WWI and the Adventist Church

This page is dedicated to telling a different story regarding a group of brave men who faced serious challenges and danger during World War I. Their danger came not from the trenches, the mustard gas, the rifle or the bayonet - but simply from their historic, biblical principle that life is a sacred gift from God, and that freedom of worship, including freedom to worship on the Sabbath, is important.

Seventh-day Adventists would agree with John Steinbeck that "All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal." Ever since the Church came into existence around the time of the American Civil War, the majority of Adventists have taken the view that life is sacred and that there is a better way to solve problems than bearing arms. 

We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history. (Ellen White: Life Sketches p196)

As strong advocates of freedom of conscience and freedom of worship, Adventists have also recognised the problem of living a Christian life within the constraints of the military. As the Duke of Wellington put it many years ealier, "Men of nice scruples about religion, have no basis in the army or navy."

The choice to be a pacifist was no easy option. Particularly in WWI it led to scorn, humiliation, arrest, beating, and even threat of death for those who chose the non-combatant route. These Adventist young men were not alone. There were up to 20,000 CO's, Quakers making up the largest Christian group.  They too suffered, but their equally important story is told elsewhere

Serving in France 1917
A 1917 photo of Adventist conscripts serving on the docks in France. By November of that year they were in Military prison - refusing orders for the sake of faith.

There were roughly 2,500 Seventh-day Adventist members in the UK in 1914. Some 130 of them were conscripted. A number spent time in Dartmoor, Wakefield or Knutsford prisons. A particular group of 14 were sent to France and following a court martial in November 1917 were sentenced to six months hard labour at Military Prison #3 in Le Harve. Their story is one of courage and conscience in the face of brutal and inhuman treatment.

A Matter of Conscience:

Below are links to documents and pictures that help tell the story of Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objectors during WWI including a documentary film, 'A Matter of Conscience: Adventist Heroes in World War I', released 1 October 2014.

Primary Sources

  • W W Armstrong letter.  Written to a young man in 1957, Pastor Armstrong, by then leader of the Adventist Church in the UK and Ireland, recounts his experiences in France, including how singing a hymn after a severe beating, stunned the guards and left them in silence.
  • Valiant for Truth. H W Lowe, another of the young men imprisoned in France shares his personal testimony of his experience in Military Prison, how he kept his faith, and how, in 1937, he was invited to meet with a lawyer at the War Office enabling Adventists to serve in areas of 'National importance' during WW2 rather than in the military. Pages 2 - 4 of Messenger, 28 December 1973.
    Ernest Merchant - My Choice not to Fight.  A detailed account of his experiences in Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor Prisons including some hair-raising 'escapes' in order to "keep his sanity".
  • H Osborne testimony.  Not a baptised Adventist at the start of WW1, H Osborne nevertheless took a strong stand for non-combatancy and Sabbath observance.  He spent the war is a series of military prisons in England.  Despite hard times his commitment to Christ grew and he was baptised on the very day war ended, 11 November 1918. Read his story of page 5 of Messenger, 24 January 1975.
  • Ernest Merchant - My Choice not to Fight.  Mr Merchants personal account of spending life as a CO in Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor Prisons - including a few 'adventures' that kept his sanity!

