Members who smoke and church discipline: A view from the writings of Ellen G. White
The course pursued toward Doctor Osborn has been all wrong. Had this man been handled judiciously he would have been a blessing to the church. He has used tobacco to a greater or less degree, but this habit was not as offensive in the sight of God as the defects in the character of those who might judge him, for God weighs the motives.”1
So wrote Ellen White to the leadership of the church in Ligonier, Indiana, to forbear and be more patient with “Dr. Osborn,” a member who had not yet quit the use of tobacco. The statement led me to research the writings of Ellen White on the issue of church discipline as it relates to members who may not be living up to the health message as a part of our gospel proclamation. This research makes no pretension of being comprehensive or thorough, but it represents, fairly, Ellen White’s views on how the church should deal with members who are victims of tobacco use and smoking. My approach reviews significant portions of selected extant texts (unpublished manuscripts, articles, and published writings), paying close attention to the chronology of the writings.
Between 1848 and 1865, Ellen White had four major visions on health reform. As early as autumn 1848, she was shown the devastating effects of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs such as tea and coffee.2 Six years later, in February 1854, she received more light on temperance, especially on the use of refined and rich foods. A vision that occurred in June 1863 helped her elaborate on previous revelations and go beyond the simple warning against tobacco and alcohol to stress the importance of a more wholistic lifestyle. The vision of Christmas 1865 gave her more impetus in helping the church understand the importance (and application) of principles given in previous visions, and further stress the importance of building sanitariums and other healthcare institutions. Thus, Ellen White’s precise counsel on tobacco was, at least, as early as autumn 1848.
Tobacco is not for Christians
On March 24, 1868, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald published a statement dealing with tobacco, hop, and swine farmers, signed by both James and Ellen White. While the Whites strongly encouraged tobacco, hop, and swine farmers to align themselves with the principles of health reform and eventually get rid of such businesses, they did not deem that this “business” had to be taken as a test of Christian fellowship.3
A few years later, according to reports at camp meetings occurring in 1875 and 1876, some Adventists still used tobacco after their acceptance into the church but felt compelled to confess, give it up, and completely take the burden to the Lord in prayer. One, Dr. Pottinger, testified, “My brethren may have thought they were meeting with only half a brother, when they saw me using tobacco . . . I shall take hold in earnest to rid myself of tobacco.”4
Ellen White noted that Christians5 and even “certain Christian ministers”6 used tobacco, even though it is not clear if she refers to non-Adventists or Adventists. Interestingly enough, Millerites would not necessarily be against tobacco, but on December 5, 1884, during a meeting in Chicago, a son of William Miller “felt that his service would not be acceptable to God until he should overcome the tobacco habit. He here determined to be a free man, cleansed from everything that can defile.”7
In any case, Ellen White considered the use of tobacco harmful, immoral, and contrary to the will of God for humans.8 She clearly viewed abstinence from tobacco (and other harmful substances and foods) as a habit in “harmony with the instruction of the Bible.”9 She also believed that the message of Christian temperance should be used to lead people enslaved by harmful habits to the cross of Christ: “Persons who have not entered a church for nearly a score of years have come to such gatherings and have been converted. The result was, they discarded tea and coffee, tobacco, beer, and liquor.”10 An important part of this message provides valid alternatives to these harmful habits, especially when teaching the youth.11
Working closely with James and Ellen White, J. N. Loughborough published an article in the Review and Herald, on November 5, 1861, that had far-reaching consequences. He stated, “We do not take in any who use tobacco, and reject the gifts of the Spirit of God, if we know it. One of the very objects to be accomplished by church organization is to lop off these things, and only have those come together who stand in the light. To take in those who are holding on to their sins and wrongs would be to encourage the things we are seeking to remedy.”12
The same standard remained untouched for years, as evidenced by Ellen White’s counsel some forty years later to Brother and Sister Haskell in Nashville: Tobacco and alcohol users “should not be received into the church until they give evidence that they are truly converted, that they feel the need of the faith that works by love and purifies the soul. The truth of God will purify the true believer. He who is thoroughly converted will abandon every defiling habit and appetite. By total abstinence, he will overcome his desire for health-destroying indulgences.”13
While Ellen White was very passionate in her appeal to quit the use of tobacco and other harmful substances, she also recognized that “If we come to persons who have not been enlightened in regard to health reform, and present our strongest positions at first, there is danger of their becoming discouraged as they see how much they have to give up, so that they will make no effort to reform. We must lead the people along patiently and gradually, remembering the hole of the pit whence we were digged.”14
Ellen White’s attitude to church discipline
But what if a smoker was found among church members? What if the member had given up tobacco and then fallen back into the old habit? Or what would happen if a person had been accepted into the church before giving up the harmful habit, and then failed to quit? In order to answer such questions, it is necessary to take a brief look at Ellen White’s understanding of, and attitude toward, church discipline, and then present a case in point.
Ellen White always advocated the example of Jesus’ instructions, given in Matthew 18:15–17, for dealing with sin in the church.15 She had little patience for those who felt a particular zeal (and pleasure) in accusing and abusing the brethren,16 and advised that overly critical members “should not be retained as members.”17 Instead, she encouraged compassion, “patience and forbearance with individuals,” and acknowledged that “if these individuals were disfellowshipped, they would be brought more closely in connection with an unholy influence and the possibility of saving them [would be] lost.”18 She urged the necessity of seeking “wisdom and know[ing] how to treat each individual case. Not all must be treated alike . . . if one is living in disobedience to the commandments of God, the church must act and must separate them from them. And for other sins it will often be necessary to disfellowship souls if they continue in their sins; yet great care should be used and great patience and forbearance exercised.”19
For example, W. O. Palmer worked closely with Edson White in the southern states in the early 1900s, especially among African-Americans, preaching, writing, and establishing schools and churches and the publishing house in Nashville.20 “Neither Edson White nor W. O. Palmer . . . was known for his financial acumen,”21 but Ellen White knew that “the Lord used Edson White and W. O. Palmer to do missionary work in the South. . . . The Lord accepted these two souls, brought from darkness to light, and put it into their hearts to do a work in the Southern field.”22
Unfortunately, in 1904, Ellen White had to write to George Butler a letter in which she acknowledged that W. O. Palmer wronged somebody (perhaps while doing business). While affirming that justice should be done to the person wronged by Palmer, she also asked Butler to “save him [Palmer] if you can” and to “help him for Christ’s sake.”23 Palmer did not seem to behave as expected and hoped, and on January 25, 1905, Ellen White had to write a letter from Mountain View, California, to Brother and Sister Haskell, in which she stated, “Brother W. O. Palmer is not to be separated from the sympathy of the church. Brother Palmer is not perfect. Over and over again he has shown himself to be defective. I am to be as a mother to him, and as such I have spoken to him faithfully. I shall still continue to correct his wrongs, but I wish to present to him the hopeful side, that he may not fall into utter discouragement. I shall reprove his errors and encourage him in every way possible.”24
Apparently, her appeal to let “the sympathy and love of Christ come in” to melt the “still, cold heart”25 was received, and the grace of God was effective, as Palmer died on May 1930, as a member in good standing.26
Case in point: Dr. Osborn and Sister Graham
On October 9, 1878, Ellen White had a vision during the Michigan camp meeting held in Battle Creek. Based on that vision, she wrote a letter the same day to the ministers and church members in Indiana, especially the Ligonier church.27 She speaks of that church being animated by a “strong, self-willed . . . self-righteous . . . fierce, self-sufficient, vindictive spirit.”28 Under the influence of Sister Graham, many of the church members at Ligonier passed “censure and harsh judgment upon others, while their own course appears right in their own eyes.”29
Ellen White recognized that Dr. Osborn did not have a meek spirit, “but those who have condemned him have pursued a course far more objectionable in the sight of God than that pursued by him, and they are answerable for their influence upon the doctor.”30 She reproached the “narrow minds” and “self-righteous” leaders for not paying Dr. Osborn the respect “for his years and for his position . . . character.”31
• Years—because he was not only presumably aged, but also because his “character molded and habits confirmed, and to take the truth at his age and be transformed is a great work. This may not to be expected in a day.”32
• Position—because he “is . . . a man of influence,” and has a great potential to bring the light to his large extended family and promote the Adventist publications.33
