Jubilee Hope — Ellen White and the Politics of Racial Justice (Part I)

Jubilee Hope — Ellen White and the Politics of Racial Justice (Part I)

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Published:
October 21, 2020

When I was down in Egypt’s land,
I heard my Savior was at hand,
And the midnight-cry was sounding,
And I wanted to be free,
So I left my formal brethren
To sound the Jubilee.[1]

As did her fellow prophet William Foy in the verse above, the youthful Ellen White sounded the good news of the coming Jubilee. During a Sabbath prayer session in April 1847 in which she and a small group of fellow believers got “very happy,” nineteen-year-old Ellen experienced a dramatic vision. Her narration of what she had seen included what happened right after the vindication of those who remain faithful to God’s commandments through the final conflict: “Then commenced the jubilee, when the land should rest. I saw the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion, and knew not what to do; for the wicked could not understand the words of the voice of God.”[2]

The final Jubilee would liberate the nation’s enslaved people. And it was about to take place! Not through the ballot or the bullet. No, the Liberator would be none other than Jesus himself: “Soon appeared the great white cloud. [Revelation 14:14.] It looked more lovely than ever before. On it sat the Son of Man….”[3]

Similarly, in 1851, twenty-one-year-old John Andrews, as he exposed, in the light of Revelation 13, how the dark realities of slavery and coercive creedalism were betraying the shining ideals of American freedom, pointed to “the coming of the Just One” that would check “the astonishing career” of the republic gone bad. “Then the Jubilee will end the bondage of the saints. God speed the right.”[4]

Twenty-four-year-old Uriah Smith also, in 1856, as he saw “the curse” of slavery threatening to “spread till it infects the whole land,” believed the nation “symbolized by the two-horned beast of Rev. xiii, will finally sustain such an abominable character, that it will be landed in the Lake of fire.” And the “finally” he expected would be far sooner than it would take for any human efforts to abolish slavery to succeed.[5]

Then, four years later, the candidate (Abraham Lincoln) of the party (Republican) defined by its opposition to the spread of slavery, won the presidency. A rebellion broke out, leading to a war that raised hopes for a jubilee this side of the second coming.

Many Adventists picture Ellen White mainly with a pious frown on her face when it comes to politics and social reform movements. Yet, during the Civil War era, her prophetic voice, most often directed to the church, spoke to national politics as well. And the voice spoke with passion and precision, not with squeamish reluctance.

In her Testimony No. 7, published in early 1862, Ellen White cast unsparing light on a reality that many in the twenty-first century still struggle to see: slavery was not just a sin committed by individual Southern slave owners, it was a systemic evil embedded in the economic and political structure of the entire nation.

In this land of light a system is cherished which allows one portion of the human family to enslave another portion, degrading millions of human beings to the level of the brute creation. The equal of this sin is not to be found in heathen lands.[6]

God is punishing this nation for the high crime of slavery. He has the destiny of the nation in His hands. He will punish the South for the sin of slavery, and the North for so long suffering its overreaching and overbearing influence.[7]

Though, according to her husband, James, Adventists who voted in the 1860 election “to a man voted for Abraham Lincoln,”[8] Ellen White did not endorse the Republican party line. Her prophetic analysis instead tracked closely with the abolitionist or radical Republicans such as Frederick Douglass who urged that “slavery and the rights of blacks must take precedence over other political questions.”[9] Like them, Ellen White criticized the Lincoln administration’s initial policy of limiting the purpose of the war to putting down the rebellion while leaving the slave system intact. Nothing would be gained by success in such a war, she contended: “That which caused the rebellion is not removed. The system of slavery, which has ruined our nation, is left to live and stir up another rebellion.”[10]

Ellen White did not and never would call upon Adventists to change the focus of their mission from preparing the world for the return of Christ to transforming the American nation through its political system. She saw American slavery within a larger, cosmic rebellion that could only be defeated through noncoerced allegiance to God’s government and regarded the church, not the state, as the agency — we might say “political structure” — for winning humanity to that allegiance.

Equally true, the prophet wanted Adventists to see that faithfulness to their mission and commitment in the American political arena converged when it came to abolition of slavery and racial justice. If their belief in the equality of all human beings as bearers of the divine image was real, they had to take a clear stand on the most controversial public issue of the day.

This was not a vague aspiration. It had to be realized in the nitty-gritty of elections and voting decisions. In connection with the midterm elections in 1862, some Adventists had not been guided by the principles of their faith and to them, Ellen White had a testimony to bear (Testimony No. 9, 1863). The election in November 1862 took place at a critical juncture in the Civil War. On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln had finally taken a dramatic step in the direction that Ellen White, echoing leading abolitionists, had urged by issuing the “preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.” If the Confederacy did not lay down its arms and end the rebellion by January 1, 1863, the proclamation declaring slaves held in rebel-controlled territory to be “forever free” would go into effect. Given the overwhelming unlikelihood of a Confederate surrender, that meant that as voters went to the polls in November 1862, the war was about to become, unambiguously, a war to liberate those held in bondage.[11]

But what if election losses in Congress so weakened the president’s hand that he felt unable to follow through with emancipation come January 1? That is what many Democrats wanted and, wooing voters with prospects for a rapid end to the bloody war, they dealt the Lincoln administration a major setback, taking 28 congressional seats away from the Republicans.[12] As Ellen White saw it, “Many were blinded and grossly deceived in the last election, and their influence was used to place in authority men who would wink at evil, men who would witness a flood of woe and misery unmoved, whose principles are corrupt, who are Southern sympathizers, and would preserve slavery as it is.”[13]

Some Adventists among the misguided many had been “so indiscreet as to talk out their pro-slavery principles” and thereby brought “reproach on the cause of God.” They apparently espoused the position that though the Southern states were wrong to secede and rebel, the federal government had no right to deprive southerners of legally-owned property, even “property” in the form of enslaved human beings. That was their rationale for opposing the new emancipation policy. They could support military action to put down the rebellion but not a crusade to destroy slavery.   

