Ellen White, Religious Liberty and Prohibition

When confronted with the notion that Church and State must remain separated, the subject of voting against Prohibition is quickly brought.  There is no denying the fact that Ellen G. White and the Adventist Pioneers saw the consumption of alcohol as a pernicious evil. There is near unanimity in the condemnation of alcohol consumption in the early stages of the Adventist Church, and for very good reasons. In a sermon delivered at Battle Creek on March 16, 1867, James White said,

But here is the great fact in the history of the past. Who has not seen the impatience of the drunkard? Some are very impatient as the brain is fired, and the spirit maddened with drink. See the wife and the children fleeing as they see the husband and father returning from his debauch. - James White, quoted in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 9, 1867

In Counsels for the Church, Ellen White penned a warning:

When the appetite for spirituous liquor is indulged, the man voluntarily places to his lips the draft which debases below the level of the brute him who was made in the image of God. Reason is paralyzed, the intellect is benumbed, the animal passions are excited, and then follow crimes of the most debasing character. – Counsels for the Church, pg. 103

There is a reason why Ellen White encouraged the political vote in favor of prohibition over many other moral issues afflicting the Nation at the time. One only need to turn on the local news to see examples of inebriates causing harm to others while under the influence. A recent, well-known example would be the “Affluenza Teen:"  The same principle can apply to mind-altering drugs as well. 

In regulating such substances, a civil government can eliminate a large amount of grief in crimes carried out by individuals without sobriety of mind. This falls under the jurisdiction of a civil government to do, as it is to maintain civil order. For Christians, the temperance movement has a dual-application: the individual abstaining from mind influencing substances can render a sober mind to his God and his mind will be clear to serve Him; in the civil sphere he will be less prone to decisions that can affect other people’s welfare. The state’s only concern is the latter, and we should vote for the nation to enact laws that protect people and their property from one another.

In a previous article we addressed the need to separate the spheres of Caesar and God. We cannot expect every law a civil government enacts to be in accordance with Biblical laws, and as such, Christians, following the example of the Early Church, should be more active in sharing God’s Word and convicting the heart through the Holy Spirit instead of petitioning Capitol Hill to legislate religious laws.

Where, then, does this leave the admonition by Ellen White which recommends, “Let laws be enacted and rigidly enforced prohibiting the sale and the use of ardent spirits as a beverage. Let every effort be made to encourage the inebriate’s return to temperance and virtue”? – The Review and Herald, November 8, 1881. Use your vote to encourage a civil and just society, and then use Godly teaching to bring men to the knowledge of the standards of the Kingdom of God. Even Sister White acknowledged, in reference to the Prohibition laws, “But even more than this is needed to banish the curse of inebriety from our land.” (ibid.) She goes on to discuss the role of parents to educate their children on the subject, and only godly parents are able to rear up their children in a way that would give glory and honor to God.

Ellen White, along with a vast majority of Adventist Pioneers were cognizant of the separation of the Temperance issue from other religious institutions. She openly supported the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union on the platform of prohibiting liquor sales and consumption; however she would not sanction all of their political activities.

The light has been given me that we are not to stand aloof from them, but, while there is to be no sacrifice of principle on our part, as far as possible we are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms... - The Review and Herald, June 18, 1908.

In a letter to Mrs. S. M. I. Henry, a leader in the Temperance Union who had converted to Adventism, Ellen White lamented the growing politicization of the WCTU: 

I thank the Lord with heart, and soul, and voice that you have been a prominent and influential member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union…For twenty years I have seen that the light would come to the women workers in temperance lines. But with sadness I have discerned that many of them are becoming politicians, and that against God. They enter into questions and debates and theories that they have no need to touch. Christ said, ‘I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.’ The Lord, I fully believe, is leading you that you may keep the principles of temperance clear and distinct, in all their purity in connection with the truth for these last days. – Daughters of God, ppg. 126, 127

In the WCTU there were tendencies to extend the crusade to other political areas apart from the question of Temperance. Ellen White discerned these disturbing tendencies and appealed to Sister Henry to keep temperance “clear and distinct,” separate from the other issues pursued by that organization. Ellen White had also hoped the WCTU would remain focused on the issue of temperance, but it is clear they had attempted to cross into other social and religious issues. Ellen White further cautioned Sister Henry,

I am so glad, my sister, that you did not sever your connection with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. You may have to sever this connection, but not yet, not yet. Hold your place. Speak the words given you by God, and the Lord will certainly work with you. You may see many things you do not approve of, but do not fail nor be discouraged. I hope and pray that you may be clothed daily with the righteousness of Christ. – ibid., pg. 128

At this point in the WCTU’s history, the activism of the Union became more and more political under the leadership of Frances Willard. She molded the Union into a formidable political machine and was instrumental in the rise of the women’s rights movement and the success of women’s suffrage. 

