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Peacemaking Heritage Series | Politics Before the All-Seeing Judge

It was the first presidential election held after the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist church. And the stakes could not have been higher in the fall of 1864.

The Democratic candidate, Gen. George McClellan, ran on a “peace” platform — negotiations with the Confederacy to bring the war to a rapid end (in the cartoon above, McClellan is depicted as bringing together the warring presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, who are tearing the Union apart). Either Confederate independence or a restoration of the Union with slavery revived would have been the most likely consequence of a Democratic victory. Re-election of the Republican incumbent, on the other hand, would seal the doom of slavery, for Abraham Lincoln was now irrevocably committed to the Thirteenth Amendment which, going beyond the earlier Emancipation Proclamation, would eradicate slavery from the entire nation.

In previous posts in this series, we have looked at evidence suggesting that one factor influence Adventists to avoid voting was an “ultraism” like that of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. A vote for either major party would lend support to slavery and other, evils such as intemperance.

In 1864, though, faced for the first time with the opportunity to vote for a party firmly pledged to put an end to slavery, Garrison abandoned his long-standing opposition to voting. Not only that, the editor of the Liberator vigorously campaigned for Lincoln, whose prospects were not good until Atlanta fell to the armies of Gen. William T. Sherman on September 3.

An editorial by John N. Andrews (pictured) in the October 25 issue of the Review and Herald suggests that the Adventists, too, were beginning to re-appraise the potential significance of their moral agency in the political process.

The crime of slavery is one of the most atrocious in the catalogue of wicked deeds; involving in American slavery the commission of every foul and abominable act that absolute power in the hands of wicked men, over the helpless and unfortunate might be expected to cause….Those at the North, who justify and excuse this great iniquity, make themselves participants in the evil deeds of the oppressor, and cannot be less criminal than he, in the sight of Heaven….

How do such men expect to escape the fate of the oppressor when God shall bring him into judgment? By one of the most ingenious devices imaginable. This sin is snugly stowed away in a certain package which is labeled “Politics.” They deny the right of their fellow men to condemn any of the favorite sins which they have placed in this bundle; and the evidently expect that any parcel bearing this label, will pass the final custom-house, i.e., the judgment of great day – without being examined. Should the All-seeing Judge, however, inquire into their connection with this great iniquity, they suppose the following answer will be entirely satisfactory to him: “I am not at all censurable for any thing said or done by me in behalf of slavery; for, O Lord, thou knowest, it was part of my politics!” Will this plea be offered by any reader of this article?

In thus bringing political behavior under the scope of divine judgment, Andrews moved closer to Anson Byington’s position that anticipation of Christ’s soon return should stimulate political action for justice and mercy, and away from Review editor Uriah Smith’s view that the impending Second Advent made the political arena one of minimal significance for Adventists.

In an election where perpetuation or abolition of slavery was at stake, no “ingenious device” could expect to succeed in smuggling pro-slavery politics through the final judgment. Might the “All-Seeing Judge” also be looking for positive use of the political process on behal of justice and humanity? More on early Adventists and voting next time.


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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