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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 19 2013

Eriksmoen: North Dakota pastor arrested ‘for violation of Espionage Act’

In 1918, a North Dakota pastor was sentenced to prison for three years for allegedly violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

The charge was that the Rev. John Fontana “Willfully obstructed the recruiting or enlistment” of men into military service. Fontana vehemently denied the charge.

Of the 145 families who held membership in his Peace Church in New Salem, 33 men were actively engaged in the military.

At the outset of America’s involvement in World War I, Fontana came under suspicion because he gave his sermons in German, a language spoken by most of the people living in his rural community.

Fontana was a Lutheran minister of the German Evangelical Synod in New Salem. Anti-German feelings were high with many Americans during World War I.

Before America’s involvement in the war, Fontana let his congregation know he was proud to be German, and they should also feel that pride. But when the U.S. became involved in the war against Germany, he openly supported the U.S.

On Oct. 24, 1917, a local banker visited his home, pushing war bonds. Fontana told him he could not afford them. Two weeks later, the pastor was arrested.

Fontana was born Jan. 20, 1872, in Altshausen, southern Germany. His father was Italian, and his mother was German. We know Fontana had an extensive religious education in Germany because when he boarded the Suevia passenger steamship in Hamburg, he listed his occupation on the ship’s manifest as “clergyman” – a remarkable claim for a 16-year-old. Fontana landed in New York on Sept. 3, 1888, and made his way to Afton, Minn., where he attended Luther Seminary.

Fontana was ordained in 1893 and served congregations in Ohio, Webster, S.D.; and Norwich, Albany, and Benton, all in Minnesota. In Benton, he married Helena “Lena” Franck, who was born and raised in Minnesota.

At that time, the Peace Church in New Salem was beginning to struggle, having lost one-third of its congregation in the past five years. In May 1909, Fontana was sent to New Salem by his synod to restore the church’s vitality. In a couple of years, membership reached 145 families, its previous level.

Most of the adult members of Peace were immigrants from Germany, and still had family living in that country. Although many of the people had left Germany for the U.S. because of political reasons, they still had pride in their homeland.

William II (Kaiser Wilhelm) came to power the same year Fontana came to America. Kaiser Wilhelm was popular with many Germans living in the U.S., and was especially appreciated at Peace because the German Bible at the church was autographed by him.

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, with Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, pitted against France, England, Russia and other Western nations. Because many family members of the Peace congregation still lived in Germany, Fontana often led his congregation in prayers for German success.

After April 6, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration of war against Germany, Fontana’s primary allegiance changed. He had become an American citizen in 1898, and his wife and five children were all born in the U.S. He considered himself an American.

From 1820 to the start of World War I, more Americans emigrated from Germany than from any other country. In 1907,

1.3 million Germans arrived in the U.S. Southwestern North Dakota was primarily made up of German immigrants.

It was feared German spies were everywhere, and on March 22, 1917, the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice authorized the organization of the American Protective League. The APL was a secret society made up of 250,000 volunteer spy catchers.

Not finding many spies, the APL then focused on Americans who clung to their German roots. On June 15, Congress passed the Espionage Act. It was now unlawful to interfere with military operations by causing “insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty (or) ... willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment” in military service.

Early on, Fontana was a suspect, and on April 19, 1917, agent H.G. Garber was sent to New Salem to investigate. Garber could not identify anything illegal that Fontana had done.

On Oct. 24, 1917, J. Henry Kling, a cashier at the First National Bank of New Salem, visited Fontana at home, ostensibly to sell him Liberty Bonds. The pastor claimed that after Kling asked him to buy bonds, he responded, “I haven’t got the money. ... I am in debt.” Kling then said, “Well, you got a rich congregation.” Fontana explained, “The congregation’s money isn’t my money.” Kling then said that he would lend Fontana the money at 10 percent interest. That wasn’t acceptable because Fontana had no way of paying off the loan.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 6, federal agents arrested Fontana “for violation of the Espionage Act.”

We will conclude our story about the Rev. John Fontana, concentrating on the trial, the appeal and the lengthy career that Fontana had as a minister.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.