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Christians and War


The outbreak and continuance of the War raised the question of the duty of believers of the gospel in a two-fold way. 1. —Should they voluntarily join the forces of the territory in which they lived, and on which they, in one sense, depended? 2. —Should they obey the call to service if the government of the country conscripted the people and commanded them to join any portion of its fighting forces?


            The first phase was dealt with in a long article in the Herald in September, 1861. It was written by Dr. Grattan Guinness, but amended by Dr. Thomas; it bore the heading, “The Duty of Christians in the Present Crisis.” As printed, it may be taken to represent the mind of the Doctor. It occupied eight pages of small print so that only the gist of it can be given here. 


            Of the duty of Christians to be obedient to the powers that be, the writer said: “There is not a single passage in the Scriptures bidding Christians to defend any government on earth. They are commanded to be subject to the higher powers, to pay tribute, to render to all their dues . . . to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers but gentle, showing all goodness unto all me. The principles of Christianity were to be those of love. What applied under the Jewish constitution did not necessarily apply under the Christian; for “Ye have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.”

The article was emphasised by a series of contrasts, some of which are given below: -


Resist evil treatment from others.                       Resist not evil.

Hate thine enemy.                                             Love your enemy.

Avenge yourself on those who oppress  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves

you, or rebel against you.

Submit not to insult, injustice, or cruelty;            Give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance

vengeance is ours, we will repay.                       is Mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.


            After a number of similar contrasts the writer said, “I cannot forbear adding, in view of these and other similar Scriptures, that it is my solemn conviction before God, that a Christian engaging in, or encouraging war, whether offensive or defensive, does so in open violation of every precept of Christianity bearing upon his conduct in this respect.”


            So far as can be gathered the advice given in the article was generally accepted, though a few disregarded it. Later on, however, the position became more critical. The war was fiercely contested and the casualties high. Conscription was resorted to by both sides. In 1862 Congress of the Southern States passed a Conscription Act under which all men between the ages of 18 and 35 became liable for military service; afterwards the age was extended to 50. In the North a similar Act was passed in 1863, under which all men between the ages of 20 and 25 were liable to be called up for service, though certain exceptions were made. A payment of 300 dollars secured exemption; so did the provision of a substitute. Certain other social requirements were accepted as reasons for freedom from service. In the South, ministers of the gospel were exempt and in the North members of sects having a recognised objection to military service. This last exemption was intended to apply to the Quakers, the only sect then known to have such a conscientious objection.


            For the believers these Acts produced a new and unforeseen situation, and they looked to the Doctor for guidance. One wrote; “Shall we take up arms in defence of our homes and firesides, or allow ourselves to be imprisoned?     . . . Please let me hear from you by return mail as the exigency of the case is great.” Another wrote: “These are troublous times, and it may be they will endeavour to draft us into the devil’s service.” Both these letters were written in 1861, before the Conscription Acts were passed, but they show the uncertainty of some.


            The Doctor’s advice was clear and definite. “Citizenship that begins in heaven,” he said, “overrides everything else in its claims and obligations.” “Jehovah has called us to His kingdom and glory, to which our allegiance is due primarily and absolutely.” “Our advice to the brethren was ‘Be not enrolled; go to prison rather . . .Fear not their threats.’ Unionist and Secessionist can go only so far as God permits, who will doubtless overrule the times for the good of His people, and His own glory.”


            The sequel came in 1864 while the Doctor was on the tour narrated in chapter 52. It is recorded here because it shows how matters worked out, and because it was particularly important as it caused a name to be adopted to distinguish the believers in the gospel of the Kingdom from other from other denominations.


