As I have mentioned before I am finishing up my second Masters degree and working on my thesis. This is a copy of the proposal submitted.
The title of this thesis shall be, “Everything is to be shaken that can be shaken: Slavery, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Civil War.”
Though Adventists like to think that they had a unique view of the American Civil War, the historical record show that their views, experiences, and even the “prophecies” of Ellen White were quite mainstream.
During the American Civil War leaders of Christian denominations had to decide how best to council their members on their participation in the war. The Seventh-day Adventist Church had the advantage of a prophetess, Ellen G White, to turn to. In all she had three visions concerning the Civil War. For believers these visions are stunning and impressive; critics point to the fact that some predictions did not come true and claim she is a false prophet. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to investigate spiritual matters, there are some questions worth asking.
Supporters and detractors of Ellen White point to parts of the visions which either did, or did not come true. Unfortunately, those interested in theology are the ones doing the questioning not historians, or on some cases Adventist historians, both of which have an obvious bias. Furthermore, many Christian denominations citing 1 Peter 2:9 see themselves as unique (peculiar) and view their particular history as just that: different from other Christians. This is true in the Adventist denomination especially in light of their view of the Three Angels Messages in Revelation. Consequently, several questions are left unexplored. I propose to answer the question, “Was the Adventist view of the American Civil War similar to, or different from other Northern denominations?” In addition, I propose to investigate Ellen White’s visions against the wider historical record. I will also be asking the following questions: How does what Ellen White predict compare with what others in the country are saying? Are her “visions” consistent with what the secular world is predicting? How do Seventh-day Adventists respond to her visions? How do these visions impact the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole?
My hypothesis is that the Adventist church including Ellen White’s “visions” are not too far outside the mainstream when compared to other denominations in the North. They are general enough and plausible enough that she does not garner a reputation which would dissuade her followers from following her. For those who were skeptical anyway her visions would have had to have been impeccably accurate to convince them. For the fiercely loyal, the accurate parts would reinforce their loyalty and they would see a way to explain the inaccurate parts. While her prophecies are not radical, they do serve the church in that they reinforce her leadership which is important since in 1861 the church is seeking to become a legal entity.
To test this hypothesis, I will use primary and secondary sources to compare Adventist experience and Ellen Whites “visions” with what other religious and secular leaders are saying. I will also be looking at the Review and Herald, the official paper of the soon to be Seventh-day Adventist church for thoughts and comments by church members and other church leaders. I will also be looking at church histories and biographies of church leaders to provide further information.
Definition of Terms
“Conditional Prophecy”: A prophecy that does not come true is still an accurate prophecy. It is considered “conditional” because the course of human action can change the “prophecy”.
“Prophecy”: God foretelling of future events
“Sabbath”: In the 1860s most denominations used “Sabbath” to mean “Sunday” or “the day of worship”. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church “Sabbath” refers specifically to the period of time from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
“Sabbatarian Adventists”: The forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Not all who followed William Miller went on to become Seventh-day Adventists. Millerism cut across denominational lines and after the “Great Disappointment” some continued with their denominations, while some split into different “Advent” groups.
Christian nations at war present an interesting moral dilemma. No matter how righteous the reason, no matter how noble the cause, one of the tenants of Christianity is “Thou shall not kill”. The American Civil War was no exception. Slavery and secession not only divided a country and pitted brother against brother, it split Christian denominations as well. As the nation headed toward war, Christian leaders had to guide their constituents through this moral morass.
In 1861, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was just organizing itself into a legal entity. Born from the Millerite Movement, on the eve of the Civil War this fledgling organization, barely 16 years old, had to struggle with its position on the war. Sabbatarian Adventists (as followers were called before official organization) looked to their spiritual leaders for guidance. Ellen White was one of the founders and the prophetess of the Advent movement. As prophetess, her “visions” would guide Adventist leaders through this period and beyond. In all, Ellen White had three visions concerning the Civil War.
By 1863 the recently formed Seventh-day Adventist Church had about 3500 members and 30 ministers which would look to church leadership to answer the questions: Should Adventist men serve in the military? And if yes, should they bear arms and kill others?
This paper will examine Ellen White’s “visions” in regards to the Civil War and will compare them to the historical record.
Adventists have created an interesting theory called “conditional prophecy”, which stacks the deck in favor of the alleged prophet. In sum the belief is that God only reveals what COULD happen so if events do not unfold according to “prophecy” that does not diminish a prophet’s status.
However, if one examines mainstream thought for the period and finds that a prophecy fits in with what others believe or are saying this will serve to undermine the “prophet’s” claim to exclusivity. For example if Ellen White’s “prophecies” do not run crosscurrent to mainstream thought but she is instead merely repeating what everyone else is saying, her claims to having special prophetic insight are diminished. Comparing Ellen White’s sayings, teachings, and “prophecies” with contemporary Christian thought in regards to the Civil War will help us understand Adventism’s place among other denominations of the period as well as its relationship with its members.
Currently, little work by historians have been done in this area. Discussion of Ellen White’s visions and the American Civil War have been limited to three general types of works: biographers, supporters and detractors, and church histories. Some historians have looked at Adventists in connection with the notion of conscientious objectors serving in the military, but these works do not discuss Ellen White’s prophecies.
Atkinson, Joseph M. God the Giver of Victory and Peace: A Thanksgiving Sermon. Raliegh, NC, 1862.
Brooklyn Eagle. November 21, 1842.
Bushnell, Horace. Reverses Needed: A Discourse Delivered on the Sunday after the Disaster of Bull Run. Hartford, CT: L.E. Hunt, 1861.
Miller, William. Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843. Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1842.
“The Battle of Bull Run – Gen. McDowell’s Report,” The New York Times. August 9, 1861.
Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference Archives. The Midnight Cry. http://docs.adventistarchives.org//documents.asp?CatID=134&SortBy=1&ShowDateOrder=True.
Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference Archives. Review and Herald. http://www.adventistarchives.org/documents.asp?CatID=27&SortBy=1&ShowDateOrder=True.
Smith, Uriah. The United States in the Light of Prophecy; or, An Exposition of Rev 13:11-17. Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1874.
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Bicknell, John. America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election that Transformed the Nation. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2015.
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