Reading 6 – Friday, December 12, 2014

Pacifism, Nonviolence, and Conscientious Objection

By Woonsan Kang, South Korea/U.S.A., and Antonino Di Franca, Italy

Norman Cousins, a famous journalist in the U.S.A., insisted in his column in 1953 that there were 14,500 wars on earth from B.C. 3600 to A.D. 1950, and approximately 3.5 billion people died by the direct and indirect impact of wars. These wars and conflicts continue today.

How does the believer act amid this dreadful spiral of violence? How do God’s people respond when even and especially governments order their citizens to take up arms and go to battle? Must we adapt and surrender to their demands, or is it our duty to respond with conscientious objection to war, based on the principle of nonviolence and pacifism? What did our Lord teach, and what example did He give?

God’s people will not take up weapons

The Bible clearly teaches that Christians should not participate in war. Zechariah affirms that the Messiah “will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken.” Zechariah 9:10, New International Version. “Ephraim” and “Jerusalem” here represent the people of God, in whose hands no instruments of violence will be found, because Jesus in His teaching and example removed them. Referring to the gospel dispensation, prophecy declares that “in the latter days” when “many peoples shall come” to the Lord, believers of one nation will “not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:1- 4, English Standard Version; see also Micah 4:1-3. The latter days when many people will come to the Lord cannot be any other than the present day, therefore it is today when we must learn no more to “lift up sword,” or to “learn war anymore.”

Jesus’ example and blessing for the peacemakers

If we desire to have peace, we are urged to imitate the gentleness and humility of Jesus, who said: “… Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29, New International Version (NIV). We are called to follow the One who sacrificed Himself on the cross: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me.” Luke 9:23, NIV.

Jesus’ promise is: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9, NIV. This does not mean just to wish or to have peace in the face of evil, but to act as peacemakers when there is conflict: “Strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14, English Standard Version), is the appeal of the Scriptures. If we strive for peace, it is not possible for us to participate in war.

Avoid even anger

Another divine teaching of Jesus is: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council,…” Matthew 5:21, 22, Revised Standard Version. Sometimes we think that anger is a very small thing, but avoiding anger is more important than we think. Thus, according to Jesus, not just killing, but even anger, the underlying emotion that produces such a crime, is forbidden, for it will have serious consequences.

Christian conscientious objection

Christian “conscientious objection” in reference to military service is the position that refuses to perform military service, based on specific Biblical principles. Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15, 22. The position is strictly connected to “nonviolence,” which includes abstaining from all violent methods or means that injure others and is based on the teaching of the Lord Jesus as reported in the gospels, from which the term “nonresistance” comes. Matthew 5:39. “Nonviolence” and “conscientious objection” are related to “pacifism,” the principle of non-participation in war (1 Corinthians 10:3, 4), even in self-defense. Biblical pacifism is based on the high value of human life (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21, 22) and on the blessing pronounced by Jesus on the peacemakers. Matthew 5:9. In addition, pacifism is the natural outgrowth of the principle that God is the Giver of life, and hence He alone can take it. As Christians, we believe that human beings should not oppose God’s work and may not turn off the flame that He turned on. These same principles were held by the early Christians.

The apostles and early Christians

When He was on earth, what did Jesus teach about the approaching conflict? He said the believers were to “flee”– to “depart” from the place of conflict. Luke 21:21. What did the Christians of the apostolic time do during the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70? A Jewish historian wrote that the Christians “left Jerusalem.” They fled to a city “beyond the Jordan.”1 During the second Jewish war, A.D. 132-135, the Christians kept away from the army and fighting, and for their nonviolent position they suffered the attacks and mistreatment of Bar-Kosiba, a false messiah. Concerning the position of the Christians against military service and bearing arms during the second and third centuries, the testimony of the martyr Maximilian shows the principled position they maintained. To the inquiring officer he answered: “Christianus sum, non possum militare”–“I am a Christian; I cannot serve in the military.”2

The position of the Adventist pioneers toward war and military service

The first time Adventists had to face a conflict relating to military service was during the Civil War in North America (1861-1865). During the first two years, 1861-1863, there was no draft, and the army was composed solely of volunteers, so Adventists did not participate in the war.

