The historical basis of Adventist standards

A look at how our standards originated and have changed through the years can help us address the need for change today.

Gerald Wheekr is an associate book editor for the Review and Herald Publishing Association.

During the vacation season travelers in eastern Pennsylvania find the highways clogged with tour buses and out-of-state cars. People from all over the United States come there to see the colonies of Amish farmers.

To the outsider, all of the Amish, with their old-fashioned clothing and horsedrawn buggies, appear alike. But the more careful observer soon discovers that the Amish community has many sub groups, distinguished by such traits as clothing style and buggy design and color. Various factions disagree on issues such as the width of a man's hat brim and whether he should wear one or two suspenders.

Such discussions appear trivial and meaningless to the non-Amish. But they are important to the Amish because these issues actually define the nature and boundaries of their community of faith. They define who is a fellow believer and who is not. For any group to exist at all it must have a conscious identity, a self-awareness of who it thinks it is. It defines itself not only by what it believes and does, but also by what it rejects.

Most casual observers assume that the Amish think modern technology and culture are inherently evil. But the more perspicacious Amish leaders recognize and admit that their rejection of contemporary culture is a way of making themselves a distinct, self-identifiable, and cohesive group. They want to be different from the surrounding cultures so they will know who they are and who belongs to the community of faith and who does not.

Amish men wear beards because during the time of their origin shaving was perceived as symbolic of a militaristic culture. They use only hooks and eyes on their clothing because they want to be distinguished from fellow Mennonites who employ buttons. And they refuse modern technology because they see a need to maintain barriers that will keep them from being absorbed by modern society.

Perhaps some of the principles we observe at work among the Amish can help Seventh-day Adventists in their own current struggles with standards and self' identity.

Historical background of Adventist standards

Ellen White and others brought into the emerging Advent movement an approach to lifestyle based on the writings of John Wesley and other conservative religious groups. 1 Wesley and the early Methodists objected to the ostentatious styles of the wealthy classes. Men and women in the upper classes were expected to dress in a certain way as fitting of their station in life.

Most Methodists came from the lower classes and viewed expensive clothing and jewelry as an indication of vanity, self-indulgence, and an earthly heart. Wesley cautioned his followers to dress in the most simple attire and not "to ape the gentlemen." Because hair style was a part of the fashion mode of the wealthier classes, Methodist men combed their hair straight down over their foreheads in what came to be considered "the Methodist fashion."

Simplicity and "plainness" gave Methodists a clear identity, both among themselves and in the larger society. Furthermore, Methodism sought to find biblical support for their self-identity. They quoted such passages as 1 Peter 3:3; 1 Timothy 2:8, 9; James 4:4; and 1 John 2:15.

The founders of our own church echoed this desire, even reprinting Wesley's sermons on the topic in the Review and Herald. 2 Adventists could identify with the Methodist perspective because they shared many of the same concerns and also came largely from the lower socioeconomic classes.

Like the Methodists, early Adventists sought to discover God's will for themselves and their lifestyle in the Bible. But they gave their own particular twist to what they found. They saw the present life as a continuous and unending series of tests that each believer must pass. For example, they viewed the parable of the ten virgins as an example of one such test, permitting the five wise virgins to advance to the next test. It was an extremely individual-oriented approach that saw life as a constant weeding-out process. Only a select few could make it to heaven.

On April 30, 1866, the Battle Creek church adopted a series of resolutions on dress (see p. 11). A few days later the General Conference Committee expressed its opinion that the work of Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, en titled "A Letter to the Women of America on Dress," was an "admirable exposition of the Scriptures on the subject," and requested the Review and Herald Publishing Association "to append these [the Battle Creek church] resolutions to Judson's work on dress." 3

Twentieth-century Adventists might find it more difficult to see the texts quoted by Judson and the Battle Creek brethren as actually addressing some of the items and practices that the early Adventists opposed. Modem readers would interpret the scriptural passages differently. Yet Scripture spoke clearly to these pioneers about the follies of wearing jewelry made of rubber and human hair, of certain hairstyles and hair nets, and of the wrongness of a Christian man wearing a mustache or goatee.

