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Ellen White, Slavery and Politics

Right from the beginning, the problem of slavery stood at the center of the message impressed upon the young apocalyptic visionary, Ellen Harmon White. Narrating one of her earliest visions in a letter to Brother Joseph Bates, the twenty-year-old Ellen White depicts the liberation of slaves along with the vindication of those giving evidence of their allegiance to God by observing the controverted fourth commandment at Christ’s second coming. The foremost contradiction to Americans’ self-proclaimed Christian and republican principles, and the foremost source of violence and oppression in the nation, is addressed by the arrival of a “sweet chariot” bringing the “Jubilee” – the restoration of God’s shalom.

…And when the never ending blessing was pronounced on those who had honored God, in keeping His Sabbath holy, there was a mighty shout of victory over the Beast, and over his Image.

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. [DAN. 12:10.]…The voice of the Son of God called forth the sleeping saints, [JOHN 5:25-28.] clothed with a glorious immortality. The living saints were changed in a moment, and caught up with them in the cloudy chariot. [THESS. 4:17.] It looked all over glorious as it rolled upwards. On either side of the chariot were wings, and beneath it wheels. And as the chariot rolled upwards, the wheels cried Holy, and the wings as they moved, cried Holy, and the retinue of Holy Angels around the cloud cried Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. And the saints in the cloud cried Glory, Hallelujah….

The letter is signed “From your sister in the blessed hope, E.G. White,” and published by James White in the pamphlet A Word to the “Little Flock” (1847).

Support for or silence about slavery was also foremost among the “sins of Babylon” Ellen White cited in a searing indictment of a conformist Protestantism whose “ministers take their text from the Word but preach smooth things.” The “cloak of religion” is thereby spread over “the greatest crimes and iniquity.” Thus:

All heaven beholds with indignation, human beings, the workmanship of God, reduced to the lowest depths of degradation, and placed on a level with the brute creation by their fellow men. And professed followers of that dear Saviour whose compassion was ever moved as he witnessed human woe, heartily engage in this enormous and grievous sin, and deal in slaves and souls of men. Angels have recorded it all. It is written in the book. The tears of the pious bond-men and bond-women, of fathers, mothers and children, brothers and sisters, are all bottled up in heaven. Agony, human agony, is carried from place to place, and bought and sold. God will restrain his anger but a little longer. His anger burns against this nation, and especially against the religious bodies who have sanctioned, and have themselves engaged in this terrible merchandise. Such injustice, such oppression, such sufferings, many professed followers of the meek and lowly Jesus can witness with heartless indifference. And many of them can inflict with hateful satisfaction, all this indescribable agony themselves, and yet dare to worship God. It is solemn mockery, and Satan exults over it, and reproaches Jesus and his angels with such inconsistency, saying, with hellish triumph, Such are Christ’s followers!…

The final paragraph of this message of judgment poses problems for modern liberal sensibilities. Ellen White amplifies the severe language of condemnation and divine wrath, and describes the fate of slaves who have been so degraded that they cannot be taken to heaven:

I saw that the slave-master would have to answer for the soul of his slave whom he has kept in ignorance; and all the sins of the slave will be visited upon the master. God cannot take the slave to heaven, who has been kept in ignorance and degradation, knowing nothing of God, or the Bible, fearing nothing but his master’s lash, and not holding so elevated a position as his master’s brute beasts. But he does the best thing for him that a compassionate God can do. He lets him be as though he had not been; while the master has to suffer the seven last plagues, and then come up in the second resurrection, and suffer the second, most awful death. Then the wrath of God will be appeased. (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1 [Battle Creek, Mich.: Published by James White, 1858], 189-193).

However one handles concerns about what this passage says, it is useful to bear in mind some things that it does not say:

  • It does not consign the debased slave, along with all others who do not profess faith in Christ, to ceaseless torture in hell, as would the creeds and belief systems of the overwhelming majority of American Protestants.
  • It does not refer to all slaves, and certainly not to the “pious slave” welcoming Christ’s return (the account of the 1847 vision comes a few pages later in the same volume – Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1, 206).
  • It in no way suggests or hints at anything that would bring into question the dignity and full humanity of people of African heritage. The cruelty of the slave-master is the entire cause and responsible agent for bringing about the condition of “ignorance and degradation” on the part of the slave.

Finally, we must ask of Ellen White the kinds of questions Anson Byington asked of Uriah Smith (see Peacemaking Heritage 11 and 12). Intense passion seems to animate her proclamation of apocalyptic judgment against the sin of slavery. But did her message and ministry produce any action on behalf of the oppressed? We hope to explore this question in future installments.


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).

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