“The attention of many”–wrote Ellen White–“was turned to Sabbathkeepers because they manifested no greater interest in the war and did not volunteer.”3

As the possibility of a draft loomed, there was a risk of “imprisonment, torture, or death” for refusing to obey the law. Adventists then stated that they could not “conscientiously engage in this war,” and Sister White affirmed this after having received a vision.
“I was shown that God’s people, who are His peculiar treasure, cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith. In the army they cannot obey the truth and at the same time obey the requirements of their officers. There would be a continual violation of conscience…. Those who love God’s commandments will conform to every good law of the land. But if the requirements of the rulers are such as conflict with the laws of God, the only question to be settled is: Shall we obey God, or man?”4

The Reform Movement’s position

The Advent Movement was called by the Lord to herald the second coming of Jesus and to restore the commandment that the powers of darkness have attempted to change (Daniel 7:25), the command to keep holy the Sabbath day. From the early years of the Movement’s existence, it was distinguished as defending God’s holy law–all Ten Commandments. As the believers preached the message, the pioneers saw God’s hand guiding them, showing that they were carrying the light; therefore they trusted that the Lord would guide them through the storm of the war as well. Because pacifism had been their message in time of peace, it was obvious to them that the Lord expected them to live what they had preached–to be faithful as supporters, restorers, and defenders of God’s law also in time of war.

Therefore, what were they to do when World War I broke out? There is only one answer: Steadfastly, faithfully respect by faith and with all their hearts the holy will of God as they had preached it to others in times of peace. In various countries involved in war, this principle was followed by a number of faithful brethren, a minority who were unwilling to yield and surrender to the demands of the European governments when military-age men were drafted for military service from 1914 to 1918. The gospel pronounces blessed (Matthew 5:5, 9) the “meek” and the “peacemakers,” not those who obey the state when it requires one to compromise his faithfulness to God’s law. Those brethren refused to violate God’s holy law by surrendering to the state and stood up against the majority of the church leaders and members who insisted that all must comply with the demands of the circumstances as they perceived them.

The beginning of the Reform Movement

The German brethren who defended firmness to principle and expected faithfulness on the part of the church began to raise their voices as soon as the emergency arose; the testimonies of eyewitnesses tell what happened in August 1914, right after the circular of August 2 reached the churches.

According to Brother Otto Welp: “In our country

[Germany], confusion and division in the Adventist Church began in 1914 when the war broke out. This was the consequence of the error proclaimed from Hamburg by our leading brethren in the matter of Sabbath keeping during the war and our position toward military service.

“A circular letter by Brother G. Dail [secretary of the European Division], dated August 2, 1914, sent out from Hamburg, [Germany,] contained an appeal for participation in the military and for Sabbath breaking. Our conscientious conviction as well as that of other sincere brethren was the cause that provoked a protest in many places against the distortion of the holy law and rejection of the third angel’s message.”5 Another brother who was present on the following Sabbath in the church of Bremen when the officiating minister announced the combatant position, adds: “For a moment, the members sat there speechless and dumbfounded. Then a storm of protest arose–‘No! No! This is wrong; this is apostasy from the faith. We cannot go into war!’ It was total confusion and a clash of opinions–no one can imagine what it was like.”6

In October 1914, the writer of the circular letter mentioned the disagreement that had been generated by it, but he still defended his position: “This position of the Hamburg church, I drew up, had it printed, and sent it out to our brethren. Most of the churches were satisfied with it, and yet some felt that we had done wrong–that it would be better for all the hundreds and perhaps thousands of our brethren in the armies of Europe simply to decline to carry arms at all, and especially to decline to do any service on the Sabbath, even though they might be shot.”7

Not so the leader of the Scandinavian Union. Writing to the author of the circular, he expressed his dismay, fearing that this had “started a discussion which threatens to divide our whole denomination.” 8

Thus, in 1914 in Germany the membership was divided into two. The majority was in favor of the church’s involvement in war, and the minority was absolutely against it!

Tension, discussion, and disfellowshipment

The first weeks after receiving the circular letter, there were intense discussions in some churches, revealing strong contrasts between the few who defended the position of non-violence and the majority who were inclined to give in to the demands of the authorities. The situation varied from place to place, and in some churches the tension escalated quickly. It did not take long for people to make a decision, and those who did not agree with the majority had to bear the consequences and were disfellowshipped.
As the confrontations continued, disfellowshipments seem to have been very prevalent in Germany and other countries. Members were disfellowshipped from churches like Bremen, Bremen Neustadt, Essen, and Stuttgart. In other places, such as Coblenz, Wermelskirchen, and Kray, in the Rhineland, entire churches were dissolved.

Persecution and martyrdom

Some brethren were drafted and stood faithful in honoring the Sabbath and heeding the sixth commandment. Included were Brothers Wilhelm Richter, Hollman, Geselle, Julius Wolz, Johannes Rauser, and initially Crestfallen. Two brethren whom Brother Richter knew died in the army as the result of torture.9 It is reported that fifty brethren who answered the draft and refused to take up arms or work on the Sabbath were repeatedly punished, beaten, tortured, and sent from one prison to another. But, no matter what happened, they remained faithful to the glory of the Lord. About twenty of them lost their lives as martyrs, including Eugene Geselle.10 Of these faithful ones it can be said that, through their faith, even though they died, they still speak to us.

