Transcending Uncomfortable "Perceived Advocacy Stances": Ellen White and the WCTU

(Spectrumbot) #1

Historically, Adventist church entities have had a difficult time linking arms with non-Adventist groups that share common societal concerns but take other advocacy stances different from, or counter to, the stated teachings of the Adventist church. Ellen White's relationship with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) provides a good example of how this complicated relationship worked—and can work today.

Founded in 1873, the WCTU was best known its advocacy for prohibition of alcohol, but it also adopted a "do-everything-policy" of addressing number of other "social reform" issues, including advocacy of eugenics, women's suffrage, displaying the Bible in public fora, "Americanization" of new immigrants, and the institution of Sunday laws. A key concern that provided a connecting thread to the WCTU's involvement in these issues was the safeguarding of the home, especially from domestic violence.

White was an early supporter of the WCTU. On July 14, 1874, White addressed more than 500 people at a WCTU rally in Battle Creek, which was organized by an ecumenical committee. From that date on, White strongly urged Adventists to work with the WCTU to enact prohibition laws in the United States and elsewhere. In 1877, at a rally organized by the WCTU, the Battle Creek Reform Club, and the Battle Creek Sanitarium, White spoke to 5,000 people on the same issue.

Although the WCTU was a "do-everything-policy" organization with many advocacy stances White disagreed with, her relationship with the WCTU remained strong throughout her career, with a singular focus on prohibition as a solution to many social ills. While the WCTU was advocating for women's suffrage as a way to pass prohibition initiatives, White took a different position: "I do not recommend that woman should seek to become a voter or office-holder" (Signs of the Times, Jan. 7, 1886). White, of course, was also against the WCTU's advocacy of Sunday laws, including a national Sunday law, as a way to curb alcohol consumption and uplift public morality. For White and other Adventist leaders, the proposed national Sunday law represented a key indicium of eschatological apostasy—a mark of apocalyptic homage to the Beast of Revelation 13 and ultimately to the Dragon of Revelation 12 (see, e.g., Great Controversy 592).

Despite a sharp disagreement with the WCTU's clear advocacy stance in favor of a national Sunday law, White was undeterred in her support of—and encouragement to work with—the WCTU, including inviting WCTU leaders to Adventist camp meetings. White's position regarding the WCTU did not change even in the late 1880s when the WCTU was vigorously lobbying for—and Adventists were vehemently opposing—the passage of a national Sunday law. How was it that White was able to cooperate with the WCTU despite such crucial differences that went to the core of Adventism's eschatological mission? As historian Douglas Morgan astutely observes: "White and the Adventists, like Willard [WCTU president] and the WCTU, believed that the church was to carry forward the work of Christ in society, which meant a ministry of healing and restoration for the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed, not just the saving of sinful souls" (228). (For much of what I write here, I am indebted to Morgan's analysis in his chapter, "Society," in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (2014).)

I would submit that it was White's correct understanding of the centrality of the ministry of healing and restoration in Adventism's eschatological mission that allowed her to work with the WCTU toward the common goal of a healthier home and society, despite the WCTU's effort toward the establishment of the "mark of the beast," as Adventists understood it. For White, ministry of healing trumped doctrinal differences. The Good Samaritan's story teaches no less.

Working with an "outside" entity with a perceived advocacy stance counter to the stated positions of the Adventist church requires careful thought and discernment. At the same time, White's work with the WCTU throughout her career (and ADRA's humanitarian work today even with oppressive governments with horrible human rights records) reminds us of the many partnership opportunities that lie in local and global communities for healing and restoration, as well as opportunities tragically missed.

Julius Nam writes from Loma Linda, California.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Elaine Nelson) #2

Should not this same policy adopted by White also apply to aligning with other organizations that are working toward alleviating the suffering of those who are disowned from their homes and society: the LBGT who need shelter and food?

(Steve Mga) #3

AND… there are STILL Alcohol–Sunday Laws every where. Here in Macon, GA one can only purchase Alcohol after 12:30 in the afternoon. Right after all the preachers say, AMEN!.

(Bryan Ness) #4

How have we gotten to the point we are now where cooperating with other Christians on projects is viewed as apostasy? This is one case where we need to go back in time.

(Elaine Nelson) #5

Read today’s essay on the WCTU and EGW’s association.

(jeremy) #6

do we know whether there were reasonable alternatives to wctu when egw chose to work with them…that is, was it the case that there were organizations as influential as wctu in fighting for laws to control alcohol consumption that didn’t also advocate sunday laws, but egw deliberately overlooked them and went with wctu, instead…to me, this would need to be part of the picture before we can say egw’s example with wctu teaches unqualified affiliation with non-adventist advocacy groups as long as there is at least one aspect of their advocacy that accords with our goals…

in our day and age, where media is sometimes larger than life, it would seem optics is a necessary calculation…after-all, a clear biblical injunction is the avoidance of the appearance of evil, 1 thessalonians 5:22…

(Thomas J Zwemer) #7

seems Ellen White thought booze was a bigger beast than Rome. Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #8

he WCTU was by far the largest and best known organization at that time that promoted prohibition against alcohol. It was also against the domestic abuse that so often followed drinking (then, as now). We know because we read history.

(2nd Opinion) #9

This is a timely essay from Nam that should lead us to reflect on how to determine whether or not we should support the work of others outside of the denomination on important social issues.

In an 1882 letter, Ellen White said, “Some will show marked disrespect to any reforms arising from any other people besides of their own faith; in this they err by being too exclusive” (Temperance, pp. 218-1219).

Certainly, one of the agencies White singled out for discretionary collaboration was the WCTU. “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… In some matters, the workers of the WCTU are far in advance of our leaders. The Lord has in that organization precious souls, who can be a great help to us in our efforts to advance the temperance movement. And the education that our people have had in the Bible truth…will enable our sisters to impart to these noble temperance advocates that which will be for their spiritual welfare” (pp. 222-224).

In fact, White continues to indicate elsewhere that one of the reasons for collaborating was for the positive influence Adventists might have on the partner organization itself. “The Lord does not bid you to separate from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. They need all the light you can give them. Flash all the light possible into their pathway” (p. 224).

As to the concern of doctrinal differences, White said, “Although its friends do not believe with us in many points of doctrine, yet we will unite with them when by so doing we can aid our fellow men. God would have us individually learn to work with tact and skill in the cause of temperance and other reforms, and employ our talents wisely in benefiting and elevating humanity.” (p. 221).

On the other hand, in 1884 she did have to warn against involvement in a certain “Red-Ribbon Club.” This temperance society, she said, did “not go to the bottom of true reform, and in a short time will show flagging interest, and a returning of many to their old wicked indulgences,because they merely picked off the leaves of the tree instead of laying the ax at its root. This matter of temperance must go to the root of the evil or it will be of but little avail.” (pp. 218).

This certainly does give us much to think about when evaluating the present situation at Andrews University. The fact that administrators were willing to partner with one organization but not another raises questions as to what concerns were at the heart of their decision. Certainly, Project Fierce’s fundraising practices, which have included drag contests and burlesque shows, would be of concern to a Christian university (other “perceived” differences notwithstanding). But did these differences need to come in the way of cooperating with Fierce for a worthy humanitarian cause? And did the Andrews miss out on an opportunity to “shine all the light possible into their pathway?” Or was this a time to say, as White did of the Red-Ribbon Society, that the organization “did not go to the heart of true reform” in this area? I think these are questions worth discussing more deeply, and certainly they were being discussed in a lively way in White’s day.

(2nd Opinion) #10

Jeremy, the question of optics you raise is an interesting one. On the one hand, the optics of working with an organization like Project Fierce might associate a Christian institution with stances or practices with which it does not agree This is certainly a risk, at least internally. However, the optics of not cooperating can certainly cut in the other direction, so that many outside of the Christian church may assume (even if incorrectly) that we do not care for LGBT homeless kids because they are LGBT or because we are allowing our particular moral differences to get in the way of helping them. A third option might be the one White used, which would be to say “We have differences with the partner organization and here they are, but we believe that this cause is so urgent and important that we are setting those aside in order to make a difference in the lives of these young people.” Of course, that approach, as I’ve pointed out in my other post, has its limits, and apparently in one instance, for White, those limits were reached. But I think its an important alternative we need to consider. Because missiologically, the current optics are not looking good for the church. Is there a way to simply state our differences, but move forward with others, professing the love of God for all people as we do?

