Adventists and Politics, Part 1: Should We Vote?

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Adventists and Politics, Part 1: Should We Vote?

Should Seventh-day Adventists become involved with political questions? Is it our duty to campaign for party or person? Should we take a position on the social issues of the day? Should we vote at all?

In order to find some answers to these and related questions, let us take a historical look at our position on politics and voting.

It was 19 years after the 1844 disappointment before the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally organized. These were years of strong resistance to organization on the part of many Adventists because of the opposition to the Advent message by the established churches prior to 1844.

For the first few years of these nearly two decades, our founders were regrouping and settling on a new course. Those Adventists who were the beginning of the Seventh-day Adventist Church usually were independent people.

They had to be. In the face of ridicule at their disappointed hopes of the return of Christ, they were men and women with the courage of their convictions—for better or worse. It was a time of isolation from the rest of the world. And barriers were erected on both sides.

Related to their isolation from other churches was the isolation of Adventists from involvement with civil government. Just as other churches were considered “Babylon,” so the civil government was regarded with suspicion and distrust. And often with good reason. It was a period of political corruption perhaps unmatched by any preceding period in United States history. Adventists expressed strong opposition to politics and the spirit that usually accompanies an election campaign. These convictions are reflected in early articles and editorials that appeared in the Review and Herald. One writer, David Hewett, a thoughtful and solid lay member in the Battle Creek congregation, asked a question in 1856, seven years before our church was officially organized:

James Buchanan, elected president of the U.S. in 1856. (Photo by Matthew Brady from Wikimedia Commons)

James Buchanan, elected president of the U.S. in 1856. (Photo by Matthew Brady from Wikimedia Commons)

“My brethren, shall we spend our time in political campaigns, . . . when we so soon expect Christ in all the glory of His Father, and all the holy angels with Him, when He shall sit upon the throne of His glory?” Review and Herald, Sept. 11, 1856.

Uriah Smith, editor of the Review, as if in answer to the question, declared in the same issue that the Adventist position was one of “neutrality in politics,” with our people refusing “to take part in a contest so exciting as the one which is now agitating this nation.” He concluded his editorial by stating:

“To the question, why we do not with our votes and influence labor against the evil tendency of the times, we reply, that our views of prophecy lead us to the conclusion that things will not be bettered. . . . And we feel it our duty to confine our efforts to preparing ourselves, and others as far as in us lies, for the great and final issue already pressing upon us–the revelation of the Son [of] man from heaven, the destruction of all earthly governments, the establishment of the glorious, universal and eternal kingdom of the King of kings, and the redemption and deliverance of all His subjects.” Ibid.

Arguments continued to be heard for refusing to vote. In the same year Roswell F. Cottrell, a minister in western New York, stated that the United States was “upon the eve of a political contest” that, he believed, would “finally result in the formation of the image” prophesied in Revelation 13:11.

“Under these circumstances, if I cast my vote at all,” he said, “it will . . . tell for, or against the making of the image. If I vote in favor of the formation of the image, I shall aid in creating an abomination which will persecute the saints of God. . . . On the other hand, if I vote against this work, I shall vote against the fulfillment of the prophecy. . . . Therefore, I cannot vote at all.” Ibid., Oct. 30, 1856.

In the light of the tragically low state of American politics, his concluding remarks are interesting:

“I cannot vote for a bad man, for that is against my principles; and, under the present corrupt and corrupting state of politics, I could not wish to elevate a good man to office, for it would ruin him.” Ibid.

The next year further objections to voting were voiced:

“If I enter the lists as a voter, I do in fact endorse this government as worthy of fellowship. If my name is entered upon the poll-book I then become a part of the body-politic, and must suffer with the body-politic in all its penalties.” Ibid., April 23, 1857.

A Local Election

But it was largely national issues that were at stake in the situations described in the foregoing articles. A local election in Battle Creek in 1859 challenged Adventists to reconsider their responsibilities as citizens in a community. They were pressed to make a more definite commitment on the subject of voting. What were they to do?

