A resolution passed on May 17, 1865 by the third annual session of the General Conference reflects a shift in attitudes prevailing among Adventists towards the political process as one in which believers might make an impact for justice, mercy and righteousness, and thereby be makers of peace (shalom).
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.
The fact that, contrary to their expectations, American slavery had been brought to an end by human government, and that the same government had accommodated their convictions against participation in military combat, seems to have contributed to the shift. To this we expect to return in future segments.
Even prior to the Civil War, however, the issue of temperance was already driving the shift. An intriguing entry in Ellen White’s diary, dated March 6, 1859, reflects both a background of general sentiment against voting and the major shift that was underway:
Attended meeting in the eve. Had quite a free, interesting meeting. After it was time to close, the subject of voting was considered and dwelt upon. James first talked, then Brother [J. N.] Andrews talked, and it was thought by them best to give their influence in favor of right and against wrong. They think it right to vote in favor of temperance men being in office in our city instead of by their silence running the risk of having intemperate men put in office. Brother [David] Hewitt tells his experience of a few days [since] and is settled that [it] is right to cast his vote. Brother [Josiah] Hart talks well. Brother [Henry] Lyon opposes. No others object to voting, but Brother [J.P.] Kellogg begins to feel that it is right. Pleasant feelings exist among all the brethren. O that they may all act in the fear of God.
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.
It should be noted, and continually born in mind when dealing with this topic, that combating the liquor traffic through legislation was almost universally advocated by progressive and radical social activists throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alcohol was seen as a major if not primary cause of poverty, crime, and violence against women and children.
Historian Ronald G. Walters writes that “anti-alcohol crusaders were not blue-nosed reactionaries, as latter-day critics made them seem….As they saw it, prosperity, godliness, and political freedom were the fruits of sobriety. Poverty, damnation, and tyranny were the consequences of intemperance” (American Reformers, 1815-1860, 131).
Photo above of Ellen White from the White Estate, dated 1859.
Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is the author of Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (2001).