All Commentaries


All Commentaries



Holger Teubert.

Biblical, Historical and Ethical Perspectives Book Review: "Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical and Ethical Perspectives", Frank M. Hasel, Barna Magyarosi and Stefan Höschele (eds.), Madrid: Safeliz, 2019, 225 pages, paperback, 18.99 US dollars, 14.99 euros, ISBN 978-84-7208-709-5.

Adventist Church confronted with war at its founding

During a meeting in Battle Creek/Michigan (USA), from 20 to 24 May 1863, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was founded as the highest church leadership. It included six regional leaderships, called "associations," with 3,500 Adventists in 125 congregations served by 30 pastors. The Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded in the middle of the American Civil War (1861-1865). At that time, the Church was represented only in the Union states (northern states). It had no members in the Confederate states of the South because Adventists were against the keeping of slaves. Whichever of them went to the polls on November 6, 1860, elected Abraham Lincoln, who was elected by a clear majority to be the 16th President of the United States.

When the war began on April 12, 1861, everyone expected a quick victory for the Union states. Therefore, at first, only volunteers were called to arms. The longer the war lasted, the more soldiers were needed. In order to encourage enrolment in the military, citizens' committees were formed in many towns. They collected money and paid each young man who volunteered as a soldier an amount of 25 dollars as pocket money, which soon rose to 100 dollars. Since the Adventists wanted to prevent general conscription, which would have affected them as well, James White and other senior members of the Adventist Church joined the citizens' committees and also collected money to pay the premium offered to the volunteers. The Adventists of the time saw the need to offer financial incentives to those who had no religious concerns about military service.

When the northern states could no longer get enough soldiers on a voluntary basis, the Union's first Conscription Act (Wehrpflichtgesetz) came into force on  March 3, 1863, under which all men from 20 to 35 years of age, and unmarried men up to 45 years of age, were subject to military service. One could, however, avoid being drafted if one either provided a substitute or paid $300. After all, $300 was two-thirds of a worker's annual income. Conscripted Adventists tried to raise this sum to be exempted from military service.

On July 4, 1864, the Conscription Act was tightened. The exemption regulations now applied only to members of religious communities who "are against the carrying of arms on grounds of conscience". In August 1864, the still-young Church applied for exemption from military service to the governors of the states of Michigan and Illinois. It is worthy to note that only the exemption from carrying arms was mentioned, not an exemption from service at all. The applications were granted. As a result, the Union government in the U.S. capital―Washington, D.C.—also recognized the Adventists as non-combatants. As an alternative to military service, non-combatants could serve in military hospitals, provide for freed slaves, or pay 300 dollars. Which alternative was considered was not decided by the person called up, but by the military authorities. Since new soldiers were constantly needed, it happened more often that Adventists were denied the status of non-combatants, so that they joined the fighting troops against their will. In such a situation, it was left to the personal decision of conscience of the draftee whether he obeyed the orders of his superiors and did military service or took the consequences (court martial with possible death sentence) for refusal to obey orders.

The American Civil War points the way for Adventists

The behavior of the Seventh-day Adventist Church during the American Civil War was groundbreaking for the future attitude of Adventists towards military service (124). It emerged that Adventists are not pacifists who consistently reject all military service, whether with or without weapons. Instead, they are non-combatants. If Adventists are called up, they are prepared to do unarmed military service (for example, unarmed medical service, but also civilian alternative service). If such noncombatant service is refused, each one must decide for himself before his conscience and thus before God whether he will take a weapon in his hand and use it if necessary.

The book "Adventists and Military Service" was published on behalf of the Biblical Research Committee of the Inter-European Division (EUD-BRC), the church leadership of the Seventh-day Adventists in Western and Southern Europe based in Bern. The publication, written in English by Adventist theologians, aims to provide members of the Free Church with guidance on issues of military service and conscientious objection.

Military service and the Bible

In the first chapter of the work, Barna Magyarosi, President of the EUD-BRC, deals with the topic "Violence and War in the Old Testament". He concludes that even the "holy wars" waged by Israel in Old Testament times, in the name of its God Yahweh, do not justify the participation of a Christian in military service (19).

Johannes Kovar, lecturer for New Testament and Greek at the Adventist Theological Seminary Schloss Bogenhofen near Braunau am Inn/Austria, wrote the article "War and Nonviolence in the New Testament" in chapter 2. Although Christ and the apostles did not expressly forbid military service, Jesus made it clear through his example and his sermons that his followers should be peacemakers (66). Christians should therefore not take part in war and violence. When Paul writes that Christians should be subject to authority, "for they do not bear the sword in vain" (Romans 13:1-4), the apostle means that the state received its sword from God to maintain order in civil society, but should not lead to war (56-58).

