Recollecting an Advent Christian Political Theology: A Retrieval of Advent Christian Thought on the Relationship Between Church and State

Recollecting an Advent Christian Political Theology: A Retrieval of Advent Christian Thought on the Relationship Between Church and State

Pictured: The US Capitol building and the Advent Christian church in North Scituate, RI

Pictured: The US Capitol building and the Advent Christian church in North Scituate, RI

Few have been the times in human history when one could offer a report of political harmony on the account of any society. Considering this present moment, nationally or globally, such a report waits to be offered. Blitzed by news reports on every side, worn down and wearied, many persons seek refuge, some silence set apart from the fray. Of these, a number turn to some local church. Most pastors welcome such longings, and of those who would call themselves evangelicals, I myself being counted among them, it could be said that such separation is often encouraged; everyone is happier if we just leave our politics at the door. 

This tendency makes introducing the notion of  “political theology” an unsettling proposition. Putting aside suspicions that such a theology may have some foundation other than Scripture, the pairing seems altogether incongruous for this little peace we have settled upon. Moreover, it seems to suggest the violation of that American credo, “Separation of Church and State.” Even for the evangelical, the scent of theocracy can make her feel a bit uneasy. It seems altogether more peaceful to believe that these two can be kept apart, the political and the theological.

However, in looking to the Advent Christian tradition, we are offered a poignant demonstration of the inescapably political nature of theology and the inescapably theological nature of politics. The Advent Christian Church is an American denomination that appeared in the second half of the 19th century as survivors of “The Great Disappointment” of 1843/4. William Miller, the father of the Millerite/Second Advent movement, calculated that Christ was to return in 1843/4. When Christ did not return as expected, several groups within the diaspora came together and eventually formed separate and distinct denominations. Among these were those who would come to be known as “Advent Christians.” These believers continued to maintain their belief in the imminent return of Christ and were particularly distinguished by their belief in conditional immortality. Given their Millerite roots and these two defining beliefs, the first being underscored by their continued indulgence in modest calculations, they gained a reputation as radicals. 

This radical characterization was further colored by their practice of pacifism during the Civil War. This belief in pacifism would eventually make its way into the Advent Christian Declaration of Principles. This principle states: 

We believe that war is contrary to the spirit and teachings of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ; that it is contrary to the spirit of true brotherhood; and that our influence should be used against it. We believe the Bible also teaches that properly constituted government is ordained of God and is a divine instrument for man's welfare and protection. When an Advent Christian decides on the basis of Scripture and conscience, either to bear arms or to submit to penalties imposed for his refusal to do so, local Advent Christian congregations should extend continued fellowship and nurture.[1]

Reading this, one senses the intimation of an underlying political theology, one perhaps in conflict. In this essay, I hope to further clarify and recover this political theology by first turning to the fountainhead of Advent Christian pacifism, I.C. Wellcome. Though the “pacifist principle” remains in the Declaration of Principles, there are very few present day Advent Christians who would call themselves pacifist. I cannot offer a complete account as to why this shift has occurred, but by retrieving Wellcome’s reasoning I hope to cast light on what may in fact be a deeper shift, a shift in Advent Christian political theology that lies beneath the shift on pacifism.  


Advent Christian Political Theology

When studying the Advent Christian tradition, one is hard-pressed to find any self-conscious attempts at political theology. In larger treatments found in pamphlets and books, implicit political theologies might emerge in the midst of discourses on world events, the Kingdom of God, and of course pacifism, but there are very few (and by my count no) books consciously dedicated to the subject. In smaller treatments found in various Advent Christian periodicals, one does find some forthright consideration of the relation between the church and politics, but as is the case with most of the books above, it is difficult to measure the influence of these writings. The lone exception when it comes to measuring influence may be I.C. Wellcome’s popularly received pamphlet Should Christians Fight? As for the rest, these serve mostly as samples of Advent Christian political theology as taken from the body as a whole and will be used to chart the differences and similarities that follow from the days of Advent Christian pacifism. 

Advent Christian Pacifism

Included in his book Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War, Peter Brock offers an account of Advent Christian pacifism as it was found in the mid-19thcentury.[2] Brock cites William Lloyd Garrison as an organic influence upon the early Advent Christians, given their New England origins and the earlier friendship shared between he and Joshua V. Himes, a leading Advent Christian and former compatriot of William Miller.[3] Included in this influence was the abolitionist passions that thrived among Advent Christians, which Brock also picks out.[4] Advent Christian commentary on this front emerges at the start of the Civil War in their leading periodical publication, World’s Crisis. From his access to the primary materials, Brock accounts: “‘War has begun,’ announced the World’s Crisis in its issue of 17 April 1861, “All should keep in a continued state of readiness to welcome the coming King of kings and Lord of lords.’ ‘The end of all things is at hand.’”[5] What such readiness entails is made clear by H. F. Carpenter’s commentary in World’s Crisis which begins just a month later. Once again Brock accounts:

There were few rather hesitant voices in favor direct participation in the conflict if the call came. But most contributors to the debate would have endorsed the views of a leading Adventist, H.F. Carpenter when he wrote: “Carnal warfare is not our calling....We cannot fight, or prepare fight, or talk fight....Shall the Christian exchange the ‘lamb’ for the ‘tiger’?” “We are a nationality of ourselves,” wrote Carpenter a littler later. Adventists were about to inherit their own supraterrestial kingdom: what need did they have for an earthly sword? God might use one nation of this world to punish another, as in the present war, but true Christians were prevented by Christ’s express commandment from fighting for the kingdoms of the earth.[6]