• Character—because he “loves the truth, . . . is a man who, if converted soul and body to God, would do good.”34
Ellen White offered another approach to the issue, with more general implications. She stated that “God loves the soul of Dr. Osborn,”35 and that he needed to fully surrender to Christ. However, she was not in favor of the fact that some “have taken a position that those who use tobacco should be dealt with and turned out of the church.”36 Her position is readily explained, “In all of our experience for many years not a case of this kind has thus been treated by us. We have borne with them and labored with and prayed with them for years, . . . if after a time they did not reform, they [would] become lax in other things.”37
How, then, should we deal with erring members (e.g., smokers) without immediately affecting their membership? Time and again, Ellen White stressed the need to apply Matthew 18:15–18 to deal with members who err, and do our best not to deprive them of the Christian gathering and church support blessings. Time, forbearance, compassion, and “motherly” and “fatherly” love are required to the extent that we should not feel jeopardized by the struggles of our fellow brother or sister. We should encourage them to fight and overcome. If they stop holding on to Christ, other sins will prevail, and at that point the church will have to take action. While the fight is on, we should not quench the little flame.
I found Ellen White’s approach in dealing with erring members extremely balanced and biblical. She masterfully expressed and clearly conveyed what the Gospel of Matthew teaches, though perhaps in a different way less visible to modern readers. Matthew surrounds his disciplinary instructions (Matt. 18:15–18) with the parable of the lost sheep (Matt. 18:12–14), an injunction about unlimited forgiveness (Matt. 18:21, 22), and the parable of the unmerciful steward (Matt. 18:23–35). In doing so, Matthew strongly lessens the community’s hysterical attempt to purge itself. The same chapter also contains an appeal to the disciples to become like children and humble themselves (vv. 3, 4), and receive others in the name of Jesus (v. 5). At the same time, they were exhorted to avoid despising or causing a “little one” to stumble (vv. 6, 10), even though he or she might be considered lost (v. 11).
As Ellen White puts it: If “there are wrongs in the church, they should receive immediate attention. Some may have to be sharply rebuked. This is not doing the erring one any wrong.”38
While reproof is to be given, it must be given in accordance with Christ’s direction. . . . Do not become impatient with your brother’s faults and weaknesses. . . . We see individuals committing errors, and we are pained because their lives are not in accordance with the Bible standard of righteousness. But we are not to become impatient. If we have the mind of Christ, we shall feel a burden for the welfare of him who has forgotten to be a doer of the Word. Do not speak of his errors to others. Follow the rule Jesus has given. Go to the wrongdoer alone first, and see if by words of wisdom you cannot save him.39
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1 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, MD:
Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 12:285.
2 See E. G. White, Letter 8, 1851.
3 E. G. White and James White, Advent Review and Sabbath
Herald, March 24, 1868.
4 E . G. White, “The Camp-Meetings: Illinois Camp-Meeting,”
Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 22, 1875. Cf. E. G.
White, “Minnesota Camp-Meeting,” Advent Review and
Sabbath Herald, April 27, 1876; E. G. White, “Camp-Meeting
at Eagle Lake,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May
4, 1876; E. G. White, “The Sparta Camp-Meeting,” Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, May 18, 1876.
5 E.G. White, Temperance (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 1949), 5; E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 3:569.
6 E . G. White, “Home Duties of the Father,” Health Reformer,
7 E . G. White, “Notes of Travel: Meetings in Chicago,” Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, February 10, 1885.
