It was the summer of 1961, in the midst of the Berlin Wall crisis, when I was threatened with a court martial by none other than a military chaplain.
The circumstance was that I was a trained infantry soldier who had up to that time been a confirmed agnostic. But throughout the first half of the year I had become interested in Adventism and had come to the conviction that I should no longer carry arms or drill on Sabbath. I had come to appreciate the biblical logic undergirding the denomination’s position even though I had not yet become a church member.
But, we need to ask, how is it that a young person who only had a brief and tenuous relationship with Adventism even knew about the church’s position on military service? The answer is as simple as it is straightforward–the church had aggressively and consistently publicized its position and advised its pastors and young people on the topic.
At the center of this aggressive publicity on the subject of noncombatancy was the National Service Organization of Seventh-day Adventists. Formed during World War I under the direction of Carlyle B. Haynes as the War Service Commission, it was reactivated in 1940 in the face of renewed world conflict. Once again under Haynes and later Clark Smith, what had evolved into the International Service
Commission remained a vocal force for publicizing issues and fighting for the rights of service people up into the 1970s.
The Commission was active in promoting noncombatancy in the denomination’s churches, schools, colleges, and pastor’s meetings. Beyond that, it made an abundance of small pamphlets available to young people, their parents, and to pastors for distribution. Titles included Why Seventh-day Adventists Are Noncombatants, Questions and Answers for Those Facing the Draft, Information and Instruction for Seventh-day Adventist Noncombatant Selective Service Registrants, Filling Out the Special Form for Conscientious Objectors, and Instruction for Service Pastors. That last title brings to mind the largely forgotten fact that local conferences appointed “service pastors” who had a special responsibility in relation to the military.
Even more visible to many Adventists was the Medical Cadet Corps, founded by Union College’s Everett Dick in the 1930s. The position of the church since the Civil War had been that Adventist inductees could most easily serve both God and their country if they could find their way into the medical branch, where they could perform acts of mercy and did not need to carry weapons.
As war became more probable in the late 1930s, the denomination, under the urging of Professor Dick and others, decided to make it easier for Adventists to obtain medical positions. Its method was to give them extensive training along medical and military lines through the denominationally sponsored Medical Cadet Corps. The church provided the training at its colleges and secondary schools in place of physical education. By this method thousands of young Adventists in World War II and the Korean conflict in both the United States and other countries found an easier road into acceptable military service than had their predecessors.1
By 1954 the U. S. Army, recognizing the contributions of programs like the Medical Cadet Corps, set up its own program for the training of conscientious cooperators at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Thousands of young Adventist inductees were trained there as non-arms-bearing medics between 1954 and the end of the draft at the conclusion of the Viet Nam conflict. One authority reports that more than half the men who went through training at “Fort Sam” were Seventh-day Adventists,2 an indication that the denomination had taken such a strong and well-known position on the issue that it had even influenced the operations of the United States Army.
Beyond the activities of the National Service Commission and the Medical Cadet Corps the Adventist public was also kept aware of issues related to noncombatancy and military-related issues by the lives of individuals who had made a difference in one way or another. On one end of the spectrum were those Adventist service personnel court martialed and imprisoned for their religious stands, including some 35 serving prison sentences of from 5-25 years at the end of World War I and Harold Pervis, Sr. and others who were imprisoned during World War II.3 At the other end of the spectrum were such individuals as the ubiquitous Desmond T. Doss who received the Medal of Honor for having saved the lives of at least 75 wounded men in one battle in Okinawa.4 Doss, the hero of noncombatants, and the only one to ever receive the award, was a frequent featured speaker at Adventist colleges, schools, churches, and general gatherings.
No one doubted the seriousness of Adventists regarding noncombatancy up through the end of the Viet Nam War. On the other hand, most young Adventists today, including the majority of young pastors, do not even seem to have much of a burden for the topic. Most, in fact, may not even be aware of the church’s position.
Why the big change? It undoubtedly centers, at least in the United States, on one crucial event–the end of the draft in the early 1970s. With the draft over, the felt need to instruct the young on noncombatancy came to an end. And in the new relaxed atmosphere came the cessation of publicity on the topic. After all, so the logic ran, why educate and agitate where there is no need?
But eventually the unexpected began to happen. In the void of education on the topic and out of touch with the denomination’s historic position against volunteering for military service,5 slowly but steadily Adventist young people began to enlist. With its guard down and with its focus on other issues, the denomination and its members hardly noticed what was happening. As of 2006, Gary R. Counsell, associate director of Adventist Chaplain Ministries, estimates that there are approximately 7,500 Adventists serving in the United States military, with virtually all of them (except chaplains) having enlisted as combatants.6
In the early twenty-first century the church is in danger of losing an important teaching related to the Christ who claimed that Christians must love their enemies, rather than be trained to kill them. The problem may not appear to be a crisis in times of peace and “small wars,” but that could change in the face of world conflict. In such a context many may discover that volunteers have fewer rights than draftees. Beyond that is the deeper issue of what it means to be like that Jesus who came to save lives rather than to destroy them.
What to do now that we have forgotten who we are is a major issue. The answer as I see it can be summed up in two words–educate and agitate. Collectively we need to once again place noncombatancy, volunteering for service, and other military issues, on the Adventist docket of issues worth living and dying for. Our history provides major hints at how to accomplish this neglected task.
1. Everett N. Dick, “The Adventist Medical Cadet Corps as Seen by its Founder,” Adventist Heritage 1:2 (July 1974): 18-27.
2. Roger Guion Davis, “Conscientious Cooperators: The Seventh-day Adventists and Military Service, 1860-1945” (Ph.D. diss. George Washington University, 1970), 222.
3. Everett N. Dick, “The Military Chaplaincy and Seventh-day Adventists: The Evolution of an Attitude,” Adventist Heritage 3:1 (Summer 1976): 34; P. Harold Pervis, Sr., A Matter of Conscience: Court-Martialed for His Faith (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1998).
4. Booton Herndon, The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Desmond T. Doss, Conscientious Objector Who Won His Nation’s Highest Military Honor (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1967).
5. For more on the issue of volunteering and Adventism’s historic position on noncombatancy, see George R. Knight, “Adventism and Military Service: Individual Conscience in Ethical Tension,” in Proclaim Peace: Christian Pacifism from Unexpected Quarters, Theron F. Schlabach and Richard T. Hughes, eds. (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997), pp. 157-171.
6. Gary R. Counsell to George R. Knight, December 10, 2006.