Thousands of Adventists were filled with consternation and began to protest when they read the circular letter of August 2, 1914, signed by Elder G. Dail, secretary of the European Division, which contained the following instructions:
"We should do our military duties cheerfully whilst we are in service or being called to serve, so that the officers in charge will find in us valiant and true soldiers who are ready to die for their homes, for our army, and for our fatherland."
To aggravate the distress of these conscientious objectors, the commitment of the leadership, according to a declaration submitted by the East German Union to the Ministry of War (August 4, 1914), signed by the Union president, H. F. Schuberth, was brought to their knowledge providentially a few days later. They said:
"We have bound ourselves together in the defense of the Fatherland, and under these circumstances we will also bear arms on Saturday (Sabbath)."
An additional shock to those faithful few was the publication of the booklet Der Christ und der Krieg (The Christian and War), in 1916. There, on page 18, three of the main Adventist leaders in Germany made the following declaration:
"In all that we have said, we have shown that the Bible teaches: first, that taking part in war is not a transgression of the sixth commandment; second, that doing military service on the Sabbath is not a transgression of the fourth commandment."
No one can deny that a fundamental change took place in the doctrinal position of the Adventist Church in Germany and that this change affected the law of God directly. A crisis, followed by separation, was the unavoidable consequence.
Even outsiders commented on this event. A Lutheran minister wrote:
"The World War brought a great crisis upon German Adventism. The Koelnische Zeitung (Cologne Newspaper) of September 21, 1915, writes: ‘A division occurred among the followers of Adventism after the outbreak of the war. The majority wanted to see the fundamental teachings invalidated during the time of the war. The other part, on the contrary, desired the sanctification of the Sabbath (Saturday) even during this difficult time. These differences of opinion finally led to the disfellowshipment of the followers of the old faith from the church.’ Above all it was the position taken toward war service in general that caused this division.
"Already on August 4, 1914, the great majority of German Adventists had declared in a very submissive communication to the War Office in Berlin: ‘In this present solemn time of war, we consider ourselves duty-bound to stand for the defense of the fatherland and also, under these circumstances, to bear arms on the Sabbath (Saturday).’ A similar declaration was sent to the office of the commanding general of the 7th army corps on March 5, 1915. This declaration was signed by L. R. Conradi, the president of the European Division of Adventists, and by P. Drinhaus, the president of the Saxon Conference. Therefore, this official position was taken in conflict with the pacifist teachings laid down by the American Conference [of Adventists]. For this reason, part of the German Adventists withstood this official resolution. This disagreement resulted in a bitter conflict. Those Adventists who accepted participation in war and who had become disloyal to the original principles turned most vehemently against the followers of the old teachings. In an article published in the Dresdener Neueste Nachrichten (Dresden Latest News), April 12, 1918, they call these people ‘unreasonable elements’ with ‘foolish ideas,’ and in very unkind words they say: ‘We would, indeed, regard it as a favor done to us if such elements met the fate which they deserve.’ In the same article they recount, to exalt their own merits, what they have done for the fatherland. This way of fighting each other, we feel, is a very unpleasant thing. On the other hand, the followers of the original teachings, in a special number of their periodical Waechter der Wahrheit (Watchman of the Truth), narrate the unkindness that they have suffered on the part of their hostile brethren."–Dr. Konrad Algermissen, Die Adventisten (The Adventists), pp. 22—24 (booklet published in 1928).
In a pamphlet published by the Adventist Church in Germany, the crisis which came upon the Adventist people during World War I was explained as follows:
"As children of their heavenly Father, they [the Adventists] cultivate peace among themselves and with their fellowmen all over the world. At the same time, they seek to uphold the principles which the Lord of Christendom has given to those who are the light and salt of the world in this solemn time. Where general conscription exists, they [the Adventists] have always been ready, as a denomination, to fulfill their duties both in time of peace and in time of war, like every other loyal citizen. In the observance of the weekly seventh day, peculiar to them, they only desire the same rights that are granted to other professors of religion with regard to their rest day.
"At the outbreak of the war, the denomination firmly complied with the conscription law as its members had done in times of peace. They desired, only if possible, the privileges which could be granted to others under the same circumstances. Thousands of their members are in the army. Many of them have fallen on the field of honor, both in Europe and some also in the colonies, while many others have received decorations or have been promoted. Also, at the beginning of the war, many of their members, both men and women, reported voluntarily for ambulance service, and the denomination placed their roomy mission establishments without hesitation at the disposal of the Red Cross.