Avoiding class consciousness

In a fascinating book titled The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, Harvey Green and Mary E. Perry compare the behavior and stands of the lower, middle, and upper classes on a number of trends reshaping nineteenth-century American society. Many of these trends involved the urgency with which Americans wanted to be recognized as part of the emerging middle class, and in this struggle for recognition we can see the basis of certain Adventist standards.

Nineteenth-century American Adventists were tempted to adopt every new fad and do anything they could to identify themselves as middle class. Where Green and Perry discuss specific topics that Ellen White wrote about, it seems significant that Mrs. White usually sided with either the lower- or upper-class position or attitude and almost always took a stand against the middle-class attitude. Why? Perhaps because she feared that Adventists, by enthusiastically climbing aboard the middle-class bandwagon, would lose their special identity and effectiveness.

This explains why Ellen White op posed bicycles when they were an expensive symbol of identification with the middle class, but when bicycles became primarily a form of personal transportation, she ceased warning against them. Apparently she was concerned about protecting the Seventh-day Adventist identity, avoiding squandering money, and avoiding vanity. But as the bicycle's role in society changed, her reaction changed as well.

Similarly, Mrs. White opposed the corset both for health reasons and because it was viewed as a symbol of wealth and aristocracy. Any woman wearing such physically limiting apparel obviously had a husband with enough money to hire servants to do the housework that she could not do. 4

In the same vein Mrs. White at one point proposed a certain style of women's dress as more healthful and as a protest against the power of class pride and personal vanity. But her reform dress is not relevant today because it no longer symbolizes a protest against unhealthful and socially arrogant style. At another time she stated that dress was not to be a test. In taking such a position she was limiting the earlier Adventist concept that everything in life was a test.

Adventists, like a number of other conservative groups, opposed anything that they felt had pagan connotations or origin. They even avoided calling the days of the week by name because the names were derived from names of pagan gods. For many years the Review and Herald employed only First Day, Second Day, etc. Today the pagan origin of day names is of little cultural concern. Few see it as a threat to Christian or Adventist identity.

Taking off the wedding ring also was once a symbol of identifying with the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America. Removing the engagement ring and wedding band was a preparatory step for baptism. However, whether we like it or not, the sexual revolution of the 1970s and society's tolerance of promiscuity have robbed this symbolic removal of much of its power. The much older symbolism of the wedding band as an indication of marital commitment has reasserted itself.

The fact that removing the wedding band never was a global Adventist symbol is also significant for our understanding of the basis of Adventist standards. Australian May Lacey, when she married Mrs. White's son William, had a ring ceremony because of its heavy symbolism to her family. Ellen White supported her daughter-in-law's decision. Later, when May White moved to North America, she stopped wearing the wedding band because she had moved from a culture that saw wearing the wedding band as a symbol of commitment to marriage to America where many saw not wearing one as a symbol of commitment to and identification with the Adventist community of faith. 6

In Victorian America the "plain, heavy" wedding band was the recognized middle-class symbol of marriage. Men did not commonly wear wedding rings. It may be that part of the reason Ellen White spoke against wedding bands in America was her opposition to Adventists adopting the trappings of middle-class status.

In 1905 Mrs. White posed for a family portrait that included her granddaughter Ella White Robinson wearing a long metal chain around her neck and standing beside her husband, who had a heavy watch chain on his vest. 8 Eight years later Mrs. White again posed with her granddaughter. This time Ella was wearing several strands of a shell necklace that, according to Alta Robinson (Ella's daughter-in-law and a staff member of the Ellen G. White Estate), Ellen White herself had brought to her granddaughter as a gift from the Hawaiian Islands. But even more interestingly, a contemporary eyewitness account of Mrs. White speaking to the Minneapolis General Conference session describes her as wearing "a straight dress of black with nothing to break the somberness, save a tiny white collar about her neck and a heavy metallic chain which hung suspended near her waist." Such a chain would no doubt be an accessory, a purely decorative element of her costume. In plainer words, it was an item of adornment.

