School shootings and recorded police violence (recorded being the operative word) over the last decade, and the vigorous protests that have followed them, have made social justice activism an urgent issue among Seventh-day Adventists. Adventists—especially those 40 and below—demand to know: “What are Adventists doing to bring about social justice?” “What are Adventist leaders and churches and members doing in response to these high schoolers mowed down in their school by a hail of bullets or this murdered black man who had his hands up?” “Are there really Adventists who believe that we should just stand idly by doing nothing as these atrocities occur right in front of us?”
Although some in the church claim that young Adventists do not consult the Spirit of Prophecy as did their parents or grandparents, I have encountered many Adventist youth who still look to Ellen White for guidance on this and other issues. They want to know what she says about social justice activism.
This two-part series will explore what Ellen White says about social justice activism, with thirty quotes each from the pen of Ellen White in roughly chronological order that address aspects of social justice. Social justice activism is here defined as intentionally doing something to bring about greater justice in society. This definition is rightfully broad as there are endless ways to go about changing society.
Ellen White’s statements on Adventists and political involvement have been treated in other places, and that is not the concern here. It is my stance that social justice activism can be quite separate from partisan politics and that the activism that most Adventist youth participating in is about human justice, not blue or red.
Our Adventist DNA
Let me begin by pointing out that Ellen White was a cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Seventh-day Adventists are Protestants, and Protestants arose from protesting injustice. Adventists believe that they are divinely called to preach the four angels’ messages, which includes the identification of Babylon (Revelation 14:9), and a long cataloguing of Babylon’s injustices that are “cried mightily with a strong voice” (see Revelation 18). Adventists hold that their final stint on earth will be protesting a universal injustice: religious and civil freedom vs. the mark of the beast. One might say that protesting injustice is in the spiritual DNA of Adventists.
A word about Ellen White, the person. First, I believe that she was, in the best sense, a radical: that is, her life and writings are unapologetically and unswervingly for the advancement of the Advent Movement. White strongly held that when the truths of Adventism—which are simply a revelation of the person of Jesus Christ—are applied to one’s life, heart, and society, they will remediate all of society’s injustices.
Adventist youth should also know that the same issues that are close to their hearts—social justice, equality, individual rights, inclusiveness—were close to Ellen White’s heart as well. Her life and writings are very clear that she was moved and pained when she saw or heard of oppression, violence, mistreatment, and injustice. The statements from her pen below will show that the same spirit of injustice alive and well today was present back then. And she condemned it as you do on today’s media—social media, blogs, articles, webcasts, meetings—in the media of her day. Also, like you, she did more than talk about it; she did something.
Before You Read
There is a danger in isolating Ellen White’s words because many have been beaten over the head their entire lives with detached quotes serving as baseball bats. Some have not recovered from such beatings even decades later.
In truth, it is not always easy to understand Ellen White because she wrote to people and about situations that occurred between 105 to 170 years ago. Just think how tough it can be to even understand what someone means in real time! Some of the social issues in Ellen White’s day were slavery, the Civil War, a woman’s right to vote, prohibition, child labor, immigration, religious persecution, Jim Crow. It is critical to understand the historical context of her writings—who, what, when, where, why—and then draw principles from them for today. The quotes below simply contain values and principles of social activism and are not laid out to imply that every person should try to do every one. As always, the application of Ellen White’s writings requires wisdom.
One final note: the quotes below contain italicized headings that are my words, not Ellen White’s. I attempted to distill the quote to apply to social activism. You may disagree with how they are characterized. That’s fine. Just be sure to read them in their wider milieu in the link to the entire passage on the official Ellen G. White Estate site provided in the heading.
“When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law. The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own.” (1862)
“The South [USA] have been more and more exacting. They consider it perfectly right to engage in human traffic, to deal in slaves and the souls of men. They are annoyed and become perfectly exasperated if they cannot claim all the territory they desire. They would tear down the boundaries and bring their slaves to any spot they please, and curse the soil with slave labor.” (1868)
“In the fall of 1859, Brother White requested me to join him and Sister White at Detroit on their return from the East, and go with them in a series of meetings in the northern churches of Michigan. I met them in Detroit November 3, and we went by train to Pontiac. There Brother E. Higley met us to convey us by carriage to our first appointment in Lapeer. Before leaving Pontiac we secured a newspaper. In it was an account of John Brown’s raid, and the failure at Harper’s Ferry. That was the opening of his scheme for the liberation of the slaves of the United States.
