June 1, 2022

Sports in Adventist Schools

Ellen White: hearing a definitive voice.

Arthur White

No Adventist discussion on the importance, value, and significance of sports, and our involvement in it, would be complete without presenting the perspective of Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White, God’s special messenger to His people at the end of time. This article provides just such a perspective. The original, more ample document, written by Arthur L. White in 1967, gives a thorough review of Ellen White’s statements on sports, providing proper historical context on the questions of playing sports, and of organized sports as a part of Adventist educational programs. The complete statement is available from the Ellen G. White Estate at https://ellenwhite.org/media/document/2436.

Principles Early and Grand

In the book Education Ellen White lays down a basic principle on sports through her analytical comments on recreation:

“There is a distinction between recreation and amusement. Recreation, when true to its name, re-creation, tends to strengthen and build up. Calling us aside from our ordinary cares and occupations, it affords refreshment for mind and body, and thus enables us to return with new vigor to the earnest work of life. Amusement, on the other hand, is sought for the sake of pleasure, and is often carried to excess; it absorbs the energies that are required for useful work, and thus proves a hindrance to life’s true success.”1

White acknowledged, in an 1867 note “Recreation for Christians,” that Sabbathkeepers generally work much and rest inadequately; and that “recreation is needful to those who are engaged in physical labor and is still more essential for those whose labor is principally mental. It is not essential to our salvation, nor for the glory of God, to keep the mind laboring constantly and excessively, even upon religious themes.”2

White’s basic article on the subject of education, written in 1872, gave three reasons Adventist school programming should be well divided between mental and physical activities: (1) the physical activity would lead to strong physical development, which is essential; (2) it would prepare young people for the practical things of life, as they should engage in various industries or trades in connection with the school program; (3) it would guard against immorality: a constant study program without adequate physical exercise would lay the foundations for immoral practices.

White’s writing early set the church’s ideal for all our schools—an educational program well divided between mental and physical activity.3

Vision Versus Reality

The small site chosen in the city of Battle Creek for our first college deeply disappointed Ellen White. She broke down and wept when she took in the situation at Battle Creek, a college right in town, instead of her vision of a school far from the diversions and temptations of city life, which would foster and encourage industry and agriculture, the practical side of education. Youth would leave there prepared for life in a doomed world, and prepared for service in heralding the message of Jesus’ coming again.

As Battle Creek College developed football teams, baseball teams, basketball teams, and even some boxing, Adventist youth, with their healthful living, and free from alcohol and tobacco, were able to perform well. But the thrills of competition against teams in and out of town significantly shifted student interest from a total focus on preparation for service to the cultivation of excitement and pleasure. Left unchecked by messages from the Lord, the sports program would have largely destabilized our educational identity.

White’s words of warning specifically mentioned certain games—football, baseball, boxing. She wrote to the president of Battle Creek College in early 1893 at a time when the Spirit of the Lord was poured out in a special way following revival meetings: “When the students at the school went into their match games and football playing, when they became absorbed in the amusement question, Satan saw it a good time to step in and make of none effect the Holy Spirit of God in molding and using the human subject. Had the teachers to a man done their duty, . . . they would have had spiritual strength and divine enlightenment to press on and on and upward on the ladder of progress reaching heavenward. . . .

“It is an easy matter to idle away, talk and play away, the Holy Spirit’s influence. . . . If the one blessed becomes negligent and inattentive and does not watch unto prayer, . . . if his love of amusements and strivings for the mastery absorb his power or ability, then God is not made the first and best...,and Satan comes into act his part in playing the game of life for his soul. He can play much more earnestly than they can play, and make deep-laid plots for the ruin of the soul.”4

White’s response to a letter by a medical student in Michigan shows the real reasons for certain counsels that she gave about sports.

“I do not condemn the simple exercise of playing ball; but this, even in its simplicity, may be overdone.

“I shrink always from the almost sure result which follows in the wake of these amusements. It leads to an outlay of means that should be expended in bringing the light of truth to souls that are perishing out of Christ. The amusements and expenditures of means for self-pleasing, which lead on step by step to self-glorifying, and the educating in these games for pleasure produce a love and passion for such things. . . .

“The way that they have been conducted at the college does not bear the impress of heaven. It does not strengthen the intellect. It does not refine and purify the character. . . .

“Is the eye single to the glory of God in these games? I know that this is not so....The Lord God of heaven protests against the burning passion cultivated for supremacy in the games that are so engrossing.”5

White’s statement “I do not condemn the simple exercise of playing ball” balances innocent use of a ball in a game over against the perils in sports programs: the expenditure of time and money out of proportion, glorification of the players, the encouragement of the love of pleasure, until it’s more than loving God.

She writes: “The way that they have been conducted at [Battle Creek College] does not bear the impress of heaven.”6 Recreation is certainly essential, but White understood that as young people grew older, recreation could be found in useful occupations that produced something worthwhile. In the ideal set before us, true recreation includes varied missionary activities: “There are healthful methods of exercise that may be . . . beneficial to both soul and body. . . .

