Peacemaking: Exploring Adventism’s roots and heritage

Called up for mandatory military service in 2002, Sergei Panchenko the 18-year-old Russian Adventist petitioned for alternative service which, according to a new law passed earlier that year, had to be provided for conscripts who could demonstrate genuine pacifist convictions. However, the military registration commission denied his request on the grounds that the new law would not take effect until January 1, 2004.

Sergei appealed the order. A regional court in the Russian Far East vindicated the determined young Adventist pacifist. Though the prosecutors had hoped to make an example of him, in the end both the military representatives and the court “agreed that his convictions were genuine.” Sergei showed that “without doubt, he is a sincere Christian who cannot violate his conscience by carrying weapons.”1

About the same time, Hee Jai Im in South Korea took a similar stand, but was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In the United States the following year, recently converted Adventist Joel Klimkewicz was court-martialed and given a seven-month prison sentence by the U.S. Marine Corps after refusing orders for a second tour of armed service in Iraq, despite his offer to perform the dangerous task of clearing mines.2

The nonviolent ethic that inspired these young Adventists in the 21st century to face prison rather than give up their faith has deep historical roots in the Adventist movement that emerged in the 19th century. In exploring these roots, we find a heritage, not just of nonviolence, but of peacemaking.

“Biblical peace, or shalom, is a sweeping wholeness of life,” writes Charles Scriven. “Where shalom prevails, freedom and safety prevail; justice overcomes oppression; plenty supplants poverty; joy defeats gloom and shame.”3

A stand for nonviolence

In the years Seventh-day Adventists were forging their organizational identity, the American Civil War confronted them with the moral dilemma of military combat. The first Adventist Conference (Michigan) was organized in 1861, the year the war began. The first General Conference session began on May 20, 1863, two weeks after the stunning Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, and about six weeks before the great turning point marked by Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

For most early Adventists, influenced by Scripture and by the nonresistance movement led by social reformer William Lloyd Garrison, pacifism was a part of the radical faith that set them apart from the majority of Americans. Moreover, a literal reading of the sixth commandment as well as the Sermon on the Mount fit well with the literal reading of the fourth commandment that the Seventh-day Adventists upheld. In this light, they viewed participation in military combat as a clear and simple violation of the sixth commandment and the teachings of Christ.4

At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, President Lincoln called upon the states to raise volunteer forces to put down the “insurrection.” But as the war dragged on through 1862 and the possibility of a military draft loomed, Adventists engaged in a vigorous debate over how they should respond in the event of a law compelling military service.5

In March 1863, guidance came from Ellen White. Her testimony rebuked some Adventists in Iowa who, by rashly declaring their pacifism even though no law existed requiring them to fight, had unnecessarily put themselves in a confrontational stance with the government. Mrs. White urged that Adventists do everything possible to show that they had no sympathy for slavery or for the Confederate rebellion. Yet, the prophet affirmed that “God’s people…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.”6

The military draft law enacted that same month provided the option of paying a fee to be exempted from service. The $300 fee was a huge sum at that time, but messy confrontations with the government could be avoided by paying it. So, despite the financial strain on the movement, the church helped those who could not afford it.

However, when Congress, in July 1864, restricted the fee option to conscientious objectors who were members of a recognized pacifist church, the Adventist leadership moved swiftly in seeking governmental recognition of their noncombatant position. Declaring themselves “a people unani­mously loyal and anti-slavery” but unable to shed blood because of their views of the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the New Testament, they obtained an exemption that gave them the option of accepting assignment to hospital duty or care of freedmen or paying the $300 fee.7

Even with this achievement, individual Adventist draftees frequently suffered denials, temporary imprisonment, threats of court-martial, and other forms of harassment when attempting to claim their right to alternative duty. Lack of understanding among officers about the governmental ruling, prejudice against noncombatants, and poor communication all had a hand in causing the harassment to continue.8 However, the time had come to take a public stand.

The General Conference at its 1865 session voted: “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.”9

Further resolutions at the 1867 and 1868 sessions reaffirmed this position, suggesting that the issues of war and military service were of more than passing or marginal significance. The 1867 resolution declared, simply, “that the bearing of arms, or engaging in war, is a direct violation of the teachings of our Saviour and the spirit and letter of the law of God.”10

The Adventist pioneers were not in full agreement as to the nature of the scriptural basis for the position they had taken. However, they were united in affirming that adherence to the third angel’s message meant being noncombatant. And when the American church next faced military conscription in 1917, the North American Division executive committee found the precedent from the “Civil War” episode of Adventist history clear enough. The church publicly affirmed, “We have been noncombatants throughout our history,” and then quoted the General Conference resolution of 1865.11

Prophetic witness

To take a public stand for nonviolence and for the abolition of slavery, as the Adventists did, to build a community dedicated to these principles, is a profoundly political act; perhaps even the most powerful way for Christians to show political responsibility. Such a stance calls for change in the surrounding society and the wider world beyond. This may be termed “prophetic witness” because, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, it applies the word of the Lord to societal conditions–not denunciation or doomsaying for its own sake–but to provoke change.