“As we read of his failure, We became somewhat mirthful over what seemed to us like a ‘fool-hardy enterprise.’
"Had we known what we afterward learned as to why his scheme failed, we would have felt differently. We learned that hundreds had promised to join him that day at Harper's Ferry, not for plunder, but with the one object of liberating the slaves. The people did not come. Like Gideon's twenty-two thousand ‘fearful and fainthearted’ they stayed at home.
“Sister White at once checked our smiles over John Brown’s case. She said, ‘Brown’s motives in that movement were all right. His sympathies were aroused for the cruel treatment of the slaves. That led him to make the move he did to secure for them what our Declaration of Independence says all men are entitled to — Liberty. John Brown's raid was not for plunder nor murder.’
“She then gave us to understand that there yet would be a move made in this country on a much greater scale than that of John Brown's for the liberating of the slaves. Now be it remembered that this prediction and counsel of Mrs. White was given in the latter part of the year 1859. The war began in the year 1861. At that time the liberation of the slaves was not the issue. The war was undertaken to hold the States together. The South wanted to secede from the North, and the North wanted to hold the Union together.”
—J.N. Loughborough quoted in F.C. Gilbert, Divine Predictions of Mrs. Ellen G. White Fulfilled, 216-217
“It is impossible for E [a man convicted of incest] to be fellowshiped by the church of God. He has placed himself where he cannot be helped by the church, where he can have no communion with, nor voice in, the church. He has placed himself there in the face of light and truth. He has stubbornly chosen his own course, and refused to listen to reproof. He has followed the inclinations of his corrupt heart, has violated the holy law of God, and has disgraced the cause of present truth.
“If he repents ever so heartily, the church must let his case alone. If he goes to heaven, it must be alone, without the fellowship of the church. A standing rebuke from God and the church must ever rest upon him that the standard of morality be not lowered to the very dust.” (1868)
“Christ regards all acts of mercy, benevolence, and thoughtful consideration for the unfortunate, the blind, the lame, the sick, the widow, and the orphan as done to Himself: and these works are preserved in the heavenly records and will be rewarded. On the other hand, a record will be written in the book against those who manifest the indifference of the priest and the Levite to the unfortunate, and those who take any advantage of the misfortunes of others.” (1871)
“Fatherless and motherless children are thrown into the arms of the church, and Christ says to His followers: Take these destitute children, bring them up for Me, and ye shall receive your wages. I have seen much selfishness exhibited in these things. Unless there is some special evidence that they themselves are to be benefited by adopting into their family those who need homes, some turn away and answer: No. They do not seem to know or care whether such are saved or lost. That, they think, is not their business. With Cain they say: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” They are not willing to be put to inconvenience or to make any sacrifice for the orphans, and they indifferently thrust such ones into the arms of the world, who are sometimes more willing to receive them than are these professed Christians. In the day of God inquiry will be made for those whom Heaven gave them the opportunity of saving. But they wished to be excused, and would not engage in the good work unless they could make it a matter of profit to them. I have been shown that those who refuse these opportunities for doing good will hear from Jesus: ‘As ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me.’” (1871)
“The kiss upon your cheek, at an improper time and place, should lead you to repel the emissary of Satan with disgust. If it is from one in high places, who is dealing in sacred things, the sin is of tenfold greater magnitude and should lead a God-fearing woman or youth to recoil with horror, not only from the sin he would have you commit, but from the hypocrisy and villainy of one whom the people respect and honor as God’s servant. He is handling sacred things, yet hiding his baseness of heart under a ministerial cloak. Be afraid of anything like this familiarity.” (1871)
“There are speculations as to woman’s rights and duties in regard to voting. Many are in no way disciplined to understand the bearing of important questions. They have lived lives of present gratification because it was the fashion. Women who might develop good intellects and have true moral worth are now mere slaves to fashion. They have not breadth of thought nor cultivated intellect. They can talk understandingly of the latest fashion, the styles of dress, this or that party or delightful ball. Such women are not prepared to intelligently take a prominent position in political matters. They are mere creatures of fashion and circumstance. Let this order of things be changed.” (1875)
“Marcus Lichtenstein was a God-fearing youth; but he saw so little true religious principle in those in the church and those working in the office that he was perplexed, distressed, disgusted….Marcus had an exalted regard for the work in the office; but the vanity, the trifling, and the lack of principle stumbled him. God had raised him up and in His providence connected him with His work in the office. But there is so little known of the mind and will of God by some who work in the office that they looked upon this great work of the conversion of Marcus from Judaism as of no great importance. His worth was not appreciated….His defective language was an occasion of jest and amusement with some.” (1875)