The notion of a separate “nationality”, one that stands apart from the American nation and is instead identified in God’s coming kingdom is clearly a rich political-theological concept. The belief in the soon approach of this coming kingdom was felt by Advent Christians with a certain concreteness, such that aside from refusing to fight wars in the face of Christ’s returns, Brock also records that they very often refused to vote.[7] In the face of being drafted for the war effort, Advent Christians were encouraged to submit to whatever penalty might be handed down and a number offered such submission.[8] Among other pacifist denominations in 1864, the Advent Christian Church was eventually recognized as pacifist and her members excused from enlistment should they produce a certificate signed by clergy confirming their identification.[9] Before and up to this point, I.C. Wellcome had been a very strong proponent of pacifism among Advent Christians.[10] Brock’s account of Wellcome’s turn to pacifism, does not hint of Garrisonian influence, but rather portrays a poignant moment of conversion in the midst of peacetime militia training when a prayer was offered by a chaplain. Wellcome wrote of that time, “I was awakened to consider what prayer and Christianity had to do with training and fight with carnal weapons. I was disgusted. It was the last day I ever wore a soldier’s uniform. I entered upon a careful scriptural study of that matter.”[11] The most significant product of this conversion was Wellcome’s wartime pamphlet “Should Christians Fight? A Pamphlet on War”, which was met with such popular reception that by 1864 it was in its fourth thousandth edition.[12] In his analysis, Brock has little regard for the substance of Wellcome’s pamphlet. He writes, “We are put off by its strict fundamentalism, its narrow sectarianism, and the often rather fantastic interpretations placed upon prophetic passages of scripture.”[13] I would contest some of this rhetoric, but it is an assessment that would likely be made of most Advent Christian publications of that period. This simply confirms that Wellcome is working well within the historical streams of an Advent Christian tradition that prioritized biblical study and often utilized a strict literalism that sometimes resulted in unorthodox theological innovations. The influence of his work and his fidelity to this tradition makes Wellcome’s pamphlet a worthy starting point for recollecting an Advent Christian political theology.

Should Christians Fight?

When I.C. Wellcome puts out his forty-five page pamphlet “Should Christians Fight? A Pamphlet on War,” he does so in the midst of the American Civil War. This provides a distinctly concrete character to his writing, as he is witnessing the entire fabric of American society being torn in two by war, a destruction welcomed with broad Christian endorsement on either side. He is a New England Yankee with stalwart abolitionist convictions and his neighbors are going off to fight a war which would free those enslaved black persons. When he contends that Christians should not fight, there are immediate concrete consequences to follow; this is no mere theoretical exercise. The obvious practical implications of his pacifist contention demands at the same time a more foundational account of the relationship between the Church and State. Accordingly, although this pamphlet is not nominally an account of political theology, it provides in substance one of the most thoroughgoing accounts of Advent Christian political theology in existence. This can be seen from the start when he introduces his pamphlet by initially offering a characterization of those who call themselves Christians who are now drawn to war:

They thought they were ‘not of the world,’ even as Christ was ‘not of the world,’ and they understood they were a separate people, under Christ’s law, the New Testament being their Constitution. But all the while there was another influence surrounding them, other interests seeking to gain their attention. The worldling, standing on another basis, is governed by other laws, moved by other motives; yet, half-christianized by the Gospel and the influences of Christianity and wishing to be called Christian, without self-denial, without repentance and regeneration, he adopts some of its principles and maxims; adopts Christians titles and precepts, and sacrifices a few pence for Christian enterprise.  Thus slowly and steadily the process goes on, of blending the interests, plans, thoughts, literature, pursuits and purposes of the Church and the State into one common brotherhood,- ‘Christian’ and ‘Wor[l]dling’ chemically compounded; the real character of each class seemingly lost in the new composition, yet denominated by themselves Christian nations, churches, institutions, societies, &c. Thus we find things in  Christendom at the present time. And this is why the questions comes up for consideration,- should Christians fight?[14]

Before even taking up the question of pacifism, Wellcome states that the very reason this question has been occasioned is because of a certain political theology that has been inculcated in American society. He pictures that there are Christians who were once fully committed to the notion that they were a “separate people” under a different law, that in fact this sense was so profound that they could identify the New Testament as their “Constitution”, but who are now swaying under the influence of “the worldling.” The result is “one common brotherhood”, a chemical compound of Church and State, wherein “Christian” is no longer the sole predicate of the church but now applies also to “nations”, “institutions”, and “societies”. On the occasion that a “Christian” nation, America, has gone to war, it is supposed that every Christian would also. In taking up this question, it is Wellcome’s purpose to separate this compound. 

The State        

Dissecting Wellcome’s pamphlet topically, we can first look to a concise statement that he offers partway through that effectively describes his understanding of the role of human government. Through a substantial portion of the pamphlet he utilizes a dialogical format that features two characters:  Demi (Wellcome’s imaginary interlocutor) and Christian (Wellcome). At one point, Demi states/asks, “What a world this would be without some form of government! What could we do here without laws and authority? It would be anarchy.”[15]

Christian responds by agreeing that the law-making and law-enforcing function of government is certainly good in that it avoids anarchy, which he believes to be a worse outcome than even bad government. However, he then pulls away from immediate considerations to offer a Christian framework by which to consider current world governments. He reminds Demi that from the beginning God had offered righteous laws and rules and that these had been denied. Furthermore, he reminds him of how Christ brought tidings of the Kingdom of God and was yet brutally rejected with the words, “We have no king but Caesar. Away with him! crucify him! crucify him!”[16] With this context in mind, he then writes of the world, 

