Adventists, Prohibition, and Political Involvement

Jared Miller November/December 2011

Just two years after the Seventh-day Adventist Church officially organized, it met for its third General Conference session in 1865. The church made one of its first official statements on voting at that time: “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.”1

There were some Adventists early on that were against political involvement for any reason. But the majority of Adventists, and especially the church leadership, supported political involvement concerning vital areas such as prohibition.

About 17 years later, in 1882, the president of the General Conference, George Butler, wrote a very balanced article for the Review, the church’s official paper. In it he pointed out that some had gotten so involved in politics that they had forgotten the Lord, and warned against such involvement. At the same time he also encouraged voting in favor of prohibition, “We hope every Seventh-day Adventist voter in the State [Iowa] will vote for this law [prohibition], and induce [or persuade] all others to do so whom he can influence by honorable means.”2

Another article in the Review in 1891 suggested, “Were we living under an absolute monarchy, all we could do would be to pray; but in this Republic we have an instrument given with which we can second our prayers, and that is, our ballot.”3

Adventist pioneer and visionary Ellen White was present at the meeting in 1859 when her husband, James White, and J. N. Andrews voiced their approval of voting for temperance men. Concerning this event she wrote in her diary: “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.”4

In 1873 Ellen White “spoke in the Methodist church of Salem [Oregon], on the subject of temperance. She stated that “the attendance was unusually good, and I had freedom in treating this, my favorite subject.”5 Temperance had a broad meaning for Ellen White, but certainly an essential part of it was refraining from drinking any kind of alcohol.

In 1877, while addressing a very large crowd of about 8,000 in Indiana, she and Elder J. H. Waggoner went beyond most other temperance speakers in that they “traced the origin of the prevailing intemperance to the home, the family board, and the indulgence of appetite in the child. . . . The great work of temperance reform, to be thoroughly successful, must begin in the home.”6 This indicates that Ellen White strongly influenced not only Adventism’s involvement in prohibition but also that of the larger community.

The boldness with which Ellen White addressed prohibition is remarkable. For instance, in 1880 she wrote, “Intemperate men should not by vote of the people be placed in positions of trust.”7

Ellen White went on to make possibly her most direct statement on voting in favor of prohibition. “‘Shall we vote for prohibition?’ she asked. ‘Yes, to a man, everywhere,’ she replied, ‘and perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, If necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time.’”8

A few months later, in 1881, she wrote another conspicuous message about prohibition: “There is a cause for the moral paralysis upon society. Our laws sustain an evil which is sapping their very foundations.”9 The evil she was speaking of was the legalization of alcoholic beverages. She continued: “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? . . . The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote—in favor of prohibition and total abstinence. We need not expect that God will work a miracle to bring about this reform, and thus remove the necessity for our exertion. We ourselves must grapple with this giant foe, our motto, No compromise and no cessation of our efforts till the victory is gained.”10

This is one of Ellen White’s strongest statements regarding involvement in prohibition. She is essentially urging people to do everything in their power (using their voice, pen, and vote) to influence society to implement prohibition. She referred to the above motto as “our motto,” which shows that Ellen White believed in prohibition with every fiber of her being. For her there would be “no compromise” and “no cessation” of her prohibitionist work until the “victory [was] gained.” Sadly, Ellen White did not live to see the Eighteenth Amendment take effect in 1920. The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment a short 13 years later surely would have rekindled in her the same motto—no compromise and no cessation until they regain the victory.

In 1886, at the request of the temperance society’s president, Ellen White spoke to about 1,600 people on the topic of temperance. She shared that “the Bible is full of history bearing upon temperance, and that Christ was connected with the work of temperance, even from the beginning.”11 She highlighted many Bible stories that address the temperance question, including the sin of Nadab and Abihu caused by drinking wine, the prenatal influence of the mother upon the unborn baby the angel indicated when counseling Manoah and his wife, the superior health of Daniel as a result of temperance, and the importance of total abstinence from alcohol in the ministry of John the Baptist.12

Toward the end of her address she appealed to the people to be like Daniel, a “radical temperance [reformer].”13 She made a general appeal, saying, “Let every Christian see that his example and influence are on the side of reform.” Then she followed by a specific appeal to ministers, “Let ministers of the gospel be faithful in sounding the warnings to the people.”14

