Ellen White and Religious Bigotry by Jeffrey Rosario

Ellen White and Religious Bigotry

by Jeffrey Rosario  |  February 26, 2016

A Hard Time to Be A Catholic

If there was ever a bad time to be a Catholic in America, it was during the nineteenth century. A massive wave of European immigration flooded the United States with over 3.5 million newcomers, many of whom were Catholics from Ireland and Germany. In proportion to population, it was the largest immigrant influx in American history.1 As a result of this “Catholic invasion,” the Catholic Church ballooned from its place as the fifth-largest denomination in the country in 1840, to the largest denomination by 1850.2 But they weren’t exactly received with open arms.

This phenomenon set the stage for deep animosities toward Catholics as they continued to alter the social, political, and religious landscape of a staunchly Protestant nation. As a defense mechanism, Protestants of all ranks fostered a paranoid obsession that portrayed Catholics as “conspirators against the Christian republic.”3 They were accused of all sorts of sinister schemes, and even the institution of slavery was viewed as “a secular expression of Romanism’s worst evils.”4

She detailed so-called Catholic rituals such as licking the floor for penance.

The arrows targeted at Roman Catholics had been sharpened in the early 1800s as Americans were bombarded with sensational propaganda against all things Catholic. Take, for example, the popular literature of the day. Rebecca Reed published Six Months in a Convent (1835), a scandalous exposé about her horrifying experiences. She detailed so-called Catholic rituals such as licking the floor for penance. Protestants ate it all up and the book became an instant success, launching a new genre in American literature called the convent exposé. It also inspired anti-Catholic riots and the burning of a convent near Boston.

A year later another shocking book, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), rocked the nation and fed the growing appetite for anti-Catholicism among Americans. Following an alleged escape from a convent after five years of torture, the author’s exposé described tunnels underneath convents where priests would enter and perform illicit acts with nuns. After baptizing the babies born from these pregnancies, they were secretly thrown into a pit in the basement to rid all evidence.

It was juicy stuff. Was it true? Unlikely. But that’s beside the point. Even after being discredited, it continued to circulate widely. Into the 1840s, dozens of anti-Catholic newspapers were founded which added logs to the frenzied flame.

From their pulpits, ministers stood before their agitated congregations and rattled them about the encroaching influences of Catholicism in America. One Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia declared that the deep concern regarding the dangers of papal influence is “not confined to people of narrow views and limited education,” it is something gripping even the sophisticated and higher classes in society. He claimed that there was “solid reason to fear the influence of Popery in this country.”5 Another angry Protestant wrote: “It is an ascertained fact that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery.”6 So on any given Sunday morning, Americans could get a good dose of anti-Catholic venom.

It is an ascertained fact that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise…

In the political realm the mood was no less hostile as a new political party emerged out of anti-Catholic sentiments. Beginning in 1854, this party grew out of secret meetings where antagonism was fueled and Catholics were singled out as the central problem facing America. It was called the Know-Nothing Party because when members were asked about the rumored secret meetings they would reply, “I know nothing.” Seriously, that’s how they got their name.7 Their influence helped enact laws that barred Catholics from public office and they instigated anti-Catholic violence.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, public opinion toward Catholics continued its inflammatory trajectory. New voices emerged with creative attacks, taking the nation’s darkest history and harnessing American fears against Catholics. In 1886 Charles Chiniquy, a disgruntled former Catholic priest from Canada, published a book titled Fifty Years in the Church of Rome in which he claimed that the American Civil War was a conspiracy spearheaded by the Vatican to destroy America. He even argued that the papacy was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that the assassins were loyal subjects to the pope himself. As outrageous as these claims may sound, there was no shortage of itching ears as anti-Catholicism continued to brew in American society.

Enter Ellen White

Out of all the different denominations in America during this period, Seventh-day Adventists were particularly poised to thrash down on the Catholics. By the time the movement incorporated into a legit and formal organization in 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had about 3,500 members and 30 ministers.8 The movement’s message had been in the process of fine-tuning throughout the 1840s and 1850s. By the 1860s, the foundational pillars of a rich theological framework were well established.