It is told that five others survived the incarceration and beatings; but their health was severely affected, and they died after being released. With their life and death they left behind a testimony of faithfulness for us all. Of those who were drafted, about twenty five survived the cruelties; one of them was Brother Richter, who afterward told his experiences and praised God for the way He helped him.

Activities and progress

In Germany, a historical meeting took place in July 1915 in Wermelskirchen, Rhineland, where about one hundred believers were present. There the brethren expressed their firm faith and found that the message had united them in spirit and principle. Another meeting came about in Gelsenkirchen, Rhineland, in December 1915, where about two hundred fifty people were present. Brother Otto Welp testifies that in the early years special power radiated out from the believers of the Reform Movement. The Holy Spirit and the love of God gave them power to witness to simple people as well to leaders and government officials. The brethren received power from Heaven to be faithful despite threats, torture, and death. Now, a century later, although their names and deeds are not known, their testimony inspires our minds and hearts.

The Spirit of the Lord urged the faithful believers to give testimony of their faith. They presented the message of the Faithful and True Witness to former Adventist brethren. Souls were convinced, and sincere people took their stand for the Lord, supporting the message and work of the early Reform Movement. New believers also were ready to stand for the Lord and fought the fight of faith beside those who, even amid such a terrible storm, wanted above all to be faithful to the commandments of God and live according to the faith and love of Jesus.11

All during the years of World War I, the heavenly message advanced under great sacrifice and persecution; and in 1916, in Germany alone, there were more than a thousand believers.

They loved the Adventist Church and their former brethren, but they would not compromise Heaven’s principles. They sought for unity with their former church on the basis of spiritual harmony–one belief and one faith–but they found this impossible at the local church or conference level. The fact that a good number of Reform Movement representatives were present at the Friedensau meetings in 1920–almost a century ago–showed how great their interest was in defending the divine inheritance that the Lord entrusted to the Advent Movement. They were also willing and eager to present the message of nonviolence and pacifism to the assembled delegates at the next General Conference session in 1922. These were their last chances. Unfortunately, they were not permitted to make a presentation. Can it be said that the Adventist Church has made progress since that time on these fundamental truths?

Today, one hundred years after the crisis that saw faithful people cast out of the church, we stand here to ask the leaders and members of the Adventist Church to reconsider their position regarding nonviolence and pacifism in the light of the gospel and the experiences of the church’s pioneers. Our greatest desire is to uplift the word of the Lord so that His name will be honored. May His faithful people be blessed everywhere in the world and be prepared for His soon return. John 17:17; Ephesians 4:5; Isaiah 25:9. Amen!
1 Heinrich Graetz, Histoire des Juifs, University of Michigan Library, 1882, vol. 2, p. 358.
2 Acta Maximiliani in Thierry Ruinart, Acta sincera martyrum, Ratisbonae, 1859, p. 340ff; Atti dei martiri, tr. Giuliana Caldarelli, Edizioni Paoline, Milano 1985, p. 603. See also Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi, Fortress Press, 1981.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 356.
4 Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp. 361, 362, statement published in January 1863, emphases added.
5 Otto Welp, report given at the international conference of 1921 in Würzburg, Germany, Der Sabbat-Wächter, 1921, special edition, p. 5.
6 Oscar Kramer, Rise and Progress of the Reform Movement, Religious Liberty Publishing Association, Denver, Colorado, 1987, p. 6.
7 Letter of Guy Dail to O.A. Tait, October 6, 1914, p. 2, Excerpts from the Letters of Elder Guy Dail, p. 4, available at http://drc.whiteestate. org/files/301.pdf, accessed December 5, 2013.
8 Letter of Guy Dail to a “Dear Brother,” November 13, 1914, Excerpts from the Letters of Elder Guy Dail, p. 4, available at, accessed December 5, 2013.
9 The Truth about the Reform Movement in the Adventist Church, International Missionary Society, S.D.A. Reform Movement, Kalamazoo, MI, pp. 24-28.
10 Der Sabbat-Wächter, Year 1 [1920], No. 2, p. 33.
11 For other historical information and experiences of the origin we recommend among others: Antonino Di Franca, Los orígenes del Movimiento de Reforma, and Oscar Kramer, Rise and Progress of the Reform Movement, both by International Missionary Society, Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Reform Movement, General Conference Publishing Department.