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Is the Adventist Church's Stand in Opposition to Gay Marriage Consistent?

by Inge Anderson

(For context of this essay, please read the  Adventist Position statement on homosexuality and the statement on gay marriage.)

Some argue that the Adventist Church's opposition to gay marriage is inconsistent with the church's defense of religious and civil liberties. The suggestion is that this position is mixing politics and religion -- something the Adventist church has generally avoided during its history. But is this argument consistent with the facts of history?

The Adventist Review issue of January 2004, in its cover story, "Drying up the Stream," retells a bit of history that indicates that we do have a history of getting involved with politics when moral issues are concerned.

The Review editors wrote in 1914 that Adventists chose not to "become partisans in the great political controversies which have been carried on." But, they noted, "when there have been great moral issues at stake . . . [Adventists] have felt that it was their duty to cast their influence strongly on the side of truth."5 The examples they gave of "great moral issues" were temperance and slavery. (from "Drying up the Stream")

Then, as now, some Adventists saw this political involvement as inconsistent with the emphasis on religious liberty, but the editors responded that prohibition was a secular issue and could be defended on secular grounds. Of course, there are differences of opinion on this as well.

Ellen White Active in Temperance and Prohibition Cause

The history goes back further. Towards the end of her life Ellen White supported the temperance movement whole-heartedly.

In 1908 she promoted the Watchman Temperance number, a magazine with a clear prohibition slant, by writing in the Review, "Let all take hold to give this temperance number a wide circulation."17 With the nationwide prominence of the prohibition issue, such literature was in demand and sold well. (from "Drying up the Stream")

And we can go back further yet. In earlier days, she was nationally known and much sought after as a temperance speaker since this was a hot political issue.

Ellen White spoke internationally on temperance issues. On April 30, 1893, for instance, she spoke on temperance to an audience in New Zealand, in order to attract an audience.2 Again, late in 1893, she spoke on temperance in Gisborne, New Zealand, as a means of gaining a hearing from the people when conventional means had failed.

As late as October 2, 1905, she declared publicly, "I have not gone back on one sentiment on temperance, not one sentiment religiously."3

Ellen's biography, covering 1876 - 1891, includes a number of references to her speaking in favor of temperance. And since this was the time that prohibition was agitated, it was very much a political subject. Indeed, she gave quite a startling testimony on the subject at the Des Moines, Iowa, camp meeting in 1881:

The issue under discussion was on the matter of voting for prohibition. Twenty-six years later, G. B. Starr, laboring in Australia, was confronted with a similar question. He called to mind how Ellen White, at the Iowa meeting, related a dream in which she seemed to be in a large gathering where the temperance movement was being discussed. A fine-looking man with pen in hand was circulating a temperance pledge, but none would sign. As the visitor was leaving, he turned and said:

God designs to help the people in a great movement on this subject. He also designed that you, as a people, should be the head and not the tail in the movement; but now the position you have taken will place you at the tail. -- In DF 274, "The Des Moines, Iowa, Temperance Experience."

"'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.'" -- Ibid.

Before prohibition became a national issue, Ellen White was active in opposing local licensing of saloons, such as the 135 saloons in the city of Oakland. She threw her whole-hearted support in with the effort of the local women, and this resulted in a vote against licensing the saloons.

The public press published words of appreciation for the cooperation of the tent workers. One newspaper carried the headline, "Large and Enthusiastic
Gatherings of People at the Advent Elders' Tests on Broadway and in East Oakland" (ST, June 25, 1874). The cooperation of the tent workers and the publicity that followed gave impetus to the evangelistic meetings, and, as James White put it, "taught the crows the way to the tent" (RH June 2, 1874).

Sabbath, May 23, Ellen White was jubilant. (The Progressive Years, p. 416)

Does History Dictate Morality?

The pioneers of our church, including Ellen White, were clearly very active in some controversial political causes. But we need to examine this topic of consistency for ourselves. Surely we agree that both the state and the church are involved in moral issues. Most of us would not argue that the state should not be involved in moral issues and should not legislate against murder and theft. And surely we would also agree that if the state moved in such a direction, the church would need to speak out on the issues.

So the question is, Where do we draw the line? Are there biblical principles that tell us where to draw the line?

A look at the Ten Commandment demonstrates that the first four commandments deal exclusively with a person's relationship with God. As Adventists we have always advocated freedom of religion which leaves individuals free to relate to God in a manner that is dictated by their consciences.

While the last six commandments are also moral issues, they focus on societal relationships -- the relationships of individuals to one another. And all governments regulate such relationships. In fact, our western laws were originally clearly based on the Ten Commandments. Historically, the Adventist church has supported voting in favor of good government which supports laws based on biblical principles, without getting involved in individual issues -- with at least one very clear exception, namely temperance. Apparently this was such a clear moral issue that it was deemed fitting for the church to be actively involved. This was not out of harmony with the advocacy of religious liberty -- the freedom to relate to God according to individual conscience.

And that brings us to contemporary issues.

  • Is gay marriage an important moral issue?
  • Is it a religious freedom issue -- i.e. one that specifies how individuals relate to their God?  

The answer to the first question should determine whether or not we believe it's appropriate for the church to be involved. The answer to the second question should tell us whether such involvement is consistent with our stand an religious liberty -- that freedom to worship God according to individual conscience.

Prayerful consideration is in order. So is courage to stand up for a cause that may very well be less popular than prohibition was in the days of Ellen White. 


1. Arthur White, The Australian Years, p. 93 [back]

2. Arthur White, The Australian Years, p. 355 [back]


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