An interview with Jud Lake: Ellen White and the Civil War
Editor’s note: Jud Lake, ThD, DMin, is a professor of preaching and Adventist studies at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States. This interview focuses primarily on his book A Nation in God’s Hands: Ellen White and the Civil War (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2017).
Pavel Goia (PG): What was the significance of the American Civil War?
Jud Lake (JL): The Civil War between the northern and southern states from 1861 to 1865 was a defining event unlike any other in American history. The Revolutionary War, for example, created the United States, but the Civil War preserved and strengthened the nation by securing its unity and terminating the institution of slavery. Even though Americans still struggle with racial issues, slavery as an institution ended, and America is what it is today because of that horrendous struggle.
Jeffrey Brown (JB): How is the study of this war relevant to Seventh-day Adventists around the world?
JL: Adventism is an American-born movement, and its early history unfolded in the context of nineteenth-century America. Leaders within that movement, such as William Miller and Joshua Himes, spoke out against slavery, along with the Abolitionists, while proclaiming the second advent of Jesus. During the 1850s, when the gulf between the American North and the South widened over the politics of slavery, Sabbatarian Adventists were forming a coherent movement that was antislavery at its core. On the eve of the war in 1860, Sabbatarian Adventists chose the name Seventh-day Adventists. Between two great battles of the war, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, in the spring and summer of 1863, the Adventists established the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. In addition, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald repeatedly addressed the issue of slavery both before and during the war. The sin of racism denied the basic humanity of the slaves. But while slavery died on the battlefield of the Civil War, the ideology of racism survived and thrived after the war. Our presses were less vocal during this period of great struggle, mistakenly believing that winning the war solved the fundamental problems of blacks. The post-Civil War history of America showed that the struggle for blacks to have their civil rights and full humanity acknowledged had only just begun. It was another eighty years before they were able to achieve some measure of success. Ellen White states, “Those who study the history of the Israelites should also consider the history of the slaves in America, who have suffered.”1 Thus, to really understand and appreciate Adventist history, one must have some knowledge of the American experience during the mid-nineteenth century that defined itself by the Civil War. Most importantly, Seventh-day Adventist Church co-founder Ellen White experienced several visions related to slavery and the war. Her insights are, I believe, still applicable and relevant in the twenty-first century. Because of this, Adventists today should have a special interest in this period of American history.
PG: How would you summarize Ellen White’s contribution to the American Civil War?
JL: First, although the accounts of her war visions take up no more than thirty pages, she essentially addressed every major issue related to the conflict and provided theological commentary for her Adventist audience. Second, the published versions of her visions are important to Civil War literature because they are primary sources of how one contemporary religious leader interpreted the struggle from her own faith perspective. Third, and most importantly, Ellen White provided a theologically nuanced view of God’s providence and care for America that gave hope to her Adventist readers. Within two weeks after the first major battle of the war in Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, which resulted in a Union disaster and great discouragement for all Northerners, she declared twice that God “has the destiny of this nation in his hands.” The context of her statement is her witnessing an angel descend and initiate a major retreat of the northern army. The message to her audience was that God would supernaturally intervene in the war to accomplish His will.
In short, Ellen White’s statement that God “has the destiny of this nation in his hands” is, I believe, still relevant for today. It reminds us that He is intimately involved not only with America’s destiny but with that of all the world’s nations. In the midst of today’s intense geopolitical environment, this is an encouraging thought for Christians.
JB: Was Ellen White the only one who claimed to experience visions about the Civil War?
JL: No. Prior to the war, Quaker Joseph Hoag reportedly experienced a vision and predicted the start of the Civil War. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith also claimed to have visions about a conflict between the states. The radical secessionist Edmund Ruffin forecasted southern independence, and several spiritualists had visions of a desolating war.
JB: What made Ellen White’s visions different?
JL: In all her writings about the war, she had a theological end in view. She never conceived of herself as a lecturer to the North or a prophetic voice to the nation. In fact, nothing in her career suggested that she sought national publicity. Her focus was on encouraging her fellow Adventists with biblical perspectives on the war and preparing them for the second coming of Christ.
PG: Is A Nation in God’s Hands an apologetic work?
JL: A Nation in God’s Hands goes beyond the apologetic impulse. While parts of the book address controversial issues, such as Ellen White’s comments about England, her condemnation of Lincoln’s first call for a national fast, and her cryptic vision about some slaves not being resurrected, the majority of the book is more an analysis and affirmation of her profound contribution to the spiritual issues behind the war.
JB: Would you give Ministry readers the takeaway from your book?
JL: Briefly, readers will understand Ellen White’s war visions in their historical context and see the conflict through her prophetic lens. In the midst of more than 60,000 books, pamphlets, and internet resources on the American Civil War, this book relates the conflict from the unique perspective of White’s visions. On the one hand, it is primarily a religious interpretation of the war and thus best understood and appreciated in that framework. On the other hand, it captures the war’s drama through its stories of a church, soldiers, and a president.
Several interesting features characterize the book. First, it summarizes every major battle of the war and puts [each of] them in the context of White’s forecast about the nature of the conflict that she made at the beginning of the war. Second, her fascinating vision of the angel intervening in the Battle of First Manassas receives a chapter-length discussion, and third, an entire chapter analyzes the background of spiritualism in relation to her vision about Union officers consulting with supernatural beings.
PG: How is the Civil War relevant for pastors?
