It was called ‘the war to end all wars.’ Sadly, history tells another tale. Despite the World War I (WWI) deaths of 17 million soldiers, with the injury of 21 million more, the Imperial War Museum in London records that war has taken place every single year since, killing an estimated 187 million people.
This week the world looks back 100 years to Armistice Day and the end of WWI. Yet reflecting — and looking forwards — provides a paradox for Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
As Christians, we recognize that war and rumors of war are signs of the end of the age and whether in WWI, Syria, or Yemen, we still struggle with the horror of man’s inhumanity to man. We long for the time when war will be no more, for the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan will be over, when God, as promised in Revelation 21, will make all things new.
But until then, how do we react?
In keeping with our being people of peace, Adventists have generally, although far from totally, held a pacifist position. Four years ago, at the commencement of centenary memories of WWI, Ted Wilson, President of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, wrote an article in Adventist World, ‘The Battle: Should Adventists serve in the military?’
“As with other difficult questions, the pioneer leaders studied the issues using the Bible as their guide and concluded that the position most consistent with biblical principles was non-combatancy (the conscientious objection to bearing arms). The primary reason for this position was that Adventists serving in the U.S. military would be forced to compromise their loyalty to God if they obeyed the commands of their officers. The two Bible commandments most directly involved were the fourth — to keep the Sabbath holy, and the sixth — not to kill.”
British Adventists added another primary reason when they were called to active service during WWI. William George Chappell worked selling Christian literature. He was called to a tribunal in Brynmawr, South Wales on March 25, 1916. In his notice of appeal, he stated that “as I am a Seventh-day Adventist [I] am opposed to war.” Noting Bible verses that supported a pacifist stance, he said that he felt it more important for him to ‘go preach the Gospel’ than to be involved in the war. Unsurprisingly, the tribunal disagreed stating that his work was ‘not of national importance’ and only exempting him from combatant service.
How can you kill people that you should be sharing the Gospel with? That was the almost unanimous view of the British Adventist Church.
In some other parts of Europe conscientious objection was not an option. For them, life was more difficult, and Adventists, Quakers, and other groups with traditionally pacifist traditions often found themselves in the army, though many sought roles that did not necessitate bearing arms.
Some 130 British Adventists became conscientious objectors during WWI. Some served in non-combatant units; others ended up in prison. All took what opportunity they could to witness.
Elizabeth Yap writes about her Methodist grandfather, Gilmour Dando, incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison as a conscientious objector. “While he was there he became acquainted with another prisoner who was a Seventh-day Adventist. They were not allowed to speak to each other, I gather, but both ‘happened’ to clean the others cell. As a result, my grandfather was able to leave ‘notes’ of chalky stone written on the brick walls in this man’s cell. This arrangement enabled grandfather to ask questions about the Sabbath, which his friend was free to answer in the same way, in my grandfather’s cell. As a result, grandfather became convicted of the Sabbath and, once the war was over, became [a] Seventh-day Adventist.”
Witnessing activities were sometimes reported in the Missionary worker magazine with the conscientious objector’s witnessing while on service in France and elsewhere. Other accounts shared their Sabbath-keeping experiences, with answers to prayer.
Not all prayers were answered as expected and the documentary film, A Matter of Conscience, tells the story of 14 young men harshly punished to ‘within an inch of their lives’ for their refusal as conscientious objectors to work on Sabbath. After the war, many in that group went on to become leaders in the Adventist Church both in the United Kingdom and around the world.
Their experience in WWI and their consistent testimony bore fruit as the United Kingdom government prepared for WWII. Discussions with the war office gave Adventists exemptions from military service so long as they were involved in work of national importance. Pastor H. W. Lowe states, “Through the years I have reflected often on the trials of life that seem so inexplicable at the moment. It is in those moments that acts of loyalty are the seeds sown for another to reap.”
Such experiences can, no doubt, be recounted, in many different places. Sakari Vehkavuori tells how, during the 1918 civil war in Finland, his great-grandfather, Viktor Ståhlberg, pleaded to save the lives of prisoners who were going to be shot as revenge killings for the unlawful death of his son and nine other youth from the opposing army. He broke a cycle of revenge by preaching the gospel and challenging them, “Now this slaughtering is enough; you cannot kill any Reds for my son’s lost life, not one.”
Ståhlberg put into practice the words of Peter: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9 NIV).
After one hundred years of constant war somewhere in the world, perhaps our only full hope is the one provided by Scripture, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28, NIV).
While we wait for that great day, we also have a mission of peace, a mission to share the Good News, and a mission to provide hope. Instead of a war memorial, British Adventists planted a Peace Garden, to remember those conscientious objectors of 100 years ago. The peace garden, at a deeper level, also has the potential to help visitors focus on the peace that Christ can bring into our hearts, even in times of suffering and difficulty.
Adventist Church president in the United Kingdom and Ireland Ian Sweeney states that “while we are citizens of two kingdoms, when those kingdoms clash, the kingdom of God must take priority.” The commitment of those ‘alternative heroes’ of 100 years ago may be the inspiration for us, in our lives, to honor further the words of Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
An original version of this commentary appeared in the Trans European Division News website.