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
Light Bearers