JL: Pastors are leaders, and the Civil War battles were all about both good and bad leadership. From the hesitancy of General George McClellan in battle to the persistence of General Ulysses S. Grant during the Overland Campaign to the strategy of General Robert E. Lee in invading the North, we find many leadership insights for those who pastor congregations. In addition to this, the courage, valor, and faith of so many figures during the war are an inspiration, whereas the conflicts saturated with sadness, suffering, and absolute tragedy will confirm to the discerning pastor the reality of evil and the great controversy between Christ and Satan. This is where Ellen White comes in with her religious interpretation of the war and slavery. Her perspective adds a significant theological nuance to a national conflict that makes it relevant for Adventist pastors.
JB: You discuss in the book a connection between Ellen White and President Abraham Lincoln. Would you please explain?
JL: Abraham Lincoln and Ellen White did not know each other personally, of course. Nevertheless, their messages about the nation had many parallels. At the beginning of the war when Lincoln was endeavoring to save the Union only, White declared that the war was God’s punishment on the nation for the sin of slavery. As the conflict continued and Lincoln evolved in his theological understanding, he declared in his second inaugural address that the war was God’s punishment for slavery. Thus, what White delivered to the Adventist people at the beginning of the war was essentially the same as what Lincoln presented to the entire nation at its end.
Both of their messages were bookends to a war in which God declared His judgment on both the North and South for the sin of slavery.
PG: Besides your book, what are a few Civil War books especially relevant for pastors that you would recommend?
JL: The major biographies of generals on both sides of the war and especially President Lincoln are full of insights that pastors would appreciate, not to mention the many stories and anecdotes that they could find useful as sermon illustrations. In particular, historian Ronald C. White Jr. has done preachers a great favor in his analysis of Lincoln’s speeches in The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (New York: Random House, 2005). They will learn a great deal from his examination of Lincoln’s astonishing rhetorical skills and his spiritual growth in the White House. This is a necessary read for any preacher who cares about the power of words in his or her preaching.
Good leadership skills every pastor must have are set forth concisely in Donald T. Phillips’s Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times (New York: Warner, 1992).Then I suggest two stirring biographical works on Lincoln that examine his moral convictions, resolute purpose, and willingness to grow and change as leader of a troubled country: Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year (New York: Picador, 2012)by David Von Drehle and Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) by Richard Carwardine. Any pastor who has been through hard times in ministry will find much relevant information in these two books about Lincoln’s experience as president.
One other book is worth mentioning: Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2009). For those who deal with suffering and death on a regular basis, this significant book will not only unveil a forgotten piece of Civil War history; it will give one a rare perspective on death and ministering to grieving families.
JB: Do you have any interesting experiences you can share from your visits to Civil War battlefields?
JL: Fortunately, the battlefields of the American Civil War are state parks and accessible to visitors all year round. I’ve had wonderful experiences studying the Manassas battlefield where Ellen White saw the angel descend, walking Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, pondering Bloody Lane at Antietam, wandering through the Wilderness battles, and walking Missionary Ridge in my neck of the woods—Chattanooga.
So far, though, the most significant one has been my visit to the battlefield of Malvern Hill just outside of Richmond, Virginia. The encounter that took place on this well-preserved field was the culmination of the Seven Days Battles between Union General George McClellan and Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the summer of 1862. Lee sent his army charging up the gentle slope of Malvern Hill as McClellan’s cannons and gunners mowed them down. It was a Union victory involving great carnage on the Confederate side. One Union officer observed the next day “over five thousand dead and wounded men on the ground, in every attitude of distress. A third of them were dead or dying, but enough were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.”2 I thought about this image on my visit to the battlefield and positioned myself at the approximate location where the officer would have beheld this horrible sight. The late afternoon sun illuminated the peaceful landscape with such beauty, a striking contrast to that bloody day long ago. As I studied the field, about a half mile from my position, I imagined it full of dead bodies and those still alive writhing in agony with no one to help them. The beauty of life, the horrors of war, and the great controversy between Christ and Satan behind it all struck me with great emotional force. That powerful experience still lingers with me. It is no wonder that as Ellen White reflected on the horrors of war she had seen in her visions, she made it a point to remind her readers of the second coming of Christ that will end all wars.
PG: How has your study of the Civil War affected you personally?
JL: Interestingly, it took me four years to research and write this book—the same amount of time as the war itself. (I did not plan it that way!) During those long years, as I immersed myself in the politics, battles, triumphs, defeats, suffering, and death of the struggle, my own perspective on life deepened. I was going through a difficult period during this time, and the incredible personalities and stories of the war and God’s hand in it all ministered to me in profound ways. Not only did my respect and appreciation for Ellen White’s prophetic ministry increase, but my faith in God’s providence in the world’s affairs grew as well. Because of this experience, I have a deep love and respect for this war. I am passionate about visiting Civil War battlefields and will do so for the rest of my life.
1 Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1966), 42.
2 For the entire quote, see page 120.
Summary of Ellen White’s four war visions related in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, 253–268, 355–368 and Ellen G. White: The Early Years: 1827-1862 (vol. 1), 462, 463:
- Parkville Vision (January 1861): She foresaw the coming “terrible war” and its carnage.
- Roosevelt Vision (August 1861): She viewed God’s condemnation of America for the sin of slavery and His intervention in the war at the Battle of First Manassas.
- Battle Creek Vision (January 1862): She perceived the problems in the northern war effort and received theological insight on the national fasts and international diplomatic relations with England.
- Battle Creek Vision (November 1862): She received counsel for the church on the military draft and witnessed Union officers consulting with spirit guides.
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