Slavery and Prophecy
By Roy Branson
Many prominent Adventist leaders held views on slavery similar to those of Mrs. White. Through the Civil War years, such revered names as James White, Uriah Smith, and J. N. Andrews used the pages of the Review and Herald to attack laggards who did not endorse the emancipation position. An example is Uriah Smith's explicit criticism of President Lincoln. Tacitly acknowledging his own position to be radical, Smith censured the President for "following his present conservative, not to say suicidal, policy." With emancipation still not official, Smith's hostility toward Lincoln was unrelenting.
"He has to stand up against the 'enthusiasm for freedom' which reigns in nearly twenty millions of hearts in the free North and against the prayers of four millions of oppressed and suffering slaves. If he continues to resist all these in refusing to take those steps which a sound policy, the principles of humanity and the salvation of the country, demand, it must be from an infatuation akin to that which of old brought Pharaoh to an untimely end."[Ref 1] Smith could not know that Lincoln's assassination would in retrospect make his analogy downright grisly.
When the North was losing major battles, Mrs. White complained because "the rebellion was handled so carefully, so slowly."[Ref 2] Later when the North was consistently winning, her husband, James, jubilantly wrote in the Review that "appropriate retribution seems to be at last overtaking the fearfully guilty parties who have for long years held multitudes of their fellow beings in bondage."[Ref 3] Introducing a reprinted news article about the exploits of former slaves, now in the Union Army, who pursued slave owners into North Carolina swamps. Elder White asked, "What could be more appropriate than that the slaves themselves should be the instruments used to punish the merciless tyrants who have so long ground them to the dust." He was convinced that "justice, though seemingly long delayed, is nevertheless following with relentless steps upon the heels of the oppressor."[Ref 4]
In the Forefront of Reconstruction
After the war, former abolitionists were in the forefront of Reconstruction. Such men as Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives, Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade in the Senate, and Edwin Stanton in the Cabinet, came to be known as radical Republicans because they "seemed bent on engineering a sweeping reformation of southern society."[Ref 4]
A recent history of the period insists that idealism was part of the motivation for Reconstruction, and that "a genuine desire to help the Negro, was one of the mainsprings of radicalism."[Ref 4] Radical Senators and Congressmen led in passing civil rights laws to ensure that blacks would be able to vote and enjoy full civil liberties. Some radicals went farther, "They believed that it would be essential to give the Negroes not only civil and political rights but some initial economic assistance as well"[Ref 7] It is interesting to note that during the height of Reconstruction, 1867-1877, quotations in the Review concerning national affairs seem to have been taken exclusively from well known, radical Republican publications. The attempt to impeach President Andrew Johnson was reported in detail.[Ref 8]
More significantly, when Mrs. White later addressed herself to the needs of the South, she lamented the miserliness and briefness of the Government's concern for the emancipated black man. She endorsed the humanitarian ideas of the most progressive wing of the radical Republicans--those who felt an obligation to help the black man politically, legally, and economically.
"Much might have been accomplished by the people of America if adequate efforts in behalf of the freedmen had been put forth by the Government and by the Christian churches immediately after the emancipation of the slaves. Money should have been used freely to care for and educate them at the time they were so greatly in need of help. But the Government, after a little effort, left the Negro to struggle, unaided, with his burden of difficulties."[Ref 9]
Undoubtedly, the "little effort" Mrs. White commended took place during the brief period from 1867 to 1877 when Reconstruction Governments included blacks, and some improvement was achieved in education, medical care, and welfare. She may also have referred to activities of the Freedman's Bureau. Organized and funded by a Federal Government dominated by radicals, it operated for only four years, until 1869. During that time the bureau gave medical care to a million people, spent $5 million for black schools, supervised
labor contracts for black workers, and administered special courts to protect freedmen's civil rights.[Ref 10] Mrs. White felt more should have been done, but Reconstruction ended too soon for the radicals to accomplish their sweeping reforms.
Within a little more than a decade after the Civil War, eight of the Southern States had voted out of office political leaders supporting radical Republican policies. In the elections of 1876 Democrats claimed victory in the remaining three States of the Confederacy South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. The spring of the following year, President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last Federal troops from the South, reconstruction had ended. The Republican coalition of blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and white Southern turncoats had lost its dominance. Southerners called the new era Redemption.
Some persistent comparisons between Mrs. White (and other Adventist writers) and abolitionists and radical Republicans may leave the impression that Adventists merely adopted the outlook on national problems they found around them; that their religion had little to do with their vies on social and moral issues. But this is far from the truth. If any one had told the founding fathers of our denomination that their attitudes toward race had nothing to do with their theology, they would have shaken their heads in disbelief. For Ellen and James White, Uriah Smith, and J. N. Andres, proper attitudes toward race relations were part of a true understanding of the Bible and its doctrines.