Therefore God has given them a chance to use up all their stock of genius, wisdom and power, in governing themselves ; while by his gospel and Spirit he is gathering out a people who choose him as their ruler and king, to establish an immortal kingdom when these self-governing kingdoms are used up. As the world reject him, he has ordained that they shall have law and authority to keep the world from anarchy, while he reveals his purposes and gathers his host, through Jesus Christ; for although he does not make the laws, nor manage the affairs of state, yet "he ruleth in the armies of heaven, and among the children of men," exercising authority to restrain, check, and overthrow them when he pleases.[17]

Wellcome supposes an instrumental vision of human governments to the extent that they merely exist as the staging upon which God will act out his work of redemption. God only keeps them in play to avoid anarchy and he will let them rise and fall as he pleases. This is very much in keeping with an Advent Christian conception of redemption which is entirely interventionist in the sense that the Kingdom of God will not be realized by any postmillennial progressivism but rather only by Christ’s personal return. Wellcome indicates that such worldly governments do have certain claims, but that they are limited in scope. 

Cesar has a right to that which he creates; he only asks a portion of his money for the rent of this property. Christ simply commands us to obey this just demand. But he did not tell his disciples to dedicate their intellects, or their physical powers, to Cesar. They do not belong to him. If he claims them to defend him, Christ’s law strictly forbids our yielding to such a claim.[18]

Aside from the power to tax, it appears that the powers of human government are quite limited on Wellcome’s account, as they do not extend to intellectual or physical powers. It shall be seen how these are claimed by a different authority.

The Church

Eventually in the course of dialogue, Demi says to Christian, “We all belong to this world, and as good citizens are bound to fight for the civil power. It is our Christian duty to do so.”[19] Christian responds by stating that “Christ is our teacher” and that we are not our own because we “are bought with a price, with the precious blood of Christ.”[20] The consequence is as follows:

This being so, we are chosen out of the world, and are “pilgrims and strangers.” Paul says, “For we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” (Heb. xiii. 14.) “For our conversation (citizenship) is in heaven, from whence we look for the Saviour.” (Phil. iii.20.) This does not look like Christians being citizens here, servants of Cesar, etc.[21]

While Christians are expected to pay taxes to “Cesar”, as was indicated previously, Wellcome does not believe this signals where one’s citizenship in fact lies. For the Christian, her citizenship lies in the city that is to come, and it is for this reason that her intellect and abilities cannot be commanded by human authority. This is no mere sentiment on Wellcome’s part. He goes on to ask the question of whether a person can “cast his vote in Italy and in America at the same time?”, thereby suggesting the incompatibility of dual citizenship in the earthly city and the heavenly.[22] The practical import becomes clear when he then writes,

A United Sates judge has recently given the decision “that all who vote for officers of state are bound by law to fight to maintain the government when called upon.” This we believe to be a just law. But as Christians are “pilgrims and strangers,” they should not meddle with these matters. Christ has shown them a better war, greater love for man, a more perfect system of philanthropy, “a higher law.” We go in for that.[23]

By giving approval to this judicial logic and continuing his pacifist stance, Wellcome is essentially giving his illustrative question of voting a very real answer: one should not vote in an American election if she is a citizen of the heavenly city. While certainly a hard stance, it is unsurprising given Wellcome’s perception of the corruptive chemical compound that has been made between Church and State. 

This “higher law” to which Wellcome refers is located outside of the natural realm. At one point Demi argues, “But it must be right to fight when the authorities require it for our safety. ‘Self-defence is the first law of nature,’ it is often said.”[24] In response, Christian states, “Christians are not to be led by the law of nature, but by ‘the law of grace.’ Poor fallen nature has always fought its way along.”[25] This contradistinction is given new framing when Christian takes on Demi’s contention that the precedent of divine authorization of war in the Old Testament justifies warfare in the present. Christian responds,

But you assume too much by making that an example for us. We are not under Moses, but under Christ. They were under a government when prophets were inspired to tell them when the Lord would have them fight, and when not. You assume that our civil rules occupy the place of those prophets of God. But in fact we are under “that Prophet” who has authority to teach (Acts iii. 22,23), and who has taught us not to fight. He will “destroy us, if we disobey him. “ Christ, then, and not Moses, is our teacher.[26]

Wellcome will not allow American civil law to assume the place of the Law as it was found in ancient Israel. The American government is not “inspired”, it consists of law conceived of nature, not of grace. Moreover, even if the government could assume the position of Moses, its authority would nevertheless be superseded by Christ’s ruling authority. Living in obedience to Christ’s authority, rather than representing risk, offers the greatest assurance: “If then, in obeying Christ, we are killed, we are safe,— sure of eternal life.”[27]

Practically Speaking

With his concepts of the State and the Church in place, we can now dig more deeply into Wellcome’s practical negotiation of the relationship between the two. Continuing from the previous section wherein it was seen that Wellcome denied that the civil laws of government could assume divine authority, we find Demi recasting this question in a manner that strives to compel some agreement. He says, “But you, admit that God established a kingdom in Israel. Why, then is it not right for us to seek to establish Christian governments?” In reply, Christian states:

The Lord broke down and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, and gave the (heathen) Gentiles a charter of the governments of the world, until the time for Christ to judge the world, and take possession of the throne of David, to reign in righteousness (Ezekiel xxi. 25-27; Dan. Ii. 37-44; Luke i. 32; Rev. xi. 15). There can be no such thing as a Christian government without Christ as its king. God has so determined and declared.”[28]