“They maintain that the slave is the property of the master, and should not be taken from him,” Ellen White wrote. “They rank these slaves as cattle and say that it is wronging the owner just as much to deprive him of his slaves as to take away his cattle.” But:

I was shown that it mattered not how much the master had paid for human flesh and the souls of men; God gives him no title to human souls, and he has no right to hold them as his property. Christ died for the whole human family, whether white or black. God has made man a free moral agent, whether white or black…. The colored race are God's property. Their Maker alone is their master, and those who have dared chain down the body and the soul of the slave, to keep him in degradation like the brutes, will have their retribution. The wrath of God has slumbered, but it will awake and be poured out without mixture of mercy.[14]

Slavery is “a sin of the darkest dye,” Ellen White declared in a testimony directed to one pro-slavery Sabbath keeper, Brother Alexander Ross of Otsego County, New York:

I saw that you, Brother A, have permitted your political principles to destroy your judgment and your love for the truth. They are eating out true godliness from your heart…. Your views of slavery cannot harmonize with the sacred, important truths for this time. You must yield your views or the truth. Both cannot be cherished in the same heart, for they are at war with each other.[15]

Two years later, legal slavery came to end in the United States with the defeat of the Confederacy and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That an evil of such magnitude and far-reaching power could end without Christ returning was one factor influencing the pioneers of Adventism to adjust their outlook on how the “blessed hope” related to present duty. Regarding the imminence of Christ’s return they had no doubt, but the scope of their mission until that day was becoming clearer and with it the realization their action could contribute to meaningful change — for good or for ill — in the society around them.

The Christian “has really as much interest in this old world as any man” and “here he must stay and act his part until the Prince of Peace shall come and reign,” wrote James White in the Review issue dated January 31, 1865, the same day that Congress finalized its approval of the 13th Amendment.[16] He and other early leaders now saw voting as one way an Adventist could “act his part,” though concern about abetting the evil present in any major party remained a strong consideration. In a passionate editorial just before the 1864 election, with Lincoln’s re-election at stake and with it, the outworking of his emancipation policy, John N. Andrews warned that a pro-slavery voting decision would surely face unwelcome scrutiny in the final judgment.[17] A resolution at the third annual General Conference in May 1865 affirmed voting “in behalf of justice, humanity and right” as at times “highly proper,” though “participation in the spirit of party strife” would not.[18] The vote thus could be a meaningful way of putting faith in action. To be such, it had to be congruous with the core principles of the faith, not determined by the interests of self, party, or political ideology other than the gospel.

What then of racial justice after slavery, including equality of opportunity for those so long exploited and disadvantaged? That will be the main question considered in Part II: “Sinful Sentiments and Republican Purity.”

 

Additional Articles in this Series:

Sinful Sentiments and Republican Purity — Part 2

Sellout to Segregation — Part 3

 

Notes & References:

[1] Quoted in Benjamin Baker, “Foy, William Ellis (1818–1893),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, August 26, 2020, accessed September 29, 2020, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=9CEN.

[2] Ellen G. White, A Word to the Little Flock (1847), 18, 20, Ellen G. White Writings, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/1445/info.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] J.N. Andrews, “Thoughts on Revelation XIII and XIV,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald [hereafter cited as Review], May 19, 1851, 83-84.

[5] “Politics,” Review, September 11, 1856, 152.

[6] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1 (1868), 258, Ellen G. White Writings, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/116/info.

[7] Ibid., 264.

[8] James White, “The Nation,” Review, August 12, 1862, 84.

[9] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 229.

[10] White, Testimonies, Vol. 1, 254; James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 346-358.

[11] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 557-558.

[12] Catherine Whittenberg, “Lincoln’s Midterms,” HistoryNet, accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.historynet.com/lincolns-midterms-2.htm.

[13] White, Testimonies, Vol. 1, 363.

[14] Ibid., 358.

[15] Ibid., 359.

[16] James White, “Non-combatants,” Review, January 31, 1865, 76-77.

[17] J.N. A[ndrews], “Slavery,” Review, October 25, 1864, 179.

[18] “Report of the Third Annual Session of the S.D. Adventists,” Review, May 23, 1865, 196-197

 

WATCH Ellen G. White, Politics, and Slavery with Douglas Morgan:

 

Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Chicago (PhD, History of Christianity with an emphasis in American religious and social movements). His current projects include serving as an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists and a book forthcoming from Oak & Acorn Publishing, Change Agents: The Lay Movement that Challenged the System and Turned Adventism Toward Racial Justice

Photo courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate.

 

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