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Seventh-day Adventist Pioneers and Their Protest Against Systemic Racism

The second advent movement was inseparable from the call to abolish slavery and grant equal rights to the oppressed.

Kevin M. Burton.

The second advent movement was inseparable from the abolitionist call for the immediate and total destruction of slavery and the demand for equal rights for the oppressed. 

From the rise of the Millerite movement in the early 1830s through the end of the Civil War, Adventists of all varieties used the tactic of moral suasion to warn pro-slavery Americans that God would soon return and judge them if they did not immediately repent and reform. In this manner, they made protest against racial injustice inseparable from their Adventist faith.

Though many Millerite Adventists avoided association with political parties because those parties supported slavery, beginning in 1840 a significant number joined the Liberty Party, which had a single platform: the immediate and total abolition of slavery and “the restoration of equality of rights among men.”1

In 1848, the Liberty Party nominated Gerrit Smith — a prominent abolitionist, Millerite Adventist, and seventh-day Sabbath observer — as a candidate for president of the United States. Throughout the antebellum period, Millerites and Seventh-day Adventists also risked their lives to liberate slaves from bondage.

While some did this legally by purchasing slaves’ freedom, many broke federal law by assisting fugitives on the Underground Railroad. They upheld God’s fugitive slave law in Deuteronomy 23:1516: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him” (KJV). Indeed, in all of these ways and more, Adventists were inspired by their Christian faith to fight against systemic racism in America.

The antislavery cause was rooted in black protest, and black Seventh-day Adventists were also active abolitionists. John “the Dominie” West, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, a former slave and close friend of Gerrit Smith, preached against the evils of slavery and racism, published and promoted several of Smith’s abolitionist works, and operated a store in Peterboro, New York, that sold no products grown by slave labor. In Bath, New York, Elias and Henrietta Platt were local Adventist leaders and the most active abolitionists in their town. Elias served as the local agent for Frederick Douglass’s The North Star and operated a free-produce store like West’s. The Platts regularly hosted traveling abolitionists.

In January 1852, the Platts hosted James and Ellen White in their home during a time when virtually all white northerners publicly refused to associate with blacks. When Elias Platt died unexpectantly in 1854, Frederick Douglass wrote his obituary, stating that Platt was “one of the most devoted, honest, and persevering friends of his people in the State of New York.”2

Seventh-day Adventists also petitioned against southern slavery and northern racism. Joseph and Prudence Bates were leading abolitionists in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, during the 1830s and 1840s. They signed and circulated petitions to abolish slavery and prevent the annexation of new slave states, urged the United States to recognize Haiti’s independence after its successful war of independence from France, and helped abolish racial segregation on trains and the law against interracial marriage in Massachusetts.3

In the 1850s and 1860s, Sabbath-keeping Adventists petitioned against more issues, like the death penalty (believing that both slavery and capital punishment “represented systems of brutality that coerced individuals”4), the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). In the 1860s, Seventh-day Adventists sometimes placed the denomination’s name on petitions they wrote and circulated. In April 1862, for example, a group of forty-four “Seventh Day Adventists and others” from Linn County, Iowa, testified, “That our professions of Christianity and boasts of liberty, are but a mockery in the sight of the nations of the Earth and the God of the Universe, so long as we delay practically to recognize the ‘Inalienable right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” The Linn County Adventists then “urged” Abraham Lincoln and Congress to immediately abolish “the great unnatural crime of slavery, the exhaustless inveterate source of our national ruin.”5

Seventh-day Adventists also incorporated abolitionist arguments into the three angels’ messages (Revelation 14:6-12). The first angel warned that the hour of God’s judgment was at hand, and Adventists emphasized that if pro-slavery Americans remained unrepentant, they would be doubly punished for their sins.

The second angel warned that Babylon was fallen, and Millerites came out of the Protestant churches (Babylon) because those churches supported slavery. Ellen White specified that any Seventh-day Adventist holding pro-slavery sympathies must be immediately disfellowshipped.

Finally, Seventh-day Adventists connected the third angel’s message against worshipping the beast with the antislavery cause. Revelation 13:1-18 reveals that the two-horned beast enforces idolatry, and Adventists identified America as this beast because it professed to uphold religious and civil liberty (the two horns) but, in reality, denied those privileges to religious and racial minorities.6

Seventh-day Adventist pioneers fought against oppression through their faith and actions during an era when only a tiny minority of Americans protested against racism. By incorporating antislavery arguments into their presentation of the three angels’ messages, Seventh-day Adventists made a protest against systemic racism an important part of their fundamental beliefs. They challenged their spiritual descendants to carry on this faith.

This original version of this commentary was posted by the North American Division Ministerial Association.

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1. Thomas Hudson McKee, National Conventions and Platforms of All Political Parties, 1789 to 1905: Conventions, Popular, and Electoral Vote, 6th ed. (Baltimore, MD: Friedenwald, 1906), 52.

2. Kevin M. Burton, “Born a Slave, Died a Freeman: John ‘the Dominie’ West, Seventh-day Adventist Minister and Abolitionist,” Adventist Review, April 2019, 52-55; “List of Agents,” The North Star, April 17, 1851, 1; “Free Labor Sugar & Molasses,” Steuben Courier, December 31, 1845, 3; Carter G. Woodson, ed., The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written during the Crisis, 1800-1860 (Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1926), 353; James White, “Our Tour West,”  Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 17, 1852, 93; Richard Archer, Jim Crow North: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Beth A. Salerno, Sister Societies: Women’s Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005), 32, 33; [Frederick Douglass], “Died,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, July 7, 1854, 3.

3. Kevin M. Burton, “Joseph Bates and Adventism’s Radical Roots,” Adventist Review, March 3, 2020. 

4. Louis P. Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776–1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 157.

5. “Petition of Seventh-day Adventists and Others of Linn County, Iowa, for the Abolition of Slavery in the United States,” April 1862, SEN 37A-J4, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

6. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 1:259, 358; Charles Fitch, “Come Out of Her, My People”: A Sermon (Rochester, NY: J. V. Himes, 1843), 16; White, Testimonies, 1:360; Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2001), 15-29.

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