As previously noted, Wellcome believes that the present “governments of the world” have been given leave to rule until they are used up according to God’s redemptive purpose which will culminate in Christ’s return. And to be clear, he states forthrightly that no government, however orchestrated according to divine purposes, can be a called a Christian government for the basic reason that it is “without Christs as its king.” He dispatches this notion in short fashion elsewhere, as when writes, “All talk about ‘Christian sovereigns,’ and ‘Christian civil rules,’ is misguided and vain.”[29]

Wellcome has other reasons for rejecting this synthesis aside from his eschatological schema which only recognizes a Christian government when Christ is literally king. Drawing from a traditional Advent Christian analysis of Biblical prophecies, Wellcome notes the bestial imagery used to describe world governments and comments, “Do these represent Christian governments?”[30]Turning to the historical record, he offers a very negative of assessment of the Constantinian attempt at establishing a Christian government.[31] Brought together with a turn to prophecy, he renders his judgment: 

Two efforts have been made with especial reference to spread the gospel and convert the world by the sword, and to establish Christian government. The first came nearest to it under the plans of Constantine and Justinian ; but it resulted in the most corrupt government the world ever saw, and is described by the Lord as "a woman drunk with the blood of saints, sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns." (Rev.xvii.)[32]

This comment brings to the surface the question of Christian coercion by means of the sword. It can intuited from the above that Wellcome is against such coercion. Shortly after this comment, he states plainly, “The sword does not Christianize men.”[33] Earlier in his dialogue, subsequent to a statement wherein Christian promises a day of judgment for those who fight, he draws a disputative response from Demi who says:

I do not know about such a day as that. I supposed the nations would yet be converted by the Gospel, and subdued to obedience by the sword. I think it is our duty to help subdue by the sword those who will not obey the gospel willingly, that righteousness may reign.[34]

In response, Christian answers:

‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.’ ‘Shall we do evil that good may come?’ If you would study and believe what God has said in prophecy relating to the destiny of the nations and close of the gospel dispensation, and the manner of converting men, you would be better prepared to trust in God and leave the sword.”[35]

Wellcome’s reasoning is somewhat practical here, but it draws not from mere observation but from Christ’s teachings and prophetic assurances. Forceful means of conversion are inferior to dependence upon the Spirit and suggest a lack of trust in God. The use of force is completely off the table for Wellcome.

Accordingly, he eventually states, “The various revolutions and rebellions against existing bad governments were all wrong.”[36] However, this naturally leads Demi to later ask, “But do you not think it the duty of our government to put down rebellion, and to restore order; or are you in favor of secession?[37] In his response, Christian first offers no support for the present Confederate rebellion on the basis of his general rejection of rebellion and more specifically because he considers it to be possibly “the most corrupt, groundless, and black-hearted and cruel rebellion that history records since the rebellion of man against the government of God.”[38] His abolitionist sympathies come to fore when he then says, “I readily admit that if it were lawful for Christians to fight at all, it would be in an effort to destroy American slavery.”[39] He supports the standing of the civil government but of himself he says, “I do not meddle with the business of civil government.”[40] His reasoning is as follows: 

But to engage with them to fight rebels would be to deny Christ, reject his gospel, and become like the world; perhaps it would be arraying ourselves against God’s designs also, for he has always pulled down and scattered human governments when they became ripe in iniquity. Who dare say that this nation has not filled its office, arisen to its zenith, filled its cup with iniquity, and now is receiving the strokes of the Almighty’s national judgment? I am not arguing that this is so, but what fighting Christian has obtained so much know[l]edge of God’s secret plans as to know what it is not so, and then take the sword to uphold it?[41]

Wellcome does not know if the Civil War is God’s judgment against the United States government, a judgment intended to overthrow it, but he cannot deny that possibility. So alongside his judgment that joining the fight “would be to deny Christ, reject his gospel, and become like the world,” stands his belief the Christian should not unwittingly pit herself against God’s designs by joining up in any war. 

It may be that the best way to understand Wellcome’s conception of church-state relations is to envision the Church as a boat floating upon the rising and falling tides of history. However, this is not to suggest that Wellcome supposes that this will be a peaceful voyage without any contention with the civil governments. At one point he writes, “You will notice Paul does not say we must obey the laws of our rulers but ‘be subject to the powers.’”[42] It is here that the point of conflict can be found. Brock tells of how Advent Christians were expected to disobey the draft calls and subject themselves to whatever penalties the government saw fit.[43] Of course, this notion of subjection did not preclude petitioning the government, but in the end subjection was to be expected. These distinctions come to a finer point when Wellcome makes this consideration in the face of American slavery: 

When in America the law required every freeman to withhold his sympathies, protection, shelter, clothing, water and bread, from the poor, starving, naked fugitive, fleeing from perpetual bondage to find a land of freedom; and when that same law made it the duty to decoy, arrest, or inform, and assist any officer in arresting and returning such fugitive to bondage again, it was duty to obey, was it? A Christian duty? No, never! Neither God, nor his Son, nor the apostles, ever taught such obedience. Paul was teaching subjection to the executive power, and not to legislative dictation. He says not a word about obeying laws; but directs us to submit to executive authority, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake."[44]

The distinction that Wellcome draws is between legislative and executive authorities. The Christian is compelled to disobey any legislation that is in conflict with Christ’s teachings, but should submit to the response of executive authority to the violation of that legislation. In the context of slavery then, one could envision assisting slaves escape and subsequently submitting to the penalties for doing so if found out. 