With their compelling grasp of biblical eschatology and the role that the papacy would play in end-time events, the potential for anti-Catholic animosity was greater among Adventist believers than in other Protestant churches. In fact, Adventism implied that the other Protestant churches were not going far enough in their separation from Rome. The very name of the denomination suggested that by holding to Sunday sacredness, Protestantism was still in bed with Catholicism, regardless of any church’s professed anti-Catholicism.

“There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth…”

It would have been very easy for Seventh-day Adventists to simply go with the current and embrace the popular attitude against Catholics. By joining the angry chorus of anti-Catholic rhetoric, they could have put themselves in a favorable position among other Americans. And if they didn’t fall into that ditch, they could have easily fallen into the tendency of narrowly targeting Catholics as individuals and identifying them as the enemy.

That is, of course, had there not been a little old lady named Ellen White to spoil the Catholic-bashing party.

In the turbulent context of her day—with all the tension, animosity, and violence—Ellen White takes her pen and rocks the Adventist church:

“There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth.…”9


[mic drop]

Hopefully this point is obvious by now, but given the context in which she wrote, those are provocative words. Nineteenth-century America was not a comfortable era to go on record with flattering remarks toward Catholics. And certainly not from a religious leader like Ellen White. Suggesting that there are “many” Catholics who are “far better” in their Christian walk than “many” Adventists would have been a rude awakening for the church. But she wouldn’t stop there, she was just getting started.

In the following years she would continue to drive this message home. In 1889 she wrote that “a large number in the Catholic churches” are “more true to obey the light and to do to the very best of their knowledge than a large number among Sabbathkeeping Adventists who do not walk in the light.”10 Ouch.

The Adventist message is far too important, far too beautiful, to drown its influence by adopting a reactionary and narrow-minded self-identity.

How ironic is this picture? The very movement which, in some sense, had the strongest theological incentives to condemn Catholics, the movement which believed itself to be furthest removed from Catholic influence and most capable of identifying the true scope of the pope’s influence in America, is the very movement whose leading voice rises above the bedlam to spare the church from losing the plot. The Adventist message is far too important, far too beautiful, to drown its influence by adopting a reactionary and narrow-minded self-identity.

But didn’t Ellen White also speak out against the papacy and warn others about its influence?” Absolutely. Regarding the papal system she wrote that it represented “the apostasy of the latter times.”11 For more on that, read chapter thirty-five in The Great Controversy. But while she criticized the system and its medieval legacy, she was careful to distinguish the system from the individuals. And particularly important is how she challenged Adventists to be broad-minded and recognize that a mere adherence to their creed of doctrinal truth did not automatically make them more devoted than people of other faiths.

By 1909, she was still waxing eloquently on this point. Read this next statement carefully:

“It is true that we are commanded to ‘cry aloud, spare not, lift up the voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.’ Isaiah 58:1. This message must be given, but while it must be given, we should be careful not to thrust and crowd and condemn those who have not the light that we have. We should not go out of our way to make hard thrusts at the Catholics. Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf. Those who have had great privileges and opportunities, and who have failed to improve their physical, mental, and moral powers, but who have lived to please themselves, and have refused to bear their responsibility, are in greater danger and in greater condemnation before God than those who are in error upon doctrinal points, yet who seek to live to do good to others.”12

That is heavy. Process that for a second. She is suggesting that it would be better to be a faithful Catholic with erroneous doctrines but who seeks “to live to do good to others” than to be an Adventist who has the truth yet lives “to please themselves” and does not develop into a conscientious Christian. Speaking to a paranoid Protestant mindset, Ellen White cuts through all the shallow religiosity and declares to the world what real Adventism is all about.

