For many of us who have grown up with great stories of our church founders, the beginnings of Adventism seem blurred into unreal, mythic proportions. Living your faith in everyday life seemed to be easier back then, but was it really?
Early Adventists did not live in a vacuum. Life was filled with many social changes and thorny political issues. Things were changing rapidly. The United States was moving fast from a farm-based, rural society to an industrial, urban-centered society. These changes came with nasty side effects. Urbanization brought congestion, poverty, and pollution.
Then there was the slavery question that was tearing at the fabric of the nation. This was followed by women’s rights, temperance, and race relations, all controversial topics that were discussed in newspapers and fought over in the streets; topics that made or broke political careers, and even found their way into Adventist churches, schools, and pulpits.
So how did early Adventists engage with the issues of their day? Some became passionate advocates for different causes, while many others tried to ignore what was going on and concentrate exclusively on in-house Adventist issues. Others, such as Ellen White, chose another route.
Even a cursory reading of Ellen White’s books, letters, and diaries shows that she was aware of and engaged in current issues. She was a strong supporter of the temperance movement,1 and very vocal about the abolition of slavery.2 She was not afraid to disturb the status quo and make a stand in these causes that were stirring the nation and dividing communities in the nineteenth century.
While she spoke and wrote about these issues, she did not wholeheartedly endorse or support everything these reforms advocated. Many women involved in the temperance and abolition movements went on to fight for the right of women to vote. Surprisingly, Ellen White did not endorse or use her influence to promote the women’s suffrage movement. Although she herself had broken the mold by preaching and speaking in public, and though she encouraged and affirmed women in their work for God, she did not embrace this seemingly important cause. Why?3
Ellen White used causes to further God’s agenda and never let herself be used by a cause to further its agendas. The Great Controversy theme was always at the back of her mind. For her, this theme was so much more than a theory, or a way of organizing her writings. It helped her to identify the areas in her society in which she could choose sides and promote God’s agenda.
Her understanding of humanity’s creation in the image of God with the freedom of choice made her vocal in her support of slaves being freed and having the freedom to choose their own eternal destiny.4 She believed that alcohol destroyed people and deprived them of their freedom of choice, so she supported the temperance movement. As far as women’s suffrage went, she personally supported the treatment of women as equals but she saw no reason to spend her time, effort, and personal influence in a cause that would not directly build God’s kingdom.5
Even though times have changed, her writings show a timeless relevance in finding our way through the maze of being involved in the issues of our communities and country without letting causes force us to take on agendas that are not kingdom-building.
Chantal J. Klingbeil serves as an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference.