HE ELECTION season was contentious: candidates hurled ugly charges back and forth, a relatively inexperienced member of Congress from the Midwest was challenging, among others, a veteran politician with military experience. The entire nation was divided over the choices, with heated, partisan media reports boosting one side or another.
In the midst of this, a relatively small Christian community was looking to its leaders for electoral guidance. Should they vote at all? Would so doing harm their witness? The answers were conflicted. On the one hand, an editor of The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald [now the Adventist Review] wrote:
“The political excitement . . . will probably run as high as it has for many years, and we would warn our brethren not to be drawn into it. We are not prepared to prove from the Bible that it would be wrong for a believer in the third [angel’s] message to go in a manner becoming his profession, and cast his vote. We do not recommend this, neither do we oppose. If a brother chooses to vote, we cannot condemn him, and we want the same liberty if we do not.”1
On the other hand, a few short years later—after it turned out that many Adventists had participated in the election that year—an early General Conference session focused its thoughts on politics with this statement:
“Resolved, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.”2
If some of the emotions stirred by the mere thought of political activity seem to resonate with today’s issues, there’s a reason: almost from the start of this movement, there have been concern and contention about whether or not we should vote. An early opinion, as recorded in these pages nearly 30 years ago by Paul A. Gordon of the Ellen G. White Estate, was that voting signaled an unholy alignment:
“If I enter the lists as a voter, I do in fact endorse this government as worthy of fellowship. If my name is entered upon the poll-book I then become a part of the body-politic, and must suffer with the body-politic in all its penalties,” the unnamed commentator wrote.3
But soon issues arose that commanded the attention of the nascent Adventist movement: a spirit of intemperance grew in the nation, while there were noises being made—and action taken—toward implementing a national “Sunday law,” mandating a day of rest. On the heels of those measures, the suggestion of a constitutional amendment declaring the U.S. to be a “Christian nation” was being urged by many Protestants.
“Up through the 1880s, I’d think that the general advice was to stay away from voting,” said Gary Land, professor of history and department chair at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. An 1856 quote from Uriah Smith typifies that thought: “To the question, why we do not with our votes and influence labor against the evil tendency of the times, we reply, that our views of prophecy lead us to the conclusion that things will not be bettered.”4
After issues surfaced that challenged Adventist positions, “there seemed to be more of an interest or support for Adventists to vote,” Land noted. “It was more like if you feel compelled to, if you feel you should, go ahead and vote.”
The greatest of these challenges, it appears, was that of temperance. The promotion and sale of alcoholic beverages was seen not only as a moral and physical danger during this period, but also as an issue of economic survival: “Anti-alcohol crusaders were not blue-nosed reactionaries, as latter-day critics made them seem. . . . As they [temperance advocates] saw it, prosperity, godliness, and political freedom were the fruits of sobriety. Poverty, damnation, and tyranny were the consequences of intemperance,” wrote historian Ronald G. Walters.5
In 1859 Ellen White came to the conclusion that voting—and voting for or against a given candidate—was an imperative when it advanced such values as temperance: “Men of intemperance have been in the office today in a flattering manner expressing their approbation of the course of the Sabbathkeepers not voting and expressed hopes that they will stick to their course and, like the Quakers, not cast their vote. Satan and his evil angels are busy at this time, and he has workers upon the earth. May Satan be disappointed, is my prayer.”6
Indeed, Ellen White’s plea to Adventists was to vote on issues of moral imperative beyond temperance: “Every individual exerts an influence in society. In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?”7
Even voting on the Sabbath was urged, if necessary, if matters of temperance and virtue arose. As Land notes, the pioneers “were very concerned with temperance.”8
But White’s concern extended beyond temperance, argues Douglas Morgan, professor of history at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland, and a frequent writer on the interface between church and society.
Why was there reluctance among some of the pioneers over any political participation? Morgan says that the earliest Adventists lived in a time when neither major party addressed slavery—a key issue of the day—in the proper manner.
“The earliest Adventists—1850s Sabbatarian Adventists—[were] coming out of a background of radical abolitionism,” Morgan explained. He noted that the famed abolitionist “William Lloyd Garrison took the position that we should not be voting, because neither party is for abolition. [However,] in 1864, when, after the Emancipation Proclamation and the commitment of the Republican party committed to the Thirteenth Amendment, [Garrison said] a party has come around to our point of view.”
He added, “The initial concern is not that voting is some worldly, secular thing; I think it was more a matter of if you vote, you’re putting your influence on the side of evil, because neither of the parties are standing on the right side of the thing.”
According to Morgan, “Ellen White was someone who became interested in ‘issue’ politics as opposed to ‘party’ or ‘candidate politics.’ Adventists are not under the banner of any political party, but [if] in our time of mission on earth and the principles of the kingdom that we stand for there are situations where it seems the particular candidate or party . . . connect with the overriding values of our movement, it was not only appropriate but an imperative to vote.”
He added, “She was interested in government supporting benevolent reform, benevolent endeavors, [interested in] things that are causing poverty, crime, the breakdown of the family, and so forth. I think she would be interested in whatever could be done to redress those without violating religious liberty and constitutional freedom.”
But, argues Richard Osborn, a historian and president of Pacific Union College, “the one thing that Ellen White would discourage would be an involvement in highly partisan politics that would tend to divide members from each other. That is a potential problem. It can also disrupt relationships in private conversation.”
It would seem that Ellen White had foreseen that possibility. In a message from Australia, written in 1898, she said: “We are not as a people to become mixed up with political questions . . . Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers in political strife, nor bind with them in their attachments. . . . Keep your voting to yourself. Do not feel it your duty to urge everyone to do as you do.”9
Osborn frames the question of voting in terms of civic duty: “I think that the principles remain the same, that we need to vote, participate in the public process, just as individuals; it’s me rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. That would apply to other countries as well.”
Today’s Seventh-day Adventist has a rich history from which to view the question of voting, and a wide range of choices. Morgan and Osborn, in separate interviews, agreed with Adventist scholar Roger Coon’s assertion, made in 2003 at a North American religious liberty forum in Williamsburg, Virginia, that there’s nothing in the Bible or Ellen White’s writings that compels believers to vote for one party or another, or to hold conservative or liberal political views.
“Partisanship is one of the key elements here,” Osborn explained. “The need [is] to avoid partisanship. Study the issues, vote for the person and not the party. Study each issue for yourself.”
Morgan also cautions against dogmatic partisan alignment: “To reduce our perspective to those terms . . . takes us off course,” he said.
How involved should Adventists be in politics? That may depend on their representation in a society, says Andrews University’s Land.
“If you contrast Adventists in the United States with those in a number of other countries—the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Africa—Adventists are more active in other places than in the United States, holding high positions of various kinds,” Land noted. “In the U.S., Adventists are such a small minority that we’re reluctant to participate in the larger societal activities. [But] if you’re 20 or 30 percent of the population, you almost by necessity have to be involved.”
His advice: “I would encourage people to be involved in various ways, even to the extent of being a candidate, because I believe that as citizens they have a responsibility for helping society. I think our moral values affect social positions; ideas such as justice are fundamentally grounded in moral values formed by a Christian outlook. I certainly would encourage people to vote and be more active if they feel a need to. One’s principles should guide the way that one campaigns, or works for a candidate.”
Indeed, Ellen White’s counsel anticipated Land’s position. In Education, she wrote: “Many a lad of today, growing up as did Daniel in his Judean home, studying God’s word and His works, and learning the lessons of faithful service, will yet stand in legislative assemblies, in halls of justice, or in royal courts, as a witness for the King of kings.”10
Speaking to faculty and students of Battle Creek College in 1883, she said: “Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day . . . sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations.”11
From Ellen White’s words, as well as the counsel of other Adventist pioneers and many of today’s thought leaders, the message seems clear: Seventh-day Adventists have the ability to help shape society through their votes and political participation. It’s up to each of us to follow our consciences—and to pray for more than human wisdom in making our electoral choices.
1James White, circa 1860, as quoted in Paul A. Gordon, “The right to vote—shall I exercise it?” Adventist Review, Sept. 18 and Sept. 25, 1980, available online at www.whiteestate.org/issues/Voting.html; accessed August 15, 2008.
2General Conference report in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 23, 1865, as quoted in Gordon.
3Quoted in Gordon.
4Uriah Smith, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 11, 1856, as quoted in Gordon.
5Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860 (Hill and Wang, 1997), p. 131, as quoted in Douglas Morgan, “Disappointing Satan,” Peace Messenger Blog, http://tinyurl.com/5cm96x; accessed online August 15, 2008.
6Ellen G. White, Temperance, p. 256.
7White, Gospel Workers, p. 387.
8Interview with Land. The “voting on Sabbath” comment is related in Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, chapter 13; www.whiteestate. org/books/mol/Chapt13.html; accessed August 25, 2008.
9White, Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 336, 337.
10White, Education, p. 262.
11White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 82.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World.