Viewpoint: Legislating morality

Viewpoint: Legislating morality: How far do we go?

Lessons from the past on Adventist involvement in moral and social issues

Gary Gibbs is the vice president for Hope Channel.

Since 1960 the United States has seen "a 560 percent increase in violent crime and a 400 percent increase in illegitimate births. Despite massive levels of public assistance and unprecedented welfare spending, we witnessed a quadrupling of the divorce rate, a tripling of the number of children in single-parent homes, a 200 percent increase in teenage suicides, and a drop of 75 points in the average SAT scores of high school students."1

This frightening and dangerous decline in values has sent many to urge their legislators to restore morality. Well-organized conservative Christian groups are a force to be reckoned with in local and national politics.

This raises some serious questions for Adventists. We, too, can relate to the concerns of our Christian friends, alarmed at the current moral degeneration. But we also are a people of prophecy, and we expect a day when the United States will pass laws dictating how to worship God.

Hence, we find ourselves in a dilemma. If we oppose the conservative Christian agenda, we appear to be their opponents. Yet if we agree with the push for legally mandated morality, then we seem to be neglecting the truth of prophecy. What is the proper stance for Adventists to take regarding legislating morality? Should we oppose it because we feel it will ultimately lead to the curbing of religious freedoms? Or is there a role we can play that both upholds moral values and attests to the truthfulness of biblical prophecy?

Light from the past

Our past is helpful in determining this. The 1800s didn't have the problems of pornography, illegitimate births, abortion, child abuse, etc. that plague us today. But that age did have a major issue that fired Christian activists: alcohol abuse. At times the temperance movement was as hotly contested on the political circuit as abortion is today. And it was almost single-handedly pushed into the national consciousness by an organized league of Sunday-keeping Christians a league that eventually included the drive for a national Sunday law. How did Adventist leaders respond to this? Specifically, how did Ellen White react to this religiopolitical temperance movement?

"Go vote"

While Mrs. White counseled Adventists not to "become involved in political questions," she did not mean for us to be completely detached from politics and moral reform. She urged all church members to vote and to influence legislation on the moral issue of alcohol use.2

In May 1865, at the third annual General Conference session in Battle Creek, Michigan, the delegates passed a resolution that supported voting for moral issues. 3 Nearly twenty years later the question of whether Adventists should vote on issues of morality surfaced again at a camp meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, where James and Ellen White were present. A proposed action was placed before the people that instructed all ministers "to use their influence among our churches and with the people at large to induce them to put forth every consistent effort, by personal labor, and at the ballot box, in favor of the prohibitory amendment of the Constitution."4

Some of the brethren disagreed with the clause that called for action at "the ballot box" and asked that it be removed.

Ellen White, who had retired for the night, was called to give her counsel. She wrote later: "I dressed and found I was to speak to the point of whether our people should vote for prohibition. I told them 'Yes,' and spoke twenty minutes."5

A crucial distinction

Romans 13:1-4 states that it is the government's duty to punish those who are lawbreakers. Laws are not amoral. Every time the law of the land makes murder, theft, or perjury a crime, it has legislated morality. And this is as it should be.

However, this does not mean governments should legislate how people are to worship God. When it comes to legislating morality, a crucial distinction must be made between the two tables of the Ten Commandments. Over one table the Lord rules. Over the other civil leaders, including "the ministers of God," have a responsibility (see verse 4). It is proper for governments to establish and enforce laws dealing with the last six commandments, which define the human-to-human relationship. But the first four commandments, describing the human-to-God relationship, are under God's sole jurisdiction. A government's role here is simply to provide for the free exercise of religion.

Civil government has a duty to follow God's law and honor Him. Ellen White understood this and was not fearful of being involved in social issues of grave moral import. Neither did she allow the fact that Sunday observers were the catalyst for the temperance movement to keep her from championing the cause.

The temperance movement

The temperance crusade grew out of a desire to reverse the downward spiral of an "alcoholic republic."6 Alcohol was a loose lion. Legally protected, it ravaged the minds and bodies of people. Christians were concerned. Lyman Beecher, a Congregationalist pastor, sparked social activism to outlaw alcohol with his six-sermon series on intemperance in 1825 and 1826. Another sermon series by Calvin Chapin, preached and published in Connecticut, further influenced public opinion.

