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Attempting a Reconciliation (1920)

From the very outbreak of hostilities, the leading brethren in the United States were aware of the crisis which had affected the work in Europe. They knew that there was a division among the members. Yet they extended no support or sympathy to the persecuted ones who found themselves outside the church.


In 1920 four members of the SDA General Conference Executive Committee visited Europe with the stated purpose of settling the difficulty and in some way restoring unity among the believers. They were particularly concerned with the Balkan countries and Germany, but in all their efforts they made scarcely any attempt to contact the scattered groups of minority believers who had endured the fires of affliction for the third angel’s message. Their opinions were based almost entirely upon the reports received from the European leaders who were directly involved in the problem. It became evident to them, however, that the apostasy in Europe could not be easily covered up, and that one day it would be made known to the Adventist membership at large.


The Reformers began to ask themselves serious questions about the real intentions of the General Conference brethren: Are they actually willing to settle the problems, or do they only intend to clear themselves of the responsibility for what had taken place in Europe? Will they admit or minimize the betrayal of the European leaders, and give the impression that on the whole they had been loyal to the message, and that they had done the best they could under the circumstances? Do they think that the Reform brethren were only a group of rebellious elements, extremists and fanatics, who refused all efforts for reconciliation? Our brethren were invited by L. R. Conradi, H. F. Schuberth, G. W. Schubert, and P. Drinhaus (see Zions-Waechter, Nos. 13 & 14, July 1920) to send a delegation to a meeting of ministers to be held in Friedensau, Germany, where the General Conference president would be prepared to discuss the controverted questions.


The opportunity of meeting with the General Conference president and other Executive Committee members was welcomed by our pioneers, who thought they could expect a fair and impartial hearing. They soon realized, however, that they were mistaken in their optimistic expectations. It was declared that the German leaders had been faithful in the time of crisis, that no principle was involved in the stand taken by the church, and that the Reformers were only a small group of disaffected and disgruntled elements, deluded by false dreams and visions.


A conference was held at the SDA Missionary College in Friedensau, July 21 through 23, 1920. There were present 51 members of different Union Conference Committees (the three German Unions, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary); plus 16 members of the disfellowshiped minority (who were called by the SDA leaders "The Movement of Opposition"); plus 4 General Conference men: A. G. Daniells (president), L. H. Christian, F. M. Wilcox, and M. E. Kern. The main speakers for the Reformers were Edmund Doerschler and Heinrich Spanknoebel.


Image of the representatives of the so called Movement of Opposition

The representatives of the so called Movement of Opposition, who took part in the discussion that was carried on at the Adventist Missionary in Friedensau, Germany, July 21-23, 1920.


The Reformers had four questions to which they desired answers:


First question: "What stand does the General Conference take toward the resolution adopted by the German leadership, since 1914, in regard to the fourth and sixth commandments? On this point we refer to the following written declarations (five documents presented)."


Second question: "What evidence can be presented to us that we have not followed the Biblical way toward the brethren, as we are accused in the last issue of Zions-Waechter (SDA paper in Germany), Numbers 13 & 14, July 1920? We will present the evidence later on."


Third question: (a) "What is the stand of the General Conference, the American brethren, concerning the Testimonies of Sister White? Are they or are they not inspired by God? (b) Should we or should we not continue presenting the light on health reform (as brought forth in the Testimonies) as the right arm of the message?"


Fourth question: "Is our message, according to Revelation 14:6—12, a national or an international message? We have here several numbers of Zions-Waechter which do not show that we are an international people. Example: Zions-Waechter, Number 5, March 3, 1920, from the leadership of the school."


The reasons for, and the purpose of, these questions should be understood, so the answers may be properly evaluated. Here we will focus on the first question as it is the most relevant to the Reform Movement's origin and history.


First Question 

The first question was asked with a view to finding out how far the evident involvement of the General Conference in the combatant position taken in Europe was admitted by the Adventist leaders, and whether they were willing to make the necessary correction.


Many SDA leaders realize that this is a very delicate point; and many try to deny some very serious facts which we must disclose to the Adventist believers, namely, that:


a. By having condoned combatancy, not only among SDAs in Europe, but also in America, and by not having corrected the situation soon after World War I, the General Conference made matters worse; and,


b. By now refusing to acknowledge any General Conference involvement in the World War I defection, the leaders were actually increasing their complicity and culpability.


The Adventist brethren should be informed that, during the Friedensau conference (1920), the European leaders were whitewashed, and even Conradi and Dail, respectively president and secretary of the European Division (who had signed documents in behalf of SDA combatancy), were justified as if they had committed no blunder in connection with the law of God and the war question. And those few who had stood up in defense of the commandments of God were condemned for believing in strict obedience to the precepts of Jehovah both in time of peace and in time of war, according to the original SDA stand. The discussion is quoted from the Minutes of the Conference with the Movement of Opposition (held in Friedensau, July 21—23, 1920), published by the SDA Church.