Ellen White, who was present as Adventist leaders discussed this question, made this entry in her diary: “‘Attended meeting in the eve. Had quite a free, interesting meeting. After it was time to close, the subject of voting was considered and dwelt upon. James first talked, then Brother Andrews talked, and it was thought by them best to give their influence in favor of right and against wrong. They think it right to vote in favor of temperance men being in office in our city instead of by their silence running the risk of having intemperance men put in office. Brother Hewett tells his experience of a few days [since] and is settled that [it] is right to cast his vote. Brother Hart talks well. Brother Lyon opposes. No others object to voting, but Brother Kellogg begins to feel that it is right. Pleasant feelings exist among all the brethren. O that they may all act in the fear of God.

“‘Men of intemperance have been in the office today in a flattering manner expressing their approbation of the course of the Sabbathkeepers not voting and expressed hopes that they will stick to their course and like the Quakers, not cast their vote. Satan and his evil angels are busy at this time, and he has workers upon the earth. May Satan be disappointed, is my prayer.'” Temperance, pp. 255, 256. (Italics supplied.)

A Woman's Christian Temperance Union poster from the late 1800s

A Woman’s Christian Temperance Union poster from the late 1800s

Note that Ellen White was not just talking about voting on issues; she was talking about voting for men. It is very evident that she favored voting for “temperance men” as contrasted with “intemperance men.”

But there continued to be a cautious attitude toward voting in general. About a year after this experience in Battle Creek, James White, as a Review editor, wrote: “The political excitement of 1860 will probably run as high as it has for many years, and we would warn our brethren not to be drawn into it. We are not prepared to prove from the Bible that it would be wrong for a believer in the third [angel’s] message to go in a manner becoming his profession, and cast his vote. We do not recommend this, neither do we oppose. If a brother chooses to vote, we cannot condemn him, and we want the same liberty if we do not.”

He then went on to express certain strong reservations:

“But we do believe that he who enters into the spirit of the coming contest, loses the spirit of the present truth and endangers his own soul.” Review and Herald, Aug. 21, 1860.

It is evident that some Adventists did vote in this election, for two years later James White wrote:

“Those of our people who voted at all at the last Presidential election, to a man voted for Abraham Lincoln. We know of not one man among Seventh-day Adventists who has the least sympathy for secession.” Ibid., Aug. 12, 1862.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union, and America was plunged into civil war. A short time later, on May 21, 1863, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was formally organized. This country was then halfway through the war.

Historic Session

The third annual session of the General Conference, which convened at Battle Creek on May 17, 1865, was destined to be historic in regard to the question of voting. Delegates included prominent Adventist leaders such as J. N. Andrews, Uriah Smith, M. E. Cornell, J. N. Loughborough, J. H. Waggoner, Joseph Bates, and I. D. Van Horn. James and Ellen White were there also, and both of them spoke to the assembled delegates. The report of this session states that J. N. Andrews spoke at one meeting to a crowd of more than 600 people, and that “this is probably the largest body of Sabbathkeepers that has assembled for fifteen hundred years.”

An important item of business at the session was the choice of officers. James White was elected president of the General Conference; Uriah Smith, secretary; and I. D. Van Horn, treasurer.

Some significant resolutions were adopted. One expressed sorrow for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Another reaffirmed noncombatancy in war, with an acknowledgment of responsibility to government in “tribute, custom, honor, and reverence to the civil power, as enjoined in the New Testament.” A third involved the subject of voting. Remembering that James and Ellen White were present and actively participated in the work of the conference, we note this resolution:

“Resolved, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.” Ibid., May 23, 1865.

This basic resolution, along with supporting counsels from the pen of Ellen White, has continued to be a guide for the church for more than 100 years. Note the clear distinction that is made between the exercise of the voting right and “participation in the spirit of party strife.” Note also that several social issues are mentioned that should be a point of concern. This resolution was reaffirmed as the position of our church the next year. It has not been changed to this day.

Statement of Principle

The fact that this position was established at such an early date in our church history is remarkable. Those who have written since to clarify our belief on this issue have used this resolution as a statement of principle that continues to apply.