This sort of seeming abandonment might suggest that Wellcome believes Christians should not put forward any efforts at influencing governments. Demi observes, “Then you would make no effort to reform the governments of earth, but let them do as they please.”[45] Christian responds by saying,

I let Caesar take care of his own household, and advise all Christians to follow Christ; to “walk even as he walked,” and obey his commands. But I feel an interest in the governments of earth, and wish to so live, and have all Christians so live among them, as to show them the superiority of Christ’s government to theirs, and to have a restraining influence over them.[46]

By this comment it can be seen that Wellcome does believe that Christ’s government is a present reality, even if not fully realized, and that Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate the laws of that government by their own living. In fact, such demonstration should occur so as to inform world governments of their inferiority to Christ’s government and “to have a restraining influence over them.” 

Demi wants to go further and states, “I think we should be members of Christ’s government, and of the earthly governments also; then do all we can to reform, the latter.”[47] Christians responds, “I know how you and many others hold it. But whether God will allow you to interdict his counsels, and dictate in this matter, I do not know.”[48] It is subsequent to this that he makes his comment about voting in two countries and then he says, “This seeking to play the double part- Christian as citizen- has done the chief mischief.”[49] Wellcome sees this mischief as the co-option of the Christian into fighting worldly wars. Thus he says, “Citizens should fight to maintain their governments, while their position pledges them to maintain such rights,” the point being of course that Christians belong to a different government that is not identified with worldly governments.[50]

Wellcome seems to believe that civil entanglements obscure a clear reading of the times in which we live. Of those who once looked to Christ’s coming reign, he says, 

The time of the end of gentile dominion draws near; they do not notice it, for they have taken the management of the nations into their own hands, in the name of Christ, as the Roman Catholics once did. The Lord will test them. New theories spring up. “The world is to be regenerated by education, scientific developments, political reforms.” Scripture is used to help fill the web, but the woof is of men. It is an “hour of temptation.”[51]

This low view of governmental reform and progress is in keeping with the pre-millennial eschatology that Wellcome maintains, and thus it is on this basis that he characterizes such efforts as representing an “hour of temptation.” Investing hope in these efforts takes the Christian’s eyes of the coming King and leads her into a life of disobedience by way of divided loyalties.  

The most fitting way to conclude this analysis of Wellcome’s pamphlet is with the evocative charge that he offers toward its end:

And if any are dissatisfied with Christ and his rules, let them secede, and fight for the world. But do not seek to corrupt and destroy Christianity by joining it to the world, and by seeking to make the world believe that Christians can live in the indulgence of the “the work of the flesh,” then die, and go to glory in all their sins. If this were true, all are safe.[52]

In the midst of the American Civil War, Wellcome perceives a different civil war at hand, one that is between the governments of this world and the government of Christ’s Kingdom. One cannot be for both, and so in that season of secession in which he lived, he calls for a different sort of secession, the Worldling from the Church and, of course, the Christian from the World. 

Consonant and Dissonant Voices

In what follows, I will shuffle through a series of samples of political-theological statements that came after Wellcome leading up to the 1990s. I hesitate to call this comprehensive as more research may produce more examples, but it is at least representative given the span of time and the number of Advent Christian voices surveyed. Wellcome sits as the background against which these voices are compared, given his prominence and proximity to the emergence of the Advent Christian Church. 

In his book, Capital and Labor: Viewed from a Bible Standpoint,John Couch offers an empirical account of the industrial unrest occurring through the world in the late 19thcentury, drawing current events alongside Biblical values and prophetic expectations in keeping with a typical Advent Christian fashion.[53] Couch is quite sympathetic to the plight of laborers throughout the world. He writes, 

It is certain, according to the Bible, that God designed that all classes of men should so share his providential blessings that they might be as equally comfortable and happyas their conditions under the curse would allow. The great question now agitating the world is, Are the various classes engaged in productive business, sharing as equally the benefits of these efforts as Divine Justice demands?[54]

Subsequently, Couch’s judgment seems to be that such equity is not present and that capitalists bear certain responsibility for the inequitable conditions.[55]

However, he also seems to possess little confidence in imminent efforts of resolution. Of the error of inequity he writes, “The best of men have sought for it that it might be removed; but to this time have not succeeded. The great Restorer of all things alone will be able to accomplish this glorious work.”[56] In a similar manner, he again later states, “Summing up all the future prospects of the industrial world, as they rest upon divine testimony, and the arguments and opinions of the best statesmen and most enlightened writers, we see no foundation upon which hope of improvement by human effort can be based.”[57]

It seems that on Couch’s account, there is little hope in rectifying the injustices of his industrial world through human efforts. This sense of impotence seems to ultimately flow from his reference to “divine testimony”, the eschatological expectation of just these sort of calamitous circumstances and the return of Christ as the only true solution. Consequently, he counsels, “Enter not into the controversy. Be sure and act the part of peacemakers. Make no engagements to use force to subdue any class. Here is a grand opportunity for Christians to exhibit the quieting, peaceful influences of the gospel.”[58] On this count, the consonance between Couch (writing in 1884) and Wellcome is quite apparent. In the face of social injustices, both recommend the soft influence of Christian example rather than any entanglements in civil government or use of force. 

