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Two Track Workers: The SDA Approach to Organized Labor

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s attitude towards organized labor is rooted in its eschatology (1), which informs its policies towards “worldly” political institutions, such as governments, trade unions, or political parties.

While both insider and outsider perspectives can be misconstrued so as to make Adventism appear uniformly antagonistic (or submissive) to all of these organizations, one must approach each act or policy by church leadership through an Adventist interpretation of the Gospel and the current of the time. I will not attempt to cover every facet of international church-labor relations, as that transcends the scope and breadth of this work.

One main tenet of Seventh-day Adventist faith is the return of Jesus Christ at the end of time, which is believed to be immanent. Adventist pioneers believed that the time directly preceding the Second Coming would be marked by violence, deterioration, and oppression revolving around a confederacy of the Papacy, an apostate Protestant United States, and spiritualism. The specter of religious oppression as the last persecution is an intellectual constant in Adventist behaviors toward civil society, as is the idea of a progressively degenerating world. Many millennial Christians refer to this verse as justification: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37 NIV).

Because of this, Adventists saw any secular plan to improve society or create social progress as inherently unworkable. Furthermore, Adventists saw any lobby with an explicit religious agenda, or any political force legislating on religious issues, as inherently suspect. Just as important was the Adventist self-image of a “remnant” church waiting for God and warning the world, dedicated solely to Christ in a distracted, sinful, out-of-control world. Since the church was entrusted with the Advent message, it was obligated to stay aloof from any commitments that might distract from the potency and urgency of the Second Coming. However, these attitudes led to legal and societal tensions with the federal government and labor unions in the 20th century and 21st centuries.

The belief in the progressive depravity of the secular world kept Adventists from endorsing secular solutions. As a result, the denomination shunned (2) the political and labor movements of the late 19th century, including the growing trade unionism movement.

“While exhibiting concern about the social problems of the era and taking some action to alleviate them, Adventists distanced themselves from the solutions promoted by labor unions, socialist organizations, and proponents of the social gospel and the related ecumenical movement” (Morgan, Dennis. 2001. Adventism and the American Republic. Knoxville, Tennessee, The University of Tennessee Press Knoxville: p.67)

In short, Adventists did not bother with reform because they saw it as useless in the long (or, for them, painfully short) run of human history. The clarity of the message of Christ’s imminent return nullified any hope of progress, though Adventist leaders advocated social justice to an increasing degree as the 20th century progressed, with General Conference (3) president Neal Wilson speaking,

“out on public affairs…observing that ‘belief in the imminent Advent’ and such responsibility ‘are not mutually exclusive’…Wilson stated that the physical and the spiritual are inseparable.” (Morgan, 207).

More importantly than the irrelevance of social movements was their inherent susceptibility to stifling individual conscience and religious liberty: two traits critical to the Adventist church. “Unions were viewed as “combinations” that repressed individual freedom through coercive collective action.” (Morgan, 147)

Morgan refers to the anti-Catholic strain in Adventist eschatology as he continues,

“Labor violence was expected to lead to the final apocalyptic conflict, with the strong Roman Catholic influence helping to make unions appear a likely instrument of the last conspiracy. Unions thus posed a fundamental challenge to the believer’s loyalty to God and the church, and Ellen White urged Adventists to avoid them and ‘stand free in God’.” (Morgan, 147).

While Adventists also censured corporations for unfair labor practices that led to labor violence, they advocated legal resolutions and mediation, as opposed to coercion. Adventist opposition to coercive methods remains in the General Conference’s “Guidelines for Employers and Employees”:

“5. Christians should refrain from violence, coercion, or any method incompatible with Christian ideals as instruments in the attainment of social or economic goals. Nor should Christians lend their support to organizations or employers that resort to such actions. (2 Cor. 6:14-18; 10:3)” (Guidelines for Employer and Employee Relationships)

Adventists also looked to the Gospels, stating that Christ’s example opposed “affiliation with organizations that divide and create conflict along social and political lines”, and referring to James 5, which castigates ill-gotten gains while admonishing Christians to wait for God’s justice (Morgan 148) While Adventists did not bar union members from becoming church members, church leadership established a Council on Industrial Relations in 1945, which worked to form agreements with individual unions (Land 143), allowing Adventists to work in closed (union-only) shops, provided they “contribute…to union-supported charities and not cross picket lines in the event of a strike.” (Morgan 147). However, “because of the autonomy enjoyed by local unions, the agreements negotiated with national union leaders fell short…” (Land 143-44).

Old Adventist fears about unions were revisited during the 1940s and ’50s. “The papal support for labor exhibited since the encyclical Rerum Novarum (4) in 1891 was evidence that unions were ‘helping to implement the Catholic church’s objectives’…Some labor leaders expressed support for Sunday laws, underscoring the ultimate danger of unions…” (Morgan 148). Adventists began to emphasize First Amendment rights to religious freedom as superseding workers’ organizing rights, a strategy Adventist lobbyists used successfully in pushing a “conscience clause” into the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which would prohibit closed shops from barring workers who refused to unionize, provided their refusal was based on religious compulsion (Morgan 148) The AFL-CIO endorsed the “conscience clause”, which was later passed under the Carter Administration; despite this, the AFL-CIO didn’t control any of its member unions, and none of their locals, so this endorsement would not be as useful as the General Conference hoped.

Adventist-union tension had legal and political consequences during the second half of the 20th century. In 1972, workers at the United Presbyterian Home unionized. In response, four Adventists quit, two joined the union, and three went to the church for help; however, the union refused to allow a compromise based on the “conscience clause” (Morgan 150). Instead, the union allowed the Adventists to work without engaging in union membership, provided they pay union dues. The workers agreed. (Morgan 150 cont.) In 1998, the nurses at Ukiah Valley Hospital (an Adventist institution in Ukiah, California), voted to unionize as a local of the California Nurses’ Association. The hospital filed for an exemption with the National Labor Relations Board, citing religious liberty concerns, a move that the CNA’s executive director called “…such a misuse of religion that it’s astounding.” (San Francisco Chronicle October 29, 1998″). The NLRB found in favor of the CNA. As of this writing,

“The only labor-law accommodation that Adventists have been able to win from Congress was a provision in 1974 allowing church members to pay the equivalent of their union dues to one of several agreed-upon secular charities, according to Mr. Berman.” (New York Times, online archive, October 9, 2006, page 6 of 6).

Adventists have adapted to pro-labor laws. Individual conference websites offer adherents advice on filling out exemption forms, giving the equivalent of union dues to charity, and explaining how their religious beliefs preclude union membership. (Illinois Conference website) However, as can be seen by the 1998 Ukiah case, there is still no comprehensive agreement between the US government, American labor unions, and the Seventh-day Adventist church, and legal skirmishes continue.

The Adventist relationship with unions is a complicated, and sometimes adversarial one. The issues of maintaining religious clarity and integrity while doing God’s work in the last days contributes to what may appear to be hypocrisy:

“They believed that the violence and coercion practiced by these institutions (labor unions and the military) was contrary to biblical (sic) teaching concerning individual Christian behavior, yet they did not protest the existence of such institutions in a sinful world, nor did they address the broad issues of peace and justice surrounding the activities of armies and unions. In exchange for the freedom to follow their understanding of certain biblical injunctions, they could offer silent neutrality, and, sometimes, tacit blessing and willing cooperation to the institutions participating in conflict. In some respects, then, they tended towards…moral passivity and indirect complicity in actions they usually regarded as morally impermissible for themselves.” (Morgan 151, italics mine for emphasis).

However, this seeming disconnect is rooted in a radically different perception of the critical elements of human history. “…Adventists sought…to maintain their nonconformity on the issues they expected ultimately to be decisive…Their earthly citizenship was, after all, only temporary; the heavenly was soon to supplant the earthly.” Because of eschatology, Adventists have tended to view labor unions as either irrelevant or dangerous. However, as a new century begins, Adventists still wait for the coming of their Lord, and unions still demand fairness from management.

Globalization affects both groups, since labor addresses the problems of cheaper labor and new markets, while Adventists continue to warn a shrinking world of the Lord’s coming judgment. In any instance, the ambiguous relationship between the two continues.

Works Cited:

Land, Gary, editor. 2001

Adventism in America: A History. Berrien Springs, Michigan. Andrews University Press

Morgan, Douglas. 2001.

Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement. Knoxville, Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press Knoxville.

Ilana DeBare, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Church Hospital Challenges Labor Law”

October 29, 1998, fromSFC Internet Archive:…

Henriques, Diana B. The New York Times

“Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights”.

October 9, 2006, from NYT Internet Archive:…

“Guidelines for Employer and Employee Relationships”, adopted at 2003 General Council Meeting, taken from…

Illinois Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists: Labor Unions

1. Study of and understanding of Biblical apocalyptic prophecy.

2. One major exception was the Temperance movement. Adventists organized supported Prohibition as early as 1859 and as late as 1932 (Morgan, 36, 98)

3. The Adventist church is run in a semi-federal manner. Individual churches elect representatives regional “conferences” which are part of large “union conferences”, which make up continental “divisions”. For example, Los Angeles is part of the Southern California Conference, the Pacific Union Conference (which consists of Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah), which in turn is part of the North American Division. All conferences elect representatives to a “General Conference” session held every five years. In the interim, the General Conference Executive Committee oversees day-to-day operations for the world church.

4. Issued by Pope Leo XIII, this encyclical supported labor’s right to organize while eschewing socialism and upholding private property.


“Samuel Sukaton is a first year Religion/History major at the University of California, Los Angeles. He also writes for and worships at Azure Hills SDA Church in Grand Terrace, California and Santa Monica SDA Church in Santa Monica.”

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