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Peacemaking Heritage Series | Religion and Politics – 1856

Peacemaking Heritage – 10

The election of 1856 presented abolitionists with a new possibility. For the first time in American history, one of the two major parties took a position antagonistic to the “slave power.” The new Republican party, with John C. Fremont as its presidential candidate, was united in opposition to the extension of slavery beyond the states where it presently existed. While this fell far short full abolitionism, it was a strong measure vehemently opposed by the pro-slavery forces.

Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison had staunchly opposed involvement in partisan politics, even voting, because to do so when both parties underwrote slavery would be to weaken the clarity and power of the abolitionists’ moral witness. Biographer Henry Mayer writes that though Garrison accorded the Republicans a “measure of respect” in 1856, he still believed that “the allure of the presidential campaign threatened the movement’s identity. Abolitionists should not ‘bow down in the house of Rimmon,’ alluding to the parable (2 Kings 5:18) illustrating the dangers of false worship and conformity with outmoded rituals and reprehensible customs. The first duty of abolitionists, he concluded, was to avoid becoming Republicans” (Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, 456). Mayer writes that Garrison “regarded the abolitionists as a saving remnant who would create the preconditions for reform….By and by, he said with the apostle Paul, ‘the little leaven leavens the whole lump’…[and] this is the way the world is to be redeemed” (457).

This context is useful for helping us understand Uriah Smith’s editorial, “Politics,” in the September 11, 1856 issue of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Smith’s statement that the sabbatarian Adventists would not engage in the political contest because of the inevitability of prophecy fulfillment and destruction of the present order of things, is sometimes cited to show that passivity and disengagement are the defining features of Adventism’s relationship to matters of peace and justice in the public realm. But is that sole or predominant significance of the editorial, particularly in the light of Garrison’s “no politics” stance?

When we declare our neutrality in politics, and refuse to take part in a contest so exciting as the one which, is now agitating this nation, it is right that we give an exposition of the principles on which we stand, and the reasons for our course.

The present state of the world is such as to arrest the attention of the greatest minds. It is such as to create the worst forebodings in the minds of those who look farthest into the future. The state of our own country we all know. A fair index of the state of Europe is given in another column. The great antagonistic principles of Temperance and Intemperance, Protestantism and Catholicism, Freedom and Slavery, Republicanism and Tyranny, are all at work. Now whenever and wherever these principles appear, every Christian knows or should know which side he is on. He is with Temperance and not Intemperance; Protestantism and not Catholicism, Freedom and not Slavery; Republicanism and not Tyranny. Those principles are essential elements of religion; and whoever is not sound on these, forfeits his claim to the title of Christian.

We will now apply these remarks to politics. Whenever they involve any of the above principles, they involve principles in which we are interested; and it follows as a matter of course that that class of politicians which is supported by justice, humanity and truth, so far as it is actuated by these principles, is entitled to our sympathy.

We will come still nearer home. We consider that the sympathies of all merciful and humane persons must be with those who desire to see the chains of the bond-man broken, and the slave go free; or who desire that the foul demon, Slavery, should at least be confined to its present limits. With the belief that the people generally entertain, that there is yet along future before the world, we cannot blame them for using every effort to prevent soil which is now free from being blasted by the mildew of Slavery. It amounts to nothing to say that nothing is gained should Kansas come into the Uuion a free State, because there would still be room enough for the slave to toil in and be oppressed. The question is, Shall the curse spread till it infects the whole land? Again, we say, we cannot blame any who love justice and freedom, viewing things as they are generally viewed, for using every possible means to prevent such a result; — every possible means to stunt this great evil.

The unrighteous course of the Border Ruffians and Pro- Slavery Demagogues, sustained as they are by modern Democrats in general, must create some feeling in the breasts of those who have formerly engaged actively in these contests; though they now feel compelled to confine themselves to questions of paramount importance to this age of the world.

To the question, why we do not with our votes and influence labor against the evil tendency of the times, we reply, that our views of prophecy lead us to the conclusion that things will not be bettered. This country, if we are correct in believing it to be symbolized by the two-horned beast of Rev. xiii, will finally sustain such an abominable character, that it will be landed in the lake of fire. Rev. xix, 2O. The two-horned beast will speak like a dragon. Rev. xiii, 11. We do not therefore feel it incumbent upon us to labor, in this respect, either to hasten or retard the fulfillment of prophecy. God’s purposes will surely be accomplished. And we feel it our duty to confine our efforts to preparing ourselves, and others as far as in us lies, for the great and final issue already pressing upon us— the revelation of the Son man from heaven, the destruction of all earthly governments, the establishment of the glorious, universal and eternal kingdom of the King of kings, and the redemption and deliverance of all his subjects.

In the next Peacemaking Heritage installment, Anson Byington, brother of the future first President of the General Conference challenges Uriah Smith’s stand against involvement in political action to bring about social change.


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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