Hope UK Documentary Asks Whether Adventists' WWI Non-combatancy Was A Good Choice

A video documentary by Hope TV in the UK delves into the story of Adventist non-combatants during World War One, exploring whether their refusal to bear arms was the right thing to do. The documentary, "A Matter of Conscience," features extended conversation with David Trim, the director of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

The video's description poses questions about the rightness of a pacifistic approach:

A documentary looking back to World War 1 and a group of brave young men who chose not to fight. What were their reasons? Did they make a good choice? And how did they stand up to such brutal, inhuman treatment in a military prison that it almost cost them their lives?

Adventist pioneers, in a denomination birthed around the time of the American Civil War, debated military participation vigorously in the pages of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Their question, Trim says, was "Should we be declaring ourselves a peace church in these circumstances?"

The documentary notes the ridicule and aggression Adventist non-combatants during World War I incurred from those who felt they were shirking their responsibilities, asking whether their course of action was the best one. Sabbath keeing become another issue. Rather than being a day of rest, it became a day of beatings "that verged on torture," Trim says. The reason? Adventists refused to do work on their holy day.

The documentary explores the plight of British soldiers conscripted to fight in "The War to End All Wars." They were not permitted to have Bibles, they faced court marshall and many other hardships. Through it all, they remained firm in their convictions. It was, as the title suggests, a matter of conscience.

Watch the documentary below.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6513
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Was the stand taken by British Adventists in WW I any different from that taken by Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael on the Plain of Dura, or Daniel, who prayed 3 times a day, as was his custom, never mind the King’s decree? Who ever said that standing for principle would be easy?

It appears that the SDAs in Germany sympathized with a different “stand” during WWII… What happened?


The flip side: Is there anyone here who would not call 911 if someone broke into your home carrying a gun or a carving knife? Would you hope they arrive with a weapon or a stretcher and a tarp?


I think they’ve finally acknowledged that they were wrong. No one ever said professed Adventists were perfect, only that they strive toward the goal, as Paul did.

The non-combatant stand taken by these early British Adventists is very much part of our folk lore. Indeed, carrying weapons for any reason, along with voluntary military enrolment are regarded as un-Adventist.


Uh, Birdie, the Hebrew worthies were not being called to defend their country. Nor were the soldiers in WW I being called upon to worship anyone other than the one true God. Study your Bible more closely. The difference is significant and very clear.


Germany and France were in a very different situation. Conscientious Objection was not part of the vocabulary or culture. By contrast, there were up to 20,000 CO’s in the UK. This is one of the areas to be explored in a follow up documentary, possibly entitled ‘A clash of Conscience.’ While the German Adventist church at the time stated that their men would fight in a ‘defensive war’, many Adventists managed to find themselves in non-combatant roles though apparently about 50% of those conscripted did fight. It also led to a split in Adventism with the Adventist Reform movement. Leaders from the German Reform Movement and the two German Unions met in May this year when the official church offered an apology for the choices it made back in 1914. Discussions between the two organisations continue.


I’m speaking of principles, not exact events. They stood by their principles of not taking life, just as Hananiah and his friends stood by their principles of not worshiping any other gods. I think the comparison is apropos.


There were German Adventists who understood the principle of non-combatancy, at least in WWII. A Thousand Shall Fall by Susi Hasel Mundy, is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read. Who would believe that a German could survive in Hitler’s army without a gun, and while warning Jews to get out before it was too late. That took more courage than any CO, in my opinion.


Are you jumping out of the LGT perfection boat now? Pastor Paulson will not like that!

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In all conflicts there are many acts of conscience and courage. All kinds of normally peaceful people are placed in invidious circumstances, and each does their best. Comparing different people in different circumstances on the different sides is not the purpose our documentary.

Our film is intended as a contribution to the national reflection. Much has been published on various campaigns both military and civilian. We chose to reflect on the intolerance of our own nation in response to those who deliberately chose not to take up arms against fellow human beings.

One of the leaders of this group was Pastor W W Armstrong who later was elected as President of the British a Union. Indeed, one of our conversations is to commission a memorial to these people’s memory on our grounds, for public witness. There are 100’s of War Memorials, many Peace Memorials, Pacifist Symbols, but few or none, that recognise the loyalty of those who refuse to be split between their nation and their God.