In the year 1900, we find a piece published by D.H. Woodward in the The Safeguard and Armoryentitled “The Russian Problem.”[59] Like Capital and Labor, if not more so, this piece is an empirical account of international affairs compared against prophetic expectations. Woodward anticipates world conflicts with Russia as the principle actor and at certain points he is quite prescient. In the process of analyzing Russia, certain political-theological notions emerge. At one point Woodward writes,

Men and nations cannot be introduced by wholesale nomination into Christian faith and practice. The secular power in alliance with apostate religion, produces a vicious intolerance that bitterly persecutes the Truth and its disciples. The ripened culmination of such an alliance is a practically godless secularism.[60]

This critique of conflation may be limited to Russia, given that Woodward’s attention is directed to the synthesis of Russian Orthodoxy with the Russian monarchy. In fact, this seems to be the case when he later writes, “If Luther’s reformation was right, then so far as there is a right side in the coming conflict, it will be the Teutonic.”[61] And yet, we are returned to a familiar evaluation when he then writes, “Human wisdom would say stand together! But that which is written will come to pass. The Russian problem will not be solved by human wisdom and power; but it will be solved.[62] As with Wellcome and Couch, Woodward sees no hope in human solutions, and so he seems to allude to a final eschatological solution. This reading appears to be confirmed by the end of his piece when he writes, “Of one thing we may be sure. The God of Heaven will establish on earth a Kingdom of Truth and Righteousness. Whatever stands against that will be taken out of the way. One thing we can do, wait for the day.”[63] This instruction to wait is certainly in keeping with Wellcome’s and Couch’s own instruction not to tussle with government. 

However, one does detect the slightest point of separation from Couch and Wellcome when Woodward comments on world governments. In keeping with the aforementioned, he writes, “World-power, viewed in one aspect, form Babel to Rome, is a self-appointed rival of God for dominion in the earth. God’s purpose is to establish a dominion in and through Christ as we have shown.”[64] However, there is an implied concession when he includes the phrase, “viewed in one aspect,” that reveals itself when he then writes, “It is true that government is God-ordained, and good men have been kings and governors; but it is also true that another and distinct element of self-appointed (and yet often wholly unconscious) opposition to the Anointed (Christ) of God exists in the world.”[65] While a negative evaluation of world governments is maintained, there is also a differentiation among world governments not seen previously in Wellcome or Couch. There is no organic evidence suggesting that later Advent Christian views are derived from the introduction of this differentiation, but it does seem to represent the beginning of a pattern. 

That pattern takes on a marked shift in a book from 1922 entitled, The Kingdom of God: Its Nature, Period, People by Henry J. Goudey.[66] The views Goudey espouses are notable for their departure from Advent Christians norms and are also for that same reason difficult to judge as to their overall influence. The most basic difference between Goudey and all other Advent Christian authors reported here is that his conception of the Kingdom of God is confined to the present period before Christ’s return. That is, when Christ returns he believes the Kingdom comes to end. “All kingdoms as well as all covenant relationship begin and end with time. When this age of probation is completed, there will be no more need of a kingdom than there will be need of a covenant. It will end with this dispensation.”[67] This understanding has profound implications for Goudey’s political theology. 

He wants to say of this kingdom that, “It is a literal kingdom, but not visible only in effect. It is the divine government, spiritually administered in the dispensation of the Holy Spirit.”[68] Accordingly, Christ’s kingdom will not be strictly identified with any one worldly government of the present, but will work its way throughout the world. He describes the Kingdom of God as “an institution of reformation” and “a progressive system of divine government” and it is once such reformation and progress are realized that Christ will return.[69] Looking to his present moment, Goudey has this to say about the current status of the Kingdom of God:

Now while it is true that crime and wickedness is prevalent in the land, it is also true that there never was a time when there were so many Christians and so much Christian work being done as in these last days. It is a period of progress, civilization and enlightenment. But what is the cause of all this? We answer, the presence and power of the kingdom of God among men.[70]

This is clearly a different view than that of Wellcome, Couch, or Woodward who all read disaster about them. Goudey’s optimism is to the point that he is so bold as to say that of all Christ’s enemies, “Only one now remains to be conquered- death.”[71] But by the end of his book we receive a mixed message when he says, “Those who are the subjects of the Kingdom are those who are doing the will of God[...]God’s will is being done all over the earth today. Where there is a child of God, His will is being done. Even the wicked nations are said to be accomplishing the will or purpose of God.”[72] It seems that all nations are encompassed in accomplishing God’s will, something the previous writers would also affirm, but if wicked nations remain, it hardly seems that death is the only enemy that remains. Goudey never precisely spells out the relationship between Church and State, but it would seem fair to reason that he shares none of the inhibitions of the preceding writers toward civil entanglement given his progressive vision of the Kingdom of God that is to be worked out before Christ’s return. 

This differs squarely from A.C. Johnson’s view expressed in his contribution to Adventism Triumphant, a 1924 anthology featuring numerous Advent Christian authors. In answering the question, “What is true waiting for Christ?” Johnson writes in part:

It means that we do not place our hope on what man can do for mankind, or on what the church, civilization or social service can do for the world, but only upon what Christ can and will do for the race by and following his second coming. Success to every worthy effort for world-betterment, but above and beyond all this we wait for the day of Christ, the day of redemption, of resurrection and restoration."[73]

Like every other Advent Christian reviewed here, Johnson does not vest his hope in world governments; he only hopes in Christ’s return. And yet, as is clearly expressed in Wellcome and Couch, he is not apathetic to current conditions and does wish for improvement. But unlike Goudey, he does not identify such progress as constituting the Kingdom of God in substance; that must be waited upon. 

