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Peacemaking Heritage Series | An Abolitionist Urges Adventist Action

One faithful Review and Herald reader in the 1850s who dissented from editor Uriah Smith’s stance on the futility of political action to remedy social evils (see last week’s Religion and Politics – 1856) was Anson Byington of Vermont.* A brother of John Byington, who became the first president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in 1863, Anson had been a fervent antislavery reformer since the 1830s.

According to the abolitionist publisher Joseph P. Poland (pictured), three different routes were used for conveying “scores and hundreds” of escaped slaves on from Montpelier, Vermont, to their final destination of Canada. One of these routes ran through Williston, where Anson Byington and William H. French were “agents” for the Underground Railroad.

Byington also held firm convictions about the need for sharp clarity in the church’s opposition to slavery. Troubled by the support some of the members of his Congregational church in Williston gave to political figures who failed to take a strong stand against slavery, Anson registered his protest by absenting himself from communion. The church in turn excommunicated him in 1849.

Around the time that his brother John joined the seventh-day Sabbath-observing Adventists in 1853, Anson began subscribing to, and faithfully reading, the Review and Herald. An exchange between him and editor Smith appeared in the March 10, 1859 issue:

Bro. Smith: I have taken the Review some six or seven years and have been much edified with its contents. Having been engaged for the last twenty-five years in the antislavery cause, I have regarded the Review as an auxiliary until the last two or three years, in which it has failed to aid the cause of Abolition. And as I want my money for Abolition purposes, I must discontinue the paper when the three dollars herein enclosed are expended.

I dare not tell the slave that he can afford to be contented in his bondage until the Saviour comes however near we may believe his coming. Surely the editor of the Review could not afford to go without his breakfast till then. If it was our duty to remember those in bonds as bound with them eighteen hundred years ago, it must be our duty still. “When saw we thee hungry or athirst, sick or in prison, and did not minister unto thee.”

Alas! we saw the slave in prison, but on reading the prophecy that there will be bondmen as well as freemen at Christ’s coming, we have excused ourselves from any efforts for his emancipation.

I have endeavored to keep the seventh day as the Sabbath according to the fourth commandment since Jan. 1st, 1858.

Yours for truth and righteousness,

Anson Byington.

Nicholsville, N. Y.

In response, Smith countered that

“we do not tell the slave that he can afford to be content in slavery, nor that he should not escape from it whenever he can, nor that all good men should not aid him to the extent of their power, nor that this great evil should not be resisted by any and all means which afford any hope of success.”

He reiterated, however, his view that Bible prophecy dictates that “this gigantic evil will still exist” and social conditions will only worsen until Christ returns.” Thus, in the light of prophecy, “practicable philanthropy” on behalf of the slave would be to “point him to the coming of the Messiah as his true hope.” In the light of the action of the “dragon-hearted” U.S. government and “the declarations of prophecy,” work for “slavery emancipation” would be “at most but secondary.”

The historical significance placed on the Byington-Smith interchange depends in part on Anson’s relationship to the soon-to-be Seventh-day Adventist body of believers. At first glance, it would make sense to regard Smith, the Review and Herald editor, as the authoritative voice of the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, and Byington as a marginal dissenter. But the matter is considerably more complex than that. For now, we must not overlook that:

1. As a well-credentialed veteran of antislavery activism, Byington had for the first few years of his subscription regarded the Review as an “auxiliary” of that cause;

2. He declares himself to be an observer of the seventh-day Sabbath;

3. While giving the impression that he is canceling his subscription so as not to divert money from the “cause of Abolition,” the three dollars he enclosed extended his subscription another three years. Noting this, Smith hoped that “emancipation, complete and eternal” would be realized before Byington’s subscription expired.

Next time, we will look at a follow-up letter Byington sent to the Review, which will give us more to ponder about his relation to Seventh-day Adventism, and whether, in historical perspective, his or Smith’s view on the utility of political action as a means for addressing human need would prevail in the church.

*Information on Anson Byington drawn from John O. Waller, “John Byington of Bucks Bridge,” Adventist Heritage (July 1974).


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).

This series is cross-posted at his Peace Messenger blog.

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