Social Justice In Early Adventism

When fifty-seven-year-old William Miller met thirty-five-year-old Joshua Himes for the first time in Exeter, New Hampshire, Miller had no idea of the gigantic wave of change that was about to break over him. Himes was perhaps one of the most colourful figures of the Millerite movement; preacher, author, public relations guru, campaigner, publisher, activist, dynamo. The list of accomplishments and talents associated with him is long and almost exhaustless. But perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Himes was his dedication to social justice. Writing about Himes, William Lloyd Garrison commented “At a very early period, he avowed himself an abolitionist, and has been a faithful supporter of the anti-slavery movement, never ashamed to show his colors, never faltering in the darkest hour of its history.” and commenting on the Chardon Street Chapel that Himes pastored Garrison wrote “(he) made his congregation the virtual center in New England of every variety of enthusiastic reform”

Himes invited Miller to preach at the Chardon Street Chapel which was not only a hotbed for every kind of social reform imaginable, from education to pacifism and abolition but also a melting pot of different spiritual persuasions. Ralph Waldo Emerson described the Chardon Street Chapel  in these words “If the assembly were disorderly, it was picturesque. Mad Men, Mad Women, Men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers, all came successively to the top and seized their moment, if not their hour, wherein to chide, pray, or preach, or protest.”

Into this somewhat idiosyncratic if not deeply earnest brew of ideas Miller let loose, in his quiet and more conventional way, his explosive message of the soon return of Christ. Chardon Street was shaken up. Not only did Himes and others embrace the message, but they also began to champion it in earnest. Himes became its chief publicist and promoter, vowing that all of America should hear the message and prepare for Christ’s soon return.

After the great disappointment, there was a sifting of thoughts and ideas and intentions. Early Sabbatarian Adventism began to take shape from the roots of the Millerite movement and many of the pioneers of this movement were men who had a similar background to Himes. They were deeply spiritual, hailed from a variety of different spiritual persuasions, were galvanised and brought together by the end time message Miller preached, dedicated themselves to its spread across America and interestingly, many of them were deeply involved in the social justice issues of their day.

Joseph Bates was an avid spokesman for temperance and a staunch abolitionist. In fact, he tied together his ideas of abolition and his love for the gospel when he decided to go to Maryland and preach the Millerite message to slaves. Ellen White wrote extensively against slavery and commenting on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 she wrote “The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master we are not to obey, and we must abide the consequences of violating this law”. J.N. Andrews, J.N. Loughborough and Uriah Smith all wrote against slavery and were abolitionists.

The Heart Of The Matter

But perhaps the most important social justice issue that Adventists have championed is one that is found at the very heart of the message we have been called to preach. Revelation 14:9-11 details the third angel’s message and a special warning is pronounced against all those who worship the beast and his image. Revelation 13 describes the powers and the process that brings about a coerced worship of the beast on pain of death. At the heart of the entire matter is a single concept; Religious Liberty. The simple idea that every human being is free to worship according to the dictates of his or her own conscience. Along with the ideology of Religious Liberty comes the idea of separation of Church and State which ensures that the church cannot use the coercive arm of the state to do her bidding. This was a social justice issue that many Adventists had to grapple with in the 1880s.

After the American Civil War came to a close the National Reform Association was formed in 1864. The aim of the group was to lobby the federal government to officially declare America a Christian nation. When their efforts in this direction failed the Association changed tactics and began to champion the enforcement of State Sunday Laws that were already in existence but had been virtually forgotten. As the 1880s rolled around Adventists began to feel the pressure and published several articles and magazines devoted to both the issues of the Sabbath and also Religious Liberty.

The Sunday Law issue was highlighted as an important issue in the California, State Elections of 1882. Soon after this W.C. White was arrested by local authorities for operating the Pacific Press on Sunday. From California the action moved to Arkansas and Tennessee. Several Adventists, including ministers were arrested and some even served on chain gangs like common criminals. The situation began to gather momentum when the Catholic Cardinal James Gibbons endorsed a petition to Congress on behalf of Sunday Law legislation. The Protestant broadside “The Christian Statesman” enthusiastically embraced Cardinal Gibbons’ move declaring “whenever they (Roman Catholics) are willing to corporate in resisting the progress of political atheism we will gladly join hands with them”. The excitement reached its apex in 1888 when Senator H.W. Blair from New Hampshire introduced what was known as the Blair Bill to the United States Senate. The purpose of the Bill was to enforce Sunday as a day of religious observance. The Bill was vetoed but it was an interesting epoch in the history of the Adventist church.

During this time, Adventists were outspoken advocates of Religious Liberty. In 1886 Pacific Press began to publish The American Sentinel which was dedicated to championing the cause of Religious liberty and then in  1889 church leaders in Battle Creek, founded the National Religious Liberty Association. When The Great Controversy came off the press in 1888 it featured quite a bit of commentary on the importance of Religious Liberty.

Seventh-Day Adventists believe that we have been given the special work of taking the three angels messages of Revelation 14 to all the world in this generation. It is an ambitious goal but one that is worthy of every ounce of our combined talents and effort. At the heart of the three angels’ messages are the gospel, the Sabbath and the Judgment. These messages from the bulk of our preaching and teaching. They are at the center of our message and mission as a movement and rightly so. But also featured in the midst of these messages is the message of Religious Liberty; how it will be trampled upon, how this will affect us and by extension why it’s important to preserve.

The issue of religious liberty was also at the heart of the Reformation. It’s one of the most important themes that ran throughout that entire movement. Interestingly The Reformation, the birth of the American republic and the Advent Movement all have this one thing in common; upholding religious liberty as an inalienable human right.

Micah 6:8 says He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? In light of the history of our movement and in the context of the three angels message justice takes on a broader and wider reach than what we might traditionally be inclined to believe.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Fiedler, D. (1996) – Hindsight: Seventh-Day Adventist History in Essays And Extracts
  • Knight, G.R. (1998) – Ellen White’s World: A Fascinating Look At The Times In Which She Lived
  • Ferrell, V. (2007) – The Advent Awakening

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.