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Prophecy, War, Moral Drift and Moral Courage


“Hope is the mark of our Christian existence,” said Bernhard Oesterich.  But does authentic hope involve accurate prediction concerning end-time chronology?  Does authentic hope come down to information — a “message” about what happens next, and when and where, ingeniously derived from Scripture’s apocalyptic material?

The theologian’s remark about hope, from the devotional for the start of day two at the Friendensau Adventist University’s conference on “The Impact of World War I on Seventh-day Adventists,” did resonate, it seemed, with the 105 registrants.  But today presenters of formal papers put a question mark behind the church’s traditional focus on on prophetic prediction.

In the morning’s first paper, Jón Hjörleifur Stefánson of Iceland reviewed development of the now nearly-forgotten end-time theory concerning Turkey, where the Ottoman Empire was centered.  According to that theory, transfer of the capital of the ever-weakening Ottoman Empire from Constantinople to Jerusalem would portend the battle of Armageddon and bring in the Second Coming.  A key Adventist player in development of the theory was Uriah Smith, and under his influence, Adventists began, in the 1850s, to keep fastidious watch on news regarding Turkey.

Bert Haloviak, former director of Archives at the General Conference, followed with an account of how this theory came into particular prominence at the time of World War I, when the General Conference President and the church’s best-known evangelists preached and wrote about it to substantial persuasive effect. Even secular newspapers were reporting on what was being said about “the Eastern Question” (as it was called) in Adventist churches and at campmeetings.  But by the end of the war it was clear that Ottoman Empire, now broken and defeated, would not be moving its capital to Jerusalem, and Adventists had to face the fact that their end-time theory was wrong.

Next Rolf Pöhler, the conference’s chief organizer, and also a presenter, chimed in with a theological interpretation of failed (predictive) prophecy.  Adventist prophecies fail, he said, when interpreters set timetables and otherwise indulge in “idle” or “sensationalized” speculation about the future.  A particular problem, he said, is unwillingness to accept the “conditional” nature of prophetic prediction.  The lesson that should be obvious from the story of Jonah — predictions may motivate change and thereby alter history’s course — seems always to be missed.  Prophecy, including apocalyptic prophecy, has, in truth, a “pastoral intent.”  Its relevance is practical, not merely informational.

Now the theme shifted from prophetic interpretation to further description of Adventists and the challenge of war.  Douglas Morgan of Washington Adventist University showed how, in America, early Adventism’s “biblical pacifism” maintained itself until World War I: war and “militaristic nationalism” continued to be seen as “antithetical” to the gospel.  But with war on the horizon, and students asking church leaders for a public statement on the denomination’s “pacifist teachings” that would help them secure “exemption from military service,” differences came into play.  In 1918 United States union conference representatives voted a statement that Adventist young people should render “noncombatant service” to the government — as such service is “defined by the [U. S.] President.”  By the 1930s a pamphlet sponsored by General Conference’s youth leadership came out asserting what Adventists were not — not pacifists, not antimilitarists, not conscientious objectors. Soon, indeed, the phrase “conscientious cooperation” came into vogue.  But Morgan ended his paper with a pertinent reminder: in 1936 F.M. Wilcox, the editor of the Review and Herald, published Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War, a book that questioned much of what the pamphlet had said.  Adventists, he wrote, “have always opposed war and the bearing of arms,” and his arguments, Morgan declared, stand now as a “substantial testament to biblical pacifism and prophetic peace witness as authentic strands of the Adventist heritage.”

After lunch three papers addressed similar issues.  Ron Lawson of Queens College New York reviewed the story of the worldwide Adventist movement toward accommodation to the wishes of national governments.  Then he reported on insight into these matters gained through interviews he has been conducting, since the 1980s, with Adventists around the world.  He focused particularly on what he called “exchange relationships” between the Adventist Church and authoritarian — sometimes brutally authoritarian — governments.  In these relationships, established with numerous Communist and military regimes across several continents, Adventists received favors in exchange for public support of government authorities.  All of it happened, he suggested, because Adventists have tended to put survival above principle and to take pride in praise from government leaders.  And in an apocalypticism focused narrowly on the papacy, they have also failed to see the “beast-like characteristics” of modern totalitarian regimes.

Denis Kaiser, a Ph.D. candidate in Adventist history at Andrews University, then described “the circumstances, perceptions, and practices” of Seventh-day Adventists in Britain, France and Germany during World War I.  German church leaders said that although Adventists do not not desire war, members should carry out their military duties in defense of their nation.  Leaders in Britain attempted to secure noncombatant status for Adventists, and although they did not succeed, British authorities did offer some accommodation to conscientious objectors.  The French government, like the one in Germany, was less willing to do this.  In all three countries, Kaiser said, individual Adventists who went to war did seek, in many cases, to find noncombatant roles, and many bore Christian witness while in uniform, even to the point, in some cases, of “showing unexpected acts of love and kindness to their enemies.”  

Next Eugene Zaitsev of Russia noted that the church’s situation in Russia during World War I was complicated by the high percentage of ethnically German members.  Authorities suspected Adventists of disloyalty.  The church had to go underground and, even so, many pastors were exiled to Siberia.  Although the church grew hardly at all under circumstances made the more challenging by the nation’s financial stress, faith was often strong.  Many young people conscripted into the Russian army refused to bear arms, with some 70 receiving sentences to imprisonment or hard labor.  At the same time, the Adventist Reform Movement was taking hold, with one writer rebuking members for even taking “the oath of allegiance to the Fatherland.”  So a certain amount of division exacerbated the church’s already difficult situation. 

How did the church’s fixation on a particular prophetic prediction during this period bear on its life under conditions of war?  Did preaching on “the Eastern Question” strengthen faithfulness even if it was mistaken?  Is speculative prediction a distraction that contributes to moral drift?  In any case, the conference was today shaping up as a rich resource for questions participants seemed eager to reflect upon. 

Read Charles Scriven’s report of the first day here.

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