            Dr. Thomas was on the way home, when he visited Ogle County, where a brother Coffman lived. His coming was greeted with gladness for the brethren there were exercised in mind by a “draft” that was expected in the near future, and they hoped he would be able to assist them. The sequel can be best told in his own words. “I told them that the Federal law exempted all who belonged to a denomination conscientiously opposed to bearing arms on condition of paying 300 dollars, finding a substitute, or serving in the hospitals. This excluded all the known denominations except the Quakers; for besides this denomination, they not only proclaimed the fighting for country a christian virtue; but were all commingled in the unhallowed and sanguinary strife. There was however a denomination not known to the ignorance of legislative wisdom. It was relatively very slam, but nevertheless a Denomination and a Name, contrary to, and distinct from, all others upon earth. It comprehended all those who with Paul repudiated the use of carnal weapons, and not this only, but who, believing the gospel of the Kingdom, became constituents of the Name by being intelligently immersed into Christ Jesus their Lord. The members of this name are not politicians, they are not patriots, and take no part in the contentions of the world, which is the enemy of God.”


            Speaking of the brethren of Ogle County he went on to say, “this was their view of the matter,” adding, “Their determination is to be shot at their own doors rather than serve in the armies of the North or South.” To assist them in their endeavour to gain exemption from service, they desired the Doctor to write something that they might put in to certify the truth of their claims to have a conscientious objection to military service. This raised a question; how was he to describe them in a way that they should be clearly distinguished from all other claimants? Hitherto there had been no particular name for them; they had been baptised believers; in New York they had adopted the title “The Royal Association of Believers,” but that was obviously unsuitable for the purpose of securing exemption from military service.


            “I did not know a better denomination that could be given to such a class of believers (writes the Doctor) than ‘Brethren in Christ.’ This declares their true status, and as officials prefer words to phrases, the same fact is expressed in another form by the word Christadelphians, Christou adelphoi, Christ’s brethren.”


            Having decided on the name by which the small community should be known, the Doctor provided them with certificates, of which the following is a copy: -


                “This is to certify that S. W. Coffman and others (The names of the ten male members were given) 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, and that said brethren are in fellowship with similar associations in England, Scotland, the British Provinces, New York and other cities of the North and South—New York being for the time present the Radiating Centre of their testimony to the people of the current age and generation of the world.”


                “This is also to certify, that the Denomination constituted of the associations or ecclesias of this name conscientiously opposes, and earnestly protests against ‘Brethren in Christ’ having anything to do with politics in wordy strife, or armsbearing in the service of the Sin-powers of the world under any conceivable circumstances or conditions whatever; regarding it as a course of conduct disloyal to the Deity in Christ, their Lord and King, and perilous to their eternal welfare.”


                “This being individually and collectively the conscientious conviction of all true Christadelphians, they claim and demand the rights and privileges so considerately accorded by the Congress of the United States in the statute made and provided for the exemption of members of a Denomination conscientiously opposed to bearing arms in the service of any human government.”

“This is also further to certify that the undersigned is the personal instrumentality by which the Christian Association aforesaid in Britain and America have been developed within the last fifteen years, and that therefore he knows assuredly that a conscientious, determined and uncompromising opposition to serving in the armies of ‘the Powers that be’ is their denominational characteristic. In confirmation of this, he appeals to the definition in respect to war on page 13 of a pamphlet entitled ‘Yahweh Elohim’ issued by the Antipas Association of Christadelphians assembling at 24 Cooper Institute, New York, and with which he ordinarily convenes. Advocates of war and desolation are not in fellowship with them, or with the undersigned,

 John Thomas.”


Dr. Thomas, and the applicants went before a notary public to affirm the genuineness of his signature, and the truth of the certificate in substance and in fact. The County seal was affixed and the document handed to Brother Coffman for safe keeping until such time as it should be required. Having done this, a copy was sent to the brethren in Henderson City so that they might know what course had been taken in the North.


Although the Conscription Act in the Northern States, and the Certificate referred to above, seemed to do all that was necessary, it was deemed desirable in 1865 to address a petition to the Senators and Representatives of the United States asking for exemption to be accorded to members of the Christadelphian body. The document is too long to print here, but it pointed out that the petitioners belonged to the “sect everywhere spoken against,” whose members now chose to be known as Christadelphians, or Brethren of Christ. As such they had been taught not to resist evil, to love their enemies, bless them that curse them, do good to them that hate them, pray for them that despitefully use them, etc. They therefore were of the class provided for in the enrolment Act as conscientiously opposed to the bearing and use of weapons of war, and to the shedding of human blood. Owing allegiance to Christ as King, they positively refused under any circumstances, to engage in the armies or navies of any government.