Those Outside These Walls

So how should modern day Seventh-day Adventist Christians relate to those outside the church’s walls? I think Adventist history provides some compelling answers. In fact, our history even informs us as to the questions we should be asking. But I wonder how many of us would be comfortable with such questions. For example, thinking of Seventh-day Baptists, Ellen White asked her readers, “Why should not the Seventh-day Adventist and Seventh-day Baptist harmonize? Why not co-operate? Why not unite in the work and become one without compromising any principle of truth, and without damage to any interest worth preserving?”13

Does the notion of working with other denominations make you feel uncomfortable?

Are you shocked? Well, I warned you. That little old lady is much edgier than you thought.

While maintaining a distinctive Adventist identity, she was appealing to the potential of working with the Seventh-day Baptists in the Sabbath school work. This, she believed, was a work “that would not please the artful foe at all.”14

Does the notion of working with other denominations make you feel uncomfortable? Do you wonder how such alliances can even be possible without compromising Adventist faith and ideals? Do you fear that this could be a step down the slippery path of ecumenism? Well, I get it. I wonder about those things as well. I’m a hardcore orthodox Adventist, through and through. But I’m probably not more Adventist than Ellen White herself. What about you? Sure, you may have eaten more tofu than she did, but on this subject, I’m inclined to listen to her. Ellen White clearly deemed it possible to shake hands with others outside our Adventist walls while remaining true to our colors.

Do I have the answers on what that would look like? Nope. But if we can even engage in the potential, initiate dialogue among our brethren, and seek out creative ways to think in these terms, we would, as she put it, frustrate “the artful foe.” And that sounds like something I could get into.

For we cannot even begin to represent the “everlasting gospel” (Revelation 14:6) until we are clear on our crippling tendency toward narrow-mindedness…

With a heart burdened for the next generation of Adventists that would take the stage, Ellen White wrote:

“One grand lesson should be taught to our children, and that is, freedom from every particle of egotism and bigotry. They should be taught that other souls outside of our faith are precious, and that jesting, sneering, sarcasm, or contempt for those outside of our faith will be an offense to God. Such a course will wound the soul, hinder the prayers, and enfeeble the spiritual growth of those who indulge in them. We should educate the children not to be narrow, but broad…”15

Does this mean that we should water down the message of present truth? We get a resounding “no” from the pen of Ellen White. There is no sugar coating the message, but neither should we coat it with sour vinegar. Far from neutering Adventism’s distinctive message, Ellen White’s provocative appeal actually qualifies us to proclaim it. For we cannot even begin to represent the “everlasting gospel” (Revelation 14:6) until we are clear on our crippling tendency toward narrow-mindedness that hinders our ability to reflect the sweetness of Jesus to those who don’t see things as we do.

As challenging as these ideas might be, I also see an important opportunity. What if we caught this vision for a deeply committed movement with a clear identity and a compelling message? What if we married this sense of purpose with a large-hearted approach to the world around us? What if Adventists accepted this challenge so that “in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10)?

Can you imagine the potential?

  1. David Goldfield, et al, The American Journey: A History of the United States (Pearson, 2007), 417
  2. George Knight, Ellen White’s World: A Fascinating Look at the Times in which She Lived (Review & Herald Publishing, 1998), 53
  3. Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Yale University Press, 1993), 321
  4. ibid, 251
  5. Gerard N. Grob, ed., Anti-Catholicism in America: 1841-1851 (Arno Press, 1977), 11
  6. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper Magazine, November 1964.
  7. David Goldfield, et al, The American Journey: A History of the United States (Pearson, 2007), 417
  8. George R. Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists (Review and Herald, 2012), 64
  9. Ellen White, Manuscript 14, 1887. Also in Evangelism, 144
  10. Ellen White, Manuscript 30, 1889. Also in Selected Messages, Vol. 3, 386
  11. Ellen White, The Great Controversy, 571
  12. Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 9, 241-244. Also in Evangelism, 575
  13. Ellen White, Sabbath School Worker, October 1, 1886
  14. ibid
  15. ibid
Jeffrey Rosario Speaker
Light Bearers
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  • Ross Knight

    That was fantastic! Thankyou so much!