By the end of the century, the WCTU was a substantial political force in the United States, and its membership was well-trained in the art and craft of politics. – Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900, ppg. 138

But there were elements in the WCTU that wished to carry the crusade far beyond the issue of Temperance. Willard was a friend and ally of Senator Henry Blair of Blair Amendment fame, and made clear her agenda for the WCTU in her annual address in 1887, recorded in the Union Signal on December 1:

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, local, State, national and world-wide, has one vital, organic thought, one all-absorbing purpose, one undying enthusiasm, and that is that Christ shall be this world’s king; -yea, verily, THIS WORLD’S KING in its realm of cause and effect, -king of its courts, its camps, its commerce, -king of its colleges and cloisters, -king of its customs and its Constitutions. . .The kingdom of Christ must enter the realm of law through the gateway of politics. . . so Christian men to-day take their ideal of Christ in government, hurl it into the ranks of his foes, and hasten on to regain it, by rallying for the overthrow of saloon politics and the triumph of the Christian at the polls.

This wasn’t what Ellen White envisioned when she called for the support of Temperance legislation. The reasons for voting against “intemperate men” into office were civil, and she had no intent on supporting the religious legislation agenda of Willard. Inebriated officials could not make proper choices for the civil good of the people, and alcohol consumption had a negative effect on civil order in general. This is why she appealed to Sister Henry to remain in the WCTU to counteract the effects of Willard’s political zeal and to keep the focus on temperance. For the most part, it worked. The WCTU remained largely removed from the National Reform Association’s attempts at pushing for the “Christian Amendment,” and by extension, the Blair Sunday Bill.

Other Adventist writers recognized the principle of separating Temperance from religious legislation:

The need of these times is for men and women to unite in the temperance reform who will do so on the right basis, instead of using it as a cover behind which to hide while seeking to foster by law some religious tenet. This would be doing evil that good might come. Let noble men and women rally against the rum traffic in a reform movement that is based upon temperance principles. - K. C. Russell, “Temperance and Liberty”, Liberty Magazine, Vol. 1, October, 1906

While Ellen White supported the Temperance movement, she advised strongly for the Church to leave their support confined to that issue. She wrote with warning,

The National Reform movement, exercising the power of religious legislation, will, when fully developed, manifest the same intolerance and oppression that have prevailed in past ages. Human councils then assumed the prerogatives of Deity, crushing under their despotic power liberty of conscience; and imprisonment, exile, and death followed for those who opposed their dictates. – Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, pg. 712

By separating the matter of Temperance as a civil issue apart from the attempts at making our country a “Christian Nation,” Ellen White is showing us how we must separate the spheres of authority:

Within the sphere of civil relations, Caesar is supreme; within the sphere of moral and religious duties, God alone is supreme. – Ms8-1884 (June 12, 1884) par. 6

Again, we emphasize the separation of powers; Caesar in his sphere and God in His. Once we can rightly appropriate the spheres to where they belong, we would be armed for the long run in our battle for the rights to Religious freedom, and also in our attempts to uphold a civil and just society. This is the best we can hope for as we look for a better Kingdom, that of a “stone [which] was cut out without hands” (Daniel 2:34, KJV).

The lovely Hadassah, destined to become the powerful Queen Esther of the Medo-Persian Empire, appealed to her husband, the mighty King Ahasuerus, to spare the lives of her people from the scheming of his right-hand man, Haman. Haman was incensed that Mordecai would not bow down and reverence him. Through cunning, Haman spun a tale whereby implicating the whole of the Jewish people saying, “neither keep they the king's laws” (Esther 3:8, KJV). We know the rest of the story.

Esther sought not for the enforcement of the Jewish Torah upon the Persian Empire. She sought for religious liberty; the freedom for her people from the death sentence imposed upon them for not bowing down to a human. She was cognizant of the difference between her obligation to God and the rule of civil law under the Persians, an Empire composed of many different cultures and belief systems. She knew what her purpose was. Because of this Mordecai was able to ask, “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, KJV)

May we ascend to our calling, for we know we are ordained as Christ’s messengers and workers “for such a time as this”.