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Peacemaking Heritage Series | An Abolitionist Urges Adventist Action II

Soon after the exchange in the March 10, 1859 Review and Herald between abolitionist Anson Byington and editor Uriah Smith (see last week’s Peacemaking Heritage – 11), Byington weighed in again.

The further “Communication from Bro. A. Byington” appeared in the April 21 issue, elaborating on his arguments for political action against slavery. This fascinating document suggests much that can enrich our conception of early sabbatarian Adventist views on societal issues, if we are willing to take a close look.

We find, for instance, that Byington’s polemic is directed not only against Smith’s deterministic apocalyptic ethic, but against the Garrisonian nonresistance widely held among the early Adventists. “Moral suasion” – the favored tactic of the Garrisonian abolitionists, must be brought to bear on those who make the nation’s laws, not just individual consciences, Byington insisted. And, he rejected Garrison’s notorious denunciation of the Constitution is “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” because it sanctions slavery. It is hardly likely that he would have bothered to do so unless he perceived that the same view was common among Adventists.

From John Waller’s article in Adventist Heritage (July 1974), we learn that Byington was in fact a dedicated advocate of political abolitionism. This sector of the movement repudiate Garrison’s nonresistance purism, which insisted that abolitionists use neither coercive laws nor vote for corrupt and compromising political parties to achieve their ends (see “Millerism and Antislavery Politics,” Peacemaking Heritage – 2). In the presidential election of 1848, Anson voted for Gerrit Smith (see Peacemaking Heritage – 8), whose Liberty League party garnered only a few thousand votes.

This background makes all the more significant the fact that in his second “communication” in the Review, Byington does not simply try to argue for political abolitionism, but makes his case in the terms of Adventist teachings about apocalyptic prophecy, specifically Revelation 13, and impending judgment.

I admit that the legislation, not only of the slave States, but also of the nation, is dragonic enough to warrant the application of the prophecy of the two-horned beast to our government, but I deny that our Federal constitution any where speaks as a dragon; but on the contrary, I maintain that its prohibitions and provisions are ample to nullify all Sunday laws, as well as slave laws, and to fulfill its promises in the preamble to establish justice, and secure liberty, the great ends for which it was ordained of God through the people of the United States, and that “we the people” are morally responsible for its just and faithful administration, whatever may be the meaning of the prophecies, or however near the second advent.

This, to Adventists, may seem impracticable, or if not impracticable, to be but a secular and secondary interest, compared with the rescue of God’s people from fallen Babylon, as it truly is, when viewed only in its secular aspects; but, if the blood of the slave shall be found in our skirts in the final judgment, if our final condemnation shall proceed on the ground of our neglect of duty “to the least of these,” it will then seem to have been a matter of primary, rather than of secondary importance. Indeed, there is really nothing secondary in morals, for although the first great commandment in the law enjoins supreme love to God, yet the second is “like unto it,” thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”

In response to Smith’s argument that Adventists could nothing that would have a practical impact on slavery in the remote South, anyway, Byington countered that none of the Northern states yet granted the full measure of legal protection and equal citizenship to fugitive slaves. Thus, “there are men enough about our doors under the dominion and bondage of this political sin, of which they must repent or perish, on whom reformers might afford to expend some little effort.”

Do Anson Byington’s views count in assessing Seventh-day Adventist positions on slavery, politics, and reform? After all, he does not seem ever to have become a member of the church, and expresses disenchanted with the editorial stance of the Review. On the other hand, when we put together the information from last week’s installment with this one, we know that he: 1) declared himself an observer of the seventh day Sabbath; 2) affirmed belief in the second advent of Christ; 3) found the distinctive and crucial Seventh-day Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 persuasive; and 4) was engaged with the community formed by the Review itself for several years, until 1860 at least.

Finally, there is the question of whose views finally proved to be more “Adventist” – his or Smith’s? Smith declined to respond to Byington’s second essay, other than to observe: “Time will shortly determine the best policy.”

Next week we will look at evidence suggesting that by the end of the Civil War in little more than five years’ time, Seventh-day Adventists as a whole stood closer to Anson Byington’s position than to Review editor Smith’s.


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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