In the World but Not of It
How Ellen White engaged in social and political issues
For many of us who have grown up with great stories of our church founders, the beginnings of Adventism seem blurred into unreal, mythic proportions. Living your faith in everyday life seemed to be easier back then, but was it really?
Early Adventists did not live in a vacuum. Life was filled with many social changes and thorny political issues. Things were changing rapidly. The United States was moving fast from a farm-based, rural society to an industrial, urban-centered society. These changes came with nasty side effects. Urbanization brought congestion, poverty, and pollution.
Then there was the slavery question that was tearing at the fabric of the nation. This was followed by women’s rights, temperance, and race relations, all controversial topics that were discussed in newspapers and fought over in the streets; topics that made or broke political careers, and even found their way into Adventist churches, schools, and pulpits.
So how did early Adventists engage with the issues of their day? Some became passionate advocates for different causes, while many others tried to ignore what was going on and concentrate exclusively on in-house Adventist issues. Others, such as Ellen White, chose another route.
Even a cursory reading of Ellen White’s books, letters, and diaries shows that she was aware of and engaged in current issues. She was a strong supporter of the temperance movement,1 and very vocal about the abolition of slavery.2 She was not afraid to disturb the status quo and make a stand in these causes that were stirring the nation and dividing communities in the nineteenth century.
While she spoke and wrote about these issues, she did not wholeheartedly endorse or support everything these reforms advocated. Many women involved in the temperance and abolition movements went on to fight for the right of women to vote. Surprisingly, Ellen White did not endorse or use her influence to promote the women’s suffrage movement. Although she herself had broken the mold by preaching and speaking in public, and though she encouraged and affirmed women in their work for God, she did not embrace this seemingly important cause. Why?3
To Engage, or Not to Engage?
Ellen White used causes to further God’s agenda and never let herself be used by a cause to further its agendas. The Great Controversy theme was always at the back of her mind. For her, this theme was so much more than a theory, or a way of organizing her writings. It helped her to identify the areas in her society in which she could choose sides and promote God’s agenda.
Her understanding of humanity’s creation in the image of God with the freedom of choice made her vocal in her support of slaves being freed and having the freedom to choose their own eternal destiny.4 She believed that alcohol destroyed people and deprived them of their freedom of choice, so she supported the temperance movement. As far as women’s suffrage went, she personally supported the treatment of women as equals but she saw no reason to spend her time, effort, and personal influence in a cause that would not directly build God’s kingdom.5
Even though times have changed, her writings show a timeless relevance in finding our way through the maze of being involved in the issues of our communities and country without letting causes force us to take on agendas that are not kingdom-building.
- Ellen White wrote strong denunciations of alcohol use. For some examples, see Counsels for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1991), pp. 101-103.
- For an overview of Ellen White’s stance on slavery and race relations see Ronald D. Graybill, E. G. White and Church Race Relations (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970).
- In an article in the influential church paper she points out that a woman has more important work to do than trying to gain the vote: “I do not recommend that woman should seek to become a voter or an officer-holder; but as a missionary, teaching the truth by epistolary correspondence, distributing tracts and soliciting subscribers for periodicals containing the solemn truth for this time, she may do very much. In conversing with families, in praying with the mother and children, she will be a blessing”(in Review and Herald,Dec. 19, 1878).
- Ellen White made no concessions for the practice and writes, “The whole system of slavery was originated by Satan, who delights in tyrannizing over human beings” (The Southern Work [J. E. White, 1898, 1901], p. 61.
- While some women suffragettes claimed that the world would be a better, more peaceful place if women had the vote, Ellen White had no such illusions: “There are inborn tendencies in men and women that are not developed until some temptation assails them, when, instead of resisting the temptation, they fall. They do not preserve truthfulness, strict, straight dealing” (Counsels to Physicians and Medical Students [pamphlet 167,1885],p. 41.
Chantal J. Klingbeil serves as an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference.