The first time that brethren of the modern era faced the issue of military service was during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The ferocity and carnage of this war has scarcely been equalled in history with 625,000 deaths (1 in every 50 of the total American population). The fiercest theatre of the war was in Virginia, the heartland of the Christadelphian Brotherhood at that time. The impact of the war on the Brotherhood was enormous – from conscription to destruction of property, scattering of families to other areas and death.

Follow the truth wherever it leads

For the first time the Brotherhood had to decide whether it was right to join in the war and become part of either the northern (Federal) army or the southern (Confederate) army. Without precedents to guide them they turned to the only guidance available – the Word of God.

From the time of the Civil War the Christadelphian community has consistently held that we must not be associated with politics in any way, including conscientious objection to military service. Brother John Thomas was the first in our modern community of believers to articulate this Scriptural understanding. The development of his views and his tenacity in upholding them are a key part of our spiritual heritage.

Early in 1832, John Thomas’ father was “smitten with the American emigration fever”. It was agreed that Brother Thomas should go on ahead to ‘spy out the land’. During his voyage the ship was nearly wrecked in a storm. Feeling uncertain about life after death (amazing, given the almost universal belief in an immortal soul), he made a monumental vow. Six years later in 1838 he recalled that:

“Threatened with shipwreck off the Nova Scotia shore, and experiencing upon that trying occasion the worthlessness of our religious principles as a basis for ‘a sure and certain hope’ of salvation, we determined, if we were ever permitted to tread the soil again, not to rest until we found the true way to immortality.”

Within months he was immersed into the Campbellite communion, today known as the Churches of Christ. A letter written at the time of his first immersion (1832) shows clearly that he had the desire to “follow the truth wherever it led”. From this time he showed his independence of thought and action, a platform on which he built his subsequent life, and which he expressed in Elpis Israel[1]:

“To the Bible then let us turn, as to ‘a light shining in a dark place’, and, with humility, teachableness, and independence of mind, let us diligently inquire into the things which it reveals for the obedience and confirmation of faith.”

The Dunkards

Early in his new life in America Brother Thomas came to be the publisher of a religious magazine known as The Apostolic Advocate. This caused him to study the Scriptures intensively. He was also exposed to many other Bible students, particularly in his travels. In 1835 he met some Dunkards in Virginia. These were German immigrants opposed to war who believed that:

“We should not resist the injurious, and that we should do unto others as we would that they should do to us.”

This is the first indication that he was moving towards the conviction that military service was wrong. Other groups that were pacifists at the time were Quakers and to some degree the Amish/ Mennonite communities. As now, most people, including Christians, supported wars undertaken by their government.

A separate community

Early in 1845 Brother Richard Malone had been rejected by his church in Richmond, Virginia, because he had received Brother Thomas into his home, taken him to a speaking appointment and broken bread with him at this meeting. This ledsoon after to the first separate meeting of four or five Brothers in Christ, in Brother Malone’s house in Richmond.

Brother Alfred Nicholls, writing of this event, says that:

“The very existence of the Brotherhood as a separate community was initially forced upon our early brethren on account of their devotion to the Scriptures and their refusal to accommodate themselves to prevailing religious ideas upon any consideration whatsoever.”

A Peace Society meeting

Brother Thomas visited Britain in 1848. After travelling throughout England and Scotland lecturing mainly on prophecy and the signs of the times, he returned to his brother’s house in London where he wrote Elpis Israel.

“In about four months the manuscript [of Elpis Israel] was completed… With the exception of two discourses at Camden Town, and two at a small lecture room near my residence, and an opposition speech at a Peace Society meeting, I made no effort among the Londoners to gain their ears.”

The Peace Society meeting was on Thursday 22 February 1849 in the British Institution, Cowper Street, City Road, London, and was attended by about 2,000 people. At the meeting he argued that war was inevitable and part of God’s means of furthering His purpose. John Thomas concluded his address by moving a motion endorsing war as divinely ordained and noting “that while a Bible Christian must not fight in the absence of the captain of his salvation, the Scriptures leave the nations to do as they please”. It is not surprising that his motion was soundly defeated!

Our citizenship

In January 1854 Brother Thomas published the Constitution of the New York Ecclesia, which called itself The Royal Association of Believers. He explained the choice of the ecclesia’s name as follows:

“This title is nearly equivalent to the Scripture phrase ‘ROYAL PRIESTHOOD’, used by Peter; that is, A Royal Order of Priests. ‘Royal’ is a French word, from roi, a king. Anything pertaining to a king is royal. Hence an Association composed of ‘children of the kingdom’, who are ‘sons of God’, and therefore brethren of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s firstborn and Israel’s King, believing also the glad tidings of the kingdom, is royal; and therefore named as in the text above.”