An examination of photographs of Ellen White reveals that she enjoyed wearing pins and brooches. See, for ex ample, those in the article "Heirloom: Leaves From Ellen White's Family Album" in the Spring 1982 issue of Adventist Heritage. She wore the pins either on her dress or to pin her collar together. When she visited Hawaii a woman gave her silk material, a silk scarf, and a pin of white stones costing $10, a good week's pay at the time. Ellen White's first reaction was not to accept the gifts, but seeing that this would disappoint the woman, she took them and wore them afterward. Echoing John Wesley's perspective, she wrote that it was "very plain and serviceable" and "not showy at all." 10 To Ellen White, simplicity or plainness did not exclude decoration if such decoration did not appeal to personal vanity or class consciousness.

Another standard that has been strongly upheld by Adventists, at least until recently, has to do with attendance at theaters. Mrs. White has some strong things to say about theaters and theater attendance, and it appears that she rules out serious drama. But we need to consider the historical basis of her opposition. Serious drama as we now know it simply did not exist in nineteenth-century America. Theater consisted of melodramatic plays interspersed with "one-act fore- and after- pieces often gingered up with breeches parts for women and licentiousness and buffoonery." Whenever they could, the producers of the plays would slip in lots of women wearing tights or other scanty costumes. A British actor observed of American theater that "modesty seems not to be a necessary qualification in an actress."

Theaters were usually clustered among billiard parlors, saloons, "and other re sorts for the profligate and idle." The audiences too often consisted of street rowdies and prostitutes and their potential customers. Thus the theater had a well-deserved bad reputation. It was not until late in the century that plays began to be presented without the musical and other acts. 11

Another major form of the theater was the minstrel shows with their black-faced White actors presenting crude racial stereotypes. They were so popular that serious drama could not compete against them. 12

Taking these factors into consideration, it seems to me that it would be wrong to categorically rule out the reading or performance of serious drama without considering the difference between these and what early Adventism took a stand against.

How to set our standards

What we see in these examples is that early Adventist understanding of right and wrong was strongly conditioned by cultural as well as time factors. We must always learn, as Ellen White did, how to select from culture what is timeless and useful, and reject the transitory and the dangerous. Consider, for example, what we refer to as the eight laws of health. Ellen White did not originate them. We find them extensively enunciated in a wide variety of popular publications of her day. Such articles stressed the need for fresh air, pure water, exercise, and rest, etc. Ellen White called for Adventists to adopt these healthful practices. But she rejected the motivation behind their original publication.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century the White middle-class population felt threatened by their own declining birth rate and a rising tide of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. They saw political control slip ping from their grasp. The authors of the popular health articles saw in the eight laws of health a means of keeping the women of the White middle class in good health so that they could have more children. They believed that the future of the nation literally rested on the health and fertility of Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. The articles were avowedly racist. 13 Ellen White could accept their methodology without adopting their presuppositions.

She also shared many concerns, such as the importance of a temperance movement and the advantages of country living, with what we now call the Social Gospel movement in the United States. But she did not accept most of the movement's philosophical conclusions. She could respond to the positive aspects of her culture without adopting the negative elements.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the world has changed since our standards were first shaped, and we unconsciously recognize that fact by our continual modification of some practices.

Most Adventists, for example, no longer worry about the impropriety of wearing mustaches and goatees even though the General Conference once took an official stand against them. 14

An example of a standard that many Adventists believe has been changed by changes in society involves preparation for the Sabbath. Ellen White urged believers to have their baths on Friday, but in places where getting clean no longer involves laboriously heating water on a wood-burning stove, many Adventists see nothing wrong with taking a quick shower on Sabbath morning. 15 The specific injunction no longer seems as relevant in the modernized Western world, though the absolute principle of Sabbath sacredness and observance remains eternal.

