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Coping with War: Stories, Dilemmas, and a Breakthrough Moment


A dividing wall was cracking tonight — or, better, crumbling.  You could hear and see it — in welcoming words; in faces warm with mutual regard; in conversation that was shedding light instead of heat.

Tonight two Adventists communities, separated since World War I, talked to each other.  As part of the Friedensau Adventist University’s conference on how World War I affected Adventism, organizers had invited leaders from the Reformed Adventist Church to join the conversation.  No such conversation has taken place since 1920.  

The Reformed Movement’s president and secretary, along with a former president, told their story and made their case. Their Adventist forebears had protested when church leaders in Germany insisted that members be willing to bear arms in war, even on Sabbath.  For this offense they had been disfellowshipped summarily.  In the end, they had started the Reformed Adventist Church, which now reaches around the world and has a membership of 70,000.  All 70,000, said President Idel Suarez, are pacifist.  In his paper, and in one co-authored by Woonsan Kang and Antonino Di Franca, the church’s current secretary and former president, these leaders explained why.  Their defense of pacifism was laced with scripture and centered unmistakably on the teachings and spirit of Jesus himself.

In the land of the Kaiser and the National Socialists, listening to what these leaders had to say would have been drama enough.  But before the speeches began conference organizer Rolf Pölher read a statement recently and jointly affirmed by the two Adventist union conferences in Germany.  It was an apology and a request for forgiveness addressed to the Reform community on the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.  

To many in the room, the statement was a surprise.  To all, the reading of the statement (translated into English just two days before) was a moment of astonishing and deeply felt Christian fellowship.  President Suarez and his two associates expressed their gratitude, and there were smiles all around and the happy sound of clicking cameras.

This was day three of the conference.  It had begun, as on the day before, with hope.  After a reading from Scripture and a morning hymn, Daniela Gelbrich, a biblical scholar at Friedensau Adventist University, stood up to speak under the enormous rose window in the university chapel, with its Greek-lettered symbol of Christ-centeredness. She began with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s testament to the “anguish of a tortured world” and the divine determination to heal, along with that world, the human hearts and minds that suffer in it.  Invoking Ezekiel 36, she declared that the world’s desolation will become, one day, “like the garden of Eden,” or, in a turn of phrase based on the German word “Friedensau,” like a “garden of peace.”

Fortified by these words, conference participants walked to a conference room and resumed their dark study of “The Impact of World War I on Seventh-day Adventists.”  Dark, to be sure, and often discouraging, but also inspiring.  Richard Müller, a theologian from Denmark and former faculty member at both Newbold College and Middle East College, started the formal session with a report on how Scandinavian Adventists related to World War I.  These countries were “neutral,” although many young men from the Germany-occupied southern mainland of Denmark were conscripted into service they did not believe in. Church publications in these countries consistently expressed sympathy for peace and antagonism to war and bloodshed.  A short book on the Great War by Swedish Adventist Åhren Jonsson expressed unequivocal disdain for war: it is, the author said, quoting a distinguished poet of his time, “‘hate and murder…, distress and death…lie and fraud.’”  The book was widely circulated.

Jeff Crocombe, a senior lecturer at Pacific Adventist University in Papua New Guinea, described South Africa’s relation to war.  In the early twentieth century it was a new nation drawn into World War I as a dominion of the British Empire. When in 1912 a new law made service in defense of the nation a requirement, the then-tiny Seventh-day Adventist community in South Africa led an effort to secure exemption from bearing arms for persons opposed to it on grounds of religious conviction. Members still had to deal with a requirement of undergoing military training since local officials were not always responsive to the conscience-based exemption.  At least two Adventist men were jailed for refusing to practice military drills on Sabbath.

Addressing what happened in Australia, another dominion of the British Empire, Daniel Reynaud, who teaches at Avondale College and is an expert in World War I cinema, said that in a deeply British culture, the small, millennial and heavily German Adventist community existed as outsiders.  But here too the church worked successfully to protect believers who were by conscience ill-at-ease with military duty.  The Adventist position in Australia was closer, he said, to “conscientious cooperation” than “conscientious object,” but the church’s writers did signal their belief that war was evil.  Still, some young people volunteered to fight.  Two were decorated for bravery; others felt uncomfortable and tried to avoid roles that would require killing.