Ethnic conflicts

Chapter 3 deals with ethnicity and ethnic conflicts. Kwabena Donkor, the Ghanaian deputy director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) of the General Conference (World Church Leadership) of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland/USA, recalls clashes between Serbs and Croats, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Hutus and Tutsis, Ulster Protestants and Catholics, Palestinians and Israelis, and Tamils and Sinhalese. Between 1989 and 2004, there were more ethnic conflicts in Africa than on other continents (67). Also, Seventh-day Adventists were affected by it because, of the more than 21.5 million members of the worldwide Free Church, more than nine million members live on the African continent. The problems would be so complex that ethnic prejudices of individuals or groups would not simply disappear if someone joined the Adventist Church through baptism (86). Anyone who wants to mediate here must have precise insight into the respective problems.

Just War and Peace Churches

In Chapter 4, Zoltán Szallós-Farkas, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Adventist University in Cernica/Romania, gives an overview of military service and the theory of a “just war”. In early Christianity, it was incompatible to be a soldier and a member of the church at the same time. Christians who were recruited as soldiers were excluded from the church (9). This only changed when the Roman emperor, Constantine (306-337 AD), declared his belief in Christianity, so that it finally became the state religion in 380 AD. The author explains how the doctrine of just war came into being and developed over the centuries up to the present day. As a countermovement, historical peace churches which rejected military service (113)—such as the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)—were formed,.

What are Adventists?

In Chapter 5, Douglas Morgan, professor of history and political science at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, USA, asks the question: Are Adventists pacifists, unarmed military personnel of conscience, or soldiers on combat duty? On May 14, 1867, the fifth annual General Conference Assembly of Adventists was held in rotation. Looking back on the American Civil War, it was decided: "That it is the vote of this conference that the carrying of arms or participation in war is a direct violation of the teachings of our Savior and of the spirit and letter of the law of God" (117). When this decision was made, conscription was no longer compulsory in the United States.

But not all conscripted Adventists acted as clearly as decided in 1867, during the civil war. Morgan refers to Adventist historian, Kevin M. Burton, who found "that the number of Seventh-day Adventists who served as military personnel in the Civil War, many of them as volunteers, is far greater than many have previously believed" (123). Thus, there were Adventists who could buy their way out of the military with $350, others who served as non-combatants without weapons, and still others who, once they were denied non-combatant status with the troops, gave in to pressure and took up arms. But there were also Adventists who volunteered for military service.

Although Morgan does not mention it, it is consistent with Burton's research that James White (1821-1881), co-founder of the Adventist Church, set up a "soldier's tract fund" in the winter of 1864/65 for Adventists who were on the force, so that they could provide Adventist literature to their comrades free of charge. After all, every third Adventist who was conscripted had to reckon with being drafted into the military. Only the rapid end of the civil war on April 9, 1865 prevented even greater problems with military service.

Conscription in Europe

From August 18, 1885 to August 3, 1887, the co-founder of the Adventist Church, Ellen G. White (1827-1915), was in Europe, according to Douglas Morgan. She visited England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Switzerland, and Germany. During this time, she was also confronted with the military service of Adventists in Europe. When she was in Basel, in 1886, she reported that three Adventist employees of the Basel publishing house of the Church were called up for a three-week military exercise. "Mrs. White praised the young men and their conduct expressly, emphasizing that they did not do the military exercises voluntarily, but 'because the laws of their country required it'" (126f.).

Conscription existed in most European countries. Adventists were also affected by it and followed their conscription order, according to the report in Chapter 6 by Daniel Heinz, director of the historical archive of the Free Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Europe at the Theological College of Friedensau, near Magdeburg (138). If, at that time in Europe, conscripts were forced to do military service against their will, conscientious objection was only possible as desertion and was severely punished. Even the peace societies that emerged in continental Europe in the 19th century mostly rejected conscientious objection until 1918. Only for Mennonites were there at least temporary exceptions in some European countries (138).

A creeping change

Since 1950, Morgan has seen, especially in the USA, "a creeping but significant change in the thinking and practice of the Adventists from conscientious objection to military service on grounds of conscience to a conscious willingness to cooperate" (10). In the USA, after World War II, the Church founded the National Service Organization (NSO) for Adventist conscripts. It served as a liaison between the Church and the Pentagon (US Department of Defense). The NSO dealt with problems that Adventist conscripts had because of their faith, conducted retreats on their behalf, and coordinated medical training in preparation for unarmed service in the armed forces (132).

