Fourteen Adventist soldiers laid down their tools at 4:00 p.m. on Friday to prepare for Sabbath.
But the sergeants were ready, armed with sticks, revolvers, and boots.
Severe beatings followed. The bruised British conscripts then were roughly thrust into prison cells, irons tightly clamped on their wrists, digging into their flesh, their hands behind their backs.
The ordeal was only beginning for the 14 young men who had been drafted a year earlier from their theology studies at London’s Stanborough Missionary College, a forerunner to Newbold College. They were facing the consequences of refusing to work on Sabbath during World War I.
Prison “had to be worse than the trenches simply to discourage deserters,” said Garth Till, whose father, Willie, was among the 14 prisoners.
The stories of the faithful Adventists who stood firm on Sabbath observance and refused to bear arms are coming to light only after 100 years. More than 65 million soldiers fought in World War I. More than 8.5 million died, and 21 million others were injured. Historians have described the 1914-1918 war as horrific: modern weaponry combined with outdated tactics from yesteryear.
Adventist soldiers found a different kind of horror. Determined to keep the Sabbath and not carry weapons, they were beaten, starved, forced to clean toilets to a shine without equipment, and punished with the dreaded “crucifixion,” which saw soldiers shackled in irons and painfully strapped to a gun wheel or some other object for hours in the hot sun.
After the war, many Adventists refused to talk about the experience, even to their families. But details of their courage and devotion to God are slowly emerging through the discovery of rare letters, a handful of published articles, and interviews with surviving family members.
Adventist delegates—gathered in London for a major church business meeting on the same 1914 weekend that the war started—had little idea about the trials that young Adventist men would face. In special prayers the delegates pleaded that “the forces of strife may be restrained in Europe and that the lives of our brethren and the interests of the cause may be divinely guarded,” according to a special 100th anniversary issue of the British Advent Messenger published in 1992.
The delegates did well to pray.
Ludwig R. Conradi, a German national and president of the church’s European Division, had to leave the meeting early to head back home. In Germany he found himself caught up in a debate about whether Adventists should serve in the military, with the opposing sides aligning themselves into two camps that have split the German church to this day.
Adventists in Britain took a different stance. They followed the Adventist example of noncombatance adopted during the American Civil War in 1861 to 1865. This was not an easy choice, and British Adventists were widely scorned as belonging to an odd, working-class church exported from the U.S.
But as World War I raged on, the British government needed thousands more troops to fight in the trenches, and about 130 Adventists ended up being drafted from 1916 to 1918.
Among the first to be called up were the 14 students from Stanborough. The young men were conscripted into the 3rd Eastern Non-Combatant Corps at Bedford Barracks on May 23, 1916, and soon dispatched by ship to France.
Despite the noncombatant status of their military unit, the Adventists faced trouble even before they docked in France. On the ship they were handed rifles. They refused to carry them.
Upon reaching the French port of Le Havre, the sergeant separated the Adventists from the rest of the group and forced them to stand on one side of the dock. Then he ordered the tallest and strongest of the Adventists, whom he perceived to be the ringleader, to carry large rocks from one end of the dock to the other. After the solider completed the task, he had to carry the rocks back.
The sergeant, however, quickly softened his stance on orders from a superior, a colonel, who visited with the Adventists one evening and inquired about their former occupations and religion.
“On learning that we were Seventh-day Adventists, the officers inquired what were our peculiar beliefs and objections to warfare. Turning to our color sergeant, the colonel (commanding officer) said: ‘See that these men are excused duty from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday,’ ” soldier H. W. Lowe wrote in a letter dated May 28, 1916, and published the next month in The Missionary Worker, a newsletter for the Adventist Church in Britain.
“What relief these words brought to us all!” Lowe said. “Bear in mind that we were granted the very thing we desired before we had asked for it. We believe God has been extremely good to us all.”
The next 18 months passed smoothly, with the Adventists working mainly as stevedores, unloading ships on the docks at Le Havre and elsewhere.
But a new young officer took charge in November 1917, and he declared that Sabbath duty was mandatory. When the Adventists refused to work, they were placed under court martial and sentenced to six months of hard labor at Military Prison No. 3 in Le Havre.
“The prison routine was very rigorous and obviously geared psychologically to control a tough lot of men,” Lowe wrote in an article published in 1973 in British Advent Messenger.
At the prison gates the guards promptly confiscated all the prisoners’ Bibles. But one Adventist managed to hide a copy of the Gospel of John, which the group divided up into scraps of paper that they tucked into their caps.
The Adventists were isolated from each other, forced to work long hours at double pace, and faced severe punishment if they fell behind, Lowe said.
“The armed guards were not blessed with the milk of human kindness when administering these punishments,” he said. “On some occasions a man would be tied to a wheel in crucifixion fashion for hours in the sun. All prisoners dreaded what they called ‘crucifixion.’ ”
Writing 40 years later to a young man who asked about the experience, another Adventist prisoner, Worsley W. Armstrong, said: “I will not go into the details of the horrible treatment we received, but finally each one of us was cast into a small cell, approximately seven feet by four feet, with iron walls and a concrete floor. It was midwinter. There, after punishment, our hands were placed behind our backs and locked with what were called ‘figures of eights.’ This was very painful.”