Emancipation an Official Fact
Emancipation was an official fact January 1, 1863. For the next three months 12 issues of the Review began with front page excerpts Ironically Luther Lee's Slavery Examined in the Light of the Bible. The book went through controversial texts in the Old and New Testaments, arguing strenuously that the Bible, far from condoning slavery, condemned it.
Both Uriah Smith and James White related slavery to prophecy. Just as the United States was divided into two camps, so the lamb in Revelation 13:11 had two horns. Oppression of blacks in America was more significant evidence that the beast in Revelation 13 was the United States. Revelation describes a beast that looks like a lamb, but speaks like a dragon. James White made the application.
"Its [United States] outward appearance and profession is the mast pure, peaceful, and harmless, possible. It professes to guarantee to every man liberty and the pursuit of happiness in temporal things, and freedom in matters of religion; yet about four millions of human beings are held by the Southern States of this nation in the most abject and cruel bondage and servitude, and the theological bodies of the land have adopted a creed power, which is as intolerable and tyrannical as is possible to bring to bear upon the consciences of men. Verily with all its lamblike appearance and profession, it has the heart and voice of a dragon; for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."[Ref 11]
Uriah Smith pointed to the "whitewashed villainy of many of the pulpits of our land." Pulpits supporting slavery evidence that "the dragonic spirit of this nation has of late years desolated itself in accordance with the prophecy in Revelation 13:1l."[Ref 12] a Far from being a purely secular concern, Adventists thought race relations were intimately involved with a proper understanding of prophecy and last day events.
Mrs. White also saw slavery as one of the signs of the times. She cited the defense of slavery by ecclesiastical institutions as proof that churches in America were part of apostate Babylon. "God will restrain His anger but 'a little longer. His anger burns against this nation, and especially against the religious bodies who have sanctioned and have themselves engaged in this terrible merchandise."[Ref 13] God will remember the suffering shave and others who are oppressed. "The names of such are written in blood, crossed with stripes, and flooded with agonizing burning tears of suffering. Gods anger will not cease until He has caused the land of light to drink the dregs of the cup of His fury, and until He has rewarded unto Babylon double. All the sins of the slave will be visited upon the master."[Ref 14]
It would have been possible for Adventists to have opposed slavery, seen its evil as one of the signs of the end, and still not preached equality between blacks and whites. By the time of the collapse of Reconstruction and the birth of Redemption, when Mrs. White launched her appeals for the Southern work, even radical Republican papers assumed the inferiority of the black man. "It was quite common in the eighties and nineties to find in the Nation, Harper's Weekly, the North American Review, or the Atlantic Monthly, Northern liberals and former abolitionists mouthing the shibboleths of white supremacy regarding the Negro's innate inferiority, shiftlessness, and hopeless unfitness for full participation in the white man's civilization."[Ref 15] And during this same period of the eighties and nineties, Mrs. White was adamant: blacks and whites are equal.
In addition to eschatology, or the study of last day events, Mrs. White based her discussion of race on two other doctrines: redemption and creation. Christ's atoning and reconciling work meant that all men were saved, and none were more saved than others:
"Christ came to this earth with a message of mercy and forgiveness. He laid the foundation for a religion by which Jew and Gentile, black and white, free and bond, are linked together in one common brotherhood, recognized as equal in the sight of God."[Ref 16] For Mrs. White, Christ had brought men into a new relationship where each was equally related to Him. Christians, therefore, must look on other Christians as equals.
But what about those who were not Christians? If men were not converted, if they were not 'within the brotherhood created by Christ's redeeming life, could they properly relate as superior to inferior, master to slave? No." was Mrs. White's emphatic response. The doctrine of creation prevents it. God wants whites who relate to black persons to remember "their common relationship to us by creation and by redemption, and their right to the blessings of freedom."[Ref 17] Elsewhere she insisted that "man is God's property by creation and redemption."[Ref 18]
It is significant that Mrs. White did not support equality simply on the basis of redemption. Even if men were unconverted, the doctrine of creation means that all men, whether they acknowledge Christ or not, belong to God. Where man's equality and freedom are violated, it is not God acting, but mans sinful nature. "Prejudices passions, Satanic attributes, have revealed themselves in men as they have exercised their powers against their fellow men."[Ref 19]
1. Uriah Smith, editorial comment before "Letter
to the President," Review and Herald, Sept. 23, 1862, p. 130.