“Those who profess to love God do not always consider that abuse to animals, or suffering brought upon them by neglect, is a sin. The fruits of divine grace will be as truly revealed in men by the manner in which they treat their beasts, as by their service in the house of God. Those who allow themselves to become impatient or enraged with their animals are not Christians. A man who is harsh, severe and domineering toward the lower animals, because he has them in his power, is both a coward and a tyrant. And he will, if opportunity offers, manifest the same cruel, overbearing spirit toward his wife and children.” (1880)
“There is a cause for the moral paralysis upon society. Our laws sustain an evil which is sapping their very foundations. Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be. 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?” (1881)
“The suffering and destitute of all classes are our neighbors, and when their wants are brought to our knowledge, it is our duty to relieve them as far as possible.” (1881)
“Our law-makers have endeavored to restrict the evils of intemperance by licensing the sale of intoxicating liquors. The result of their efforts is before us. It is evident to every intelligent observer that inebriety with its train of crime and misery is steadily increasing. The victims of alcohol are more numerous today than at any former period. The politicians’ plan of licensing “for the public good” has proved itself a curse.
“What can be done to press back the inflowing tide of evil? Let laws be enacted and rigidly enforced prohibiting the sale and the use of ardent spirits as a beverage. Let every effort be made to encourage the inebriate’s return to temperance and virtue. But even more than this is needed to banish the curse of inebriety from our land. Let the appetite for intoxicating liquors be removed, and their use and sale is at an end. This work must to a great degree devolve upon parents. Let them, by observing strict temperance themselves, give the right stamp of character to their children, and then educate and train these children, in the fear of God, to habits of self-denial and self-control. Youth who have been thus trained will have moral stamina to resist temptation, and to control appetite and passion. They will stand unmoved by the folly and dissipation that are corrupting society.” (1881)
“They should be constantly reaching out to relieve the miseries of others; to enlighten those who are in ignorance of our faith; to feel it their work to relieve oppression wherever they find it; to break from the limbs the bands of oppression and deliver from the iron power of vicious habits; to lead bad men and women up to a higher public and social position; to encourage their capabilities and increase their happiness. These objects will be dear to the heart of every follower of Christ. Every true Christian is a reformer. There must be a continual change for the better to improve men and the condition of society generally.” (1882)
“Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? 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 stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make your mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high, and spare no pains to reach the standard.” (1884)
“The North did not understand the bitter, dreadful hatred of the South toward them, and were unprepared for their deep-laid plots. The North had boasted of their strength and ridiculed the idea of the South leaving the Union. They considered it like the threats of a willful, stubborn child, and thought that the South would soon come to their senses, and, becoming sick of leaving the Union, would with humble apologies return to their allegiance. The North have had no just idea of the strength of the accursed system of slavery. It is this, and this alone, which lies at the foundation of the war.” (1889)
“The elevation or deterioration of the future of society will be determined by the manners and morals of the youth growing up around us. As the youth are educated, and as their characters are molded in their childhood to virtuous habits, self-control, and temperance, so will their influence be upon society. If they are left unenlightened and uncontrolled, and as the result become self-willed, intemperate in appetite and passion, so will be their future influence in molding society. The company which the young now keep, the habits they now form, and the principles they now adopt are the index to the state of society for years to come.” (1890)
“I know that that which I now speak will bring me into conflict. This I do not covet, for the conflict has seemed to be continuous of late years; but I do not mean to live a coward, or die a coward, leaving my work undone. I must follow my Master’s footsteps. It has become fashionable to look down upon the poor and upon the colored race in particular. But Jesus, the Master, was poor, and He sympathizes with the poor, the discarded, the oppressed, and declares that every insult shown to them is as if shown to Himself.” (1891)
“You have no license from God to exclude the colored people from your places of worship. Treat them as Christ’s property, which they are, just as much as yourselves. They should hold membership in the church with the white brethren. Every effort should be made to wipe out the terrible wrong which has been done them.” (1891)
“God cares no less for the souls of the African race that might be won to serve Him than He cared for Israel. He requires far more of His people than they have given Him in missionary work among the people of the South of all classes, and especially among the colored race. Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the laws of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up. The truth must be carried to them. They have souls to save as well as we.” (1891)
“The influence of an ill-regulated family is widespread, and disastrous to all society. It accumulates in a tide of evil that affects families, communities, and governments.