They further pointed out that in the Southern States their fellow believers had refused to bear arms in the Confederate armies, and that those States had passed a law recognising their refusal and right.


What might have been the outcome of the petition cannot be said, for, in consequence of the victory of the Northern States the Conscription Laws were suspended.


In the Southern States the circumstances were somewhat different. While Dr. Thomas was touring through some of them after his second visit to Britain, he met a number of believers who were threatened with conscription. The Commander of the Confederate forces in the district, issued a decree calling upon all citizens between the ages of 17 and 45 to report at headquarters on a certain date. Ten of the brethren in the city (Henderson) were affected by the notice, and were rather troubled by it. The Doctor told them if they adopted his advice he thought they might get exemption “if there were any regard for law and Scripture” with the authorities. Confederate law exempted all “ministers of the gospel,” so that, if they could prove that the term applied to them, they ought to be exempted. He went on to explain what was in his mind. The Apostle Peter defined the believers of his day as “a holy priesthood” for the purpose of “showing forth the praises of him that had called them out of darkness into His marvellous light.” On this analogy they were ministers of the gospel, though the Confederate authorities had not realised the fact when they propounded their law.


Having suggested a way to obtain exemption he offered to accompany one of them to the Headquarters referred to, and, with the one selected, represent the ten. It was necessary for certificates to be prepared, one for each of those affected by the proclamation, and all the law called for to authenticate such documents were there in their own community, for one member was a notary public, and another a Justice of the Peace. The necessary certificates were drawn up, and authenticated according to the law.


The Doctor and his companion had an adventurous journey; it meant travelling thirty miles through a country desolated by war. They were stopped at various places and called upon to answer certain questions; they were misdirected and caused to travel in the wrong direction. However, they arrived at the Headquarters named in the proclamation. With some trouble they found the officer in charge and explained the reason for their visit. The officer was Col. Napier, “a middle-aged, unwarlike looking gentleman in his shirt sleeves, or rather, in a violet coloured flannel shirt, without hat, cap, or coat, standing by a felled oak upon which rested the leaf of a table which in fair wether served as an official desk, where all official matters were disposed of without circumlocution.”


The Doctor was introduced by his companion as “Dr. Thomas of New York” much to the surprise of the officer, who said, “What! From New York? Ain’t you afraid to come among us?” The Doctor replied that he was not afraid, and that he had just come from General Magruder, but that he belonged neither to the North nor to the South. He then explained the reason for the visit; he represented certain persons in the South who claimed exemption from military service on the ground of being ministers of the gospel, and opposed conscientiously to bearing arms. The officer agreed that on these grounds they were exempt and asked if each of them had a congregation of his own? The Doctor replied, “No Sir; they all belong to one church.” “Ten ministers in one church? That’s the most extraordinary church I ever heard of,” said the Officer. “Yes,” replied the Doctor, “it’s the only one of its kind in Kentucky.” The Officer then cross-examined the brother very closely. At this juncture a loud clap of thunder announced the approach of a storm, and the “court” looked around for shelter. The Colonel was then asked if he would order the word “Exempt” to be impressed on the ten certificates. He did so, leaving his adjutant to do what was necessary, as by this time the rain was pouring down heavily. When the adjutant returned the certificates each bore the endorsement, “This is to certify that----has given satisfactory proof that he is as described within, and is therefore exempt from military service according to the Confederate law. Signed for Col. Napier by J. S. Thornton, A.A.C.”.


Having obtained what they desired the two made their way back. As the Doctor said in his account of the matter, “The certificates were God’s protection to His ministers in Henderson Co. Kentucky.”

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