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Transcending Uncomfortable “Perceived Advocacy Stances”: Ellen White and the WCTU


Historically, Adventist church entities have had a difficult time linking arms with non-Adventist groups that share common societal concerns but take other advocacy stances different from, or counter to, the stated teachings of the Adventist church.  Ellen White’s relationship with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) provides a good example of how this complicated relationship worked—and can work today.

Founded in 1873, the WCTU was best known its advocacy for prohibition of alcohol, but it also adopted a “do-everything-policy” of addressing number of other “social reform” issues, including advocacy of eugenics, women’s suffrage, displaying the Bible in public fora, “Americanization” of new immigrants, and the institution of Sunday laws.  A key concern that provided a connecting thread to the WCTU’s involvement in these issues was the safeguarding of the home, especially from domestic violence.

White was an early supporter of the WCTU.  On July 14, 1874, White addressed more than 500 people at a WCTU rally in Battle Creek, which was organized by an ecumenical committee.  From that date on, White strongly urged Adventists to work with the WCTU to enact prohibition laws in the United States and elsewhere.  In 1877, at a rally organized by the WCTU, the Battle Creek Reform Club, and the Battle Creek Sanitarium, White spoke to 5,000 people on the same issue.

Although the WCTU was a “do-everything-policy” organization with many advocacy stances White disagreed with, her relationship with the WCTU remained strong throughout her career, with a singular focus on prohibition as a solution to many social ills.  While the WCTU was advocating for women’s suffrage as a way to pass prohibition initiatives, White took a different position: “I do not recommend that woman should seek to become a voter or office-holder” (Signs of the Times, Jan. 7, 1886).  White, of course, was also against the WCTU’s advocacy of Sunday laws, including a national Sunday law, as a way to curb alcohol consumption and uplift public morality.  For White and other Adventist leaders, the proposed national Sunday law represented a key indicium of eschatological apostasy—a mark of apocalyptic homage to the Beast of Revelation 13 and ultimately to the Dragon of Revelation 12 (see, e.g., Great Controversy 592).

Despite a sharp disagreement with the WCTU’s clear advocacy stance in favor of a national Sunday law, White was undeterred in her support of—and encouragement to work with—the WCTU, including inviting WCTU leaders to Adventist camp meetings.  White’s position regarding the WCTU did not change even in the late 1880s when the WCTU was vigorously lobbying for—and Adventists were vehemently opposing—the passage of a national Sunday law.  How was it that White was able to cooperate with the WCTU despite such crucial differences that went to the core of Adventism’s eschatological mission?  As historian Douglas Morgan astutely observes: “White and the Adventists, like Willard [WCTU president] and the WCTU, believed that the church was to carry forward the work of Christ in society, which meant a ministry of healing and restoration for the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed, not just the saving of sinful souls” (228).  (For much of what I write here, I am indebted to Morgan’s analysis in his chapter, “Society,” in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (2014).)

I would submit that it was White’s correct understanding of the centrality of the ministry of healing and restoration in Adventism’s eschatological mission that allowed her to work with the WCTU toward the common goal of a healthier home and society, despite the WCTU’s effort toward the establishment of the “mark of the beast,” as Adventists understood it.  For White, ministry of healing trumped doctrinal differences.  The Good Samaritan’s story teaches no less.

Working with an “outside” entity with a perceived advocacy stance counter to the stated positions of the Adventist church requires careful thought and discernment.  At the same time, White’s work with the WCTU throughout her career (and ADRA’s humanitarian work today even with oppressive governments with horrible human rights records) reminds us of the many partnership opportunities that lie in local and global communities for healing and restoration, as well as opportunities tragically missed.


Julius Nam writes from Loma Linda, California.

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