(jeremy) #11

but aside from optics, which i agree can be multifaceted, are you aware of viable alternatives to wctu that egw had the luxury of choosing from, or was wctu it…

(Elaine Nelson) #12

jeremy, you continue to as the question whether there were viable alternatives to the WCTU. Why are you not content with EGW’s own quotations? If you want to find alternatives, why not do your own historical research?

(Elaine Nelson) #13

A bit of history: Adventists were very early settlesr in Fresno, CA where I live and EGW spoke at one of the camp meetings in what is now the middle of downtown in a tent.

The WCTU was a very strong force here, also. In fact, the name of a main N-S road where I live is Temperance Ave. named after the WCTU. The main irrigation system was built and designed by an Adventist. The SdA church that was built here in the late 19th century was the largest church building between San Francisco and L.A. People set their time by the chimes of the clock tower atop the church clock.

(2nd Opinion) #14

No, I believe there were other alternatives, at least one of which White found deficient. The compilers of the volume Temperance note: “In the latter half of the nineteenth century a number of popular temperance organizations were formed with large memberships. These were relatively short-lived and are not known today by the general public.” You can read more about the Red Ribbon group here:


I wouldn’t say that those involved in the project Fierce Chicago represented a Christian organisation. Just to correct a detail of your comment.

(Carolyn Parsons) #16

Thanks Julius. This puts the kerfuffle at Andrews University last week in a new light (pun intended).

(Bryan Ness) #17

So, are you saying that to cooperate with another organization in doing good works the organization has to be Christian, Sherlock? Not sure I would agree. If EGW was willing to align with an organization which was nominally Christian (i.e. WCTU) that was also antithetical to arguably our central tenet as a church, then I see no inconsistency with cooperating with a secular organization carrying out good works we believe need to be done. In fact, it would be hard to see how a Christian organization could even provide a safe home setting for homeless LGBT youth, thus making cooperation with a secular organization almost a must.

I think the Fierce Chicago program is a prime example of a place we could cooperate with. They do not advocate for LGBT issues like so many LGBT aligned organizations, they are simply focused on providing housing for homeless LGBT youth. Yes, they are providing “identity-affirming transitional housing,” but that does not equate with advocacy for LGBT issues in general. What other kind of supportive transitional housing would even work for homeless LGBT youth? Are we to tell them, “we are sorry you are homeless, but if you would give up your sinful sexual orientation, we will provide you with some housing.” It is attitudes like that likely led them to become homeless in the first place.

(Kade Wilkinson) #18

I know that most here will disagree with me, but I feel like EGW’s support of a group that promoted women’s suffrage and prohibition shows nothing more than that she was fallible.

(Steve Mga) #19

Actually by being friendly with the Fierce group of people [real people] one could show there IS a difference between SDA Christian behavior, and other so called Christian organizations who encourage parents to disown their kids.
And this would attract them to see WHY we SDAs are different.
However, Andrews helped the SDA church to miss this opportunity and to see us being just like some of the Sunday churches down the street, or in the center of downtown and suburb Chicago. Sunday, Sabbath. NO difference in Christian behavior!
That’s us!

(Elaine Nelson) #20

Bryan, I also agree with you. Have Adventists ever offered help to LBGT other than to recommend the defunct “change” organizations?

If they are totally unwilling to aid them in any way because they are not living by Adventist principles, should that belief prevent Adventists from aiding anyone who is not living by those principles? Was that Jesus’ example?

The university and church missed an opportunity, once rejected, is a blot on the claim to help those in need without setting limitations. Did Christ’s illustration in Matt. 25 question those who who were “strangers and you took me in”? Is He not our example?