In response, 16 prominent citizens of Boston met in February 1826 and formed what eventually became the American Temperance Union (ATU). In nine years the ATU had 8,000 societies in the United States. By 1839, 350,000 persons had made decisions to sign total abstinence pledges.7

Ellen and James White were not content to sit on the sidelines. They were avid supporters of this cause and often united their efforts with the members of other churches. "In his labors," wrote Ellen White, "my husband, whenever he had opportunity, invited the workers in the temperance cause to his meetings, and gave them an opportunity to speak. And when invitations were given us to attend their gatherings, we always responded."8 As a result, the Whites had "the joy of seeing several unite with us in the observance of the true Sabbath."9

Mrs. White continued to urge this practice right up to the time of her death. Nine months before her death she wrote calling the church to work in harmony with the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an interfaith Christian organization concerned predominantly with lobbying for prohibition. She encouraged high-level involvement and interaction.10

What were these temperance societies like? They marshaled "Cold Water Armies." Sunday School children marched in parades and "dispensed cold water to spectators along the way, freely distributed temperance tracts, and endeavored to persuade drinkers to sign the total abstinence pledge."11

Temperance societies also used politics to achieve their goals by lobbying state and federal legislatures to pass prohibition laws. When lawmakers didn't support their cause, the temperance promoters ran their own candidates. Prohibition was made an election issue. With the antiprohibition candidates out of office, the prohibition officials influenced legislation outlawing alcohol.12

Women were influential in a unique way. With Bibles in hand, they entered taverns, knelt on sawdust floors to pray, and appealed to tavern-keepers to close their places of business. Frequently they conducted all-day sit-ins.13

The WCTU pledged "to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in [alcoholic beverages]." Frances Willard, president of the WCTU for 19 years, "campaigned for prohibition amendments in state constitutions, supported the women's suffrage movement ..., advocated vegetarianism, opposed tobacco use, called for the creation of kindergartens, and on Sundays even sent ladies to the local jails to take bouquets with Bible texts attached for the prisoners."14

Of course, Ellen White did not advise Adventists to participate in all of the WCTU's activities, but only "so far as we can do so without compromise." 15 Neither did she suggest that Adventists indiscriminately join all temperance societies.

The reason for the moral crisis

In one of her clearest statements regarding our responsibility to God and government, Ellen White rallied Adventists to go to the polls and exert their vote in favor of temperance. Here, she also gives us a striking insight into the cause of our moral crisis.

"There is a cause for the moral paralysis upon society. Our laws sustain an evil which is sapping their very foundations. Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be.... The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example---by voice and pen and vote---in favor of prohibition and total abstinence."16

This statement reveals two important principles. First, a major cause of moral degradation in a country is its immoral laws. Second, Adventists have a responsibility to God and society to change such laws. Wringing our hands and complaining about how bad things have become is not enough.

We shirk duty when we sit back and point to the atrocious crimes of child abuse, rape, abortion, and pornography as signs of the end and then neglect to use our influence as citizens to correct the laws that sustain these evils. While protecting the wall of separation between church and state, we must not open the gate to evil that will ravage our children and homes. This is the balance that we must strive to maintain.

Christians in politics

Some believers lament Christian involvement in the political process. But if Christians do not stand for moral beliefs and values, who will? Who will resist the incessant tide of immorality that seeks to erode society? If we absent ourselves from the public forum, what type of society will we inherit after these with purely secularized concerns exercise their right to vote and influence public opinion?

Here is what happens when Christians are silent: Secular humanists control the state. With no fear of God, there is no fear of degradation and self-destruction. Laws are enacted that are godless and sustain corruption. How will Christians fare in such a society? They will not be able to freely live out their faith. And their children will be constantly bombarded with ungodliness and emptiness.

Ellen White was no silent observer when it came to the moral issues that affect society. One can only wonder what she would tell Adventists today regarding abortion upon demand, pornography, and euthanasia. Surely she would not condemn those in our nation who champion reform and laws that "rigidly enforce" common-sense virtue.

Temperance and Sunday laws

In 1887 the WCTU sided with the National Reform Association (NRA), a national Sunday law lobbying group. They hoped to improve American morality by closing saloons at least on Sundays.17 But state governments passed Sunday laws and used them to persecute Adventists and Jews. This all transpired in what was for Adventists a very charged atmosphere full of prophetic significance. At the 1888 General Conference session, the church experienced a significant outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This, coupled with the move by the NRA and WCTU to pass Sunday laws, signaled to every Adventist that the world was on the verge of the end of time. Consequently, Adventists didn't want to have much to do with organizations such as the WCTU, which were involved in Sunday legislation.

A. T. Jones, editor of Sentinel, was the denomination's foremost defender of religious liberty during this era. Jones, concerned with the Sunday law developments, came out hard against anyone and any organization connected with it. In one of his articles he pointed out the relationship between the WCTU and the NRA and was critical of some of the WCTU leaders' statements in favor of Sunday legislation.

