In the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939, Hilter’s military staged its lightning attack against Poland. World War II had begun. Britain declared war two days later on September 3; Canada declared war on September 10.
In the midst of this violent struggle there was a sizeable group of conscientious objectors (COs) who refused to bear arms, including members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
It is what we were taught in the Adventist Church, not to bear arms . . . work at helping people rather than killing people.
“There is no home in Canada,” said Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, “no family, and no individual whose fortunes and freedom are not bound up in the present struggle.”
Around kitchen tables Adventist families discussed the plight of their young men called to bear arms.
Bill Solonuik remembers, “Everyone was a bit concerned what was going to happen, and especially the young people—what the future had in store.”
John Corban noted that while there was concern about the war, “my parents had good faith and they instilled that faith in me and they demonstrated that faith too. They didn’t show any unusual fear or concern or worry. They just said, ‘We’re here to pray for you.’ Morning and evening worship, without fail. We’d read the Bible through in the evenings and in the morning we had the Morning Watch books with a reading of a prayer.”
It is that simple faith that I have come to admire as, over the past decade, I have been interviewing these Adventist men, now in their 90s, about their experiences. They refused to carry the rifle because of their faith. Most were put in one of the work camps that were built around the country for public work projects such as road building, logging and forestry service. They served the same amount of time as those conscripts serving in the military. At the beginning of the war, Canadian military brass refused to allow COs to serve as medics. However, during the last two years of the war it was permitted. A number of the COs I interviewed chose to leave the camps and join the military medics—some served on the front-lines as the Canadian military liberated the Netherlands.
Since I began this project a number of the interviewees have passed away.
August Steinke said his reason for taking the stand he did was because of his religious upbringing. “We were always taught to be loyal to God and when it came to working on Sabbath, why, remember the Sabbath and not to accept service by way of using a gun, you know. It was what we were taught in the Adventist Church, not to bear arms . . . work at helping people rather than killing people.”
For the most part the COs were well treated in the camps and later as medics. However, those who were refused CO status by the mobilisation boards that were set up to determine the sincerity of the CO claim, were to suffer the most.
In the summer of 1943, Richard Linden Watts appeared before the Vancouver mobilisation board presided over by Justice A M Manson. Justice Manson was not convinced Watts was sincere and sent him to basic military training. Trouble ensued as Watts refused to take the rifle and to parade on Sabbath. As Watts, two other Adventists and one Mennonite were called to take the rifle, they refused and were told to “stand aside”. Watts recalled what happened next: “They put us under guard and marched us off to the guardhouse . . . As we got to the door there’s a burly officer sitting there. ‘Who are these guys? What’s going on here?’ ‘Well they’re conscientious objectors.’ ‘Well don’t bring them in here. Take them out and shoot them.’ And with that we marched in and they put us in the cell and locked the door.” They were given 14 days for disobeying an order.
The military were anxious to get rid of Watts so a letter was written to the judge to see if he could be reclassified as a CO and be sent to a work camp or to the medics. But Judge Manson was going to have none of it. “May we respectfully remind you that the decisions of my board are final,” he said. “There is however a lot of humbug put forward by some of these men who lay claim to conscientious objections. There is nothing in the tenets of the Seventh-day Adventists so far as I know that prohibits a perfectly good member of that organisation from bearing arms, and while their Sunday is not our Sunday, nevertheless they lay claim to be followers of Christ and certainly Christ made it clear in His teachings that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In the emergency of war there is no reason why the Seventh-day Adventist should not continue with his army duties . . . I am quite sure that the army has an effective way of dealing with this kind of nonsense. After all, we are at war and if we are to give way to all these boys with a mental quirk, real or imaginary or pretended, it would be a funny kind of a war.”
After a very interesting turn of events eventually Watts was classified as a CO and sent to train as a medic.
The medics on the front-lines got to see firsthand the horror that is war. Don Ritchey shared how he assisted not only the Canadian wounded but also the Hitler youth. A young German boy “had one leg blown off and really serious. But he was still conscious.” As Don bandaged his wounds the boy spat at him.
Laurence Jerome found himself caught at one point between advancing Canadian tanks and retreating German tanks. “I saw a lot of casualties,” he said, as the shells flew overhead.
As his unit entered a concentration camp, Don Ritchey got into a conversation with one of the liberated inmates who had tuberculosis in the final stages. “He was in bad condition and thin, you know, just been starved.” When asked why he was put into the camp he said, “I sent a pound of butter to my mother.” In the end there was nothing Don could do for him.
Don was randomly selected among the Canadian soldiers at the war’s end, to go on a trip to Berlin and tour what was left of Hitler’s chancellery. He saw the marble hallway and the living quarters. “I had a chance to go through all that stuff. And I saw the place where he [Hitler] and Eva’s bodies were burnt just right after the war ended.”
With the hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe after the war it took almost two years for Canada to repatriate its forces. The military maintained a regime of marching and training to keep the men occupied. However, a group of three Adventists defied the authorities by not marching on the Sabbath. They were court-martialled–or were about to be. They were put in a tent in the middle of the parade ground under 24-hour guard until the matter was settled. In the meantime, Adventist Church officials in Canada and Europe negotiated a settlement to release the men. Eventually, officials in Ottawa ordered the military to release them. Canadian General Vokes was not pleased and he said so in a telegram to Ottawa:
“My views are that Seventh-day Adventists should serve under the same conditions of service as soldiers of any other religious creed or denomination. I cannot see why they should receive any particular consideration since other soldiers have to perform essential duties, Christians on Sun[day] and Hebrews on Sat[urday]. I cancelled now punishment of these offences pending an explanation of policy by the Dept of National Defence as regards future treatment of cases of this sort. Finally, I would point out that a dangerous precedent will be set if every officer and soldier is legally entitled to refuse duty on his Sabbath day whether it be Sat or Sun . . .”
As the memory of these men and their experiences fade we owe them our respect and gratitude for seeking to follow the Lord regardless of the circumstance. They were not afraid of facing death to be of service to their fellowmen; nor were they inhibited or shamed to stand for their allegiance to Christ for keeping His Sabbath holy.
Pastor Barry Bussey is vice president—Legal Affairs, Canadian Christian Charities Commission, and formerly served in the religious liberty department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.