While the Adventist Church has too often been the “silent church” reflected in the title of Zdravko Plantak’s comprehensive study of human rights and social ethics in Adventism,12 I want to offer two examples of peacemaking as “prophetic witness.” The first, frequently overlooked, came in the era of the Spanish-American War, during which the United States began its emergence as a world power. Pacifism, and with it protest against war and militarism, appear more prominently at this time than any other in Adventist history. The second, peacemaking as restoring health and wholeness in human communities at every level, which became a hallmark of Adventist missionary work.

Adventism’s protest against war

Historian Sydney Ahlstrom points out that, during the period of the Spanish-American War and subsequent Filipino-American conflict, “patriotism, imperialism, and the religion of American Protestantism” stood in more “fervent coalescence than ever before.”13

While the majority of American churches joined a consensus that converted the war into a crusade for Christian civilization, Adventists spoke out against the “spirit of militarism” being fostered “right within the bosom of the church.”13 Preaching at the Battle Creek Tabernacle, General Conference President George Irwin declared, “We have no business whatever to become aroused and stirred by the spirit [of war] that is abroad in the land.”14

After the United States annexed the Philippines in February 1899 and militarily suppressed an independence movement there, a wide array of voices in American society, including Adventists, charged the nation with imperial­ism. A.T. Jones, editor of the Review and Herald as well as the American Sentinel (predecessor to Liberty), and Percy T. Magan, a prominent Adventist educator and writer, were among the most vocal Adventist critics of the newly manifest American imperialism.

In his book Peril of the Republic, published in 1899 by the evangelical publishing house Fleming H. Revell, Magan decried the forcible annexation of the Philip­pines as “national apostasy” from the principles of the Declaration of Independence. In this embrace of imperial­ism, America, he said, was abandoning the “new order of things” established with the founding of the Republic and reverting to milita­rism and oppression characteristic of the old world.

Magan saw himself in a role similar to that of biblical prophets sent to warn kings and nations about the consequences of departure from the divine intention and called upon all citizens of the coming kingdom of God to be true to principle “in things national as well as personal” and to “work for right principles while it is day.”15

Adventists, in this period, were not hesitant to apply their apocalyptic worldview to the foreign policy of their own govern­ment, and in so doing to hold the government to its own highest standards of human rights. Just over a decade later, an arms race contributed to an orgy of blood-letting between the tribes of Europe–primitive in its impulses but sophisticated in its techniques. With World War I, the century of genocide and WMD had begun.

Attempting to repair the damage, the leading world powers met in 1921 for the conference on naval disarmament, convened in Washington by the Harding administration. This endeavor to do the things that make for peace elicited considerable and largely favorable comment from Adventist leaders, not the sort of fatalism and suspicion some might expect to see.16

From the annual council in Minneapolis, the church’s leaders sent an address to the President, praising him for holding the conference and pronouncing that Adventists “stron­gly favor a limitation of armaments.” They declared that they were “forced to this view by the very logic of our belief in Him who is the Prince of Peace, and of our experience as subjects of His kingdom.” The address balanced realism about the elimination of war as long as human beings are sinful with hope that change for the better is possible.17

Adventism and nurturing wholeness

Peace in the biblical sense of shalom also encompasses the full range of human well-being. Peacemaking thus means nurturing shalom–restoring health and wholeness in human communities at every level. The historic Adventist commitment to health reform, which connects life in all its aspects with the plan of redemption, and to the humanitarian ideals of medical missionary service have energized this form of peacemaking.

One finds an abundance of examples, once again, during the 1890s and first decade of the 1900s–political action for prohibition, the multifaceted humanitarian mission to Chicago led by John Harvey Kellogg and David Paulson, the church’s entire medical missionary enterprise spreading throughout the globe. I will elaborate on just one episode, in which we see Adventists nurturing shalom amongst a sector of American society subjected to centuries-long, systematic oppression.

After some brief glimmers of hope during the Reconstruction period, racial repression in America was, by the 1890s, rapidly hardening into a comprehensive, legally entrenched social system. As Ellen White pointed out, the nation had failed to seize the opportune moment just after Emancipation to make good on the promise of freedom by using money “freely” for the education and economic empowerment of a people still shackled by the legacy of slavery. The government, she wrote, “after a little effort, left the Negro to struggle, unaided….” The endeavors of various Christian agencies, while often noble and courageous, had been far from adequate to meet the need, and Seventh-day Adventist Church had quite simply “failed to act its part.”18

By the mid-1890s, a national “capitulation to racism”19 was in full sway, during which segregation and inequality were deeply embedded in the legal and social systems of the Southern states, and in less explicit but nonetheless real and destructive ways in American culture as a whole. The Adventist prophet, though, urged her people to defy the prevailing currents with what amounted to a multi-faceted mission for black liberation. “Walls of separation have been built up between the whites and the blacks. These walls of prejudice will tumble down of themselves as did the walls of Jericho, when Christians obey the Word of God, which enjoins on them supreme love to their Maker and impartial love to their neighbors. For Christ’s sake, let us do something now.”20

That “something” meant building the structures of shalom by providing education and economic opportunity: “The neglect of the colored race by the American nation is charged against them. Those who claim to be Christians have a work to do in teaching them to read and to follow various trades and engage in different business enterprises.”21

At the very time much of the white South was determined to restrict black people to sharecropping or some other form of perpetual debt peonage, Ellen White insisted that the cotton field not be “the only resource for a livelihood to the colored people. There will be awakened in them the thought that they are of value with God, and that they are esteemed as His property. The work pointed out is a most needful missionary enterprise. It is the best restitution that can be made to those who have been robbed of their time and deprived of their education.”22

The church never rose as fully to this challenge as Mrs. White had hoped. Yet many of both races, including her son Edson, undertook courageous ventures–risking the violent reaction of white supremacists–in order to nurture shalom in all its dimensions. By 1909, results could be seen in 55 primary schools with 1,800 pupils in 10 Southern states, medical facilities in Atlanta and Nashville, the establishment of Oakwood Industrial School, and a modest but solid foundation for an Adventist presence in black America, consisting of at least 900 members where there had been fewer than 50 in 1894.23

Subsequently, Adventists seem to have lost much of the vision for being agents of shalom for the oppressed. Decades later, prophetic voices from beyond the Adventist ranks, such as that of Martin Luther King, Jr., would be required to prod the church to recover the principles so forcefully advocated by its own prophet in the 1890s.

Adventists of the 21st century face a challenge. In a new era of reconfigured and intensified worship of war-making, what will we do with Adventism’s peacemaking heritage? To borrow a phrase from James White, How interested are we, during our own time of perilous conflict, in marching with the ranks of those “who have enlisted to serve under the prince of peace”?24

Douglas Morgan (Ph.D., University of Chicago) professor of history at Columbia Union College in Maryland, U.S.A. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Peacemaking Remnant: Essays and Historical Documents (Adventist Peace Fellowship, 2005).

References

  1. “Russian Adventist Wins Alternative Military Service Case,” Adventist News Network, March 4, 2003.
  2. “South Korea: Adventist Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison for Conscientious Objection,” Adventist News Network, March 18, 2003. Reports on Klimkewicz may be found at the Adventist News Network (www.adventist.org), www.spectrummagazine.org, and www.adventistpeace.org.
  3. See “The Peacemaking Remnant: Seven Theses” in the Adventist Peace Witness section at www.adventistpeace.org.
  4. See Ronald D. Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 139-150; and Peter Brock, Freedom From Violence: Sectarian Nonresistance From the Middle Ages to the Great War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 230-258.
  5. Brock provides a thorough analysis of the Civil War-era debate in the Review and Herald over military services in Freedom From Violence, pp. 230 ff.
  6. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol.1, pp. 357-361.
  7. J. N. Andrews, “Seventh-day Adventists Recognized as Noncombatants,” Review and Herald 24 (September 13, 1864): pp. 124-125.
  8. Richard Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, rev. ed. (Silver Spring, Maryland: Department of Education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), p. 98.
  9. “Report of the Third Annual Session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” Review and Herald 25 (May 17, 1865): pp. 196-197.
  10. The resolutions may be found in the “General Conference Session Minutes, 1863-1888” in the Online Document Archive, Seventh-day Adventist General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, www.adventistarchives.org
  11. Cited in Francis M. Wilcox, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1936), pp. 112-113.
  12. Zdravko Plantak, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
  13. “The Gospel of War,” Review and Herald, 3 May 1898.
  14. “The Present Crisis,” supplement to the Review and Herald, (May 3, 1898).
  15. In Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 2001), pp. 66-68.
  16. Ibid., pp. 104-106.
  17. “Address to President Harding,” Review and Herald, (December 8, 1921) p. 2.
  18. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 205.
  19. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 67-109.
  20. White, The Southern Work (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1966), p. 44.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., pp. 51-62.
  23. Schwarz and Greenleaf, p. 234.
  24. “Eastern Tour,” Review and Herald ( September 6, 1864), p. 116.