After the withdrawal of the Americans from Vietnam in 1973, conscription was suspended in the USA in the same year. The armed forces now had to recruit volunteers themselves. Although the Adventist Church leadership recommended that its members not volunteer for the military (132), anyone who decided otherwise was accepted (133). For example, during the Gulf War (1990-1991), between 2,000 and 2,500 Adventists—both men and women—participated as soldiers, most of them armed (133).

Not only patriotism

In Chapter 7 of the book, Frank M. Hasel—like Donkor, deputy director of the BRI of the General Conference—explains why the US forces are so attractive to some Adventists that they even enlist as armed soldiers. When conscription was suspended in the US in 1973, the NSO saw no reason to prepare young Adventists for service in the armed forces. They withdrew their personnel to save costs. Conscientious objection to military service was also hardly an issue in Adventist churches and schools, so that the young people no longer received any guidance. In order to win young people over to military service, the recruitment officers made interesting offers (152f.): for example, vocational training, later acceptance into police service or, in the case of those serving longer, financing a university course. Migrants can be naturalised more quickly after completing their military service. Thus, it is not only the patriotism of men and women that prompts them to do military service.

Anyone who picks up a weapon is also prepared to use it

Douglas Morgen recalls the then Norwegian president of the Adventist General Conference (World Church Leadership), Jan Paulsen, who in the March 2008 issue of the international magazine of the Free Church "Adventist World" emphasized: "War, peace and participation in military service are not value-neutral affairs.” He referred to the resolution of the General Conference Assembly of 1867, saying that whoever takes a weapon in his hand is also prepared to use it to take the life of another person. To kill a creature of God, even if it is an "enemy", contradicts what the Free Church considers holy and right. In his article, the Adventist Church president made indirect reference to the behaviour of Adventists in the USA, who, since there is no longer a compulsory military service there, voluntarily join the armed forces (117f.).

"Disobedient" Adventists

In chapter 6, Daniel Heinz, director of the historical archive of the Free Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Europe at the Friedensau Theological College, deals with the "Adventist Opposition to Wars in Europe: Examples of Lack of Conformity and Conscientious Objection to Military Service". In Germany, for example, the lack of conformity was not just about unarmed service. Not wanting to conform could mean, among other things: no use of the Hitler salute, refusal to take the military oath, refusal to work on the Sabbath (Saturday), punishment for forbidden attendance at church services, aid to persecuted Jews and enemy prisoners of war (135). These were individual "disobedient" Adventists who did not conform to the prevailing political ideology and who followed their conscience. They were often considered "strangers" in their own church community (136).

"Since, in the countries of continental Europe, in the military laws there were no orders for non-combatants, and certainly not the possibility of conscientious objection, Adventists inevitably entered the armed forces, so that they served more or less unrestrictedly," said Heinz (138). Nevertheless, there were quite a number of them who could serve as non-combatants without weapons (137), for example paramedics, clerks, horse grooms, or officer's clerks (140). In Germany, between 1902 and 1913,  conscripted Adventists came into conflict on the Sabbath because of conscientious objection to military service. From this time, about 40 Adventists who were known by name, who were repeatedly sentenced because of the day of rest, according to Julius Mügge, who was imprisoned for over five years (138f.).

When the First World War broke out, the conscripted Adventists were, in the opinion of their German church leadership, to do military service and "fight also on the Sabbath," since the Fatherland was being attacked and had to defend itself (139f.). But after the war, the Adventist General Conference condemned the German attitude to the war so that, in 1923, the responsible leaders withdrew their dissenting position in writing and declared their agreement with the non-combatant position of their worldwide church leadership (131f.).

Regardless of the position of their church leadership, according to Daniel Heinz, about 20 Adventists were imprisoned in Germany during World War I for refusal of service. Five of them were so badly maltreated to break their resistance that they died in military prison or soon after the end of the war. Among them was Eugen Geselle (1881-1919), who was a "faithful" member of his church until his death despite his other actions (140f.).

