Latter Day Objector

The Story of F. Henry Edwards

By Andrew Bolton


World War I

“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict,” wrote British historian John Keegan. It was unnecessary because it was preventable—a local conflict that did not need to escalate. It was tragic because around 10 million military and 7 million civilians were killed and 20 million injured in the conflict itself. And then another 50 million died from the Spanish flu epidemic that incubated in the trenches. One hundred countries were involved in WWI, and the seeds of World War II were sown there. The war determined the current map of the Middle East, which still begets conflict today.

WWI began for Britain on 4 August 1914. Initially the British army was made up of volunteers, but in January 1916 conscription was introduced (for the first time in British history) as recruitment dwindled. It dwindled in part because of the failure of Winston Churchill’s 1915 Gallipoli campaign in Turkey and news of the terrible conditions in the trenches of France. In the face of this brutal, industrialized, chemicalized, mechanized global war, being a soldier was no longer an adventurous game. No one was going to come home by Christmas 1914 or 1915—if they came home at all.1

Conscientious Objection

In the folly, stupidity, and madness of WWI there is one well-documented Latter Day Saint conscientious objector (CO), F. Henry Edwards, an articled accounting clerk and priest in the Birmingham, England branch of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Though conscientious objector status was allowed for in a January 1916 act passed by Parliament, pursuing such a status was not for the faint of heart. Dealing with COs in Britain was new and applicants were sometimes brutally treated. For example, about 50 COs were sent secretly to France to face execution by firing squad. The “Frenchies” as they were called, were bullied and harassed to change their minds, but when that tactic failed, the four “ringleaders” were taken out on the parade ground on Thursday 16 June 1916. Their fate was read out before thousands of soldiers in formation, “The sentence of the court is to suffer death by being shot,” the officer shouted. Then he paused significantly before bellowing, “Confirmed by the Commander in Chief.” Then he gave another long pause, during which an objector thought, “This is really it.” “But subsequently commuted to penal servitude for ten years,” the officer finally finished. Conscientious objectors needed courage to take their path.

In Britain, nearly 6,000 men were court martialed for refusing to fight after their request for CO status was turned down by a local tribunal and after their appeals had failed. Edwards was one of these men.

He had come by his CO convictions honestly. A little more than a year before conscription was introduced, Edwards had written a letter dated 13 February 1915 to the RLDS Church’s international magazine, The Saints’ Herald. After sharing his deep convictions about the Restoration, he declared:

I think that in this work we can not do too much. My fellow countrymen are making great sacrifices for their king and country, and I want to be willing to give my life, if need be, for my King, the King of kings, and for the establishment of his kingdom—to be patriot in the great sense.

Edwards’ faith was unusual. It was greater than British nationalism, and he had already set his course for resistance.

Arrested at home in early December 1916, he was taken to Norton Army Barracks in Worcester where he refused to sign on as a soldier and also refused to submit to a medical examination. For this disobedience, he was imprisoned in the guardhouse for eight days. On 21 December, Edwards was court martialed and sentenced to 112 days imprisonment with hard labor. Two days later, he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs prison in London. There he faced a second tribunal on 30 January 1917 and was finally judged to be a genuine conscientious objector by Lord Richard Cavendish and Sir Francis Gore. He accepted an assignment in the Home Office Scheme to do “work of national importance” at Princetown Prison, Dartmoor. He arrived March 1917 and remained there for two years. Technically he was not incarcerated as the prison had been decommissioned and the locks taken off the cell doors. The building also had a new name: the Princetown Work Centre. His work of “national importance” was to cook meals for the 1,000 COs held there. He learned how to bake fruit pies and make cocoa.

The COs, some of Britain’s finest ethical young men, effectively ran the decommissioned “prison.” After nine hours of daily labor, they organized all kinds of evening classes, turning the Centre into an informal part-time college. Perhaps F. Henry Edwards learned his shorthand skills there. However, the Bishop of Exeter would not let the COs worship in the prison chapel, although common criminals could.