In that same year, we find an article written by C.V. Tenney that was published in Our Hope and Life in Christ entitled, “Should Christians Play Politics?”.[74] Like Johnson, Tenney also contributed to Adventism Triumphant. A notable point of difference from Wellcome emerges when Tenney writes, “Our money and sometimes our lives must be sacrificed to the support of our government. Jesus said that ‘greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ There are worse things than death.”[75] It is just this sort of identification with worldly governments on the part of the Christian that Wellcome had been so virulently against, and yet here Tenney is doing that very thing and more by interweaving Christ’s teachings with sacrificing one’s life in war! Elsewhere in the article he makes it clear that he believes that civil disobedience is sometimes required and he is thoroughly against religious coercion. Even so, he is far more friendly to worldly governments than Wellcome, a warmth felt when concludes, “Should Christian play politics? Yes, Christians should interest themselves in their neighbors enough to want to clean up politics, by at least, going to the polls and voting for the best man.”[76]

From the 1930s we find an unpublished work, “The Teleology of Divine Grace” written by popular writer G.L. Young that touches upon some relevant points.[77] Young notes all the failures of past and present governments and so says with the majority, “But a perfect government is coming. That is one of the things in the Almighty’s intent for the universe.”[78] An interesting difference from Wellcome passes into view when in commenting upon Rehoboam’s harsh treatment of the Israelites Young writes, “Against such injustice the people properly revolted.”[79] It is a small comment, but it differs completely from Wellcome who would deny the very notion of a proper revolt. This simply adds to the pattern of differentiation that has emerged.

Between this point and the 1990s, I was only able to uncover small samplings. In a 1942 World’s Crisis article entitled “Governments and Millstones”, editor and professor J.A. Nichols complains of the government’s use of sugar rations in the production of alcohol for soldiers.[80] He writes, “This land of ours is not thickly sown with pagan temples. Our religion is predominantly the Christian religion, so we let ourselves be called a Christian nation. But how genuinely Christian is America?”[81] Though disclaiming any interest in partisanship, he does say, “But we have a word to say about the conduct of any government which practices or quietly tolerates any practice which threatens our moral solvency as a nation.” Referring back to Wellcome, we know that he completely rejects any notion of a “Christian” nation. Conversely, it seems Nichols has an interest in Christianization and believes that the government has a moral responsibility to live up to that bearing.

In the second volume of a book entitled Questions and Answers, authored by Clarence H. Hewitt[82] and Herbert H. Holland published in 1964, we receive a rather boilerplate response to the question, “Do you think a Christian should engage in politics?”[83] Admittedly, this may be due to the nature of the book, but the answer goes: 

I think that a part of a Christian’s duty is to fulfill his obligation as a citizen, such as to pay taxes and to vote intelligently. If a man’s obligation as a citizen seems to him and others to extend to running for public office, then I think he should make the best race he knows how to make, and, if elected, should fill the office conscientiously and in a Christian manner. This would both “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”[84]

Based on Wellcome’s pamphlet, we would expect him to respond that at no point is a person under obligation to vote, not to mention run, for a political office. At this point it is difficult to detect any distinctive Advent Christian markers that were earlier present.

During his time as editor of the Advent Christian Witnessin the late 80s and early 90s, Robert J. Mayerwrote two articles that bring this sampling as close as is currently possible to the present. In an article reflecting upon the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill debacle entitled, “Government at its Worst: What We Can Learn”, Mayer wrote,

Political and government leaders have an obligation to set a moral and ethical example for the American people on this and on other issues. And it’s up to us as citizens to hold them accountable. One more segment of our society should lead by example: those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.[85]  

Similar to Nichols, Mayer seems to believe that political leaders should be moral standard-bearers. Moreover, he believes they should be held to account. This belief and call to action are simply not found in Wellcome or Couch. They would however appreciate the call upon Christians to be moral exemplars. 

One point of consonance that can be found in Mayer that coincidentally draws from Wellcome’s time period emerges in his article, “Is God a Republican or a Democrat?” Looking to Lincoln’s submission to God’s inscrutable will in the fallout of the Civil War, Mayer writes. “He recognized something that many evangelicals need reminding of today. God’s purposes are much larger than our political, national, or social agendas and we dare not limit the Almighty by invoking his name to justify them.”[86]This at least nominally strikes a chord with Wellcome’s disapproval of applying the term “Christian” to any worldly institution, even if it may still permit a degree of involvement that would discomfort Wellcome. Mayer comes close to returning to that early spirit, as he believes that the identification of God’s purposes with any political body wrongly puts a “limit” on God. Putting it bluntly, he writes, “In fact, I’m not sure that God cares who wins the election. His kingdom purposes will advance no matter who occupies the White House or the Congress.”[87]This certainly would resonate with Wellcome. Though Mayer would unsettle him with the first words of his parting charge, “Get active in your political party and make your voice heard,” his follow up would offer some salve when he writes, “But remember that God’s kingdom is much larger than your political party and its platform.”[88]



Looking just from Wellcome to Young and the mutations in Advent Christian political theology that occurred over that period, it becomes easier to understand the form that the “pacifist principle” took in the Declaration of Principles when it was added in 1934. Out of the gates the statement is staunchly pacifist and yet by its end it is making concessions to maintain fellowship with Christians who bear arms. This seems to trace a trend undergirded by a general shift in Advent Christian political theology. As a representative of 19thcentury Advent Christians, Wellcome presents a political theology that is strikingly more separatist than those that later emerge in the 20thcentury. His belief in pacifism is buttressed by his beliefs that worldly governments can in no way be identified or integrated with Christ’s government, that they do not usher in the Kingdom of God, and that civil entanglement in fact threatens to confuse Christian loyalty and obedience. While the American Civil War rages on, Wellcome sees a much larger civil war playing out between worldly governments and Christ’s government, and this sense seems to be heightened by his expectation of Christ’s soon return.

When the 20thcentury arrives, there is a continued investiture of hope in a perfected government to come (Goudey excepted), and yet the separate sense of identity between Christ’s government and worldly governments appears to be muddled. While this invites more research, it appears the loss of a palpable sense of Christ’s imminent return invited greater consideration of civil involvement for the time being, the fruits of which can be seen in the case of Tenney who casts war service in the light of Christian sacrifice. Beyond the 1930s, there is a real question of to what extent Advent Christians thinkers kept in touch with earlier thought. It may be the case that what we see in Nichols, Hewitt, and Mayer is merely reflective of a general assimilation into America evangelicalism and their own idiosyncrasies.

