The Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1863, in the middle of the US Civil War. The church membership was entirely in the northern states, and decidedly abolitionist, and yet was opposed to war and the bearing of arms. The passing of the first US draft law spurred the organization effort. Yet the war did not cause them to adopt the position. Adventist leaders insisted that opposition to bearing arms was “unanimous” and was always the position of the church, even before organization. The position was based in their commitment to all the commandments of God, including both the fourth (Sabbath) and sixth (prohibition of killing).
The first draft law in 1863 allowed for payment for a substitute.
In 1864, exemption was limited to “members of religious denominations, who shall by oath or affirmation declare that they are conscientiously opposed to the bearing of arms, and who are prohibited from doing so by the rules and articles of faith and practice of such religious denomination,” who, “when drafted into the military service, (would) be considered non-combatant.”
The GC leadership wrote to the governor of Michigan in August 1864, saying,
The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. If there is any portion of the Bible which we, as a people, can point to more than another as our creed, it is the law of Ten Commandments, which we regard as the supreme law, and each precept of which we take in its most obvious and literal import. The fourth of these commandments requires cessation from labor on the seventh day of the week, the sixth prohibits the taking of life, neither of which, in our view, could be observed while doing military duty. Our practice has uniformly been consistent with these principles. Hence, our people have not felt free to enlist into the service. In none of our denominational publications have we advocated or encouraged the practice of bearing arms ; and when drafted, rather than violate our principles, we have been content to pay, and assist each other in paying, the $300, commutation money. And while that provision remained of universal application, we did not deem any public expression of our sentiments on this question called for.
We would further represent that Seventh-day Adventists are rigidly anti-slavery, loyal to the government, and in sympathy with it against the rebellion. But not having had a long existence as a distinct people, and our organization having but recently been perfected, our sentiments are not yet extensively known. The change in the law renders it necessary that we take a more public stand in the matter. For this reason we now lay before your Excellency the sentiments of Seventh-day Adventists, as a body, relative to bearing arms, trusting that you will feel no hesitation in indorsing our claim that, as a people, we come under the intent of the late action of Congress concerning those who are conscientiously opposed to bearing arms, and are entitled to the benefits of said laws.
That this was to be a consistent position toward all wars, and not merely a position taken in response to a single war, was affirmed by the 1865 General Conference Session, as reported in the Review and Herald, May 23, 1865:
OUR VIEWS OF WAR.
Resolved, That we acknowledge the pamphlet entitled “Extracts from the Publications of S. D. Adventists setting forth their views of the sinfulness of war,” as a truthful representation of the views held by us from the beginning of our existence as a people, relative to bearing arms.
OUR DUTY TO THE GOVERNMENT.
Resolved, That we recognize civil government as ordained of God, that order, justice, and quiet may be maintained in the land; and that the people of God may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty. In accordance with this fact we acknowledge the justice of rendering tribute, custom, honor and reverence to the civil power, as enjoined in the,New Testament. While we thus cheerfully render to Caesar the things which the Scriptures show to be his, we are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.
The issue came up again in World War 1. But now the church was a global church, with members in multiple countries on different sides of the conflict.
The US draft law made provision for non-combatants, provided they were members of churches that required their members to refuse to bear arms. The law was quoted in the Review and Herald, June 14, 1917:
Nothing in this act contained shall be construed to require or compel any person to serve in any of the forces herein provided for who is found to be a member of any well-recognized religious sect or organization at present organized and existing and whose existing creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form and whose religious convictions are against war or participation therein in accordance with the creed or principles of said religious organizations, BUT NO PERSON SO EXEMPTED SHALL BE EXEMPTED FROM SERVICE IN ANY CAPACITY THAT THE PRESIDENT SHALL DECLARE TO BE NONCOMBATANT.
Notice, the church has to be in principle opposed to war and participation in war.
The General Conference said, as in the Civil War, that’s what we are. The Review and Herald writer went on,
Seventh-day Adventists in the United States are law-abiding citizens, and will never refuse to obey any civil law that does not compel them to break the law of God. They have ever been noncombatants, and have truly and faithfully adhered to this practice throughout their entire history.
It went on to quote a North American Division statement voted that year at a meeting in Huntsville, Alabama:
We believe that civil government is ordained of God, and that in the exercise of its legitimate functions it should receive the support of its citizens. We believe in the principles upon which this government was founded. We are loyal to its Constitution, which is based upon the principles of democracy, and guarantees civil and religious liberty to all its citizens.
We deplore that our nation has been drawn into the horrors of war, and shall continually pray that the God of heaven may speedily bring peace to our country.
We have been noncombatants throughout our history. During the Civil War our people officially declared:
“That we recognize civil government as ordained of God, that order, justice, and quiet may be maintained in the land, and that the people of God may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty.
“In accordance with this fact, we acknowledge the justice of rendering tribute, custom, honor, and reverence to the civil power, as enjoined in the New Testament. While we thus cheerfully render to Caesar the things which the Scriptures show to be his, we are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed, as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.”
We hereby reaffirm the foregoing declaration. We petition that our religious convictions be recognized by those in authority, and that we be required to serve our country only in such capacity as will not violate our conscientious obedience to the law of God as contained in the decalogue, interpreted in the teachings of Christ, and exemplified in his life.
Unfortunately, not all sections of the church followed this position. The church in Germany, under L. R. Conradi, pushed nationalism and devotion to the Fatherland and called its members to serve under arms, and disfellowshipped those who insisted upon noncombatantcy. This caused a split, that has not been healed (though after a hundred years there are now conversations). The German church again took the nationalist position in World War 2, and refused to defend its members of Jewish background. This is a blemish on our denomination’s history.
In the years after “The Great War,” in preparation for the next war that seemed inevitable, the Adventist church continued to present its position to political leaders of different nations. In 1933, the Adventist church in Canada wrote to their government saying,
Like the Quakers, it has been the universal faith and practice of Seventh-day Adventists from their origin to aid and sustain civil government in all its legitimate functions, but they have always held conscientiously that as Christians they cannot participate in the taking of human life, although they are willing to aid and support the government in time of war in a noncombatant capacity.
That statement is interesting in drawing a direct comparison to a known “peace church,” the Society of Friends, or Quakers.
At the beginning of WW2, F. M. Wilcox wrote the book, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War, bringing together all this documentation to prove that the position of the Adventist church was consistent and went back to the beginning. He cites cases from around the world, both where Adventists were able to obtain recognition as noncombatants, and where they were punished.
(It’s important to remember this consistent history. The experience of the church in Germany shows that it is easy even for members of a church opposed to war to get drawn off course, to catch the fever of nationalism, to give excuses for violence, to embrace hatred and fear of minorities. In the 90s, in Rwanda, an Adventist leader was even linked with atrocities and eventually convicted of genocide–and in the US, David Koresh attracted vulnerable Adventists to his brand of violent extremism.)