Armstrong developed a heart condition in prison, and he lived with the serious consequences of his incarceration for the rest of his life.
A third Adventist prisoner, Alfred F. Bird, died prematurely in 1944, partly as a result of ill health from prison. His daughter said in an interview that the marks of the irons digging into his wrists could be seen until the day he died.
It remains unclear how Adventist authorities in Britain learned about the mistreatment of the Adventist prisoners. The alert might have come from a chaplain who conducted weekly worship services at the prison. The chaplain, hearing shrieks from the cells as he passed the prison one day, stopped and asked to see the Adventists. His request was denied, and he wasn’t allowed inside the prison to conduct these services again.
When Adventist leaders in Britain appealed to the War Office about the treatment of the prisoners in January 1918, about three months after their imprisonment, authorities replied that the matter had already been investigated and the guilty officers had been reprimanded or demoted.
A meeting between Adventist leaders and a general investigating their complaint spurred the early release of the 14 from military service a month later.
Albert Penson, one of the 14, said th
ey were marched out of the prison “with the lightest hearts in the world—unbeaten and unbroken, although scarcely recognizable to each other.”
“They gave us three days’ rations and our personal belongings and almost drove us from the prison under rifle and bayonet escort,” he said in an article published in 1974 in the British Advent Messenger.
After a hearing by the Central Tribunal, the Adventists released from the army and then from civil prison, transferring to Knutsford Work Centre. All 14 were free men by July 1918. The war ended on November 11, 1918.
Many of the prisoners went on to hold leadership roles in the Adventist Church. Lowe served as British Union president before and during World War II, while Armstrong became union president after the war. Willie G. Till and another prisoner, Jesse Clifford, traveled to western Africa as missionaries, while G. Norris became manager of Granose Foods, an Adventist-operated company that makes meat substitutes, and later trailblazed as a factory builder in South America. Bird, J. McGeachy, and others served as local pastors and strong spokesmen for the Adventist Church when conscription reemerged as an issue in World War II.
But the Adventists in Military Prison No. 3 never forgot their first Sabbath, the day they prepared by putting down their tools at 4:00 p.m. on Friday.
According to a 1957 letter by Armstrong, who was then president of the Adventist Church for Britain and Ireland, here’s what happened next:
“When the Sabbath morning came, I remember hearing the door of the cell to my right being opened and the sergeant giving instructions to one of our young men to go to work. I could not hear his reply, but I did hear him leave the cell and the door was bolted.
“The same thing happened to the youth on the other side, and I was left by myself. I heard other doors opened and bolted in the same way, and finally the door to my cell was opened, and I was commanded to go to work.
“I refused to do this in a courteous way, explaining once more the reason for my refusal. I fully expected to be thrashed and beaten. . . .
“But to my surprise the sergeant was quite affable. He told me not to be a fool; that all the other young men had come to their senses and they had all gone to work as good Britishers should, and that I would only get into further trouble if I was stubborn.
“This news, of course, surprised me, and I could hardly believe it, but I remember making the statement that whatever my brethren might do, I must remain firm to the truth of God, and I endeavored to get some sort of spiritual understanding into the mind of that gross sergeant.
“I learned later, however, that all our young men in the cells remained faithful.”
The sergeant’s attitude abruptly changed when Armstrong refused to work, and the inevitable beating followed. But that was not the end of the story.
Armstrong said: “A short while afterward, a little way down the corridor I heard somebody whistling one of our well-known hymns — although I cannot remember just which one it was. I was surprised to hear this because to whistle or sing was counted as gross insubordination. But to my surprise I heard a voice singing with the whistling, and it was only a question of seconds before many other voices were singing this hymn, and I found myself spontaneously joining in the singing of that
good old hymn.
“The singing of that hymn brought wonderful comfort and strength to us as we were there in that prison.”
It also had an effect on the sergeant and other noncommissioned officers who gathered in the corridor and didn’t know what to do. They became subdued, and, Armstrong said, “We finished that hymn in an atmosphere of absolute quiet.”
While much of the horror of the prison faded over the years, that moment remained. Even 40 years later Armstrong could state with clarity: “There was something in the hymn itself as well as the spirit in which it was sung which affected those brutal men, for brutal they were to the extreme. And although we did experience considerable persecution subsequently, I felt that these men had far more respect for us after they had heard our singing.”
Victor Hulbert, communication and media director for the British Union Conference, has conducted extensive research into the Adventists who were drafted during World War I. as he worked, he learned that one of the 14 prisoners, Willie G. Till, was his great-uncle. More information about Hulbert’s research and a related documentary film, A Matter of Conscience, can be found at the Web site: adventist.org.uk/ww1.