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Ellen G. White & National Moral Reform

Ellen G. White & National Moral Reform

Discernibly Proactive

Balancing National Temperance Reform with Opposition to Sunday Law Legislation

The Seventh-day Adventist Church was born in the era of reform in the relatively new republic of the United States of America. Between 1815 and 1860 a myriad of reform movements flourished. Among these reforms were education, women’s rights, abolition of slavery, health, and even communal groups that set off to live in utopian societies. Perhaps the most notable was the temperance reform movement embodied in nationally recognized groups like the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (1813), the American Temperance Union (1836) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1874).

Concerned about the increasing use of alcohol by American citizens, and fearing that all morals would soon be lost in the United States, temperance reform groups took hold in the early 1800’s. In 1821 a Boston scholar by the name of George Ticknor wrote Thomas Jefferson of his alarm over American’s intake of alcohol. “If the consumption of spirituous liquors should increase for 30 years to come at the rate it has for 30 years back we should be hardly better than a nation of sots.” Indeed, per capita consumption of alcohol increased from three gallons in 1800 to approximately four gallons in 1830. And despite early attempts to reform America’s penchant for spirituous liquors the gallons per capita increased from eight gallons in 1878 to 17 gallons in 1898! During the Civil War, temperance reform waned in deference to the bloodbath in the battle over states rights and slavery. But after the war, temperance reform slowly picked up momentum and lasted well into the early 1900’s.

Temperance efforts eventually culminated with a short lived amendment (the 18th Amendment) to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating brew, which was ratified on January 29, 1919. It was overturned by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, largely due to a defective amendment. The manufcature, sale, and transportation was covered, but not drinking itself.

DrinkingThe Seventh-day Adventist Church was not neutral when it came to national reform. The church involved itself in many reform movements such as 1) abolition of slavery, 2) prohibition of alcohol, 3) dress reform, 4) dietary reform, 5) health and sanitation reform, and other reforms. In Light Bearers to the Remnant, Adventist historian R.W. Schwarz provides a revealing hint regarding our Church’s position during this confusing and somewhat turbulent time in our nation’s history: “Many Americans saw Sunday laws as as an infringement upon their civil liberties. Frequently these same people took a similar stand regarding legislation limiting liquor consumption by restricting saloons and the sale of alcoholic beverages. As the America public divided into two camps, Adventists—having switched in California from the Repubican Party to the Democratic Party in opposition to state Sunday law proposals, and with their firm commitment to temperance—found themselves the uncomfortable allies of liquor interests in the fight to preserve individual liberties (i.e., opposition to Sunday law legislation).” (See page 251.)

James and Ellen White first became involved with the temperance reform movement in the 1870’s. When invited to speak at a temperance rally, they “always responded” in the affirmative. By word and deed James and Ellen White represented the church in the noble ministry of temperance reform with various temperance societies, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union being the most closely associated with.

The White’s ardent support of the temperance work led to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s enthusiastic leadership in the cause. Dr. Kellogg envisioned Adventists as temperance propagandists, and in the winter of 1878-79 aroused interest in beginning a national health and temperance society. With the help of G.I. Butler, and James and Ellen White, Kellogg realized his dream on January 5, 1879, when he was elected president of the new society he had founded. Within ten years it boasted a membership of 20,000. The Adventist Church’s support of temperance reform was most enthusiastic, becoming highly recognized and respected nationwide.

Balancing Vital Interests Amid Unholy Alliances

But by the end of the 1880’s another reform group was gaining powerful momentum, a trend that began nearly twenty years earlier. On February 4, 1863, the National Reform Association (NRA) got its beginning during a conference in which eleven different denominations from seven different states convened in Xenia, Ohio, “seeking ways to appease an angry God.” At that time military efforts by Union troops from the North during the Civil War were not going well, and many religious groups interpreted it as God’s wrath for not giving homage to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. After the Civil War the NRA continued to site instances in which God was very upset over the denial of His Son’s authority even though the North had won.

