by Jeff Boyd
Editor of Adventist Activism
Viewpoints Interview Series #6
Welcome to the Viewpoints Interview series on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. An interview series presented by Adventist Today (partnership between AToday and Adventist Activism.)
Douglas Morgan is professor of history at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1994. Since 2002 he has led the Adventist Peace Fellowship (www.adventistpeace.org), which published The Peacemaking Remnant, a collection of essays and historical documents in 2005. He is author of Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2010) and Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001). A graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, Morgan earned a PhD in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago in 1992.
Jeff Boyd: You recently participated in Walla Walla University’s Peace Weekend. Can you briefly tell me about this event and how it fits into the GC’s declaration on peace education?
Doug Morgan: Part of why this is very encouraging to me is that it was an instance of the denominational system working. This was based on this statement of 2002—A Seventh-day Adventists Call for Peace. They included urging schools to set aside a week to emphasize peacemaking, nonviolence, conflict resolution, and so forth. And this is what Pedrito Maynard-Reid–Assistant to the President for Diversity, Ombudsman, and theology faculty—[used to advocate for this weekend].
There was a showing of the film about Desmond Doss,1 a panel specifically on the issues of military service and nonviolence, also a couple events related to the environment and an excellent presentation by Greg Dobbs, a historian there, on the history of how wars have been justified. They’re planning to do it again next year.
JB: And what was your role?
DM: They had a panel on the book Peacemaking Remnant, which I edited. I gave about a 40-minute talk, and then a panel gave responses. Then there was a discussion, questions raised from the floor.
JB: You were instrumental in founding Adventist Peace Fellowship with Ron Osborn and others. What motivated you to form this organization? What activities has APF pursued?
DM: Ron and I were working in close proximity at what was then Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and we both had a long-standing interest in how peacemaking and social justice relate to our Christian faith, our Adventist faith.
I think it was the atmosphere of following the [9/11] attacks and the war on terror and the build up to the war in Iraq that was a stimulus for us to take it a little further. It started off as a discussion group there at CUC and the surrounding community. We read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I think in 2002 we decided to reach out to people who were on other campuses, the circles we were already familiar with.
As the mission crystallized, it seemed we could be kind of a hub to help Adventists be aware of what other Adventists are doing and saying, to stimulate interest in peace and peacemaking. But also to connect Adventists with what other people are doing. So we became part of Christian Peace Witness and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
I’ve been the principle editor of the website. The website has a set of historic documents, and it has links to organizations and current campaigns that groups are involved with. The Peace Messenger blog is the more dynamic presence, where we try to keep up with what is happening currently. Also, Johnny Ramirez put us on Facebook.
JB: Turning to Adventist history: During the Civil War, the young Adventist church supported the position of the Union against secession and slavery, yet two church members were disfellowshiped for joining Union forces. Why did Ellen White and others forbid participation?2
DM: It was quite a process. There was a lively discussion in the pages of the Review and Herald. The early Seventh-day Adventists were coming out of a religious and social culture—the radical concept of living under God’s government. Our familiar denominational passages that we use in very distinct meanings, I’ve come to discover that they were common place, not exactly with the same meanings that eventually the Seventh-day Adventists put on them—passages like “Come out of her my people,” and “Come out of Babylon,” and the commitment to God’s law. And that meant that killing other human beings was contrary not only to the sixth commandment, but of the teachings of Jesus.
They wanted to be very clear that there was no sympathy with the Confederacy, and certainly none for slavery, in fact a very sharp outspoken opposition to slavery. They did not want to be perceived as not enthusiastic about the Union cause, so they were reluctant to come charging out early on and say, “Okay, we’re pacifists. We will not serve.” But eventually it came to the point where only those who were recognized by the government as part of a pacifist church who had objection to military service as a key principle would be able to take advantage of the exemption to military service.
It became necessary to make a public stand as being a church of people who could not in good conscience engage in military combat. As a small group feeling somewhat vulnerable, on the margins of society, they hadn’t wanted to draw attention to themselves as dissenters. In the material presented to the government military officials to get recognition as conscientious objectors, explicit parallels were made with the Quakers, that our convictions are similar to them in this regard. But having done that, if you’re not going to be serious about it, then you’re opening yourself up to some real scrutiny and questions. In other words, why were they so severe on a couple of folk who did engage in combat in the war? It’s because I think they wanted to show that this is serious business, that we really believe this. In fact, James White and Uriah Smith swore affidavits that we’ve always believed the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus mean that we cannot bear arms. If your people turn around and do it, then they felt they had to show that they’re out of harmony with the stand we’ve come to as a church.
JB: Forming a church during the Civil War must have been difficult.
DM: Right, the denomination is coming into being as an organization right in the midst of this Civil War, having to hammer out a position. It wasn’t a major point of emphasis, but this orientation to pacifism was there, although the particulars were debated. There was a range of positions as to what you do when the government is going to try to impose military service on you. It was really a consensus that somehow we need to stand for the law of God, but exactly how to go about that was debated for a while.
JB: During WWII, many Mennonite and Quaker conscientious objectors (COs) worked in Civilian Public Service camps rather than participate in military operations. What led more Adventists to participate in non-combatant roles rather than to work in these camps?
DM: The distinction between Quakers as conscientious objectors and the Adventists as “conscientious cooperators” or non-combatants, that is something that came out of this period between the world wars and then WWII and beyond.
There was a debate within Adventism after WWI as to what our stance should be. There was wide-spread recognition that the turmoil in Europe is not over and that very likely there would be another war. What stance shall we take? There was a strong move in American Christianity, in part as kind of a revulsion against the ultra-religious nationalism that was engaged in once the U.S. got into WWI. After the war, a lot of people began to step back, and there was a strong peace movement in the churches.
Some Adventists felt that that we ought to go that direction and be more true to our heritage. But others felt that we should go as far as possible in showing our cooperation and support for the military endeavors of the nation. It was really more a matter of emphasis than an absolute conflict—one side emphasizing more the commitment to peace and the other side emphasizing more that we want as individuals to be commandment keepers, but beyond that we’re not going to make any critique as to war-making between the nations. The approach that won out and became the dominant one was to be “conscientious cooperators.” It was not an official term. It was still officially conscientious objection, but that we will serve in the military, we’ll proudly wear the uniform. We’re not anti-war protesters, but we do have our individual ethical scruples that we’d like to follow.
Some served in the Medical Cadet Corp that the church developed between the wars to help Adventists who were to be drafted to be both good non-combatant military personal but also faithful to their Adventist principles in the army. The concept is a genuine commitment of faith. The purpose of this was to help us to be a healing presence, at least in our own way bring positive influences of peacemaking in the broad sense of healing and wholeness in a difficult situation. People are suffering and they need help.
There was this differentiation between the Adventist approach and that which typified what became known as the peace churches—Mennonite, Quaker, and so forth—in terms of them tending to go more for civilian work camp alternative service as opposed to non-combatant military service. Granted that differentiation, there’s a range in Adventism that became manifest again in the Vietnam era where you have some Adventists coming out and saying that on the basis of our faith we don’t feel that we can participate in the military. At the same time, I think that Mennonites also find that in their churches a pro-militaristic mentality along with individuals not violating our individual scruples.3 Both in Adventism and in the peace churches, there’s actually quite a spectrum.
JB: Were any Adventists in the WWII Civilian Public Service Camps?
DM: I don’t know in the United States, but in Canada…Barry Bussey has been working on a project. He has a documentary film, which has not been finalized or released yet, on Canadian Adventist conscientious objectors.4 Their situation was a bit different in terms of the range of options they faced. There, Adventists were pretty much together with the Mennonites, Quakers, and the Brethren.
JB: What was the mental paradigm that shaped this Adventist response?
DM: Part of the Adventist heritage, and something that is there in the writings of Ellen White, is a really strong impulse to avoid conflict with the government. Although it’s clear from the early documents that strong scriptural pacifism was very important to the founders of Adventism, it was not nurtured as a central defining feature in the same way as with the Mennonites and the Quakers.
The impulse to be viewed as good citizens not dissidents and at the same time the commitment to keeping the commandments of God were both there in Adventism, the commandment keeping as applied to not taking human life and that warfare is sinful. Both of those were there, but in this critical period between the wars that impulse to be responsible contributors and supporters of what the government is doing got greater emphasis; that became the overriding concern while the other was still there, but muted, especially when it came to any kind of critique of warfare between the nations.
JB: Besides the change in our willingness to critique governments, what other changes have occurred over the past 150 years?