The General Conference and other Adventist institutions now have cars and drivers to transport visitors. In 1902, however, when the administrator of one of our sanitariums inquired whether his institution should obtain an automobile to take patients back and forth from the train station, Ellen White wrote, "My brother, do not make such a purchase." She saw it as setting an irresponsible pat tern. Yet three years later she rode in a car from the train station to a sanitarium and expressed her enjoyment of automobile travel. In just three years the situation apparently had changed. 16 What was one period's extravagance quickly became a necessity.

All these types of things are modifications of Adventist lifestyle to changing circumstances.

Like the Amish, we need a lifestyle that gives us an identity, that binds us together as a people. But it must be a fence that protects God's flock, not a barrier that excludes or separates into hostile factions. It must bring out scriptural principles that meet all times and cultures rather than simply opposing certain nineteenth-century Victorian American practices. And it must learn to recognize that a practice that is a symbolic danger in one cultural context may lose that significance as time and cultural context change. An artificial flower that represents class status in one time and place may be nothing more than a harm less decoration in another. 17

If we do not establish such a set of standards, one that is sensitive to changing conditions, we could become little more than a historical curiosity like the Amish.







1866 resolutions on dress

The Battle Creek Seventh-day Adventist Church adopted the following resolutions on dress on April 30, 1866. Those attending the General Conference session of that year liked them so much that they voted to adopt them also, making only a minor change in the wording of point 7 and adding a twelfth point.

"In view of the present corrupt and corrupting state of the world, and the shameful extremes to which pride and fashion are leading their votaries, and the danger of some among us, especially the young, being contaminated by the influence and example of the world around them we feel constrained as a church, to express our views on the subject of dress, in the following resolutions, which we believe are truly scriptural, and such as will commend themselves to the Christian taste and judgment of our brethren and sisters everywhere.


"Point 1. We believe, as a church, that it is the duty of our members in all matters of dress, to be scrupulously plain.

"Point 2. We regard plumes, feathers, flowers, and all superfluous bonnet ornaments as only the outward index of a vain heart, and as such are not to be tolerated in any of our members.

"Point 3. jewelry. We believe that every species of gold, silver, coral, pearl, rubber, and hair jewelry are not only entirely superfluous, but strictly forbidden by the plain teachings of the Scriptures.

"Point 4. Trimming of Dresses. We hold that flounces, loops,* and a profuseness of ribbons, cording, braid, embroidery, buttons, etc., in dress trimming are vanities condemned by the Bible (see Isa. 3), and consequently should not be countenanced by 'women professing godliness.'

"Point 5. Low-Necked Dresses. These, we believe, are a disgrace to the community, and a sin in the church; and all who patronize this shameful fashion transgress the apostle's command to 'adorn themselves in modest apparel' (1 Tim. 2:9).

"Point 6. Dressing the Hair. We believe that the extravagant dressing and ornamenting of the hair, so common at this time, is condemned by the apostle (1 Tim. 2:9); and that the various beaded and spangled networks, such as are used to contain those artificial deformities called 'waterfalls,' 'waterwheels,' etc., are the 'cauls' of Isaiah 3:18 [margin], which God has threatened to take away in the day of His anger.

''Point 7. We hold that in the matter of shaving and coloring the beard, some of our brethren display a species of vanity equally censurable with that of certain of the sisters in dressing the hair; and that in all cases should they discard every style which will betoken the air of the fop; but while we have no objections to a growth of beard on all parts of the face, as nature designed it, yet where any portion of the beard is removed, we think the brethren greatly err from the sobriety of the Christian in donning the mustache or goatee.