If Advent Christians would like to take a hard step away from this generic form of evangelical political theology that has been absorbed over the years and make a return to something approaching Wellcome’s position, they should be able to find great help in the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas offers the sort of separatist (and pacifist) vision that would harmonize well with Wellcome. If there is hesitance about returning to Wellcome and a more mediating position is desired, Advent Christians can alternatively find fitting assistance in James K.A. Smith’s book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Smith gives priority to eschatology in a way that should resonate with Advent Christians and he syncs up at important points with Wellcome without going quite as far as he does. As outside voices, both Hauerwas and Smith have the potential to reignite the imaginations of Advent Christian theologians seeking to stake out a distinctly Advent Christian political theology. 




[1]"Declaration of Principles," Advent Christian General Conference, ,
[2]Peter Brock, Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968).
[3]Ibid. pp.844-845
[4]Ibid. p.845
[5]Ibid. p.846 (World’s Crisis, vol. XIII, no. 6)
[6]Ibid. p. 847 (Worlds Crisis, XIII, no. 12 (29 May 1861), 48; no. 13 (5 June 1861), 49, 50; no. 15 (19 June 1861), 57; no. 16 (26 June 1861), 61, 62; no. 20 (24 July 1861), 77. 
[7]Ibid. p. 847
[8]Ibid. pp.850-852
[9]Ibid. p. 852
[10]Ibid. p. 847
[11]Ibid. p. 848 (World’s Crisis andS.A.Messenger, XXI, no. 18 (18 July 1865), 72)
[12]Ibid. p.847
[13]Ibid. p.849
[14]I. C. Wellcome, Should Christians Fight? a Pamphlet on War (Boston, MA: Christian Publication Society, 1864). pp.4-5
[15]ibid. p.19
[16]Ibid. pp.19-20
[17]Ibid. p.20
[18]Ibid. pp.6-7
[19]Ibid. p. 7
[20]Ibid. p. 7
[21]Ibid. p.7
[22]Ibid. p.22
[23]Ibid. p.22
[24]Ibid. p. 7
[25]Ibid. p.7
[26]Ibid. p.16
[27]Ibid. p. 14
[28]Ibid. p. 19
[29]Ibid. p. 23
[30]Ibid. p. 23
[31]Ibid. pp. 15, 29
[33]Ibid. p. 15
[34]Ibid. p. 9
[35]Ibid. p. 9
[36]Ibid. p. 13
[37]Ibid. p. 31
[38]Ibid. p. 31
[39]Ibid. p. 31
[40]Ibid. p. 31
[41]Ibid. p. 31
[42]Ibid. p. 11
[43]Brock, pp.850-852
[44]Wellcome, p. 13
[45]Ibid. p.21
[46]Ibid. p. 21
[47]Ibid. p. 21
[48]Ibid. p.22
[49]Ibid. p. 22
[50]Ibid. p.22
[51]Ibid. p. 41
[52]Ibid. p. 38
[53]John Couch, Capital and Labor: Viewed from a Bible Standpoint (Boston: Published for the Author by the Advent Christian Publication Society, 1886).
[54]Ibid. pp.40-41
[55]Ibid. p. 61
[56]Ibid. p. 61
[57]Ibid. p. 90
[58]Ibid. p.143
[59]D. H. Woodward, "The Russian Problem," ed. E. P. Woodward, The Safeguard and Armory 4, no. 3 (January 1900):.
[60]Ibid. p. 15
[61]Ibid. p.29
[62]Ibid. p.29
[63]Ibid. p.50
[64]Ibid. p. 46
[65]Ibid. p. 46
[66]Henry J. Goudey, The Kingdom of God: Its Nature, Period and People (Fitchburg, MA, 1922).
[67]Ibid. p. 30
[68]Ibid. p. 25
[69]Ibid. p.28
[70]Ibid. p.26
[71]Ibid. p.106
[72]Ibid. p.109
[73]Albert C. Johnson, "The Church Ready and Waiting for the Second Advent" in Adventism Triumphant, ed. H. E. Thompson (Boston: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1924). P. 67
[74]C. V. Tenney, "Should Christians Play Politics?" Our Hope and Life in Christ 36, no. 18 (November 19, 1924) pp.5-6
[75]Ibid. p.5
[76]Ibid. p.6
[77]G. L. Young, The Teleology of Divine Grace, 193? MS, Adventual Collection, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
[78]Ibid. p. 124
[79]Ibid. p.122
[80]J. A. Nichols, "Governments and Millstone," World's Crisis 88, no. 32 (August 12, 1942). P. 3
[81]Ibid. p. 3
[82]It should be noted that Clarence Hewitt died in 1952. I’m unsure of Holland’s lifetime. However, that this book is being published in 1964 should be indicative of the continuity of view from the 50s to that time. 
[83]Clarence H. Hewitt and Herbert H. Holland, Questions and Answers, ed. Robert C. Hewitt and David A. Dean, vol. II (Concord, NH: Advent Christian Publications, 1964).
[84]Ibid. p. 88
[85]Robert J. Mayer, "Government at Its Worst: What We Can Learn," Advent Christian Witness, Nov./Dec., 1991.pp. 3, 18
[86]Robert J. Mayer, "Is God a Republican or a Democrat?" Advent Christian Witness, November 1992. P. 3
[87]Ibid. p.3
[88]Ibid. p.17



"Should Christians Fight?" Read I.C. Wellcome's Original Pamphlet

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