  • The Tribunal Newspaper, 4 April 1918. This clandestine newspaper includes a full and graphic account both from the group of 14 Adventists who were court martialled, and from W W Armstrong who, because of his stature, was taken to be the ring leader and so was the worst treated of the group.
  • An Encouraging Letter. A July 1916 letter from W W Armstrong shortly after arrival in France. The letter shares some of the difficulties they faced, but also how the conscientious hard work in the dock at that time paid off in the officers then respecting their Sabbath observance. Sadly this attitude changed with a new, younger commander taking charge the following year. Published in the Missionary Worker Vol 20, No 7, pp 75-76. July 1916.
  • H W Lowe Personal Statement, 15 March 1918.  This appears to be part of the War Office  investigation made into mistreatment of prisoners at Military Prison #3 in Le Havre, France. The contents is consistent with other reports but adds a little more background.
  • William George Chappell - Tribunal documents. William was a seller of Christian literature in South Wales. He was called up and lodged an appeal in March 1916. These are his original documents including his exemption refusal as lodged in the Gwent Archives.
  • The Pearce Record of Conscientious Objectors.  Eighty Adventists are among the 16,636 (and growing) names of WWI CO's compiled by Cyril Pearce, former Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds.
  • Internment camp in Germany. Winter tents & a hut in France.  Reports in the 17 February Missionary Worker pp, 15, 17 - 18.  Page 20 of the same edition notes the difficulties some CO's are having with Sabbath keeping.
  • A Century of Adventism in the British Isles (pages 16 - 18).  Chapter five of this Centennial Historical Special, published in 1974, covers the subject of WWI. It is a well written a comprehensive overview of Adventist Conscientious Objectors and the attitude of the church to war.
  • 1902-1992 Souvenir Messenger Magazine (pages 9-11). Dr Hugh Dunton, himself a WWII conscientious objector, wrote a background piece to Adventists and the First World War. Page 9 gives an account of persecution in time of war.
  • WWI and Adventists in the UK.  Part of Dr Brian Phillips' dissertation on the establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wales.  This informative document adds to the information in Dr Barham's paper, including information on the split caused in the German Adventist Church on the issue of church members taking up arms.  [In 2014, one hundred years later, the German Church has issued an apology for the actions it took at the time.]
  • Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War.  Francis McLellan Wilcox. Review and Herald Publishing Assn. 1936.  A historical look at Seventh-day Adventist attitudes to war starting with the American Civil war, mainly focusing on the First World War, but with research from various parts of the world. Much of the UK evidence from WW1 is anonymous at the request of the contributors. [Hard copy of this book available on Amazon]
  • Photos: View a selection of WWI memories in our picture gallery.

Additional media:

  • Pastor Don Lowe talks about his experiences as a conscientious objector in World War II during a TV programme, 'In Conversation'. A black and white picture of the workers leaving the factory gates would typify the very poor working class background from which Pastor Lowe rose to be a gentle leader in the Church he came to love. He marvels at how God has led in his life and is still leading in the lives of others. He also shares how God led him through the dark times of World War II.
  • 'ViewPoint: Is violence ever acceptable?' A TV panel discussion hosted by Victor Hulbert.
  • FOCUS on peace, hope and pacifism. A magazine reflecting back on 100 years of conscientious objection, hope in the midst of fear, and the ultimate search for peace. Including the background behind the major Mel Gibson film release this autumn, Hacksaw Ridge - the story of WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss. Available May 2016 to coincide with International Conscientious Objectors day.
  • The Great Disappearance. Adventism and Noncombatancy.  A 2008 article by Adventist historian, George Knight, takes a look at why the issue of non-combatancy in the Adventist church has not be so prominient in recent years.  Knight recommends that Adventists 'educate and agitate' to counter the loss of an important part of Seventh-day Adventist Christian identity as a generation voluntarily enlists in the US army as combatants, unaware of the "deeper issues of what it means.
  • Adventists and Military service.  A resource list for those considering Military service and its implications produced by circle browsing, a group commited to excellence in Christian education.

External links:

  • A History of the First World War in 100 moments: Jailed, strait-jacketed, starved, sentenced to death – the conscientious objectors who refused to fight. A detailed report in the Independent Newspaper.
  • Conscientious objectors: men who fought a different kind of battle: The Guardian Newspaper talks with the descendants of three 'conchies'.
  • We Will Remember. A comprehensive reflection on WWI and the issues surrounding it produced by Churches together in Britain and Ireland.  Chapter 7 covers the issue of Conscientious Objection, but the whole document is worth reading. 
  • Watford's Quiet Heroes.  While Adventists may have been the largest group of Conscientious Objectors in the Watford area, the largest Christian group in the UK to stand for peace were undoubtedly the Quakers.  This moving 30 minutes documentary film from the Watford Quakers tells the courageous and moving story of three Watford CO's, including two associated with the Congregationalist church.
  • Adventist Peace Fellowship: A principally North American organisation fostering activities that seek for peace and social justice.
  • Symposium on the impact of World War I on Adventism.  Hosted in Germany in May 2014, this conference explored a range of topics related to the Church and WWI and also saw a historic apology from German Adventist leadership for the line they took on combatant status and the effect it had on splitting the German Church.
  • The Peace Pledge Union. The oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain, campaigning since 1934 for a warless world. They state, "War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war."
  • London Borough of Lewisham in the First World War. This section of the Lewisham Wiki website takes a look Conscientious Objectors in the borough including four Seventh-day Adventists.
  • Every day lives in war article: Research in Brief – Seventh-day Adventists and the WWI tribunals

First World War Centenary Partnership

This website is a member of the First World War Centenary Partnership,, led by the Imperial War Museum, a network of over 3,000 not-for-profit organisations from 50 countries marking the First World War Centenary.