“It is our duty ever to seek to do good in the use of the muscles and brain God has given to youth, that they may be useful to others, making their labors lighter, soothing the sorrowing, lifting up the discouraged, speaking words of comfort to the hopeless, turning the minds of the students from fun and frolic which often carries them beyond the dignity of manhood and womanhood to shame and disgrace. The Lord would have the mind elevated, seeking higher, nobler channels of usefulness.”7

White’s emphasis on useful labor is one reason we located our schools in the country, where there is opportunity for industries and agriculture, in Cooranbong, Australia, for example, some 75 miles north of the city of Sydney. White took an active part in the establishment of this school. While assisting there, she received many visions that more fully opened up the principles that should govern the operation of our colleges.

The Avondale Experience

White’s multiple messages on sports given during the establishment of what is now Avondale University should be read carefully to see the underlying principles.8 Australia is a sports-loving land. Observing Australians’ love of sports, Mark Twain exclaimed, “Restful . . . Australia, . . . where apparently it is always a holiday—and where, when you have no holiday and nothing else to do, it is always a horse race.”

White saw that if Seventh-day Adventists were to accomplish their divine assignment, our schools should be far from the excitement of sports and celebration in the cities.

Avondale’s location in the country, on 1,500 acres of land, gave ample opportunity for all of the student labor that was available. Despite the limited means of students and their families, a good spirit existed at the school. The various lines of employment offered by the school gave ample recreation to the young people. There was a program of study and work.

White felt that with the Lord’s blessing they had succeeded in separating the young people from the allurements and distractions of the world. At the union conference session in 1899 she said: “We desire to take the students away from the foul atmosphere of the city. Not that Satan is not here. He is here, but we are trying to do all we can to place the students in the very best circumstances, in order that they may fasten their eyes on Christ.” Commenting on the “great multitude” she saw in Sydney for a cricket match, she explained that “while men were playing the game of cricket, and others were watching the game, Satan was playing the game of life for their souls. Therefore we decided to locate our school where the students would not see cricket matches or horse races. We are just where God wants us to be, and many conversions have taken place in this school.”9

But some months later, in 1900, the faculty of the school, largely workers from America, planned to celebrate a holiday with White addressing students in the morning, and spending the afternoon in games. Students collected money to buy sports equipment, and the afternoon program blossomed out with activities and games, some of which fed the love of pleasure and engrossment in sports. This was the specific historical context of White’s counsel referenced in endnote 8.

Reading in Context

Read out of its context, that counsel has led some to feel that it is sinful to engage in any games, especially games in which a ball is used. But careful reading of principles such as set forth in her 1872 letter referenced in endnote 5 points to a larger, deeper, and more far-reaching issue, namely, encouraging the love of pleasure; engaging in activities that in themselves may be innocent but may in their infatuations develop into idolatry.

These principles disclose a distinct difference between a day of recreation at which certain games may be played, and our schools’ developing trained teams to engage in a sports program. When a group of Christian young people, or the members of a church or an institutional family, gather for a day of recreation, they may play. After a few hours together the games end, and the day has been one of recreation. How different from a program demanding hours in training day after day, glorifying certain players, and developing teams for highly exciting competition where a few get the exercise while the others stand around shouting! This is not true recreation. The difference is obvious.

Intercollegiate Sports

Intercollegiate sports intensify everything. For weeks in advance of such events the conversation is focused on the coming events. Once they are over, the conversation is about what happened. The excitement and love of pleasure lift our young people clear out and away from the serious world that is going down in doom. This is reasoning against encouraging intercollegiate sports in Adventist institutions. The fruits these activities yield do not measure up to the ideals set before us in the Spirit of Prophecy.

As the decades have advanced it has proved increasingly difficult for our schools to meet God’s ideal of a program of work and study; more difficult for the young people to find activities that bring remuneration on the school campus. But absent such income, aren’t there activities other than organized competitive sports that can accomplish something worthwhile for the overall benefit of the student body and the school?

Have Adventist schools given up on their ideals? Do we have new answers to the fundamental questions? What are our objectives in operating or attending Christian schools? Are all of our activities contributing toward those objectives? Is it time to abandon our ideals? Is the Lord still able to bless us as we dare to stand for His ideals though the heavens fall? Tell us what you think at [email protected].—Editors

1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 207.

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 514.

3 See E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, pp. 131-160.

4 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 131.

5 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), pp. 499, 500.

6 Ibid., p. 499.

7 Ibid., p. 509.

8 See Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), pp. 348-354.
9 Ellen G. White, “The Avondale Health Retreat,” Australasian Union Conference Record, July 26, 1899.

Arthur L. White prepared this statement in 1967 while secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, a responsibility he bore from 1937 to 1978. White also authored the definitive biography of Ellen White, in six volumes of almost 3,000 pages.