Flag&Constitution-smallIn 1879, the NRA began the drive for a national Sunday law after several states developed their own Sunday observance legislation. In having a Sunday law, the NRA felt that “national recognition of divine sovereignty” would be achieved and the divine blessing obtained. It was a spirit not unlike what is at times voiced today in some conservative circles, where equation with lax morals and national weakness are seen as indicators of God displeasure.

One of the Vice Presidents of the NRA was Francis Willard, who also happened to be the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By 1887 the WCTU had joined with the National Reform Association due to Willard’s leadership in both movements. This union between the WCTU and NRA brought about a disturbing element in the relationship to the Seventh-day Adventist partnership on temperance. The Sunday Reform advocates were seeking to close saloons on Sunday through Sunday law legislation, which they saw as a necessary and vital step to brining about the prohibition of liquor sales and consumption. But Adventists staunchly objected, the rejection of which “made them frequently the incongruous and uncomfortable allies of the liquor interest.”

The alliance between the NRA and WCTU prompted Ellen White to pen these words in the book The Great Controversy: “Here the temperance work, one of the most prominent and important of moral reforms, is often combined with the Sunday movement, and the advocates of the latter represent themselves as laboring to promote the highest interest in society; and those who refuse to unite with them are denounced as the enemies of temperance and reform. But the fact that a movement to establish error is connected with a work which is in itself good, is not an argument in favor of the error. We may disguise poison by mingling it with wholesome food, but we do not change its nature. On the contrary, it is rendered more dangerous, as it is more likely to be taken unawares. It is one of Satan’s devices to combine with falsehood just enough truth to give it plausibility. The leaders of the Sunday movement may advocate reforms which the people need, principles which are in harmony with the Bible, yet while there is with these a requirement which is contrary to God’s law, his servants cannot unite with them (in their cause). Nothing can justify them in setting aside the commandments of God for the precepts of men” (pages 587-88).

Counsel & Intepretation

In 1888, The Great Controversy went to the general population and Ellen White clearly denounced the Sunday movement in no uncertain terms as a reform against God’s government. In her warning, she explains that just because the Sunday movement was linked to temperance reform it did not make the desire to legislate the “Christian Sabbath” valid. In her own words she supported the good of temperance reform while rejecting misdirected desires for a national Sunday law. So positive about the evil of legislating a holy day, Ellen White went on to write that God’s people must not link themselves with those organizations that conveniently attached themselves to the temperance reform movement for the ulterior purpose of promoting national Sunday law legislation. This is the context we vitally need to understand.

EllenWhite-smallFrom a casual reading of this reference, it would seem that any connection with either the Sunday movement or temperance reform was wrong. This has led some in our midst to believe that the Adventist Church should not work with groups today who espouse principled moral reforms like constitutionally restricting abortion (with the exception of saving the life of the mother), making stricter laws against the distribution of pornography, blocking legislation that would legalize same-sex marriages, and so on. But is that the legacy Mrs. White left for the Church?

A closer look at the quote will reveal that her statement is specifically directed against the Sunday movement itself, not temperance reform generally. In fact, White affirms the good of the temperance reform but resists the specific politically motivated and driven “Christian nation” cause of the Sunday movement because she realized that it was an attempt to reinterpret and misapply the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and thus realistically to jeopardize the religious freedoms of Sabbath-keepers and other faith minorities in America.

Admittedly, this argument brings up a point of contention that deserves addressing. Some allege that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union ceased their connection with the National Reform Association, and subsequently their support for Sunday legislation sometime during the late 1890’s, or early 1900’s. From this it is alleged that this is proof that Ellen White could not and would not work in concert with the WCTU (for a period of time) in advocating temperance and moral reforms as long as they were connected with Sunday legislation proposals, because to do so was to also work in concert from the ruin of the U.S. Constitution and civil and religious liberty in America. The suggestion is then made that Adventists today should be neutral when it comes to national reform in America, particularly when it comes to working in concert with others in advocating moral reform for the very same reasons.

However, such an argument does not hold up because Ellen White’s approach—as evidenced from her counsel in The Great Controversy—was discernibly proactive in advocating what is right because it was right, while cautiously pointing out the potential (and real) stumbling blocks along the way (i.e., causes that attached themselves in ways that were politically unavoidable, such as the Sunday movement). In other words, her approach was not to sit back and “ring her hands,” making excuses as to why she could do nothing in the so-called sacred name of “neutrality,” (often a code word for “moral ambiguity”). Nor is there any evidence to suggest that it was her practice to support causes that were clearly detrimental to the moral fabric of America while alternatively claiming to safeguard civil and religious freedom. Rather, her approach was to balance involvement with national temperance reform while legitimately encouraging Seventh-day Adventists, and others of faith, to oppose national Sunday law legislation which represented a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, there is no clear evidence—as the allegation suggests—that Mrs. White actually ceased her active support for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whether in the late 1880’s, 1890’s, or early 1900’s. In addition, there is evidence that Ellen White appealed to the church not to abandon the WCTU during this time, even while they were (presumably) connected with the NRA. (The breakup occurred sometime in the early 1900’s for the reasons detailed by Arthur White below.)

In a couple of places, she provided clear counsel on this matter: “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is an organization with whose efforts for the spread of temperance principles we can heartily unite. The light has been given me that we are not to stand aloof from them…. We are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms….” In another place: “We need at this time to show a decided interest in the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union…. It would be a good thing if at our camp meetings we should invite the members of the WCTU to take part in our exercises. This would help them to become acquainted with the reasons of our faith, and open the way for us to unite with them in the temperance work….”

Corroborating Evidence — Mrs. Henry, Dr. Starr, and Mr. Jones

In support of the above quotes, during the specific time period above, Mrs. S.M.I. Henry joined the ranks of Adventism in 1896 after convalescing at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Ellen White was in Australia at the time, and when she heard of this she was overjoyed. Her enthusiasm was based on more than just the fact that another had joined the ranks of God’s last day people—Mrs. Henry was a national evangelist and one of the founding leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Steeple-smEarly in her membership with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mrs. Henry sent her letter of resignation to the WCTU. Upon hearing of this matter, Ellen White urged her to stay with the WCTU since her influence would be good for those still striving for temperance reform. Upon receiving this counsel, Mrs. Henry promptly withdrew her resignation and remained an active leader in the WCTU. In fact, she became a primary influence in encouraging the WCTU to drop their alliance with the National Reform Association for a Sunday law (what year is not clear).

The late Arthur White, grandson to Ellen White, responded to an inquiry from New Zealand about joining the WCTU on March 28, 1961, by relating the experience of Mrs. Henry’s efforts. He wrote: “The next year she led out in quite an active way in an endeavor to help the Women’s Christian Temperance Union see the inconsistency of taking any steps which would encourage the enactment of laws to guard the supposed sanctity of the first day of the week. Mrs. Henry died soon after this [early 1900], so we are unable to carry that story any further.”

Another example of White’s determined desire to see the church actively involved with the WCTU—despite their alliance with the National Reform Association—was contained in the counsel given to a Dr. Lillis Wood-Starr. Dr. Starr found openings for ministry to members of the WCTU while doing health lectures in San Bernadino, California. Despite the numerous opportunities for missionary efforts in the temperance reform arena, there were influential voices that felt Dr. Starr needed to quit associating with the WCTU for fear she would “lose interest or backslide from the truth.”

Ellen White wrote Dr. Starr on September 5, 1907, saying “Be of good courage in the Lord…. I am deeply interested in WCTU. It is the Lord’s pleasure that you should feel free to act in concert with them. It is by uniting with them in their labors that we shall be able to bring to these people an understanding of the claims of the fourth commandment…. Be encouraged to continue your work for the WCTU. Unite with them in their good work as far as you can do so without compromising any principle of truth.”