Non-combatants in the First World War in Europe

In Romania, for example, according to Heinz, Petre P. Paulini (1882-1953), the later president of the Adventists there, served in the First World War as a non-combatant; first as paramedic, then, until 1918, as sergeant in the office (140). In Italy, the later missionary Alberto Michele Long (1887-1986) refused to take up arms and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Eventually receiving amnesty, he was released in 1919 (141). In Great Britain, there were 130 Adventists who were non-combatants. 14 of them were not off duty on the Sabbath, so they refused to work on their day of rest. They were sent to the notorious Dartmoor prison, where they suffered severe abuse to force them to give in (142). In Russia, about 500 Adventists were called up to serve in the Tsar's army. Many were paramedics or did other non-combatant services. However, 70 refused any military service, out of whom 37 were sentenced to prison or exile in Siberia (143).

Non-combatants in the Second World War in Germany

Although, from 1920 on, young Adventists in Germany took "Red Cross courses"—on the advice of their church leadership in order to be able to serve as paramedics in the event of a possible draft (144)—in 1942, only 14 percent of 3,735 Adventist soldiers were assigned to a medical unit (138). "Despite widespread patriotism there were only a few exceptional cases in which Adventists were clearly influenced by Nazi ideology," says Heinz (138). "Many conscripts tried their best not to kill God's commandments and to be obedient on the Sabbath. This happened more or less successfully on a personal level" (149). Daniel Heinz interviewed 30 Adventists who were German soldiers in the Second World War. Only three of them had to use their weapons to kill enemies (137f.)

With three examples, Heinz makes clear what it meant for an Adventist to want to act differently as a soldier. Fritz Bergner, born in 1903 in Berlin, refused to use the Hitler salute and to work as a locksmith in a factory in Hannover-Brink on the Sabbath. In 1940, he got his draft order to join the Wehrmacht and in 1941, he was sent to the Eastern Front. Because of the Sabbath and his confession, "I would rather be shot than point my gun at an enemy," he was punished several times. As this did not change his attitude, he was handed over to the Gestapo and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. In November 1942, he died in Dachau concentration camp (146).

Hans Brüning, born in 1901 in Rostock, worked as a librarian. Due to illness he was unfit for military service. However, at the beginning of 1943, he received two consecutive draft notices, which he ignored. When he tried to flee to Switzerland, he was caught at the border and sentenced to death as a traitor by a court martial. On February 22, 1944, his execution took place (146f.).

Willi Kollmann, born 1914 in Neustrelitz, joined the air force and was trained as a pilot. With a transport plane, he brought food and medical supplies to the front. In March 1944, he received the order to transfer to a bomber squadron. When he refused the transfer, he was threatened with a court martial. Before the court could convene, Kollmann was shot down with his plane in eastern Poland on April 27, 1944, killing him (147).

Conscientious objection after 1945 in Germany

In his essay, Daniel Heinz focuses on the military service of Adventists in Europe during the First and Second World Wars (135). That is why he does not mention that, after 1945, the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventists in the Federal Republic of Germany recommended that their conscripted members apply for conscientious objection to military service and do civilian service, which almost all of them did.

In the former GDR, there was no civil service, only unarmed service as a construction soldier. Most conscripted Adventists opted for this, although, for a construction soldier, it usually meant exclusion from university studies. Among the young Adventist Christians already baptized, there were very few who did military service in the National People's Army; and among the few, most were in the medical service. But even young people who had not yet been baptized preferred to serve as construction soldiers, despite obvious disadvantages.

In Germany, compulsory military service was suspended in 2011, so the Bundeswehr has been a voluntary army ever since. In order to give its members some guidance, the committee of the Free Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Germany adopted the document "Mut zum Frieden" (Courage for Peace) on December 4, 2017, a declaration at the end of the First World War in 1918.

In the document, it says: "Therefore we recommend to Adventists and members of the Adventist Youth that they should neither directly participate in a war as part of their voluntary service in the German Armed Forces nor indirectly in the preparation of a war by participating in the production of weapons and accessories as well as in information technology. Since the suspension of compulsory military service in Germany in 2011, the Bundeswehr has been offering incentives to volunteer for the armed forces, such as vocational training or studies. Nevertheless, 'because of the non-combatant nature of the Bible, our Church 'encourages no one to join the military,' writes the president of our general conference (world church leadership), Ted N.C. Wilson, in Adventist World, August 2014, p. 9, noting that 'Seventh-day Adventists have not abandoned their historic witness to peace and service without weapons in the 151 years of their existence.

The declaration "Courage for Peace" of the German Free Church leadership is listed in the appendix of the book "Adventists and Military Service" under the Adventist statements (204).

