Ellen G. White: Racist or Champion of Equality?
By Roy Branson
How does one resolve the apparent contradiction in the following statements from Ellen G. White?
"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 1]
"The colored people should not urge that they be placed on an equality with white people."[Ref 2]
Was Mrs. White inconsistent? Was her true position equality of race? If so, why did she urge in volume nine of the Testimonies, "Let the white believers and the colored believers assemble in separate places of worship"?[Ref 3]
In order to understand Mrs. White's statements urging segregation at the turn of the century, it is necessary to recreate their context. What were her racial views as a whole? What were Adventist contemporaries saying about race? What were the changing social and political conditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century America? Finding answers to these questions leads one to conclude that to her contemporaries Mrs. White could never have appeared to be a racist. In fact, throughout much of her life, radicals on race relations would have assumed that she was one of their own.
Today, denouncing slavery and its advocates does not seem revolutionary. But the majority did not oppose slavery in mid nineteenth-century America. So many good and regular members of the Methodist denomination condoned slavery that the church split in 1844. A year later, slavery divided the Baptists. These denominations provided most of the members for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which at that time was working largely in the North. In 1857 the New Side Presbyterians could no longer agree on the Christian attitude toward slavery. So many Christians defended slavery in 1861 that three denominations were torn apart: Old Side Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.
While many fine Christians defended slavery or insisted that it was an economic or political issue, certainly not a moral one, Mrs. White called slavery "'a sin of the darkest dye.'" [Ref 4]
Furthermore, she demanded its public defenders be disfellowshiped from the Advent Movement.
A Strong Position
"'You have never looked upon slavery in the right light, and your views of this matter have thrown you on the side of the Rebellion, which was stirred up by Satan and his host. Your views of slavery cannot harmonize with the sacred, important truths for this time. You must yield your views or the truth. Both cannot be cherished in the same heart, for they are at war with each other. . . . Unless you undo what you have done, it will be the duty of God's people to publicly withdraw their sympathy and fellowship from you, in order to save the impression which must go out in regard to us as a people. We must let it be known that we have no such ones in our fellowship, that we will not walk with them in church capacity.'"[Ref 5]
At a time when slavery was an open question for Americans, Mrs. White declared that Adventists holding pro-slavery views were anathema. It would have been possible to denounce slavery in the strong terms Mrs. White used and still have stopped short of being an abolitionist. In fact, Adventists were abolitionists at a when most opponents of slavery advocating other solutions. Some attacked the existing system of slavery advocated dispersion of blacks throughout the country. Others proposed separating American blacks into Africanized states" in the deep South.[Ref 6] Until 1833, most opponents of slavery supported colonization of American blacks in Africa, Central America, or the Caribbean Islands. At different times in its history, the American Colonization Society boasted a its officers such men as Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay, and former Presidents James Madison and James Monroe.[Ref 7] President Lincoln called a group of free blacks to the White House in August, 1862, and urged them to support colonization. Right to the end of the war, he thought colonization would help relieve the racial problem in America. [Ref 8] A further indication abolition was not synonymous anti-slavery sentiment was the fact the official position of the Republican Party was not abolition of slavery but its nonextension into new States. [Ref 9]
Even in the North, abolitionists were considered extremists. A few days after Pennsylvania Hall, built especially for abolitionist meeting Philadelphia, was first opened, a pro-slavery mob burned it to the ground. William Lloyd Garrison, commemorated today by a statue in Boston, was mobbed by Bostonians trying to tar and feather him for abolitionist agitation. As one historian has said, "To be an abolitionist in Boston, Philadelphia, or Cincinnati meant courting social ostracism, business ruin, and physical assault." [Ref 10] North and South, abolitionists were considered almost as extreme as demonstrators in American cities today. "The abolitionist movement never became the major channel of Northern anti-slavery sentiment. It remained in 1860 what it had been in the 1830's the small but not still voice of radical reform.[Ref 11]
Among the variety of anti-slavery groups, Adventists identified themselves with the radical, abolitionist minority. Sojourner Truth, one of the black heroines of abolition, visited a Millerite camp meeting in 1843, though she did not agree them. Years later she settled in Battle Creek. There she had Seventh day Adventist friends, and early Battle Creek College students often visited her. At least one edition of her biography printed by the Review and Herald for its author, Frances Titus.