During this time, Ellen White had to contend with bad behavior coming from Alonzo T. Jones, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s leading champion against Sunday laws, both at the state legislative level and before the United States Senate Labor and Education Committee. A.T. Jones had written a series of scathing articles about the WCTU’s union with the National Reform Association in one of the Adventist publications. Ellen White promptly rebuked his lack of wisdom and tact by writing, “My attention has been called to your articles in our papers in reference to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union…. You are building up barricades that should not be made to appear…. It was the Lord’s design that work should be done for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, that those who are seeking the light might be gathered out from those who are so bitterly opposed to the message God is giving to the world…. The ideas expressed in your articles savor so strongly of antagonism that you will do harm, more harm than you can possibly conceive.”

The degree of harm the Jones’ articles caused is expressed in a letter Mrs. White wrote to J.A. Burden, saying that Jones’ course of action “nearly cut off all opportunity for us to work for this people.”

Discernibly Proactive

All of the historical evidence available seems to point to Ellen White’s continued relationship with the WCTU despite the union’s initial connection to those organizations whose political motives were driving the unconstitutional Sunday movement. She recognized the dangers it presented and acted upon them, warning the leaders and ministers of the Church that to ignore this issue was to fail to understand the Third Angel’s Message. (See Testimonies for the Church, Volume 5, pages 714-717.) However, those challenges did not rise to the level of abandoning the WCTU, at least not according to the legacy left by Mrs. White.

LibertyExpressDoveLooking back, this seeming schizophrenic approach caused many to look at Adventists with an air of bewilderment. How could Adventists support the moral cause of prohibition and yet not join with the cause to pass Sunday legislation intended to close saloons on Sunday? Though confusing to critics, this dual stance taken by the Adventist Church was Biblical. As church historian R.W. Schwarz writes, “Liquor consumption affected man’s relations to his fellow men; thus as a social problem it was a fitting subject for safe regulation. Sunday laws, on the other hand, sought to regulate a relationship between man and God. This made them purely religious and hence outside the jurisdiction of the state.”

This balance between man’s relationship to his fellow man and the corresponding role of civil authorities (Romans 13)—including man’s sacred relationship to God, which no state should interfere with by proscribing or officially sponsoring days or acts of devotion or worship—is what guided Ellen White in her well thought out relationship with the WCTU. Instead of being misguided, she had a bold vision, seeing the need to reach the members of the WCTU with the truth of the last day message by working with them in their national efforts for reform. This represented a God-given opportunity for entering wedge missionary work right here in the United States—a ministry that could not be ignored or set aside as a low priority, as is often the case today when it comes to public affairs and religious liberty kinds of ministry. She felt confident that through prayer and practice one could be involved in this specialized ministry with the WCTU without going against God’s will or compromising truth, even though the organization initially joined sides with the Sunday law movement. And as history demonstrates, her principled leadership eventually led to the WCTU dropping all support for a national Sunday law, and with one of its more prominent members joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The same opportunities are available today. There is a real need for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to work with other organizations in advocating certain moral reforms that address man’s relationship to man. We should work with them in “their good work as far as [we] can do so without compromising any principle of truth.” Our dialogue with carefully selected organizations can be a vital link in helping them “to become acquainted with the reasons of our faith” and bringing them to the correct “understanding of the claims of the fourth commandment.” Somehow, like Mrs. White, the leaders of the Church need to place a much higher priority on being involved in the public sphere, finding ways to be discernibly proactive while keeping the larger constitutional and prophetic pictures ever in focus. There are times to remain neutral, but we also need to be a serious player, not isolationists or sideliners.

Kevin R. James is the Associate Director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) Department of the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists located in Decatur, Georgia. Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) and works for the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists located in Ridgefield, Washington. This article was a collaborative effort in research, writing, and editing. Pure joy!

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.