Writing a few years later, Joseph Clarke, a layman residing in Ohio, and a frequent contributor to the Review, said:

“Shall we meddle with politics? No, if we must mingle in the noisy crowd, and shout the praises of the poor, puny man who is to be raised to the pinnacle of power. No, if we must give currency to the many-voiced, slanderous reports, which fill the political atmosphere with clouds and mists. But we may deposit a ballot quietly in the box in behalf of freedom, and as quietly give a reason therefor.” Ibid., Dec. 14, 1876.

A political cartoon from the 1880 election shows Republicans hailing Ulysses S. Grant as "The Savior of His Country." Image from HarpWeek.

A political cartoon from the 1880 election shows Republicans hailing Ulysses S. Grant as “The Savior of His Country.” (Image from HarpWeek.)

Discussing the coming political campaign of 1880 in one of his last editorials, James White said:

“We as a people, as Adventists, have before us an all-absorbing subject, and a work of the greatest importance, from which our minds should not be diverted. . . . 

It should be our duty to adapt ourselves, as far as possible without compromising truth, to all who come within the reach of our influence, and at the same time stand free from the strife and corruptions of the parties that are striving for the mastery.” Ibid., March 11, 1880.

Writing from Australia in 1898, Ellen White emphasized the same points:

“We are not as a people to become mixed up with political questions. . . . Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers in political strife, nor bind with them in their attachments. . . . Keep your voting to yourself. Do not feel it your duty to urge everyone to do as you do.” Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 336, 337.

Just one month before the death of James White, Seventh-day Adventists were gathered for camp meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. A proposed action was placed before the delegates which read:

“Resolved, That we express our deep interest in the temperance movement now going forward in this state; and that we instruct all our ministers to use their influence among our churches and with the people at large to induce them to put forth every consistent effort, by personal labor, and at the ballot box, in favor of the prohibitory amendment of the Constitution, which the friends of temperance are seeking to secure.” Review and Herald, July 5, 1881.

Some disagreed with the clause that called for action at “the ballot box,” and urged that it be taken out. Ellen White, who was attending this camp meeting, had retired for the night, but she was called to give her counsel. Writing of it at the time, she said: “‘I dressed and found I was to speak to the point of whether our people should vote for prohibition. I told them “Yes,” and spoke twenty minutes.'” Temperance, p. 255.

Ellen White never changed that position. In an article written for the Review just a year before her death she reemphasized the responsibility of every citizen to exercise every influence within his power, including his vote, to work for temperance and virtue:

“While we are in no wise to become involved in political questions, yet it is our privilege to take our stand decidedly on all questions relating to temperance reform. . . . 
There is a cause for the moral paralysis upon society. Our laws sustain an evil which is sapping their very foundations. Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be. Every individual exerts an influence in society. In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?” Review and Herald, Oct. 15, 1914. (Italics supplied.)

Three Conclusions

Three conclusions seem clear from this historical study:

  1. We are always to vote “on the side of temperance and virtue.”
  2. The decision to vote for candidates is a personal decision. If you vote, “keep your voting to yourself. Do not feel it your duty to urge everyone to do as you do.”
  3. We are to stand free from political strife and corruption.

Perhaps a surprising postscript on voting is that the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920, five years after Ellen White’s death. It stated simply: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Some states granted women partial suffrage earlier. Colorado did this in 1894 and California in 1911. But long before this, Ellen White evidently anticipated such a development when she wrote in 1875:

“There are speculations as to woman’s rights and duties in regard to voting. Many are in no way disciplined to understand the bearing of important questions. They have lived lives of present gratification because it was the fashion. Women who might develop good intellects and have true moral worth are now mere slaves to fashion. . . . Such women are not prepared to intelligently take a prominent position in political matters. . . . Let this order of things be changed.” Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 565.

From this statement we might properly conclude that

  1. it is inappropriate for women (and men) to perform their “duties in regard to voting” unless they have been “disciplined to understand the bearing of important questions”;
  2. such understanding should be acquired.

Coming next week: Partisan Politics and Public Service


This article was originally published in Adventist Review, September 18 and 25, 1980, with the title “The Right to Vote—Shall I Exercise It?” Reprinted with permission of the Ellen G. White Estate. The graphics were not part of the original article.

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About the author


Paul A. Gordon served as undersecretary of the Ellen G. White Estate in the 1990s.