Joseph Bates the former sea captain who had so much to do with Adventists, accepting the Sabbath, first supported the American Colonization Society, later helped found the abolitionist society in his home town. [Ref 12:]
Even within this extreme reformist segment of American society some were more radical than others and Adventist stood with the more activist. "Abolitionists" were also divided on the matter of devoting time and energy to assisting fugitive slaves.[Ref 13:] Prominent Adventists had no such qualms. John Preston Kellogg, the father of John Harvey Kellogg and W. K. Kellogg was one of the incorporators of the Seventh Day Adventist publishing association and a member of the Seventh day Adventist Church to the end of his life. He used his farms in Michigan to harbor slaves fleeing their former owners. [Ref 14] John Byington. the first president of the General Conference of Seventh day Adventists had earlier left the Methodist Episcopal Church because it did not take a stand against slavery. At his farm in Buck's Bridge, New York, he maintained a station of the Underground Railroad, illegally transporting fugitive slaves from the South to Canada. [Ref 15]
Anyone who thinks these men were aberrations with the Adventist Church should remember that Mrs. White herself said that, "the law of out land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey." [Ref 16] While even some of the abolitionists refused to go so far as breaking the fugitive slave law, Mrs. White advocated disobeying this Federal statute. She did this on the basis that this law conflicted "with the word and law of God." She may have had in mind Deuteronomy 23:15: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee."
When the North elected Lincoln the fugitive slave law was still the law of land. In his first inaugural address Lincoln went out of his way to promise he would enforce that law specifically. He also reminded the country that they had not voted for abolition. Quoting from his campaign speech, he pledged anew that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly s. to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so. and I have no inclination to do so." [Ref 17]
Even when war broke out. Lincoln refused to proclaim emancipation. In fact he ordered Union officers to stop harboring fugitive slaves escaping to advancing Union armies. Abolition leaders such as Wendell Phillips, Henry Sumner, and William Garrison exploded into attacks on Lincoln and his administration. [Ref 18]
Mrs. White too complained that "thousands have been induced to enlist with the understanding that this war was as to exterminate slavery; but now that they are fixed, they find that they have been deceived that object of this war is not to abolish slavery." [Ref 19]
Not only had American citizens been alienated, but potential allies as well. "I was shown that if the object of this war had been to exterminate slavery, then, if desired, England would have helped the North. But England fully understands the existing feeling in the Government, and that the war is not to do away with slavery but merely to preserve the Union." [Ref 20] Failure of the North to declare emancipation of slaves its goal had not only led to the undermining of morale and loss of allies but even worse, to outright subversion. "There are commanding officers who are in sympathy with the rebels. While they are desirous of having the Union preserved, they despise those who are anti slavery It seems impossible to have the war conducted successfully, for many in our own ranks are continually working to favor the South, and our armies have been repulsed and unmercifully slaughtered on account of the management of these pro-slavery men." [Ref 21]
Mrs. White statement could most likely have been applicable to General George B. McClellan, General in Chief of the Union Army, who was persistently attacked by abolitionists for not strongly opposing slavery and for not executing the war more vigorously. [Ref 22]
Mrs. White rose to the heights of indignation when Northern leaders indifferent to the causes of abolition returned slaves to their former owners and simultaneously issued pious proclamations for national fasts and prayer Such hypocrisy must be condemned. "I was shown that these national fasts were and insult to Jehovah. He accepts no such fasts....
"Great men professing to have human hearts have seen the slaves almost naked and starving and have abused them and sent them back to their cruel masters hopeless bondage.... They have deprived them of their liberty and free air which heaven has never denied them, and then left them to suffer for food and clothing. In view of all this, a national fast is proclaimed! Oh, what an insult to Jehovah!" [Ref 23]
Clearly, Mrs. White stood with that abolitionist minority in the North which condemned those who hesitated or equivocated on the emancipation issue.
1 Testimonies, vol. 7. P. 225