"In the course of the war, however, there were unfortunately some individual members who failed to openly confess their own personal conscientious doubts to the authorities, but rather withdrew from their duties secretly and wandered from place to place inducing others by word and literature to take the same step. When they were called by the denomination to account for their procedure, they accused the leaders of being in apostasy. Therefore, they had to be disfellowshiped, not because of their personal convictions, but because of their unchristian attitude and because they became a threat to internal and external peace." –Zur Aufklaerung (For Clarification), pp. 2, 3.
In a circular letter entitled The European Situation, Elder C. H. Watson gave the following explanation:
"There was in Germany and those other countries concerned a minority of our believers who refused to follow the leadership of Conradi and others into combatant participation in the war.
"These were subjected to much suffering at the hands of their governments because of their stand.
"In Germany, those who took their stand against Conradi’s wicked action in thus committing them to war were treated with great harshness by Conradi and his associates. The resistance of the minority to military service threatened to compromise the whole body of Adventists in the eyes of the German government; and, to avoid this, Conradi had the minority disfellowshiped from the church.
"Thus the noncombatant minority was forced out of the church in that country, and this separation continued throughout the war years.
"When this state of affairs became known to the General Conference leaders, it created deep concern in their hearts, and led to their sending W. A. Spicer to Germany at a time when the German submarine peril was extremely grave. Brother Spicer took his life in his hands in order to get firsthand information on that situation.
"The result of that visit was that the General Conference became possessed of firsthand information regarding:
a. The wrong done to these minority believers.
b. The division and strife which had resulted among our German members.
c. The development of bitterness in both groups, and especially in those wronged by Conradi.
d. The extreme views to which these groups were driving each other in their differences."
While Conradi was a leader of the SDA Church, he was whitewashed and defended even by the General Conference representatives. After he left the Adventist Church, some leaders began to admit what they should have admitted at the beginning of the trouble (1914—1920).
Elder Watson’s admission, however, is a very rare exception. SDA publications on this great crisis generally miss the point by ignoring the fundamental aspects of the whole problem. One of these aspects is that the faithful minority were disfellowshiped–a fact which is usually concealed.
Another rare admission of the responsibility of the church in the treatment dispensed to the conscientious objectors is found in a booklet published by the Southern Publishing Association, Nashville, Tennessee:
"In truth the ‘reform’ movement . . . sprang into being in Germany during the World War, while [L. R.] Conradi was the leader of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in the whole of Europe. That movement as it is today and has been since it came into existence is the practical protest of a large number of Seventh-day Adventists, not against the teachings of the denomination, but against the high-handed actions of this very man Conradi and a few others who were associated with him in his leadership of the church in Europe–actions which he took without either the counsel, consent, or even the knowledge of the General Conference. The departure of these people was not from ‘a lot of gross errors and a dominating hierarchy,’ but from Conradi’s leadership which had committed them, without their voice or consent being given to his action, to the cannon and the bayonet of the battlefield. From the hour that he so basely betrayed them, they have had absolutely no faith in him either as a man, a minister, or a leader in the church of God." –Walter H. Brown, Brown Exposes Ballenger, p. 30.
It is true that Conradi and other European leaders betrayed the confidence of these "unfortunate victims," as Elder Brown admits in his defensive writing against Ballenger. But Elder Brown was greatly mistaken when he said that Conradi acted "without either the counsel, consent, or even the knowledge of the General Conference," because evidence proves the very opposite. Furthermore, Elder Brown did not state facts correctly when he said there were a "protest" and a "departure"; he should have said that there were a "protest" and a "disfellowshipment."
During World War I, well over 2,000 conscientious objectors were separated from the Adventist Church in Germany. Together with the conscientious objectors of other religious groups, these faithful believers were put to the hardest test that Christians have ever been called to endure. Since Germany had no provision to accommodate these heroes of the faith, they had to face the firing squad or suffer horrors in prison.
During a conference that was held in Yugoslavia in 1933, Brother Otto Welp gave the following report, which was published by our Yugoslav brethren: As far as conscientious objectors were concerned, the sentence pronounced against them was that, from among the men eligible for the army, one out of every ten was to be executed. Then, if the others did not yield, every fifth man was to be put to death, and finally every second one. Only God knows–and the day of judgment will reveal–how many conscientious objectors were actually executed. At that time they were often despised as cowards who were afraid to go to the battlefront; now they are more often regarded as heroes who refused to take human life but were not afraid to die for their convictions. Those who survived the firing squad were kept in prison until the end of the war.
Also in other countries which took part in the war, faithful Adventists went through great hardships.