Ellen White wrote, “What can be done to press back the inflowing tide of evil? Let laws be enacted and rigidly enforced prohibiting the sale and use of ardent spirits as a beverage.”15 Again Ellen White loudly shares her support for prohibition by voice, pen, and, we assume, her vote. One reason she adds for why prohibition should be enforced is this statement: “How many innocent persons have been condemned to death, how many more have been robbed of all their earthly possessions, by the injustice of drinking jurors, lawyers, witnesses, and even judges!”16 For Ellen White, if prohibition were enforced it would result in a much safer, moral, and noble society. Ultimately prohibition would result in people having clearer minds, and sober minds were much more receptive to the truths the Seventh-day Adventists were trying to share. She wrote, “The use of intoxicating liquor dethrones reason, and hardens the heart against every pure and holy influence. The inanimate rocks will sooner listen to the appeals of truth and justice than will that man whose sensibilities are paralyzed by intemperance.”17 Ellen White was very evangelistic-minded; she wanted souls to be saved in Christ’s kingdom, and alcohol was clouding the minds of the people she, and the Adventist Church, were trying to reach.

Temperance was a continual focus for Ellen White, as indicated by a statement she made in 1898: “I will inquire why some of our ministerial brethren are so far behind in proclaiming the exalted theme of temperance. Why is it that greater interest is not shown in health reform?”18

For Ellen White and the early Adventist Church the real purpose for temperance work was to sober people up so they could connect with God and be transformed by His grace. Her influence concerning prohibition was not just political activism for a good cause—it was political activism with the goal of souls saved because of sobriety.

Ellen White pointed out that “houses of prostitution, dens of vice, criminal courts, prisons, almshouses, insane asylums, hospitals, all are, to a great degree, filled as a result of the liquor seller’s work.”19 Clearly she viewed the liquor seller as responsible for much of the utter wickedness in society: “[The liquor seller] will be charged with the hopelessness, the misery, the suffering, brought into the world by the liquor traffic. . . . He will have to answer for the souls he has sent unprepared into eternity.”20

Ellen White was appalled that “Christian” countries, like the United States, were exporting alcohol (which she referred to here as “the curse”) to the rest of the world. People in other countries were devastated by the intoxicating liquors, and it made the work of missionaries very difficult. In her own words: “It becomes an almost hopeless undertaking to send missionaries to these lands.”21

The legality of selling alcohol led Ellen White to use a creative analogy in supporting prohibition:  “The man who has a vicious beast and who, knowing its disposition, allows it liberty is by the laws of the land held accountable for the evil the beast may do. In the laws given to Israel the Lord directed that when a beast known to be vicious caused the death of a human being, the life of the owner should pay the price of his carelessness or malignity. On the same principle the government that licenses the liquor seller should be held responsible for the results of his traffic. And if it is a crime worthy of death to give liberty to a vicious beast, how much greater is the crime of sanctioning the work of the liquor seller!”22

Ellen White could see no sense in the government authorizing the sale of such a deadly poison that results in it paying much more for its destructive results than it received in taxes. Her point is applicable in our day just as it was in her day. The government legalizes alcohol and makes a large amount of money from it because of taxation, but then millions or billions of dollars are spent by our country as a result of the accidents, violence, court costs, broken homes, and death caused by drinking alcohol.

How did Ellen White view the church’s role in prohibition? “When a ship is wrecked in sight of shore, people do not idly look on. They risk their lives in the effort to rescue men and women from a watery grave. How much greater the demand for effort in rescuing them from the drunkard’s fate!”23 Again, prohibition was really a salvation issue for Ellen White—she viewed the drunkards as lost just as the Bible indicates, and so her mission, and in her view the church’s mission, should include rescuing the drunkards from their vice and prohibiting the sale of alcohol.

Ellen White viewed the selling of alcohol and their families. Therefore, she thought everyone should be involved in putting an end to its sale. “There is no man whose interests the liquor traffic does not imperil. There is no man who for his own safeguard should not set himself to destroy it.”24

A few years after the publication of The Ministry of Healing Ellen White again appealed to the church to be active in the prohibition movement. In an article for the Review she wrote: “Shall there not be among us as a people a revival of the temperance work? Why are we not putting forth much more decided efforts to oppose the liquor traffic, which is ruining the souls of men, and is causing violence and crime of every description?”25 The motivation for temperance work appears to have waned every so often in the Adventist Church, and so Ellen White would call for a revival of this important work. She continued: “With the great light that God has entrusted to us, we should be in the forefront of every true reform.” 26 Again, surprising to some, Ellen White urged the church to be the head, not the tail, of the prohibition movement.

