Hidden in the archives of the Mennonite Central Committee is an obscure record of twenty-one young Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objectors who worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps during World War II. It is certainly a surprising place to find Adventist history, one this author would have never discovered without her work on the Seventh-day Adventist Medical Cadet Corps—another piece of Adventist history which has been forgotten by a large part of the denomination’s membership.

Taken as individuals, not enough is known about any one of these twenty-one men to fill an article; however, as a group some interesting observations emerge. All but two worked in what would be considered blue-collar, manual labor occupations. The remaining two were a physician and a nurse. That no obituaries were published in Adventist periodicals for any of them suggests many of these men were either unrecognized within their congregations or left the denomination later in life. In fact, evidence of later affiliation with the Adventist Church was found for only three of them. However, to have been placed in the CPS, they would have all declared themselves conscientious objectors and received a 4-E classification from the Selective Service. (Class 4-E was defined as “Conscientious objector opposed to both combatant and noncombatant training and service. Alternative service in lieu of induction may still be required.” In 1951 the classification code was changed to 1-O). Given Seventh-day Adventists’ regard for life and the Ten Commandments, why weren’t more Adventists in the CPS program?

Loyalty to God and Country

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Seventh-day Adventist Church established a precedent of non-combatant humanitarian military service for its conscripted members. Premised on verses such as Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-15, as well as Christ’s own example of humanitarian care, Adventists established what George Knight has called an “ethical tension” between serving God and loyalty to the government in time of war (Schlabach & Hughes, Proclaim Peace, published by University of Illinois, 1997).

This tension was put to the test during World War I, when neither the United States government nor the Adventist Church was prepared to support conscientious objectors. In fact, members of the Historic Peace Churches (such as the Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren) and socialists, who advocated pacifism for political reasons rather than religious, suffered persecution along with Adventists. Adventists found themselves at odds with commanding officers over not only bearing arms but also Sabbath-keeping.

Thanks to the early adoption of the Seventh-day Adventist Medical Cadet Corps in 1939, which provided pre-enlistment military and medical training funded by denominational entities, and a developing relationship between the Adventist Church and the United States Army, during World War II Adventists made significant contributions in non-combatant humanitarian roles. At the same time, they faced less resistance to their conscientious beliefs. However, this opportunity was only open to those classified as 1-A-O—conscientious objectors available for noncombatant military service, the position the Seventh-day Adventist Church encouraged its members to take. These men enlisted, served, and were paid as regular soldiers.

Civilian Public Service

Like the Adventist Church, leadership of America’s Historic Peace Churches believed that humanitarian service was the way to prevent persecution of their members during World War II. Unlike the Adventist Church, however, they desired to serve in civilian roles. Led by the Quakers, the Historic Peace Churches successfully lobbied for a program in which conscientious objectors would “be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction” (1940 Selective Training and Service Act, Section 5(g)). Thus, under the oversight of the Selective Service, the Historic Peace Churches were enabled to operate camps, many of which were based on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) model and even used former CCC facilities, where a wide variety of pacifists were welcome. These camps were entirely funded by the Historic Peace Churches, and the men were paid little or nothing. Consequently, their families suffered along with the CPS men.

Between May 1941 and December 1946, more than 150 camps operated in thirty-four states and Puerto Rico. Each camp was identified by a number. Although many CPS men complained about the “make work” nature of their jobs, others made significant contributions and earned the respect of their government supervisors, such as the smokejumpers of CPS 103, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Hungry Horse, Montana, on the edge of Glacier National Park. Among the many agencies for which CPS men worked, were the Bureau of Reclamation, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the Farm Security Administration, the General Land Office, the National Park Service, the Public Health Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and Weather Bureau. Others served as orderlies in state mental hospitals and a few even became test subjects for medical research.

Men who registered with the Selective Service as 4-E were automatically sent to the CPS program. There were three ways men ended up with 4-E classification and assignment to CPS, which tells us something more about the twenty-one men introduced in this article: 1. Misunderstanding of the Adventist Church’s position on noncombatant service. 2. Personal choice because they were pacifists. 3. Assignment by sympathetic draft board members who thought they were helping a conscientious objector. Men who were mistakenly placed in the CPS often had a hard time getting Selective Service to reclassify them as 1-A-O.

Save one individual, it is impossible to know the reasons each man accepted 4-E classification and work in the CPS. Earl Eugene Thurngren, a nurse who prior to the war worked in Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, stayed with the CPS only three weeks before being transferred to the Army. This short stint suggests that he was misclassified and sought a non-combatant position in the Army. He ultimately served in the Army Air Corps, reaching the rank of sergeant. For the remaining men, 4-E classification and work in CPS projects was either a personal choice, or if a mistake, one they failed to rectify.

Ramifications of “Wrong Classification”

Given the development of the Medical Cadet Corps on college campuses and the generally lower education level of most of the Adventist men in the CPS program, it is quite likely that at least some of them were unaware of the option to serve in non-combatant positions in the Army. This was the very concern that Carlyle B. Haynes, War Service Commission director, addressed in May 1941 in an article entitled “Wrong Classification.” Appearing in most union conference magazines in the United States that month, Haynes emphasized the importance of Adventists registering as conscientious objectors with the Selective Service and being classified as 1-A-O rather than 4-E. To the uninformed, the difference between the two codes might seem unimportant. After all, both achieved the goal of keeping Adventists from bearing arms. However, there were significant differences, and Haynes wanted to ensure that draftees understood the ramifications, which included financial hardship. Furthermore, according to Haynes, 4-E classification was unpatriotic.

If, however, the individual conscience of the Seventh-day Adventist man prompts him to go beyond the denominational position and adopt the position of those unwilling to salute the flag and wear the uniform, and take the position of pacifists, and war resisters, then such an individual clearly belongs in Class 4-E. He ought not ever to be placed in this class unless his individual conscience directs him to take such a position.

Haynes own experience during  World War I, when he was interviewed by the Bureau of Investigation, likely led him to a hyper patriotism during World War II. Personal experience aside, church leaders and educators had labored hard to build a relationship with the United States military that would make it look favorably upon Seventh-day Adventist draftees as loyal, contributing non-combatants. The Medical Cadet Corps—and 1-A-O classification—were widely publicized among Adventists and taught on nearly every college and academy campus. If too many Adventists had chosen 4-E classification and Civilian Public Service, it would have undermined this work. Thus, young Adventist men were discouraged from joining the Civilian Public Service, and those who did were forgotten.