On Sundays, Edwards was allowed to attend the RLDS congregation in Exeter. He rode there on a bicycle bought by the congregation. But leaving the Centre could be dangerous. On one occasion, while visiting a nearby town, he and some other conscientious objectors were taunted and beaten by some sailors in an attempt to compromise their nonviolence. Edwards, however, did not fight back. At another time, while out of the Centre on a pass, he was asked to leave a cinema because several people strongly objected to his presence.

Compromised RLDS Support

Though Edwards’ district president, John Schofield, went with him to the tribunals, and though Edwards’ family and friends supported him, his home congregation and the upper echelons of Church leadership had a much different stance.

Joseph Smith III had advocated for peace during his 54-year ministry (1860–1914) and the first branches of the Church in Germany had just started in 1914. But after Joseph III’s death, Frederick M. Smith became president of the Church and his administration led the Church through both World War I and II. He, like many other religious leaders, was caught up by the nationalist feelings of the time. As Sydney E. Ahlstrom wrote about church leaders in the USA: “The simple fact is that religious leaders—lay and clerical, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant, through corporate as well as personal expressions, lifted their voices in a chorus of support for the war.” This was true in Britain, France and Germany—and it was true for F. M. Smith.

In both world wars, F. M. Smith was a vigorous U.S. nationalist, believing that a conscripted man should do his duty. He disparaged pacifists as “cowardly slackers” and would not allow them to speak their position from the pulpit. In a 1940 radio broadcast he deemed “ultra-pacifists” and conscientious objectors inhibitors to the cause of peace. So Edwards received no moral support from the president of the RLDS Church.2

The Great War ended 11 November 1918, but Edwards had to stay on at the Princetown Work Centre until it was closed in April 1919. He was released from the army reserve as part of the military demobilization a year later on 31 March 1920.

Edwards went back to work at the Chartered accounts office, but some of its clients did not like that he had been a conscientious objector, so he was soon let go. Continuing to be involved in volunteer church work, he became secretary of the British Isles Mission. Sometimes congregation members walked out while he was preaching to protest his CO status, but in the end most members accepted his ministry.

RLDS Church Career

In April 1920, Edwards was ordained an elder and entered general church appointment as a missionary elder in the Birmingham and London Districts (though he spent most of his time at St. Leonards, London). He continued his work as British mission secretary, but also served as a church historian and kept church statistics.

Then, in 1920, RLDS President F. M. Smith came to Britain on a long missionary visit. He needed secretarial help and F. Henry, knowing shorthand, was asked to assist him. Thus, conscientious objector Edwards and American nationalist F. M. Smith met for the first time. “I went to his room the first time in fear and trembling,” Edward recounts, “but soon found that he was kindness personified. When I ‘settled in’ a little, I even ventured a question or two . . . For me, it was like a course in church administration.” A warm relationship developed between the two.

In September 1921, Edwards went to the USA and studied at the Church’s Graceland College for a year in the religious education program. Then a year later, at the age of 25, he was called by F. M. Smith to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and ordained at the 13 October 1922 general conference—the youngest ever apostle ever called in the Reorganization. He immediately became secretary to the Quorum of Twelve.

In 1924, Edwards married Alice Smith, President Smith’s daughter. They had a rough start, living the early years of their marriage during the Great Depression. Their family, along with other Church employee families, went without any financial assistance for a year, as the RLDS Church was nearly bankrupt. They survived thanks to friends and family. Then, in 1946, Edwards was called to be a counsellor to the new Prophet President Israel A. Smith until Smith’s tragic death in 1958. He continued as a counsellor for W. Wallace Smith who took over as Prophet President after the death of his brother. Edwards left the First Presidency in 1966 after more than 44 years of service. He finally retired in 1972 but continued writing and preaching.

Edwards was a very able administrator and a most prolific writer, producing more than 500 articles and over three-dozen books and texts. Paul Edwards called his father, “articulator for the church,” and used this phrase as the title for his short biography of him. F. Henry Edward’s writing was accessible, well expressed, and deeply Christian. His last book, The Power that Worketh in Us, was published when he was over 90. One of his last Herald articles, in September 1985, was titled, “Let Contention Cease,” written just after the RLDS Church had made the decision to ordain women. The conservative backlash was intense, and he argued that debate over this issue was important, but how the debate was carried out was even more important. Was it done in love and with mutual respect? Edwards believed in peacemaking to the end.

Edwards’ son Paul (a Korean vet) summed up his dad’s stand on peace:

A particular note should be taken of Frank Edwards’ lifelong advocacy for peace. But, in all fairness, it was more than that: it was the abhorrence of war. Edwards not only disagreed with the concept of war as a political tool among nations, he condemned the absurd waste of human potential and the destruction of both human life and human values as well.

The Developing LDS Peace Tradition

Edwards’ pioneering effort in conscientious objection led to more RLDS men following suit in WWII even though President F. M. Smith was still against it. And, of course, the LDS tradition also claims Helmuth Hübener, executed at 17 years old in October 1942 for resisting Nazism. I admire the repentant J. Reuben Clark Jr., who served in LDS First Presidencies 1933–1961, as well as WWII soldier Hugh Nibley and Eugene England for their stands against war. I rejoice that in 1981 President Spencer W. Kimball spoke out against the MX nuclear missiles being sited in Utah. We should remember that in the Book of Mormon Jesus Christ preached a version of the Sermon on the Mount in his ministry to the Nephites, including “Love your enemies . . .” At the end of the Golden Age of the Nephites, we read “And they did smite upon the people of Jesus; but the people of Jesus did not smite again” (4 Nephi 1:34). Violence is a sign of apostasy. Zion is the abolition of both war and poverty.

Edwards did not follow the “patriotic herd” but thought for himself. He had the courage of his convictions and took the road less travelled in order to be faithful to what he felt God was telling his conscience. He did not worship at the altar of British nationalism. He did not run away. He did not hide. He was upfront in his resistance. Although vilified inside and outside the Church, he was on the right side of history. COs have been called the shock troops of dissent in WWI. It is just a pity that there were so few.

Edwards was not only against an evil—that of killing a fellow human being—he was for something good—a world where every family could live beneath their own vine and fig tree, in peace and unafraid. His later years of loving, skilled, dedicated service testifies to the authenticity of his earlier witness. If he was against war it was because he was for the peaceable kingdom of God on earth, and in baptism he had given his life fully to that. His witness, one hundred years later, should not be dismissed.

I look forward to a day when there will be enough conscientious objectors to end not only war, but poverty, racism, sexism, and injustice of all kinds. Believers in Zion can do no less. Am I willing to be a conscientious objector against evil in my day as I follow Jesus and live for the kingdom?


1. It is estimated that there were around 20,000 British WWI COs with nearly 6,000 being court martialled. In the U.S.A. roughly 3 million never registered for the armed forces at all, compared with 24 million who did. Of those 24 million, 338,000 never appeared for duty. 65,000 Americans registered as COs, but of these, less than 4,000 actually refused orders once drafted. Five hundred and four of those 4,000 were court martialled.  Two absolutist Anabaptist Hutterites—theological cousins of the Mennonites—died in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas after the Armistice in 1918.

Women on all sides also resisted the war. The International Congress of Women for a Permanent Peace, comprised of women from opposing nations as well as the U.S.A., met at the Hague, Holland, in 1915 trying to broker peace. Charlotte French, a suffragist, socialist, and pacifist, campaigned against conscription in Britain, even though her brother, Sir John French, was a leading military commander in France.  Women took over the running of the No-Conscription Fellowship in Britain as men were imprisoned for refusing to be conscripted.

The witness of the British soldier poets in WWI like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen is also important. They made perhaps the most articulate and enduring impact through their protest poetry.

2. His nationalist ethic is arguably inadequate for a world war and an international church. He may not have understood that obeying it could result in German and British church members killing each other. But other Christian leaders at the time did not see that as a problem either.