God's Army

23 Sep 2015
God's Army

This is the story of 14 British Adventists who chose to endure beatings, starvation and the dreaded “crucifixion” wheel rather than work on the Sabbath during World War I. Their faith, courage and dedication are inspiring.

But were they right?

It was 4pm Friday when 14 British soldiers downed their tools. They claimed the Bible instructed them to. But how could that be? Britain was in a fight for God, King and Empire. Who were these conscripts from a Church of less than 2500 people, implying by their actions that they knew more about God’s will than the King himself! The war didn’t stop for God and these conscripts weren’t going to either—not without the severest consequences.

The men were savagely beaten and then roughly thrust into prison cells, irons tightly clamped on their wrists, digging into their flesh, their hands behind their backs.

God S Army 1ADVENTISTS IN FRENCH PRISON: Thirteen of the 14 Adventists who were jailed for refusing to work on the Sabbath are featured in this 1917 photo. Back row, from left: J McGeachy, W Coppock, Worsley W Armstrong, Albert Penson, Jesse Clifford. Middle row: S Williams, D Barras, Alfred F Bird, H W Lowe, F Archer. Front row: G Norris, H Archer, Willie G Till.

But the ordeal was only beginning for the 14 young men who had been drafted a year earlier from their theology studies at London’s Stanborough Missionary College, a forerunner to Newbold College. At first, their religious convictions were respected, at least to a degree as the Adventists worked mainly unloading ships stationed at various French ports.

But a new young officer took charge in November 1917 and he declared that Sabbath duty was mandatory. When the Adventists refused to work, they were placed under court martial and sentenced to six months of hard labour at Military Prison No. 3 in the French port city of Le Havre.

At the prison gates the guards promptly confiscated all the prisoners’ Bibles. But one Adventist managed to hide a copy of the Gospel of John, which the group divided into scraps of paper that they tucked into their caps.

God S Army 2
Adventist conscientious objectors in Dartmoor Prison

The Adventists were isolated from each other, forced to work long hours at double pace and faced severe punishment if they fell behind. 

“The armed guards were not blessed with the milk of human kindness when administering these punishments,” recalled H W Lowe, one of the 14. “On some occasions a man would be tied to a wheel in crucifixion fashion for hours in the sun. All prisoners dreaded [it].”

“When the Sabbath morning came, I remember hearing the door of the cell to my right being opened and the sergeant giving instructions to one of our young men to go to work,” reported Worsley W Armstrong, another of the 14. “I could not hear his reply, but I did hear him leave the cell and the door was bolted. The same thing happened to the youth on the other side and I was left by myself.

“I heard other doors opened and bolted in the same way, and finally the door to my cell was opened and I was commanded to go to work.

“I refused to do this in a courteous way, explaining once more the reason for my refusal. I fully expected to be thrashed and beaten . . .

“But to my surprise the sergeant was quite affable. He told me not to be a fool; that all the other young men had come to their senses and they had all gone to work as good Britishers should, and that I would only get into further trouble if I was stubborn.

“This news, of course, surprised me, and I could hardly believe it but I remember making the statement that whatever my brethren might do, I must remain firm to the truth of God and I endeavoured to get some sort of spiritual understanding into the mind of that sergeant.

“I learned later, however, that all our young men in the cells remained faithful.”

God S Army 3"Conchies" cell—possibly Knutsford but could be Dartmoor.

The sergeant’s attitude abruptly changed when Armstrong refused to work and the inevitable beating followed.

One day a chaplain from another Christian denomination, hearing shrieks from the cells as he passed the prison, stopped and asked to see the Adventists. His request was denied and he wasn’t allowed inside the prison to conduct religious services again. He reported back to the authorities in England. His protests, along with that of the church leadership, led to the 14 being repatriated to England just before Christmas and released to civilian life and "work of national importance" shortly after that.

But were these Adventist men right to take such an inflexible stance in the face of a national catastrophe?

God S Army 5Glynn Meredith, demonstrating the goggles his father wore as eye protection while smashing up granite at Dartmoor Prison

God S Army 4Garth Till (right), son of conscientious objector Willie Till. 

Unlike British Adventists who were united in their non-combatant stance, German Adventists of the same era were split. Had the British Adventists fought, they could have found themselves shooting at their German Adventist brothers across the trenches. An obvious perversity. But even if they were killing non-Christians, how can mass killing be reconciled with Christ’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves?

British Seventh-day Adventists agreed with American writer John Steinbeck’s observation 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 took the view that life is sacred and that there's a better way to solve problems than bearing arms. 

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

But choosing the path of peace was no easy option. And the wounds inflicted on the young Adventists took a lifetime to heal. After the war, many refused to talk about the experience, even to their families. But details of their courage and devotion to God are slowly emerging through the discovery of rare letters, a handful of published articles and interviews with surviving family members.

Many of the prisoners went on to hold leadership roles in the Adventist Church. Lowe served as British Union president before and during World War II, while Armstrong became union president after the war. Willie G Till and another prisoner, Jesse Clifford, travelled to Western Africa as missionaries, while G Norris became manager of Granose Foods, an Adventist-operated company that makes meat substitutes, and later trailblazed as a factory builder in South America. Alfred F Bird, J McGeachy and others served as local pastors and strong spokesmen for the Adventist Church when conscription re-emerged as an issue in World War II.

God S Army 6Victor Hulbert filming the documentary A Matter of Conscience.

Victor Hulbert, communication and media director for the British Union Conference, has conducted extensive research into the Adventists who were drafted during World War I. As he worked, he learned that one of the 14 prisoners, Willie G Till, was his great-uncle. More information about Hulbert’s research and a related documentary film, A Matter of Conscience, can be found at the website: <adventist.org.uk/ww1>.