said. The range of prison sentence was 1 to 20 years, the range actually served was 7 months to 3 years. Fines ranged from $200 to $5,000. "My position is that they shouldn'
t have served a day in prison," Work added. The sedition law was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria, because of fear of disruption of the war effort by labor radicals. "People were just hysterical at the time about the war and apprehending spies and enemies of the war effort," Work said.

Those convicted of sedition were for the most part "ordinary people who said critical or derogatory things about the government," Work said.

Most of the comments for which people were charged were made privately or were off-handed outbursts of anger or made under the influence of alcohol. In all cases, somebody listening took offense and turned the person in, Work said. Many times the person was not charged for what they said, but for who they were. For example, some of those convicted were German immigrants, Work said. "Or the person who reported them used the law as permission for revenge or payback, or exercising a grudge. We don't know how many fell into that category."

The pardons project grew out of research for Work's 2005 book, "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West." The project obtained an executive pardon from Governor Schweitzer of Montana with the help of professor Jeffrey T. Renz, of the University of Montana's School of Law, and a large group of others including law and journalism students, historians, and genealogists. On May 3, more than 40 relatives of those convicted of sedition were present when the governor issued the pardon.

As for Geiser, his obituary hints that he did not let the experience affect his love for ministry or the northwest. "He loved the great northwest, but above all he loved his church and the souls of men. He wanted to see our church established in this pioneer country," the obituary said.

For more information about the Sedition Pardons Project go to

For more info on JS Geiser:


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