Following is the gist of Elder Daniells’ answer to the first question:


"As soon as the war broke out in Europe, we in America studied this matter carefully. . . . And we took this position: Let everyone act according to his conscience in this question. . . . Then we had some brethren who had the spirit of love for their country, and went to the battle line, and fought. They came to England and France, and went to the trenches, and I don’t know what they did while they were there, but they served and came back when the armistice was signed. . . . We regret the war, and we are against it. But we must permit every citizen to act toward the authorities according to the dictates of his own conscience. Not one of these persons was disfellowshiped from our church. Not one of them was treated as if he was not a Christian. . . . As long as we do not have precise limits towards the authorities, it must be left with each one to act according to his own conscience. The brethren in America took the same moderate and tolerant position as our brethren in Europe. . . . I would like to say that, when the declaration of Brother Dail reached us in America, it did not seem right, and we regretted it. We received letters from brethren who condemned it severely and asked us to arise and condemn it too. We told them to be quiet and cautious. . . . Therefore, brethren, neither Brother Spicer nor I have ever used the pen to publish a condemnation against these declarations. . . . In spite of our views about this declaration, we did not send one word in answer to it. . . . So I believe I have made clear the feeling and position that has existed in America regarding the events which took place in Europe. After all this, we are convinced that our brethren here, too, take the noncombatant position. We have talked with brethren who were in the war, and I can tell you that I have not found in any brother in Europe a greater military spirit than in America. And I can say, too, that in their spirit and in their procedure, our brethren in Europe have been as faithful as our brethren in America. I will say it all over again in other words: We are sorry for some of the declarations that have been issued. But when we consider the spirit and the purpose that led them to do that, we find that these brethren stand as faithful and upright in the work as we ourselves. . . . And I must say that everyone has had the right to set up his own conviction and form his own conscience with reference to the war question. . . . We believe that you brethren [referring to the representatives of the disfellowshiped minority] are completely wrong in the position you represent. We do believe in the fourth commandment as we have ever believed in it. But we cannot agree with your interpretation in connection with it. What would you have said about Moses a few days after he had received the law on mount Sinai, if he had told you to go and kill the king of Bashan, and all the men, women, and children? Would you have accused him of murder? But God commanded him to violate the sixth commandment. You see that there are many things to be found in the interpretation of the commandments, and we must have freedom to read and understand them, without being bound to the interpretation of any small corporation."


This quotation from the Minutes of the Conference with the Movement of Opposition (held in Friedensau, July 21-23, 1920), published by the SDA Church in Germany, shows the original and real issue which brought the Reform Movement into existence: it was the law of God. SDA leaders libel us in too many unprofitable words, with too many irrelevant remarks and even nonsensical conclusions, and generally miss the point altogether (as is the case of Elder Christian in his Aftermath of Fanaticism or A Counterfeit Reformation). However, Elder Daniells, the General Conference president in 1920, was different. He brought to view, in a few words, the actual big bone of contention, which caused the division at the beginning of the crisis in Europe. We will restate his answer in a few words:


a. From the very beginning the General Conference men were informed of what was going on in Europe and read at least some of the compromising declarations of the European leaders, but they decided to keep quiet, leaving it up to the Europeans themselves to decide what they should do under those circumstances. Elder F. M. Wilcox had already explained this acquiescent attitude in an article published in the Review and Herald:


"Particularly should the Church of God today remember our European brethren who are now suffering adversity. Some have been forced into active military service; their lives are constantly menaced, and they are exposed to hardship and danger. Families have been broken up; those left at home are anxious with fear for those who have gone to the front. The officers of some of our Conferences and churches have been compelled to forsake their charges and join the national colors. It should be our earnest prayer that God will save His cause of truth during this trying period, and that He will safeguard the lives of His children. As to just what our European brethren should do under these trying circumstances only they alone in prayer to God can decide." –The Review and Herald, August 27, 1914.


Elder Conradi, the president of the European Division, wrote:


"After having received instruction from the highest authority, we in Europe were permitted to decide this matter ourselves."–Zions-Waechter (SDA paper in Germany), No. 18, 1914.


b. The General Conference men then took the position that everyone should follow his own conscience concerning the law of God in connection with war service. And this is exactly what the European Adventists did. The great majority, in Germany and other countries, according to their conscience, took a combatant stand. The leadership in Germany declared in one of the newspapers:


"At the beginning of the war our organization was split into two parties. Ninety-eight percent of our membership, by searching the Bible, came to the conviction that they are duty-bound, by conscience, to defend the country with weapons also on Saturdays. This position, unanimously endorsed by the leadership, was immediately announced to the War Ministry. Two percent, however, did not submit to this resolution and therefore had to be disfellowshiped because of their unchristian conduct."–Dresdener Neueste Nachrichten, April 12, 1918.


c. The General Conference men even sent word to the European leaders, expressly authorizing them to continue in their combatant position. This cannot be denied in the face of the evidence existing in our files: Curierul Misionar (SDA paper in Romania), November 3, 1916. Also, a declaration in Zions-Waechter (SDA paper in Germany), April 3, 1916, shows the responsibility of the General Conference for the combatant position taken in Europe. These evidences were not denied when shown to the General Conference men in Friedensau, 1920.


d. Elder Daniells, the General Conference president, made it plain that, while in theory, SDAs declare themselves noncombatants, they may in practice follow their own conscience–which means that they actually have their own choice and are free to act either as faithful Christians or as patriotic warriors–when facing the war question.


e. The small disfellowshiped minority were condemned by Elder Daniells as being "completely wrong" in their interpretation that taking part in war service is irreconcilable with the law of God. This condemnation was pronounced in the presence of many SDA leaders in Europe and some General Conference leaders too. It is true that we still hold the same belief–and by the grace of God intend to hold it to the very end–for which we have often been stigmatized as fanatics.


The evidences which we have just produced pinpoint the main cause of the division and show that the law of God is in question. And since the two parties hold different views on such a vital issue, they must go their separate ways, as Elder Daniells himself declared in answer to the second question.