"Point 8. We believe that the extreme fashions of the present day in bonnets and hats, for females, are not to be countenanced; but that the main object to be kept in view in obtaining wearing apparel for the head is cohering and protection.

"Point 9. Hoops. We believe that 'hoops are a shame' (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4, p. 68), meaning by hoops anything of the kind, by which from its size, or the nature of the material, the form of the wearer is liable to be immodestly exposed. (See Ex. 20:26.)

"Point 10. Costly Apparel. We believe that Paul by the expression 'costly array' (1 Tim. 2:9) condemns the obtaining of the most costly material for garments, either for males or females, although it may be unexceptionable in other respects.

"Point 11. New Fashions. We believe that the people of God should be slow to adopt new fashions, of whatever sort they may be; for if not useful, we ought never to adopt them; if they are, it will be time enough for us to take them after they have been tested, and the excitement of their introduction has passed away; and having once found that which is neat, modest, and convenient, let us be slow to change. See Titus 2:14- "-Published in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald of May 8, 1866.

"Point 12. While we condemn pride and vanity, as set forth in the foregoing resolutions, we equally abhor and abominate everything that is slovenly, slack, untidy, and uncleanly in dress or manners." Point 12 added by the General Conference Session of 1866; see Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Ma? 22, 1866.

1 Several years ago one of our North American
colleges sponsored a series of lectures presenting
the Methodist heritage in Adventism. Each lecture
concentrated on some topic such as health or dress
and showed the influence Methodism had on
Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and lifestyle. The
individual selected to speak on dress became so
uncomfortable at finding so many parallels between
Ellen White's writings and those of Wesley on the
topic that he never gave the lecture.

2 See for example the reprint of Wesley's sermon
"On Dress" in the July 10, 1855, issue.

3 Review and Herald, May 22, 1866.

4 The Light of the Home, pp. 3, 4.

5 Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 636, 637.

6 See Arthur White, Ellen G. White: The Australian
Years, 1891-1900 (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald Publishing Association, 1983),
pp. 196, 197.

7 J. C. Fumas, The Americans; A Social History
of the United States, 1587-1914 (New York: G. P.
Putnam's Sons, 1969), pp. 18, 19.

8 The photograph is printed in Arthur White,
Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-
1905 (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Pub
lishing Association, 1981).

9 "A Female Oracle," Minneapolis Tribune,
Oct. 21, 1888.

10 Ellen G. White letter 32a, 1891.

11 Fumas, pp. 564-569, 757, 758; Robert R.
Roberts, "Popular Culture and Public Taste," in H.
W. Morgan, ed., The Gilded Age, revised and
enlarged edition (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse Uni
versity Press, 1970), pp. 285, 286.

12 Fumas, pp. 516, 517; Roberts, p. 286.
"Ibid., pp. 30, 115-117, 132-137, 183, 184.
See also Janet Forsyth Fishburn, The Fatherhood of
God and the Victorian Family (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1981).

14 See Review and Herald, May 22, 1866;Furnas,
p. 665. The combination of mustache and goatee
was popularized by a personality cult centering on
Louis Napoleon, emperor of France and a major
actor in European politics. Adventists could have
been reacting to the style's association with him.

15 See, however, Thomas Blincoe's argument in
"The Preparation Principle," Ministry, June 1988,
pp. 6-8. Blincoe argues that the issue involved here
is not how much work getting clean involves but
the importance of preparing for the Sabbath before
it arrives.

16 Ellen G. White letter 158, 1902, and letter
263, 1905. Both are quoted in E. G. White Manuscript
Releases, vol. 1, pp. 394, 395.

17 Some Adventists may remember the discussion
of artificial flowers that went on during the
1950s. The conclusion, as I recall, was that the
flowers were acceptable (contrary to the
nineteenth-century position) but should not be
worn at camp meeting.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Gerald Wheekr is an associate book editor for the Review and Herald Publishing Association.

October 1989

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