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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Ellen White, Slavery and Politics – II

The previous post in this series looked at the vivid message of apocalyptic judgment on American slavery in Ellen White’s testimonies about her visions in the 1840s and 1850s. But did slavery primarily provide fodder for a doomsday theology rather than elicit a genuine, costly opposition to the evil? Did her ministry encourage any action on behalf of the oppressed, such as that taken by the twenty-one residents of Oberlin, Ohio (above) who were jailed in 1859 for their anti-slavery activities?

In brief, her course of action was to throw herself into building up a network of believers for whom non-cooperation with the social sin of slavery was absolutized by their covenant to “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” While she lifted the eyes of the sabbatarian Adventist community to a higher prize than the renovation of American civic institutions, that higher loyalty led them to use their voices, influence, and, increasingly over the following decades, their votes, expertise, and resources, on behalf of justice and mercy.

While a “little flock” of a few hundred scattered believers in the “third angel’s message” was just beginning to cohere through a series of “Sabbath Conferences,” the U.S. Congress was hammering out the Compromise of 1850, which staved off the threat of disunion over the question of slavery in the western territories. The compromise included a new Fugitive Slave Law with draconian measures designed to overcome legal hindrances in some Northern states to enforcement of existing federal law mandating the return of escaped slaves.

The law would be implemented by specially-appointed federal commissioners who would be paid $10 if they ruled that an apprehended person was indeed a fugitive who must be returned to bondage, and only $5 if they ruled that such was not the case and the accused should go free. During the 1850s, 332 persons seized under the new law were returned to slavery and eleven declared free. The entire free black population of the North was at risk, not to mention those who had made good their escapes years, even decades, before. Moreover, the law empowered marshals instantaneously to deputize any citizen and thereby compel them to assist in the capture of alleged fugitives.

Response to this law should be a significant measure of how far Ellen White’s opposition to slavery extended. In a testimony published in 1859, she wrote:

The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law. The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own. (Testimonies 1: 202).

Adventist faith in action meant an unequivocal pledge of noncompliance with federal law, because slavery violates the foundational biblical truth about the dignity and identity of human beings, each of whom are “God’s workmanship.”

However, in the first edition of Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Harper & Row, 1989), Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart point out that Ellen White did not speak to this issue until nine years after passage of the law and the emergence of widespread, highly-publicized opposition to it. Her statement in 1859 thus merely “brought the church into harmony with mainstream Northern opinion” and thus cannot be taken as convincing evidence that Adventist rhetoric against slavery was more than augmentation of their convictions about the end of the world (196-197).

Assessment of Bull and Lockhart’s claim first requires questioning whether opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law is best characterized as “mainstream Northern opinion.” Outrage over the law, combined with the impact of the best-seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did in fact greatly swell the anti-slavery ranks, but they remained a minority of the general Northern population. Indeed, the Republican president elected the following year made a pledge of full cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Law prominent in his effort to convince the South that he had no intention of interfering with slavery the states where it presently existed. That was the position of the Republican majority party, and the northern Democrats as a whole would have only been more accomodating to the slave system. Thus, pledged opposition to the Fugitive Slave law meant being part of a distinct minority, and not taking a comfortable stance of prevailing opinion.

Indeed, even though nine years had elapsed after its passage, controversy over the law reheated during the very year that Ellen White wrote about it. A case originating in Wisconsin (Ableman v. Booth) made its way to the Supreme Court, which confirmed the constitutionality of the 1850 law on March 7, 1859. In Ohio, the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case grabbed the national spotlight for several weeks, dramatizing not only zealous resistance to the law but the powerful forces arrayed in support of it. The twenty-one residents of reform-oriented Oberlin (pictured above) who were jailed in Democrat-controlled Cleveland for harboring a fugitive slave gained release only after four slave catchers were imprisoned as bargaining chips in Republican-controlled Oberlin.

We cannot be certain that these specific developments were prominent in Ellen White’s mind as she commented on the Fugitive Slave law in 1859, but clearly it was a current, controversial matter, not an issue that had by then become “safe.” The main topic of the testimony in which the comment appears is the question of taking oaths in legal proceedings. While arguing that it is not necessary to resist taking oaths in legal settings, she cited the Fugitive Slave law as one example in which noncompliance with civil authority is required by loyalty to the “higher law” of God.

In sum, whatever else it might nor might not have meant with regard to slavery, being an Adventist meant taking a stand on a highly controversial public issue, being part of a community firmly and unabashedly pledged to nonviolent resistance of a federal law intended to perpetuate the evil.

Evangelism, then, would mean expanding the ranks of those thus committed. So what happens when a person of pro-slavery politics becomes convinced of the Adventist message? That’s the topic planned for next time.

Sources: Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Hendrickson, 1976), 45-62; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), 79-88, 262.


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). He blogs here.

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