She also gave two helpful illustrations of the relation of crime to intemperance: “In the words of a Philadelphia judge: ‘We can trace four-fifths of the crimes that are committed to the influence of rum. There is not one case in twenty where a man is tried for his life, in which rum is not the direct or indirect cause of the murder. Rum and blood, I mean the shedding of blood, go hand in hand.’ And 'A district attorney in the city of Boston is reported as declaring that ‘ninety-nine out of one hundred of the crimes in our commonwealth are produced by intoxicating liquors.’”27

In the next week’s article she suggested, “Should not the liquor-saloons that have wrought so much evil be entirely abolished?”28 Then the following week, in her concluding article, she showed how the city of San Francisco’s crime problem basically ended temporarily while the liquor saloons were temporarily closed because of the great earthquake. According to Ellen White, “this remarkable freedom from violence and crime was largely traceable to the disuse of intoxicants.”29

Others noticed this as well: “The editors of some of the leading dailies took the position that it would be for the permanent betterment of society and for the upbuilding of the best interests of the city, were the saloons forever to remain closed.”30 However, as soon as the liquor saloons reopened their doors, violence and crime filled the city once again.31

Adventists would have been involved in the prohibition movement without the influence of Ellen White, but her influence led our involvement to be persistent, thorough, balanced, and Christ-centered.

As the years rolled on, and the prohibition movement gained momentum en route to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the church continued its official support. In 1909 a General Conference Bulletin recommended that “our ministers, teachers, physicians, nurses, and people generally, engage in a vigorous campaign in behalf of total abstinence, by means of lectures, demonstrations, and the distribution of health and temperance literature, and that whenever consistent our people, by voice, pen, and vote, place themselves on record as favorable to its restriction and entire prohibition.”32

C. S. Longacre was another strong supporter of the prohibition movement. He argued that it was wrong for the government to allow alcohol to be legal and then tax the rest of society to pay for all the murders, crime, and jail time that drunkards cost society. He protested “against the liquor business as being a curse to society, a nursery of crime, and a menace to human liberties.”33 Several years later he wrote in the Review that “our duty is to make the world sober and deliver to it the last message of hope and salvation.”34

From the General Conference to the North American Division, and even to conference presidents, the church leaders unanimously favored voting for prohibition. Historian Douglas Morgan writes, “In the final drive for a prohibition amendment, Adventists gave indefatigable support to the cause.”35 At last, after a long and hard battle, prohibition became nationwide through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. “Americans had not awakened on January 6, 1920, to find that prohibition had suddenly been thrust upon them. There had been a concerted effort by Protestantism and progressivism that had produced the Eighteenth Amendment.”36 Seventh-day Adventists were an enthusiastic support to this movement, and they celebrated the passage of prohibition.

However, prohibition came to an end much quicker than it had become law. Prohibition via the Eighteenth Amendment lasted only a little more than 13 years. What caused the quick demise of prohibition? C. S. Longacre noted, “After prohibition was written into the federal Constitution, many of the temperance organizations were left without financial support because the people thought that national prohibition was forever secure in the federal Constitution and that the Eighteenth Amendment could never be repealed.”37

One church historian noted: “Part of the impetus for the amendment derived from a patriotic mood of self-denial in support of World War I, but the amendment did not go into effect until 1920. By that time the war was over and the mood of self-denial had vanished. . . .Fear that the amendment would be repealed prompted the church to resurrect its defunct temperance organization in 1932, under the new title of the American Temperance Society.”38

Seventh-day Adventist prohibitionists were not going to be beaten without putting up a fight. One “direct and official” way the church used its influence in favor of prohibition is by sending a “memorial favoring prohibition . . . to President Hoover from the 1930 General Conference session.”39 The General Conference session is the most authoritative meeting of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, and so that action demonstrated the worldwide support the church gave toward prohibition.

