Ellen White’s views on political involvement can be difficult to harmonize. For example, consider the following sets of quotes. First, these two related statements arguably diminish the value of political action (both from The Desire of Ages):
(1) But today in the religious world there are multitudes who, as they believe, are working for the establishment of the kingdom of Christ as an earthly and temporal dominion. They desire to make our Lord the ruler of the kingdoms of this world, the ruler in its courts and camps, its legislative halls, its palaces and market places. They expect Him to rule through legal enactments, enforced by human authority. Since Christ is not now here in person, they themselves will undertake to act in His stead, to execute the laws of His kingdom. The establishment of such a kingdom is what the Jews desired in the days of Christ. They would have received Jesus, had He been willing to establish a temporal dominion, to enforce what they regarded as the laws of God, and to make them the expositors of His will and the agents of His authority. But He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36. He would not accept the earthly throne.
The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses,–extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.
Not by the decisions of courts or councils or legislative assemblies, not by the patronage of worldly great men, is the kingdom of Christ established, but by the implanting of Christ’s nature in humanity through the work of the Holy Spirit. “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12, 13. Here is the only power that can work the uplifting of mankind. And the human agency for the accomplishment of this work is the teaching and practicing of the word of God. (pp. 509-510)
(2) The works of Christ not only declared Him to be the Messiah, but showed in what manner His kingdom was to be established…. So Jesus was to do His work, not with the clash of arms and the overturning of thrones and kingdoms, but through speaking to the hearts of men by a life of mercy and self-sacrifice. (p. 217)
Yet White did advocate for political action in other writings. Here are two examples:
(1) Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make your mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high, and spare no pains to reach the standard. (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 82)
(2) 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…. (Gospel Workers, p. 387)
Ellen White said much more about political involvement, but these quotes represent her range of thought. On the one hand, Jesus is our example, and he avoided politics and government (in this reading). On the other hand, it is our duty to advocate for temperance laws with pen, voice and vote, and there is nothing wrong with aspiring to position of influence over the nations’ laws. How do we reconcile these views? Can they be harmonized, or did White’s views develop and change over time?
Could we conclude from the quotes above that White believed Seventh-day Adventists can and should engage the public sphere by working for the public good. However, we should not see such efforts as building the kingdom of God on earth, and we should remember that personal transformation (regenerating the heart) is the more powerful cure in alleviating the “woes of men.” Is that a spurious conclusion? Does it go too far? This seems consistent with the description of early Adventist theology described by Floyd Greenleaf:
Adventists had always disagreed with the post-millennial theology of the 19th century, which provided a rationale for much of that era’s reform. Post-millennialism held that humans were to reform the world into a thousand-year period of Christian goodness because the return of Jesus would not occur until this millennial paradise-on-earth had become reality. By contrast, Seventh-day Adventists continued to believe in a pre-millennial Second Advent. (“A Brief Reflection on Adventism and Social Causes,” The Journal of Adventist Education, Summer 2013, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 4-5)
What other writings from Ellen White do you believe are critical for understanding her philosophy of political engagement?
More of White’s quotes are listed here.