John Thomas’ writings at this time reveal that he was privately critical of the political trends he saw in America, and he was very strident about their complete incompatibility with true Christian discipleship.

The shadow of war

The American Civil War interrupted the steady growth of the American ecclesias. Not only were travel and post restricted, but many brothers and sisters were distracted from their ecclesial responsibilities. As early as March 1860 (the war started in April 1861) Brother Thomas replied to the question, “Are we allowed under any circumstances to use carnal weapons?” His reply commenced:

“Our conviction is that Christians should leave the devil to fight his own battles; and that if he sought to compel them to serve in his ranks, they ought to refuse to do so. He may fine them or put them in prison, but in these times, and in a Protestant and ‘free country’, will hardly venture to put them to death.”

In the September 1861 issue of the Herald he published an eight page article on ‘The Duty of Christians in the Present Crisis’ by H Grattan Guinness (‘Corrected by the Editor’) which argued that Christians should not kill one another for any cause. The official Christadelphian position on conscientious objection therefore was firmly set forth in 1860, four years before he selected the name ‘Christadelphian’ for formal application for exemption from military service.

The American Civil War

Prayer for those in authority was urged upon the Brotherhood at that time so that they would allow the brothers to “lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty”. He advised that Paul “would not approve of christian civilians turning soldiers”. Brother Thomas urged the brothers to obtain exemption from military service under the law that allowed all persons “licensed to preach the gospel” to legally avoid the bearing of arms.

In 1862 the brethren in Virginia sought exemption from military service and prepared a petition to their government under the name of “The Nazarenes” in which they said:

“We most cheerfully and heartily recognise the powers that exist in any locality in which we may at any time sojourn, in the capacity of civil magistrates, as God’s executors for the time being for we are explicitly commanded so to do; but we are nowhere commanded to obey them as military commanders. God has given them authority to exact from His own children, tribute, custom, and honour, but He has not given them control over their persons, unless they should forfeit their relationship to Himself, by violating the laws of that State.”

Coining of the name ‘Christadelphian’

In early August 1864 Brother Thomas commenced a trip to Kentucky and Illinois. In Henderson, Kentucky, which by this time was under the control of Confederate forces, ten brothers were about to be conscripted into the Confederate (Southern) army, the Civil War having about eight months yet to run. Brother Thomas, with the assistance of three brothers, was able to convince the authorities that all ten brothers were ‘Ministers of the Gospel’ and therefore exempt from military service.

In Ogle County, Illinois, the issue of conscription had also arisen. The Federal (Northern) law exempted all who belonged to a denomination conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. It was necessary to give the name of the denomination. Brother Thomas suggested ‘Brethren in Christ’ but as the officials preferred one-word names to phrases he chose the name ‘Christadelphian’. He wrote a certificate which said, in part:

“This is to certify that S W Coffman [the names of the ten male members in full here] and others constitute a Religious Association denominated herein for the sake of distinguishing them from all other ‘Names and Denominations,’ Brethren in Christ, or in one word ‘Christadelphians’.”

The certificate he prepared was designed only for the use of the brothers in Ogle County. The following year he drafted a petition, dated March 12, 1865, addressed to the United States Congress. In part, it states that the petitioners

“respectfully affirm that they are of that class especially provided for in the Enrollment Act as conscientiously opposed to the bearing and use of ‘weapons of war’ and to the shedding of human blood; and as Brethren of Christ owing allegiance only to Him as King of Israel, positively refuse, under any circumstances whatever, to engage in the armies and navies of any government.”

Since the Civil War ended in April 1865, the matter was not pursued. The same stand has been taken by Christadelphians in every nation, at all times (World War 1, World War 2, Vietnam War, etc), consistently during our history, wherever conscription to military service was enacted by government.

The fundamental issue is one of allegiance and loyalty. We are only citizens of the country we live in by the accident of birth or through emigration. Our primary allegiance is to Christ our King. Where his commandments are contradicted by the laws of our country, we have no option but to be conscientious objectors to such laws. In our Father’s grace and mercy, we in Australia have the opportunity to receive exemption from our government. This is not the case in all countries.

Would we maintain this position if it brought the death penalty, as it did in Germany during World War 2? Could we do so knowing the impact this would have on our family?

“But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:9).


[1] 14th edition p.8