Everyone knows that Ellen White condemned bicycles. This most useful fact finds its way into the discussions of students in our schools who otherwise never seem to have a very keen interest in what the prophet has to say.
Not that it is true. It isn’t. It never was. Ellen White never did condemn bicycles.
And even if you explain that to every student in every Adventist school this month, they will again know (by this time next year) that Ellen White condemned bicycles. That bit of propaganda is, oh, far too precious to be surrendered to mere factual data.
I am not saying that anyone is willfully falsifying the statements Ellen White made regarding the bicycle craze at Battle Creek.
What I am saying is that almost no one has actually read those statements. And if they had read them, they would have been forced to do some soul-searching in regard to activities in their lives that have nothing to do with the Schwinn in their garage.
If no one is reading the statements, how has the idea become almost proverbial? What Paul calls our “evil heart of unbelief” is largely responsible. We want some evidence that the prophet is either obscure or cryptic or dated. If we can find that, we have an easy out when confronted with our non-conformity to counsel.
But Ellen White is neither obscure, nor cryptic, nor dated. And the rumors by way of contrast, most certainly are.
Let’s talk about Ellen White and her teaching regarding the topic. Something strange happened at Battle Creek, and if you pay attention, you will be able to piece together what occurred there.
As our first hint, she wrote, “Exhibitions in the bicycle craze are an offense to God.”
Why was a faddish interest in bicycles called a “craze”? People were so excited by the gatherings at the races and by the music played there that their minds were debased, “besotted, even as in liquor drinking” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students 367).
Such faddish frenzy at various sporting events still happens today. “The thoughts, allowed to run in a low channel, soon pervert all the powers of the being. . . . All these things are having their effect upon the character" (367).
The issue in our first statement, far from being a condemnation of locomotion via bikes, is the party scene at the races of the same.
In a separate statement, the prophet bemoaned the money invested in what she again calls a “craze.” Her “Guide” led her to see some “very strange things” transpiring among Sabbath keepers at headquarters. Again, God’s concern with the bicycles had nothing to do with machine-assisted locomotion.
Rather, mission suffered while mania prevailed. That was the problem. And if you think that Ellen White was alone in viewing the drama as she did, notice that even the secular public thought poorly of the cycling Adventists.
There seemed to be a bicycle craze. Money was spent to gratify an enthusiasm in this direction that might better, far better, have been invested in building houses of worship where they are greatly needed. There were presented before me some very strange things in Battle Creek. A bewitching influence seemed to be passing as a wave over our people there, and I saw that this would be followed by other temptations. . . . This is a species of idolatry.
While you have been gratifying your inclination in the appropriation of money--God's money--for which you must give an account, missionary work has been hindered and bound about for want of means and workers to plant the banner of truth in places where the people have never heard the message of warning.
My brethren and sisters in Battle Creek, what kind of witness are you bearing to an unbelieving world? (Testimonies for the Church Volume 8, 51)
Again, her “Guide” spoke to the issue with the bicycle rivalry. When Jesus looked for fruit among the leaves of the Battle Creek church, He found instead people “who were striving for the mastery, each trying to excel the other in the swift running of their bicycles.” She was shown that the spirit of the cyclists “was similar” to that of those who had played “baseball games” on the Battle Creek campus.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that many people know that Ellen White condemned bikes and approved of baseball? In truth, she treated the two very similarly. It was rivalry that was “an offense to God” (8T 52) whether it was found on the baseball field or on the raceway. And in regard to the craze, it was the senseless expense too.
She never even hinted at a frown on utilitarian cycling.
And if you grew up thinking that Ellen White condemned bicycles, you ought to wonder what other misconceptions you might have gleaned from conventional wisdom.
If you do read what she wrote about the wave of interest in bikes that engulfed Battle Creek, maybe you will realize that other waves have been hammering our own generation. Rivalry and excessive expenditure are alive and well among those trying to keep up with the Jones in the media and photography departments. But I digress.
God shared another concern with the bicycle races. They were unsafe. (Think zero helmets, rough roads, very high seats, inexperienced riders, racing adrenalin.) Those engaging in the sport were reproved for taking thoughtless risk.
Who thinks of the danger of accident, or that death may be the result of their wild chase? Who have prayed for the presence of Jesus, and the protection of the ministering angels? Is God glorified by these performances? Satan is playing the game of life for these souls, and he is well pleased with that which he sees and hears. (Testimonies to Ministers 83)
Some participants in the movement were more skillful at finding good excuses for their behavior. They argued that they were cycling for health. (That is the same reason people fly to the ends of the earth to climb rock walls free-style, right?) Not surprisingly, the Spirit of God suggested a less pricey way to get exercise. Inspiration urged that using the saved money to hire Bible workers could even mean the saving of a soul, and Isaiah 58, she wrote, shows that self-denial for such selfless purposes is a “sure remedy for poor health!” (Pamphlet 84, p. 23).
You … would be receiving the blessing of God in exercising your physical powers in a less expensive way. Instead of investing one hundred dollars in a bicycle, you would consider the matter well, lest it might be at the price of souls for whom Christ died, and for whom he has made you responsible (23)
The exercise mantra had been popular, even finding a place in our papers. And, again, Ellen White was shown that those notices “extolling bicycles” ought to be replaced with letters regarding the destitution of foreign fields.
The fad produced idolatry. It was manifest in many ways, not all of which are mentioned in this short article. And as a consequence, the Spirit prompted a practical repentance. Men ought to “dispose of some of their idols, such as bicycles, and various other things” (Pamphlet 87, p. 7).
Just for the record, $100 for the machine was about the value of three ounces of gold at that time, well over $3,000 today. How much did you say that new lens for your camera cost you? Oh, I am digressing again.
But yes, money was the primary issue in relation to the bicycles. And as the love of money has always competed with the Lord Jesus for a place on the throne of our hearts, money issues are intensely spiritual.
How will you who love worldly treasure answer to God in the great Day of Judgment for your feeble and sleepy efforts to send the truth to regions beyond? The money expended in bicycles and other needless things must be accounted for. As God's people you should represent Jesus; but Christ is ashamed of you. My heart is pained, I can scarcely restrain my feelings when I think how easily our people are led away from practical Christian principles to self-pleasing. As yet many of you only partially believe the truth. The Lord Jesus says, "Ye can not serve God and mammon," and we are to live by every word that proceedeth out of His mouth. How many believe His word? (1888 Materials 1500)
To summarize, what Ellen White says about the Battle Creek bicycle craze is solid spiritual truth even today. It isn’t outdated. It isn’t obscure. And as we are even more materialistic, even more inclined to strive for the mastery, even less inclined to deny self for missions, what she wrote about bicycles is even timelier than when she wrote it.
But since we hate to restrict our spending on needless things, what she wrote is also exceptionally difficult to remember, and the idea that she condemned bikes is easier to remember than the empires in the image of Daniel 2. We like it.