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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Millerism and Anti-Slavery Politics

In 1839, a segment of the abolitionist movement, impatient with William Lloyd Garrison’s policy of avoiding electoral politics in order to focus on transformation of the nation’s moral outlook, formed a new party in an effort to expand their influence.

With its radical platform, the Liberty Party’s presidential candidate, James Birney (right) gained only a miniscule number of votes in the 1840 contest (7,069 – about .03%). After a slightly more impressive showing in 1844 (62,300 – 2.3%) the party splintered and finally disappeared. However, it did make a contribution to the political momentum leading to Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

In Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy, church historian Douglas Strong of Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., describes Millerite connections with the abolitionist political activism. Intriguingly, some were active at the same time as the Adventist anticipation of Christ’s return reached the height of its fervor in 1843 and 1844. The most prominent of these was Elon Galusha:

Galusha’s promotion of the Liberty Party was unflagging, and by his preaching many Baptist churches were abolitionized. Like other ecclesiastical abolitionists, he was convinced that the millennial society was imminent; although most abolitionists believed that the perfect state of society would be the catalyst for Christ’s return (postmillennialism), Galusha believed that Christ’s return would occur cataclysmically before the establishment of the perfected society (premillennialism). Nonetheless, both Galusha and the other ecclesiastical abolitionists agreed that the specifics about how the millennium would occur were less important than the urgency in preparing for it – by converting individuals and by reforming society. In particular, Galusha became persuaded that sectarian divisions – including the continued perpetuation of the Baptist denomination – would only impede the promised consummation. He despaired at “ever realizing a Baptist millennium.” Thus, in 1844, Galusha embraced what seems on the surface to be a rather novel comeouter strategy for a politically minded abolitionist: he seceded from the Baptist church and became an Adventist.

Galusha’s strategy seems unusual because Adventists (also called Millerites) are often described as pessimistic premillennialists who were too distracted by their obsession with the impending apocalypse to be concerned with ameliorative reform work. Although this description is true of some Millerites, others – such as Galusha – did not fit the pattern; what seems to be more accurate is that a “complex relationship” existed between Millerism and social reforms such as abolitionism. Indeed, Adventists acted out a range of behaviors paralleling the various abolitionist/perfectionist responses described earlier. A few Liberty activists, for example, embraced Millerism as a way of expressing their ecclesiastical abolitionism and as an avenue for coming out of undemocratic institutions….

Adventists – like other abolitionists and perfectionists – were found along the entire institutionalization continuum. A large number of anarchistic perfectionists, for instance, were drawn toward Millerism; the promise of radical annihilation of earthly powers appealed to them. These admirers of Millerite teachings included John Humphrey Noyes, a number of Garrisonians, and many members of the Christian Connection. In contrast, many Millerites, including William Miller himself, were quite conservative. Although they withdrew from their denominations, their secession was caused by the cool reception they received from their churches, not by any anti-institutional scruples. Some of them, in fact, attempted to institutionalize the Adventist movement as soon as possible; these were the Adventists who tend to fit the interpretive stereotype – they were pessimistic about social amelioration and consequently would not work for social or political reform. Miller’s own views on the possibility of personal or societal sanctification were extremely cautious; using qualified language similar to that used by Nathaniel W. Taylor, Miller held that “we ought to strive to attain perfection as much as if it was [possible].”

Finally, there were a few moderate Adventists (particularly in the burned-over district) who seceded from their denominations and political parties to form new abolitionist organizations. In their political affairs, they continued to be zealous Liberty partisans even while advocating an impending end to history, optimistic activists who supported the “practical bearings” of political action even at the height of the Millerite frenzy. For example, Elon Galusha eagerly continued his Liberty Party involvement in the mid-1840s, believing that an increase in sanctified reformatory efforts could only speed the Lord’s coming.

In their ecclesiastical affairs, the moderate Adventists formed comeouter antislavery congregations, founded on the principles of spiritual democracy. The comeouter Adventists despised hierarchical castes and “denominational pride.” Galusha withdrew from the Baptist denomination and started his own Adventist comeouter congregations in Lockport and Perry. At his Advent hall in Galusha hosted multidenominational ecclesiastical abolitionist meetings – even though many of the attendees were not at all favorable to Miller’s particular millennial predictions. These meetings were held under the auspices of the Liberty Party for the expressed purpose of advocating ecclesiastical comeouterism and antislavery voting.

From: Douglas M. Strong, Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), pp. 111-113; end notes, here omitted, on pp. 21-219.

This is the second installment of our weekly series on the history of Adventist peace-making. Read the first post here.

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.

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