“It is impossible for any of us to live in such a way that we shall not cast an influence in the world. No member of the family can enclose himself within himself, where other members of the family shall not feel his influence and spirit. The very expression of the countenance has an influence for good or evil. His spirit, his words, his actions, his attitude toward others, are unmistakable. If he is living in selfishness, he surrounds his soul with a malarious atmosphere; while if he is filled with the love of Christ, he will manifest courtesy, kindness, tender regard for the feelings of others and will communicate to his associates, by his acts of love, a tender, grateful, happy feeling.” (1893)
“In the same herd some animals had been wounded; some were limping along. One poor suffering creature had both horns broken off close to his head, and the blood was flowing from the wound. Some were very lame, and were pictures of brute misery. Taken from the green paddocks, and traveling for weary miles over the hot, dusty road, these poor creatures are driven to their death, that human beings may feast on the miserable dead carcasses.” (1896)
“The whole system of slavery was originated by Satan, who delights in tyrannizing over human beings.” (1896)
“I am so wearied and tired out with the heartless manner in which human, erring man treats his brother, who may be just as much beloved of God as he himself is. Little love is expressed in attitudes and words when one is supposed to have moved not in accordance with the will of men….There is no excuse for this manner of dealing, and in the name of the Lord I protest against it.” (1897)
“If the work is made dangerous in one place, go to another and labor, but move discreetly, so that the work shall not be destroyed. Our responsible men stand in need of the Holy Spirit's power. To send men who are rash and inconsiderate into the Southern field will be to create a prejudice and hatred that will come from the opposing whites and blacks. Ministers who teach the blacks will report a tissue of lies concerning the work of God which will give the Southern people a supposed excuse to create mobs, and thus the field will be closed.” (1898)
“There are ministers’ wives, Sisters Starr, Haskell, Wilson and Robinson, who have been devoted, earnest, whole-souled workers, giving Bible readings and praying with families, helping along by personal efforts just as successfully as their husbands. These women give their whole time and are told that they receive nothing for their labors because their husbands receive their wages. I tell them to go forward and all such decisions will be revised. The Word says, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” When any such decision as this is made I will, in the name of the Lord, protest. I will feel it my duty to create a fund from my tithe money, to pay these women who are accomplishing just as essential work as the ministers are doing, and this tithe I will reserve for work in the same line as that of the ministers, hunting for souls, fishing for souls. I know that the faithful women should be paid wages as is considered proportionate to the pay received by ministers. They carry the burden of souls, and should not be treated unjustly. These sisters are giving their time to educating those newly come to the faith and hire their own work done and pay those who work for them. All these things must be adjusted and set in order, and justice be done to all.” (1898)
“The first day of the week is not a day to be reverenced. It is a spurious sabbath, and the members of the Lord’s family cannot participate with the men who exalt this day, and violate the law of God by trampling upon His Sabbath. The people of God are not to vote to place such men in office; for when they do this, they are partakers with them of the sins which they commit while in office.” (1899)
“No people have suffered such great oppression as the colored people in the South. None have through the treatment received been brought into such degradation. And for no people has so little been done to uplift.” (1899)
“There is a large work to be done, in lines that the Lord has laid out before you,--a work that has yet scarcely been touched. I have sent my message to you; and what have you done for the Southern field,--for the colored people? What have you done with the means solicited for that field? You have robbed this destitute field of the means that God designed should come into it.’” (1899)
“But the marriage vow does not sanction the abuse of the body. The wife is the Lord’s property, and she should therefore act conscientiously. She should not allow her body to be abused and enfeebled. She is a child of God, purchased by an infinite price, and she is to glorify God in her body and in her spirit, which are God’s.” (1899)
Be sure to read Part 2, which contains 30 more principles of social justice activism from the writings of Ellen White.
Benjamin Baker, PhD, is the creator of blacksdahistory.org. He writes from Maryland.
Image: Ellen White attends the dedication ceremony of Loma Linda Sanitarium, April 15, 1906. Courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.
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