I would have thought that most committed Adventists would celebrate this contribution.


I’m sorry if my comments appeared to diminish the contributions of the British CO’s in WWI, or the documentation thereof in this film. That was not my purpose. On the contrary, I was trying to place their courage on a level with the Hebrews in Babylon. It took guts to stand up to the ridicule and abuse, and they were real heroes.


agreed - and WWI had no moral basis whatsoever - it was simply a clash of greedy empires


yes, but more so instigated by one that was late to the game and but still wanted an empire. Unfortunately, history may well repeat itself in the years to come with emerging new powers wanting their day in the sun.

The 100th anniversary of the start of WWI was BIG in the UK. The entire media, libraries, public exhibitions etc, all played their part. The original primary motive for creating this documentary was to provide an alternative viewpoint from the point of view of these brave Adventist young men. This has been well received in the wider market place for which it was intended including secular blogs on WWI, the 1914.org website, and even a Catholic pacifist website. (Very interesting having a Catholic site promoting the values of young men who refused to break the Sabbath even on threat of death!). Along with Quakers and other pacifist groups the film has added significantly to the public debate.

It may be worth sharing a quote from a Quaker who has also made a film on 3 WWI CO’s: “I have just been watching your film with great interest. Although it covers slightly different ground, I was surprised by the many similarities to our own film. In many ways the Adventist were treated more harshly than our men but the main factor which united them was their great strength of character, holding firm to a vital principle in the face of such pressure.”

As the great nephew of one of these WWI CO’s I am very proud of the stand they took. They were young men of immense courage. Interestingly that stance led to a much better understanding of Adventist principles when it came to WWII. H W Lowe was one of the young men imprisoned in France. By the 1930’s he became Union President and in 1937 was called to a meeting with a lawyer at the war office. At the end of the meeting the lawyer said that it was clearly better that British Adventist men should not serve in the military at all, but rather do work of national importance in agriculture, industry or as medics. While life was still not easy for CO’s in WWII it was far better than in the previous war.


Why did we take this role considering the COI had a standing army?

By 1916 so many people had died on the Western Front that the British Government introduced conscription. Life was already difficult for young men who chose not to wear uniform. Lord Kitchner’s propaganda campaign was very efficient and effective. Adventists, almost to a man, chose to be pacifists and thus appeared before hastily assembled tribunals. Those tribunals were not very sympathetic. That is the background to the documentary. There is a lot more information on our website: http://adventist.org.uk/ww1

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Thanks Victor for retelling this inspiring story. Hope UK is to be congratulated for the documentary - great food for thought. I’m thankful for my pacifist convictions. Yet, questions still come. And especially so, as my family history is tinged with militism. Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the first Lord Raglan, Field Marshal and Commander in Chief of the British and French forces during the Crimean War, and Aide de Camp to the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, is my namesake and that of my father. My own grandfather was the officer commanding the northern [Australia] military district immediately prior to and during WWI. In this capacity, he served as a recruiting officer for young men in his district, and signed his own son’s recruiting papers. My uncle was later killed on the Western Front, one day after his 21st birthday. General Sir Rolly Guy, d. 2005, a second cousin, commanded the 1st Battalion of British forces during the height of the troubles in Belfast in the early 1970’s. For many years, he was at head office in the British Defence Establishment and ADC to Queen Elizabeth.

Yet, I find it difficult to appreciate the stance of Adventists in South Korea in whose wonderful country I lived for some six years. They appear to have adopted a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ as far as the involvement of young Adventists in military service is concerned. From my experience, Korean Adventist leaders seem hardly to lift a finger in support of young Adventist men who choose not to carry arms or work on the Sabbath, even when such people are incarcerated in military prison for adhering to their conscience. This seems to owe more to the Confucian teaching of societal harmony than to the Sermon on the Mount or the gospel of Christ.

While it is good that a discussion of Adventists and war be carried on, it needs to move beyond a European and American discussion to be truly global!


We need all parts of the conversation. In the U.S., many Adventists enlist as combatants. The former emphasis on CO survives only as a personal option. Adventists have largely bought into a religion that hardly differs from patriotism.