Not a normal profession

In Chapter 7, Frank M. Hasel deals with the ethical challenges of military service. It deals with nationalism and patriotism, loyalty in connection with the oath of allegiance, the worldwide Adventist Church with people from all nations, the inviolability of human life, observance of God's commandments, the way of life in the armed forces, basic military training, the recruitment of young people, non-combatant service, modern warfare, and problems arising from the Adventist understanding of mission and eschatology.

Hasel takes his cue from the U.S. Armed Forces, as the creeds of the Army and Rangers (Special Forces), Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy can be found in the appendix to his article. In the mission statements, it becomes clear that such a service is not a normal profession. In the creed of the army, it says: "I am ready to drive out, fight and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat" (178). "As a Ranger, my country expects me to fight better, harder and with more effort than any other soldier" (179). Air Force: "My mission is to fly, fight and win" (179). Coast Guard: "I will sell my life dearly to the enemies of my country, but I give it of my own free will to save those who are in danger" (180). Marines: "My rifle is my best friend. It is my life ... I must shoot better than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots at me" (181). Navy: "I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and of those who before me stood up for the defence of freedom and democracy all over the world" (182).

Hasel wants to make clear with the appendix that the model which Jesus Christ gives to his followers as peacemakers is contrary to the creeds of the armed forces (159).

Defamed as "cowards”

Chapter 8 deals with the psychological effects of war experiences and how pastoral care can respond to them. Andreas Bochmann, prorector and professor for Marriage, Family and Life Counselling at the Adventist Theological University of Friedensau, provides information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychological illness that can occur after traumatic experiences. Soldiers have always been among the people who get into traumatising situations much more often. For centuries, the symptoms typical of PTSD have been discovered and described in them. Affected soldiers have been defamed as "cowards". The extent of war trauma was often taboo, even after 1945. It was not until the Vietnam War that something fundamentally changed (185).

Avoid military service wherever possible

"It is an open secret that the decision for military service brings with it numerous difficulties and confronts the convinced believer with many ethical problems," writes Frank M. Hasel in the final chapter, 9 (195). He notes that, from the beginning, the Seventh-day Adventist Church considered the carrying of weapons and participation in acts of war as a violation of the teachings of Jesus and the law of God. Numerous Adventist conscientious objectors have testified to their courage and loyalty to the Word of God in the most difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, the attitude of several Seventh-day Adventists had gradually changed from a position of conscientious objection to a conscious cooperation with the military. "However, military service is not a way of life for Seventh-day Adventists and should be avoided wherever and whenever possible," emphasizes the co-editor of the book (196).

The publication contains three appendices: a list of Adventist statements from the years 1864 to 2018 regarding noncombat, war and peace, a bibliography of Adventist literature, and a list of selected works on the subject by non-Adventist authors (201-225).

A necessary orientation guide

"Adventists and Military Service lists a variety of reasons why members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, both men and women, should not volunteer for military service. It is true that even during the American Civil War, there were Adventists who volunteered for military service and thus made a conscious decision to do military service. But in the last months of the war, some of these Adventist soldiers had their membership revoked by their local church congregations. The communities were concerned about their credibility as a church. When Adventists volunteer for military service, the military authorities could have doubts that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is indeed a religious community that is conscientiously opposed to the use of weapons.

This book also provides information on how Adventists behaved in countries where compulsory military service was the norm. There, one could not buy oneself out of military service or claim exemption as a non-combatant. However, a completely new situation arose when some countries began to suspend compulsory military service and the armed forces had to recruit volunteers. Not only in the USA, but also in other countries, there are now no longer any conscript soldiers.

From the experiences of Adventists in the USA, it is clear that it is a mistake to think that this is the case: If there are no longer conscripts, then a church no longer needs to deal with the issue of conscientious objection. However, a church that is convinced that a Christian should not carry a weapon is challenged, especially in times of peace and even when there is no more conscription, to make it clear that military personnel do not have a normal profession. They are trained to help destroy other people who are also God's creatures, as effectively as possible.

Therefore, it is not enough for a church to take a stand on the subject of military service. It is important that Jesus' call that his followers should be peacemakers without weapons should not be forgotten in the local church congregations. The book "Adventists and Military Service" is therefore a noteworthy and necessary guide to understand why the Adventist Church still takes the non-combatant position today. The fact that the volume is published in English makes it possible to distribute it widely. Worldwide there are only a few tens of thousands of German-speaking Adventists, but millions of members who understand English. Although the work is primarily aimed at Seventh-day Adventists, it can also give impulses to peace friends in other denominations.