The Christadelphians have been conscientious objectors since the start of the movement. That means they will not join the military of any country, even if they are commanded to by the authorities, and those who do join would be disfellowshipped. In fact the movement initially was resistant to adopting any name because of the initial non-creedal stance of its founder. However to get recognition in America a name was required to apply for exemption at the time of the American Civil War.
The major test of this belief has been in Britain where they applied for exemption in both World War 1 and World War 2. This is because its membership historically was largely limited to Britain, Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand with Britain having the largest concentration.
A comprehensive history on conscientious objection in World War 1 in Britain by Christadelphians can be found in a book called “Without the Camp” by Frank G Jannaway. This records in detail the whole process of the community seeking support from politicians to petition parliament for exemption, letters written and the difficulties and complications experienced. Although the government stated on the announcement of war its intention to make some provision for conscientious objection, the details of this were not a priority. The lack of any defined procedures meant that early in World War 1 the position for objectors was very tricky. It was left to the military authorities to decide what to do without any central guidance. On refusal some got arrested and imprisoned and a few were even transported to France and threatened with being shot if they never put on uniform and joined the ranks. Few politicians were interested in getting involved in their plight and the Christadelphians sought the aid of sympathetic politicians to raise their case and petition parliament on their behalf. This did eventually result in the government establishing better guidance on how to deal with those who were told they were to enlist and who refused.
There was never an automatic right to be a conscientious objector and the procedure established was that when a person received call up papers to enlist and sent in a refusal they were asked to attend a military tribunal for refusing orders. There they were rigorously questioned and their consciences tested with situational as well as Biblical questions. Leading church members also had to vouch for their involvement and regular attendance at Christadelphian meetings. Those who were found to be valid conscientious objectors were given work of national importance, often in farming or forestry. Those whose claims were judged invalid went to jail if they still refused to obey orders. Most were eventually allowed to take work of national importance, but attempts to coerce and force them into following military orders made going to jail very tough. For instance people would be stripped naked and left with only military uniform to put on.
Those who went to prison often had bad treatment and many would not speak of what happened to them inside afterwards. However, the membership stance that being a Christadelphian requires conscientious objection was generally recognised by the authorities and Christadelphians had an easier time than many Quakers where there was no firm denominational stance or secular objectors where the presumption against them was much stronger. Socially it was not so easy and it had a pariah status. Those whose husbands and children were conscripted felt little sympathy for them and resented the risk to life they avoided on the lines of battle. The community in Britain maintains a committee which monitors trends which could lead to call-up in the future and also individual meetings usually maintain attendance records partly in case of war. In practice few Christadelphians did get imprisoned. It would have been more likely early in the war or if someone had a short history as a Christadelphian. Christadelphains benefitted from official advice that a presumption they were genuine should be made.
In World War 2 in Britain the procedures established in the First World War were largely applied in a similar manner.
It should be noted Christadelphians arent pacifists. Their objection to war isn’t simply because of a moral objection to war. In fact the founder, John Thomas, stood up in an early Peace Meeting and troubled it by speaking on the value and necessity of war now in the divine purpose and the futility of seeking to stop it. The objection is to participation, not the value of pacifism or the unjustness of fighting any side in battle. Their argument is that the Christian should be separate from the world and fighting war isn’t part of the business of a Christian. They believe when Christ returns they are to subdue the world using force. They believe in non resistance now because this isn’t their system. For that reason they also don’t believe in involvement in politics, nor do they generally believe in involvement in social or environmental movements. Most will not join trade unions, be policemen, vote on a jury or believe we should sue people. They also don’t believe in having friends “in the world”. A strange anomaly in the early days was that the movement enjoyed large growth in the Midlands and many Christadelphians worked in the munitions factories which were concentrated there. Although it was considered okay to “make the sword”, but “wrong to use the sword” the awareness that the general public could not understand this distinction led to a general counselling that work in munitions should be avoided with the onset of the First World War. Today few would consider such work acceptable and most Christadelphians are unaware it was acceptable in the early days of the movement.
In some countries, such as Gemany, there was no exemption for conscientious objection and some Christadelphians were shot.
In the World Wars the Christadelphians enjoyed unprecedented unity from internal disputes. There were also some changes in approach to how the Christadelphians related to the wider world. They sought the friendship of certain politicians in order to petition parliament for exemption (which was gained) that in other matters has been seen as political and rejected. They also stressed their good citizenry and willingness to do everything they could in a civil capacity and rhetoric about their separation from the world was understandably kept subdued.