Our previous installment focused on Bates’ involvement in the causes of temperance and the abolition of slavery – the two foremost social movements in American society during the 1830s. Particularly noteworthy was his disenchantment with the American Tract Society and the American Colonization Society, whose leaders espoused benevolent reform but refused to take “a decided stand on the side of the oppressed.” A desire to take such a stand prompted Bates to join the cause of immediate abolition of slavery under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison – a movement much vilified and persecuted in its early years by “gentlemen of property and standing” who defended the status quo in the North, as well as southern defenders of slavery.
What happened to Bates’ social activism when he embraced the Millerite message concerning the second advent of Christ soon to take place in “about the year 1843”? In this installment and the next, we will look at further excerpts from Bates’ Autobiography, and raise questions as to their significance. Comments welcome!
At the time of spectacular meteor shower of 1833, which came to be regarded as one of the great signs of Christ’s soon return, Bates had not yet joined the Adventist movement. As he looks back on that event in the following passage, he juxtaposes it with the progress of reform movements in the 1830s. Is this coincidental? Or does he have a point in making the link?
…[W]hile the subjects of antislavery and proslavery were agitating the Union, a wonderful phenomenon occurred in the heavens, which caused consternation and dismay among the people, namely, the stars falling from heaven!…
In connection with these portentous signs in the heavens, moral reform was working its way like leaven throughout the United States. To all appearance, some unseen agency was assisting those who were struggling in the up-hill work of opposing the masses, while they were soliciting and enlisting the energies and sympathies of men, women, and children, to help stay the tide of intemperance and slavery, which, to all human appearance, if not stayed, would demoralize and debase us below the moral standard of all the civilized nations of the earth, before the then rising generation should pass from the stage of action.
What appeared the most inexplicable in moving forward this work, was to see ministers whose Christian characters were before unsullied in the community, pleading in favor of slavery, upholding rum-drinking and rum-selling, and keeping a large majority of their churches and congregations under their influence. Others were mute, waiting to see how their friends would decide. Some there were, however, who took a noble stand in the work of reform.
Moral-reform societies were multiplied in various places, as were also peace societies, having for their object the abolition of war. They proposed to settle all disputes or difficulties of importance, by reference to a Congress of Nations.
After finishing the buildings on my farm, before mentioned, I commenced the work of raising mulberry-trees, to obtain their foliage to feed the silk-worm, designing to enter into the culture of silk. I had erected a school-house on my place, in which I designed to have a manual-labor school for youth…. (238, 241-242).
After joining “the believers in the second coming and kingdom of the Messiah at hand,” the focus of Bates’ activities did indeed change, as he explains in the following excerpt. What is the significance of this passage for the spiritual descendants of “the real founder of Seventh-day Adventism”? Does it support the concept that, in view of Christ’s soon return, involvement with issues of peace and justice in the public arena is a distraction from the overwhelming importance of Adventism’s evangelistic mission? Or does it support the idea that being truly prepared for Christ’s return requires involvement in efforts to effect social change?
…Some of my good friends that were engaged in the temperance and abolition cause, came to know why I could not attend their stated meetings as formerly, and argued that my belief in the coming of the Saviour should make me more ardent in endeavoring to suppress these growing evils. My reply was, that in embracing the doctrine of the second coming of the Saviour, I found enough to engage my whole time in getting ready for such an event, and aiding others to do the same, and that all who embraced this doctrine would and must necessarily be advocates of temperance and the abolition of slavery; and those who opposed the doctrine of the second advent could not be very effective laborers in moral reform. And further, I could not see duty in leaving such a great work to labor single-handed as we had done, when so much more could be accomplished in working at the fountain-head, making us every way right as we should be for the coming of the Lord (262).
Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his PhD 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.