DM: In 19th century Adventism, there was much greater outspokenness of sin at a societal even national level. It doesn’t mean Adventists were ever what we would call Social Gospel in terms of that whole movement, but the differentiation somehow came in that when we get beyond WWI into the 20s and 30s and beyond, we somehow bracketed out sin in social order, that we’re not going to speak about that. The individual realm is where the locus of sin is going to be. Slavery would be the most obvious example, but then when we come to the era of the Spanish-American war, and the major transition point for the U.S. to project power in the world, then again we find Adventists very forthright in saying this is national apostasy.
An example rounding that point out would be that when we come to the civil rights movement in the 50s and the 60s, now we find the church saying that a good Adventist will not be agitating on that issue, whereas a hundred years before, the church publications had just been very outspoken and brought the church’s apocalyptic message to bear on the slaveocracy as at least one writer, J. H. Waggoner referred to the nation.
Part of what has changed is that we have become more conscience of having some responsibility to the community, to be respectable citizens, to be making a positive contribution to the nation. All of that can be good, certainly has to be there if we’re going to make our faith socially relevant, to be loving our neighbors and so forth, but something that to a certain extent has come with that can lead us to be more in the role of blessing and supporting what our nation is doing, losing the prophetic-critical perspective that we once had.
I think part of the motivation for military chaplaincy, for example, comes out of a very admirable effort to say that we’re not going to be these cranky separatists denouncing the rest of society, but we’re going to get involved and be a supportive and positive presence. We’re going to be willing to go beyond our own denominational lines. But there is that concomitant danger of losing the value we see in our early Adventist witness against evils that are being underwritten and perpetrated by our government and lose the capacity to raise a Christian witness against that.
JB: What about the shift in Adventism regarding combat duty?
DM: We should clarify that the favored position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is non-combatancy, so the church does not officially regard participation in military combat as the best choice.
I think the Civil War was the only time we disfellowshiped people for going into the military. The clear denominational default position in the early mid-20th century certainly into the WWI Korean War era was the non-combatant service. But we had not engaged in disowning Adventists who did serve in combat roles.
In the Vietnam era, the church decides to broaden out a little bit. There was a statement in 1969 and another one in 1972 saying essentially while we favor the non-combatant approach, we recognize that some Adventists’ conscientious conviction is pacifism, to not go with the military service at all, and also to recognize that some Adventists may conscientiously choose to engage in combat. By this time, Adventists have established enough of a track record in American society that we could feel in a position to take this more ambiguous position to say. Back in the Civil War, I don’t think you had that luxury.
In WWII or the Korean War, eye-brows would probably be raised if you didn’t go the non-combatant direction. People would question or wonder about it. But that’s not there so much. And then also the military chaplaincy comes in which is all about, not being judgmental certainly, ministering to people who have chosen to go into combat.
The denomination’s position really has not changed, but reality has indeed changed. When the troop presence in Iraq was at approximately its highest level somewhere around 2006/2007 there was an estimate given in a write-up by the Adventist News Service [of 7,500 SDA combatants]. I haven’t heard anything since then.
JB: What changes would you like to see in the Adventist community?
DM: Somehow if we could draw on the strengths of our 19th century forebears in speaking out against societal evil, and forthright prophetic messages of the Bible applied to the times. If we could somehow combine that with the commitment to serve, bring to bear on society the values of compassion, mercy and service, humanitarian fervor, if we could somehow bring those together.
That’s the challenge because community service can degenerate into blessing the status quo: We’re just going to be good people to help things keep going as they are—be likeable and accepted; help those in need. But that again can be just a way of blessing the status quo and not addressing things imbedded into our national societal life that need to have more of a critical perspective brought to them from a people of faith.
1The Conscientious Objector (https://www.desmonddoss.com/)
2Testimonies, Vol 1., p. 361.
3Mennonite statistics from WWII support this concept of diversity of opinion and practice. “For Mennonites as a whole, in the final 1947 numbers, out of a total of 9,809 draftees, 4,536 or 46.2 percent opted for conscientious objection; whereas 3,876 or 39.5 percent, accepted full military service and 1,397 or 14.2 percent chose noncombatant service” (Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties; 1998, pp. 97-98).
4For Conscience Sake (https://legal.sdacc.org/cos/)