Another strong attempt to influence political leaders was undertaken by F. D. Nichol, one of the pillars of the Adventist Church in the mid-twentieth century, who stood firmly for prohibition. He wrote a book entitled Wet or Dry? It “attempted . . . to combat the propaganda of a minority which was backed by the millions of the wealthy and was leading the majority to believe prohibition was a failure.”40 He got great reviews of the book by the president of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the superintendent of the National Temperance Bureau, and therefore it was decided that it should be sent to every member of Congress along with a personal letter.41

C. S. Longacre, a strong Adventist prohibitionist, argued that “bank savings deposits had increased over two hundred percent in a few years after prohibition’s inception.” Others noted, “Roosevelt [who became the U.S. president in 1933] claimed that legalized liquor would mean more revenue for the government, but that idea was rebuffed by Review writers when they said it would cost many times more to take care of the drunks and their families and to pay for the crime that liquor caused, than all the revenue received through taxes.”42 Longacre also recorded that the constituents of the American Temperance Society (ATS) of Seventh-day Adventists distributed an amazing amount of literature, totaling more than 88,593,600 pages, during 1932 in order to save the Eighteenth Amendment.43

Despite the church’s noble efforts, “In February of 1933 the Congress passed a bill repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and sent the newly proposed constitutional amendment to the states for ratification.”44

Adventists did not give up even after national prohibition was repealed. Adventists continued to promote “liquor controls through local elections, rehabilitation of alcoholics, and education to avoid the problem in the first place.”45

 Eventually the church’s Liberty magazine changed its tenth principle after it became apparent that prohibition was not going to make a comeback. “The tenth item of the ‘Religious Liberty Association Declaration of Principles’ printed in Liberty asserted that ‘the liquor traffic is a curse to the home, to society, and to the nation, and a menace to civil order, and should be prohibited by law.’”46

There is still a debate over whether prohibition was successful or not at cutting back most alcohol use and abuse. Certainly most Adventists in the early twentieth century argued that prohibition was a great success. It is absolutely clear that Adventists viewed prohibition as a moral and civil issue that required their involvement. The church tried to steer clear of partisan politics throughout this process, as the issue they were passionate about was prohibition, not one particular party.

This article is redacted from a larger research paper that Jared Miller presented as part of a seminar on church-state thought at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

1 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 23, 1865, p. 197.
2 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Apr. 11, 1882, p. 234.
3 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 17, 1891, p. 104.
4 Ellen G. White, Temperance (Mountain View Calif.: Pacific Press, 1949), p. 256.
5 White, p. 261. (Italics supplied.)
6 Ellen G. White, In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 23, 1877.
7 White, Temperance, p. 254.
8 In Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years, 1876-1891 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald , 1984), vol. 3, p. 16l.
9 E. G. White, Temperance, p. 253.
10 Ibid., pp. 253, 254.
11 Ibid., p. 267.
12 Ibid., pp. 267-273.
13 Ibid., p. 273.
14 Ibid.
15 Ellen G. White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene (Battle Creek, Mich. Good Health Publishing, 1890), p. 29.
16 Ibid., p. 30.
17 Ibid.
18 E. G. White, Temperance, p. 244.
19 Ibid., p. 24.
20 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1905), pp. 341, 342.
21 Ibid., p. 339.
22 Ibid., p. 343.
23 Ibid., pp. 344, 345.
24 Ibid., p. 346.
25 Ellen G. White, in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 29, 1907.
26 Ibid.
27 Ellen G. White, “Drunkenness and Crime,” Signs of the Times, Nov. 20, 1907.
28 Ellen G. White, “Drunkenness and Crime,” Signs of the Times, Nov. 27, 1907.
29 Ellen G. White, “Drunkenness and Crime,” Signs of the Times, Dec. 4, 1907.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 General Conference Bulletin, May 24, 1909, p. 8.
33 Liberty 8, no. 4 (1913): 188.
34 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 9, 1919, p. 30.
35 Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001), p. 63.
36 Larry White, “The Return of the Thief: The Repeal of Prohibition and the Adventist Response,” Adventist Heritage 5, no. 2, (1978): 36.
37 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 29, 1938, p. 57.
38 Richard Schwarz, Light Bearers (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1995), pp. 489, 490.
39 Morgan, p. 207.
40 Larry White, p. 37.
41 Ibid., pp. 37, 38.
42 Ibid., p. 44.
43 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 29, 1938, p. 58.
44 Larry White, p. 40.
45 Schwarz, pp. 491, 492.
46 Rachel E. Whitaker, “Adventist Activists: Seventh-day Adventists in the Fight for National Alcohol Prohibition, 1913-1920” (Honors project, Andrews University, 1997), pp. 10, 11.

Article Author: Jared Miller