  • nancy foote

    “a work “that would not please the artful foe at all.” Yes, I could get into that as well. Sign me up.

    When the Pope visited America this past year, I posted a few articles about the subject on facebook – one by Ty Gibson brought a response from a former Adventist who is now a devout Catholic. He said he grew up in the church, attended church school, went to our colleges, etc. and he related that all along the way he was spoon fed bigotry. Everyone was an outsider, but especially Catholics. They were considered in league with the devil. I responded by apologizing for all that he had seen and heard and experienced those many years ago. I told him that God’s love knows no boundaries…that people of many faiths (or even no faith) will be in the kingdom (See what White said on this in Signs of the Times, August 7, 1893, par 3). I hope it helped…I don’t know.

  • NickPMiller

    Thank you, very excellent and timely discussion of the importance of moderation and even charity in our relations to our fellow Christians and their churches. I had not seen the quote about the Seventh-day Baptists, and it really is another eye opener. Good stuff.

  • Hirving Henriquez

    GREAT Article!! Goes well with the other inviting article you recently posted about Ellen White. We carry a lot of misconceptions that are going to require in-depth understanding of the time and the appropriate context in which she wrote in to drill it out of us. Keep this up, Jeffrey!

  • Great article, Jeffrey! I really appreciate this. And the awesome thing about Adventism is that it has common grounds with so many segments of society, even beyond Protestants. God gives us such a unique composite of beliefs and lifestyles that become avenues to build friendships with people across political lines and religions-I can connect on lifestyles, food, and modesty with Muslims, family, Sabbath, and tradition with those people of Jewish faith, even evaluating faith intelligently with the atheists, etc. Stewardship of the earth with the environmentalists, healthy living with the healthy ppl, social engagement…it goes on and on. Certainly some of these are platforms where we can work together without compromise.

    I think God brilliantly shapes Adventism–both teachings and culture–perfectly fitting our mission scope: the entire world. All people, nations, and cultures.

  • Elizabeth Salisbury

    Excellent! One note to add for full context today. There is such a thing that we call a Hegelian Dialectic. The enemy of souls uses this device very effectively by creating the appearance of two conflicting dialogues in order to create the perceived need of a third option that is occulted from the participants in this conflict–the real objective he has, which is the same always. That objective is to create a united front against Lord Jesus, but it is dressed up as peace. We do well to avoid such conflicts that are created to drive unsuspecting goats into a precipice. Instead, if we unite with Jesus and His gospel wholly, we will not be tempted into conflict, but will be led by the Shepherd’s voice and act in His love, thus avoiding the snare.

  • Bruce N. Cameron

    One of the ironies is that Adventists are so unaware of the views of fellow believers that they think that we are exceptional in our “narrow” upbringing. I’ve come to believe that this was common in other conservative Christian faiths. Indeed, they looked on us as being especially strange – and some still do. If we truly worked closely with those of other faiths, we would realize that many of the complaints about our upbringing are more of a reflection of the times, and not something about which we need to to be constantly apologizing.

  • Anggelos

    Sad that he went through our academic halls, the clergy and family and that was what he got. I cannot say all three taught him this, but sad none the less. I have walked the same path and I was never taught this. I was taught that that it is the system of the Catholic church that is the issue, and as a result the members are at a disadvantage. It would be rather weird however that the “everyone is an outsider” mantra was preached in all three atmospheres. But who knows. I hope he comes back home one day.

  • Vallens Emile Collot

    Amen! We have built a spiritual wall around us and it’s hard for other denominations to really understand what adventism is all about. We are not another religion or denomination we are a movement at the center of every single denomination not separated from them.

  • nancy foote

    Well said Josephine! You are so right.

  • Roxene Kimes

    “There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth.…”

    Boom is right! For instance many Catholics do not buy into the political correctness near as much as Adventists have. Especially as it relates to the federalization of church that attaches us to the political holy grails of our day like abortion, and homosexuality.

