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Historic Adventist Peace Witness Amidst War Fever

“Never have patriotism, imperialism, and the religion of American Protestants stood in such fervent coalescence” as during the era of the Spanish-American War, wrote Sydney E. Ahlstrom in his magisterial A Religious History of the American People (p. 880), published in 1972. Would he have revised this assessment had he lived to see the first decade of the twenty-first century?

Elaboration of patriotic rituals in various public school districts around the nation was one manifestation of the fervor for glorification of country and war with a divine aura. Seventh-day Adventist responses in the American Sentinel (predecessor to Liberty) set forth the relationship between respect for government and fidelity to God with impressive clarity, along with forthright affirmations of Adventism’s gospel-based commitment to nonviolence.

In Boulder, Colorado, for example, a new ritual called the “American Patriotic Salute” required students, in saluting the flag, to exclaim, “We give our heads,” while touching their foreheads, then, moving their hands over their hearts, say, “and our hearts,” and then, with rights arms stretched out high and heads leaning back slightly, “to God and our country!” Then, after a slight pause, with arms back at their sides, pupils were to declare, “One country! one language! one flag!”, at which point they were to extend their arms toward the flag yet again, before finally resuming their seats (“Religion in the Public Schools in Colorado,” American Sentinel, 25 Nov. 1897), 723-725.

Some Adventist students were suspended for refusing to engage in the ritual. Francis M. Wilcox (pictured, right), the Adventist pastor in Boulder (later editor of the Review and Herald for more than thirty years and compiler of the book Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War) included the following in articles explaining why conscientious Adventists could not join in the patriotic piety:

Seventh-day Adventists are uniformly law-abiding citizens. They believe in the support of government by taxation, and by every laudable means consistent with Christian life; but in principle they are non-combatants. They believe that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong; better to leave to God the avenging of every just cause than to take vengeance into their own hands. The Christians of Europe, of Asia, of Africa, are as much the children of God and members of the household of faith as are the Christians of America. With their understanding of the requirements of the gospel of Christ, the members of the church could not enter conscientiously upon any warfare, either public or private, in an individual or national sense, to maim, to kill, or destroy their fellows (“Seventh-Day Adventists and the Public Schools,” American Sentinel, 6 Jan. 1898, 10-11).

A few weeks later the county superintendent of schools ordered the expelled students re-instated and that religious language be removed from the flag ritual. But Wilcox explained that the enforced patriotism with clear militaristic dimensions remained unacceptable to Adventists:

Seventh-day Adventists, like the followers of Penn, are non-combatants in principle….[T]hey recognize the authority of a higher law as paramount to human enactment, and that law says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.” To maim and kill in warfare would be to them as much a violation of this precept as to commit murder in the ordinary accepted sense. To pledge to the head and the heart to the flag could be nothing less than to defend that flag with the life did occasion and necessity require. This the Adventists could not conscientiously do, nor permit their children to do. Hence, they believe it contrary to God’s Word to permit their children to pledge themselves to warfare or to have inculcated in their young minds a warlike spirit. (Rocky Mountain News, 11 March 1898, reprinted in “Objections to the Flag Salute,” American Sentinel, 14 April 1898, 230).


Doug Morgan received his Ph.D., from the University of Chicago and edits the Adventist Peace Fellowship blog where this originally appeared.

Image: F. M. Wilcox, courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate. Also pictured here.

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