Ellen White's reaction to Jones is both interesting and instructive. "You are building up barricades," she wrote Jones, "that should not be made to appear. After reading your articles [against WCTU], will those who know not what our faith is feel inclined to make an attempt to unite with us?.... The work Christ came to do in our world was not to erect barriers and constantly thrust upon the people the fact that they were wrong.... If far more earnest, devoted, determined efforts were made for such associations as the WCTU, light would shine forth to souls who are as honest as was Cornelius.... The ideas expressed in your articles savor so strongly of antagonism that you will do harm, more harm than you can possibly conceive." 18

A few weeks later she wrote Jones again, indicating that regardless of the WCTU's involvement with Sunday legislation, we still were to work with and for them in a kind, Christlike way. "Some of our best talent should be set at work for the WCTU, not as antagonists, but as those who fully appreciate the good that has been done by this body. We should seek to gain the confidence of the workers in the WCTU, by harmonizing with them as far as possible.... My brother, do not represent truth and the situation of things as so formidable that those belonging to the WCTU will turn away in despair. There are vital truths upon which they have had very little light. They should be dealt with in tenderness, in love, and with respect for their good work. You ought not to handle them as you do. If you continue to do this, you will close doors whereby some, yes, many might be reached. Withhold your condemnation till you and our people have done all that can be done to reach them, not by the learned arguments of ministers, but through women of influence working as Sister Henry worked." 19

Example of Sister Henry

According to Ellen White, Mrs. Henry was a model for how Adventists are to work with other Christians in parachurch organizations that have both moral reform and Sunday law agendas. Who was Mrs. Henry, and what example did she leave for us to follow?

Before joining our church, Mrs. S.M.I. Henry was WCTU's national evangelist. In 1896 she went to Battle Creek Sanitarium as a patient. The doctors said she would not be able to walk again and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. While at the sanitarium she learned of and accepted membership into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After covenanting with God to keep His commandments and attending a prayer service for healing, Mrs. Henry was restored to health. Ellen White, in Australia at the time, was thrilled to learn of her conversion and began developing a friendship through correspondence.

In December 1898 Ellen White wrote to Mrs. Henry: "I thank the Lord with heart, and soul, and voice that you have been a prominent and influential member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.... For twenty years I have seen that the light would come to the women workers in the temperance lines.... The Lord does not bid you separate from the [WCTU]. They need all the light you can give them.... Flash all the light possible into their pathway. You can agree with them on the ground of the pure, elevating principles that first brought into existence the [WCTU]."20

At the moment Ellen White's letter arrived, Mrs. Henry had already turned in her resignation as an officer of the WCTU; but after reading Mrs. White's letter, she withdrew it. While Mrs. Henry conscientiously quit the WCTU because of their work for national Sunday legislation, Ellen White's broader vision encouraged her to remain in the organization. Thankfully, Mrs. Henry followed Mrs. White's counsel: "It was largely due to the influence of her work and her appeals that the work in behalf of the Sunday law was quite generally dropped by that organization."21

Let's be perfectly clear. God does call people into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But this call doesn't exclude Adventists from working together with Christians in parachurch organizations that have the same concerns as we do for moral reform, as long as we, in the words of Ellen White, "can do so without compromising any principle of truth."22 Unfortunately, it is this crucial balance that many find difficult to maintain. Even so, we must strive for it.

Fulfilling our duty

The history of our participation in the temperance movement sheds light on our current situation. It is clear from Ellen White's own practice that, while our work is to share the everlasting gospel, it is not our duty to be separated from social, and at times political, involvement.

While Adventists "exert their influence by precept and example---by voice and pen and vote in favor of" reform, we should also seek to educate people to the separation found in God's law between the first four commandments and last, six. By making clear the distinction between where a government's duty begins and ends, we can educate people to the claims of God's fourth commandment and warn against oppressive religious laws.

Our calling as a church is not to reform the political system. Social and political involvement will by no means settle the sin problem. Only personal conversion and the return of Jesus can accomplish this. Nevertheless, while living to hasten the coming kingdom, we must also fulfill our God-given duty to be responsible citizens and participate in maintaining a stable society. To do so is to act in total harmony with our faith.

1. Jim Nelson Black, When Nations Die, America on the Brink: Ten Warning Signs of a Culture in Crisis (Wheaton, 111.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1994), 6.

2. Ellen G. White, "The Temperance Work? Review and Herald, Oct. 15,1914.

3. See Review and Herald, May 23,1865, 197.

4. Ellen G. White, Temperance (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1949), 255.

5. Ibid.

6. Jerome Clark, "The Crusade Against Alcohol," in Gary Land, ed. The World of Ellen G. White (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), 131.

7. Ibid., 132.


8. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: E. G. White Estate, 1981), 1:123.

9. ____, "Disseminating Temperance Principles," Review and Herald, June 18,1908.

10. See "The Temperance Work."

11. Clark, 132.

12. Ibid., 134, 135.

13. Ibid., 136, 137.

14. Ibid., 138.

15. "The Temperance Work."

16. ____, "The Temperance Wrork," italics supplied.

17. George Knight, Angry Saints (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1989), 17.

18. Ellen G. White, Letter 17,1900.

19. ____, Manuscript Releases, 7:167-169.

20. Ibid., 1:125, 126.

21. Ibid., 126.

22. Ibid., 129.

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Gary Gibbs is the vice president for Hope Channel.

November 1998

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