by Monte Sahlin

By Jeff Boyd, May 12, 2014

The international symposium, "The Impact of World War I on Seventh-day Adventism," began today at Theologische Hochschule Friedensau, an Adventist university near Berlin, Germany. The Institute of Adventist Studies is hosting the international event, which includes sixteen presenters from twelve countries and fifty registered attendees from eleven countries.

Event organizer Rolf Pöhler shared the symposium's three areas of overlapping concern; prophetic interpretation, Adventist faith and military action, and the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement. George Knight, a well-known Adventist historian retired from the faculty of Andrews University, was the keynote speaker at Monday evening's inaugural session, focusing primarily on the second of these areas (military service) which is at the heart of the situation that spawned the Reform Movement, today a separate Adventist denomination.

Future reports from the symposium will address the Reform Movement in more detail. Briefly, the movement began in Germany when Adventist leaders informed the government that church members would take up arms in the war, even on Sabbath. Because both positions were out of harmony with Adventist history and teachings up to that point, a portion of the membership rejected these changes and eventually formed a new denomination consistent with their convictions. This movement has since split, yet it remains the most significant group to branch from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Knight provided a context for the forthcoming presentations by providing an overview of Adventist history regarding military service. A major theme was the struggle to live faithfully as citizens of heaven in a sinful world where Christians are also citizens of political nations. Another prominent theme was the pragmatic and flexible approach the Adventist Church has taken over the years toward participation in combat duty in times of forced conscription, or the draft, opting for institutional security over consistent and absolute pacifism.

While there have been elements of continuity to the Church's approach to the war question (e.g., favoring noncombatancy in the context of a draft, supporting Sabbath observance even in times of war), there have also been significant changes over time. For example, Knight noted that while noncombatancy remains the suggested approach, both combat duty and refusal of military service are now considered options for Adventists in good standing. Other changes include an increasingly uncritical support for governments and military action, a shift from distinct official pronouncements to personal choice by individual members, and the acceptance of Adventist clergy in the role of military chaplains.

In his concluding remarks, Knight lamented the changes that have resulted from the lack of education provided by the Church in relation to these questions: "In the void of education on the topic and lack of information about the denomination's historic position against volunteering for military service, slowly but steadily Adventist young people began to enlist with hardly anyone noticing what was happening. And with that transition Adventism lost what had truly been an important aspect of its Christian heritage."

In its first pronouncements on the issue, the General Conference in the 1860s was strong pacifist and associated Adventist teachings with those of the Mennonites and Quakers, historic "peace churches." This position changed over time and today many Adventists have no awareness of the historic roots of the faith on this topic. World War I provided the context for significant change in Adventist faith in the aftermath of the death of Ellen White in 1915, leading up to the pivotal 1919 Bible Conference and 1922 GC Session.

Adventist Today has sent Jeff Boyd, its assistant editor, to Germany for this important symposium examining a crucial turning point in the development of the Adventist movement. Daily news reports will be published online.