The theme of response to war in particular countries continued in the late afternoon when Tiziano Rimoldi, of Italian Adventist College “Villa Aurora,” read brief remarks on his own country’s introduction to Adventism and told the story of Alberto Long, a man who belongs, he said, in the circle of courageous Adventist war dissenters.  Drafted out of a church with fewer than 100 members in all of Italy, Long was unable to gain recognition as a non-combatant.  When military authorities insisted that he learn to use a rifle, he refused, “knowing,” as he put it, “that if I surrendered on this point, I would surrender on all the others.”  As a result he suffered beatings and imprisonment — and even the threat of death by shooting.   But he survived and entered the ministry.  After retirement he continued to serve as a local elder until he was in his 90s.

Earlier, a succession of three speakers had shifted attention to themes germane in any Adventist community facing the challenge of war.  Gilbert Valentine, a professor at La Sierra University, described the frustration church leaders felt over Ellen White’s inability to offer counsel that would settle questions related to war.  Eighty-six years old at the outbreak of World War I, she was too weak to be of help, and Adventists were confronting life without a prophet. One thing her silence evoked was uncertainty about the kind of authority she would have after her death.  Some began to insist on Ellen White’s “practical inerrancy,” even though inerrancy proper was formally denied.  But many of the best-known Adventist leaders knew that her work, illuminating as it was, fell short of perfection as to fact, exegesis and prediction.  They could not,  however, persuade the majority to acknowledge this.  The rise of fundamentalism in America would strengthen inerrantist leanings regarding the church’s prophet, and although these leanings would be challenged by historical studies that began to appear in the 1970s, the conservative tendency to idealize, or even “‘canonize,’” Ellen White continued, and assures, said Valentine, that divisive tensions will continue to plague Adventism.  

Following lunch, Stefan Höschele, a Friedensau systematic theologian, considered questions that arise from “diversification” in Adventism.  The church’s spread across the world has engendered distinctive pathways of understanding and practice.  What happened in Germany during World War I exemplifies this fact, and Höschele’s paper described differences of attitude and outlook that brought tension into the relationship between German and American Adventists.  Distinctive pathways are challenging for church life, and they raise crucial questions about the authority, hierarchy and unity.  How can diversity coexist with denominational accord?  How should the church’s center, or perhaps its several centers, relate to its periphery?  Given differentiation, what is the meaning of tradition?  Questions such as these, put into bold relief by what happened during World War II, beg, Höschele argued, for sustained theological attention within Adventism.

Johannes Hartlapp, a historian and dean at Friedensau, looked again at how protests against German church leaders led to the development of the organized Reform Movement whose current leaders are participants in the conference.  When German church officials were encouraging accommodation to state interests, they felt themselves under great pressure, and worried that conscientious objectors would put the church in danger of collapse.  Those who objected to them felt, on the other hand, that ill-considered leadership was putting the church in danger of faithlessness.  Conversation after Harlapp’s presentation indicated disagreement with him, at some points, on the part of Reform Movement leaders, but there was agreement, too, not least on the need for additional, collaborative investigation.

Before supper Jeff Boyd gave participants a brief introduction to the work of the Adventist Peace Fellowship, for whom he serves now as secretary.  The organization advances peace in the full-blooded sense of shalom, or overall human wellbeing, and encourages congregations and other Adventists entities to join in.  Boyd, who is from Flint, MI, and has master’s degrees in both business administration and peace studies, invited visits to the website, which is at

The hope with which the day began would culminate after the evening meal, when tired but curious participants would stream into the classroom where something special, it seemed, was about to happen.

And it did.

Due to his schedule for travel back to the United States, Scriven’s account of the last morning of the conference, on May 15, will appear a couple of days from now.

Image: A screenshot of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement website.


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