    Of course those issues will be slowly co-opted as well to provide the catholics with the complete “healing” necessary to align ALL churches into the unity requirement needed to erase any dissenting sovereignty. I wonder if there is one in particular that they might think is dissenting?

    Such statements watering down those positions are already forthcoming from the Pope.

    So. While I agree that there is much we can do to present a more universal appeal I do worry that many times that effort is thwarted because we would prefer like the nondenominational churches to provide unity at the cost of truth.

  • dave4truth

    This is a most compelling article! And yes, Jeffrey, there ARE ways to “work together” with other denominations without sacrificing one iota of Adventist principles. Just recently, among other experiences that I won’t bore you with, I was the functioning interim pastor for a local Methodist Church…as an Adventist pastor! What an opportunity to present the 3 Angel’s Messages every Sunday in the incomparably positive context that they were originally given! Indeed, so many are OPEN to TRUTH, if we can just learn how to avoid cliche’s and confrontational language…what a day to be living and to witness for the King of Kings!

  • Elle

    thought provoking. As kids we were forbidden to play with “those children”. Never could understand why??
    We must mix and be friends with all. Many times while caravanning we have met people who eventually ask what religion we are. I can testify that the door is then opened for careful but joyful dialogue of what we know, what is yet coming and it has always been received with , ” didn’t know that. Wow. ”
    We sow. God waters.

  • SurprisedByGrace

    Well done! I would add two points. 1. Sadly some SDAs did make it an ministry to savage Catholism, and 2. She had this view with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union even AFTER the Union signed on to Sunday laws. Much still to learn in reaching the lost with present truth.

  • cogy

    Thirty-four years in Adventism, and I must confirm that this is the most excellent and wonderful article that I’ve read in any of Adventists’ resource. This is a sound of reformation after the 10daysofprayer!

  • Geoffrey Plewright

    Your two recent articles on EGW are extremely encouraging Jeffrey. The Holy Spirit is indeed doing a wonderful work through Light Bearers ministries. God bless man. Enjoy your stay in The Tweed.

  • Wendy Flannery Valadez

    What a sad view you have of our beauitful Adventist message. All i read in this is your narrow thinking on a world-wide movement to reach people looking for God.

  • jasmina

    Enter 2016 and the same sentiments the protestants felt towards catholics in the 1800s are being repeated today, with the muslims.

    I think if our passion was to help our young people and youth be rooted in the Truth and have a personal and close relationship with their Saviour, we wouldn’t have to feel so worried about them mingling with ‘outsiders’. But because often this is not a priority, once they do make contact with outsiders and other denominations, we often do lose them. We should be more focused on doing, rather than not doing.

  • KBoyce

    Mr. Rosario references the 19th century priest, Chiniquy, who wrote the book, 50 years in the Church of Rome. I incidentally just finished reading this book just days ago. Mr. Rosario glosses over the work of Chiniquy by only highlighting his theories on Lincoln…and I dare say they weren’t just theories as Chiniquy met with Lincoln on multiple occasions and Lincoln defended him in court against his own church. The main part of the book is actually a detailed history of his experiences in Canada and later in Illinois as a priest. The details are indeed stunning in their depth and describe rampant abuses in most every area of the church and Chiniquy was indeed well-traveled. He wasn’t citing isolated incidents of a few here and there. While I’ve not seen, it the Best Picture Oscar just went to Spotlight which highlighted the abuses that priests and others in the Catholic church have perpetrated over the years.
    While I agree that there are many fine people who are congregants in the Catholic church, the system itself is corrupt and must continue to be highlighted in this manner if people are to indeed “come out of Babylon”. Watering down the warnings with statements by Rosario that it is ‘unlikely’ that priests impregnated nuns and then disposed of babies in the 1800’s is naive at best. Read more history for a clearer picture. Rome doesn’t change it’s spots.