8 See E. G. White, “The Path of Progress,” Advent Review and
Sabbath Herald, February 21, 1888; E. G. White, Fundamentals
of Christian Education (Nashville, TN : Southern Publishing
Assn., 1923), 428; E. G. White, Manuscript 130, 1899;
Testimonies for the Church, 3:569. According to Ellen White,
the use of tobacco is dangerous and harmful for a number
of interrelated reasons such as it creates a self-accusing
conscience that pushes a person to withdraw from the
church; leads to poor stewardship; benumbs the brain,
intoxicates the body, and weakens intellectual powers; and
makes children living in the house sick. For a more thorough
discussion on the harmful effects of tobacco see Testimonies
for the Church, 1:225, 548; 3:569; 7:75; E. G. White, “The
Temptations of Christ,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald,
September 8, 1874; E. G. White, “Sanctification: The Life of
Daniel an Illustration of True Sanctification,” Advent Review
and Sabbath Herald, January 25, 1881; E. G. White, “Christian
Perfection,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 1, 1900;
E. G. White, “The Temple of God,” Advent Review and Sabbath
Herald, November 6, 1900; E. G. White, “Lessons from the
Second Chapter of Philippians,” Advent Review and Sabbath
Herald, June 15, 1905, 8, 9; E. G. White, “Early Counsels on
Medical Work-No. 1,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald,
April 2, 1914, 3, 4; “Home Duties of the Father,” Health
Reformer; E. G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), vol. 2, 420, 467;
Temperance, 45, 278; Manuscript 130; Letter 49, 1902.
9 “The Path of Progress,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald;
Testimonies for the Church, 7:75.
10 E . G. White, Manuscript 52, 1900; see also “An Open Letter,
from Mrs. E. G. White to All Who Love the Blessed Hope,”
Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 27, 1903, 14.
11 E.G. White, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review
and Herald, 1952, 1980), 499; cf. MS 054, 1905.
12 Quoted in Arthur L. White, The Ellen G. White Biography,
(Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1981–1986), 1:457.
13 E . G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and
Herald, 1946), 264. See also “Lessons from the Second
Chapter of Philippians, ” Advent Review and Sabbath
14 Testimonies for the Church, 3:21.
15 E .g., E. G. White, Manuscript 66 quoted in D. A. Delafield,
Ellen G. White in Europe (Washington, DC: Review and
Herald, 1975), 202 ; E. G. White, Manuscript 8a, 1888; E. G.
White, Letter 31, 1905.
16 C f. E. G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, MD:
Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 9:196; E. G. White, Manuscript
57, 1886; Delafield, 202; “Labors in Christiana,” Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, October 19, 1886; Letter 31.
17 Manuscript 66 quoted in Delafield, 202.
18 Manuscript Releases, 9:197; cf. E. G. White, Letter 19, 1886;
Manuscript 8a; E. G. White, Letter 6a, 1894; E. G. White,
Letter 68, 1894.
19 Manuscript Releases, 9:196, 197; cf. Letter 6a; Letter 68.
20 Arthur L. White, 5:168, 169, 340.
22 E . G. White, Manuscript 124, 1902 quoted in The Ellen G.
White 1888 Materials (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White
Estate, 1987), 1772.
23 E.G. White, Letter 15, 1904, quoted in Manuscript Releases
24 Letter 31, quoted in Manuscript Releases, 15:200.
25 Ibid., 202.
26 See G. A. Thompson, “Obituary of Will Otis Palmer,” Advent
Review and Sabbath Herald, July 24, 1930, 27.
27 Manuscript 1, 1878.
28 Manuscript Releases, 12:281.
29 Manuscript Releases, 15:134.
30 E . G. White, Manuscript 1, 1880.
31 Manuscript Releases, 12:285, 286.
32 Manuscript Releases, 12:285.
34 Manuscript Releases, 12:285, 286.
35 Manuscript Releases 12:286.
38 E.G. White, “Lessons for Christians,” Advent Review and
Sabbath Herald, December 11, 1900.
39 Manuscript 8a quoted in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials,