The Wedding Band, Ellen G. White, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church
Chapter 1—Historical Background of the Question
Seventh-day Adventism arose in the middle 19th century in New England as a result of the “Advent Movement” generated by William Miller, a Baptist farmer- turned-preacher who heralded the return of Jesus Christ to earth, first, “about 1843,” and later on October 22, 1844. WBEGWSDAC 3.7
The Millerites were almost universally ultra-conservative in their individual life-style. Most (including Ellen G. White herself) came out of a very strict Methodist background which frowned on jewelry, card-playing, gambling, dancing. cosmetics, etc., as being “worldly.” As such, many still heeded the admonitions of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. Review and Herald editor James White published a long statement “On Dress, From Mr. Wesley’s Advice to the People Called Methodists,” and in it Elder White encouraged SDAs to plainness in all aspects of their unique life-style. 1 WBEGWSDAC 4.1
The wearing of the wedding band seems not to have been practiced by the earliest SDA founders and pioneers who for many years lived and labored exclusively in North America. In the last half of the 19th century, however, the USA became a “melting pot,” as wave after wave of immigrants arrived on our shores, first from Europe, then from other continents. Such immigrants, quite understandably, brought with them their former national customs, including that of the wearing of the wedding band. Some of these were converted to the SDA Church. Often, out of deference to local customs and traditions, they would remove the wedding band, lest anything be allowed to come in to mar the precious unity of believers in Jesus. WBEGWSDAC 4.2
SDAs, responding to a growing awareness of their obligation to take the Advent message to all comers of the world, began to send out missionaries, first to Europe, then to other continents and island fields. Here they often come into contact with local national customs other than their own (including—in some quarters—the wearing of the wedding band by married women, and even men, as a matter of imperative social obligation). Apparently, in a desire to meet the spirit of the apostle (and missionary) Paul (see 1 Corinthians 9:20-23) some SDA missionaries apparently adopted the custom of wearing the wedding band, and also, apparently, when they returned home to North America they continued the practice, to the growing concern and disapproval of their less-traveled fellow believers. WBEGWSDAC 4.3
The question of the propriety of this custom within Adventism—in North America, and in other places—was raised increasingly during the succeeding decades of the 19th century. By the 1890s, Adventism’s prophet and co-founder of the church, now residing in Australia, penned her one-and-only statement of counsel upon the subject. It originally appeared as “Letter 2b, 1892,” written on August 3, from Preston [Melbourne], Victoria. It was addressed to “My Dear Brethren and Sisters.” The context strongly suggests that the immediate intended audience comprised: WBEGWSDAC 4.4
a. Primarily Australian Adventists.
b. Secondarily American Adventist missionaries in Australia.
c. Ultimately the church back in North America.
It was first published July 21, 1895, by O. A. Olsen, 2 and it found final published form, in 1923, in the posthumous compilation, Testimonies to Ministers, as the eighth (and final) paragraph of a testimony with the overall title “Economy to be Practiced in All Things.” 3 [See Sec. II, below.] The wearing of the wedding band was here discouraged by Mrs. White, except in countries where it was seen to be a matter of imperative social obligation, and where SDA Christians—in that context—could wear it in good conscience. Mrs. White did not (in this, her only statement on the question) place the question on the level of the 10 Commandments (where no exceptions to the rule are permitted, at any time, in any place). It was not given the status of a black-and-white moral issue, such as the total prohibitory ban against Sabbath-breaking, lying. stealing. adultery, etc. This is not to say, however, that there are no moral issues involved in the total consideration of the question of wearing the wedding band. WBEGWSDAC 4.5
While in Australia, Ellen White’s son, Elder William C. White, a widower, remarried; and his mother expressed no objection to her new daughter-in-law’s wearing of a wedding band after their marriage. [See Sec. 11, below, for details.] However, Ellen White herself never wore a wedding band, either in America, or in Europe (1885-87), or in Australia (1891-1900). WBEGWSDAC 5.1
During the 20th century the question of “to-wear-or-not-to-wear” became increasingly a matter of agitation and irritation in North America. With the passage of each succeeding decade the numbers within the SDA church who declared that the wearing of the wedding band had now become a matter of imperative social obligation in America grew increasingly larger and more vocal. And, today, there are many who allege that, as far as the custom goes, America in the 1980s is now at the point where Australia was in the 1890s. WBEGWSDAC 5.2
Cross-cultural currents continued to take many North American SDAs abroad to lands where the wearing was held to be socially obligatory, and to bring many non-North Americans to the New World, where—increasingly—many if not most in local churches continued to resist the practice as a form of “creeping compromise” with the world. In 1930 an Australian SDA minister was elected president of the GC. Upon arrival in the USA his wife continued to wear her wedding band, and some in the churches felt this justified their adopting the custom. Some local churches (and even some local conferences) went so far as to take matters into their own hands, and (illegally) pass restrictive, punitive regulations to preclude wearers of the wedding band from baptism, membership in the SDA Church, the holding of local church office, and employment by any agency or organization of the SDA Church. WBEGWSDAC 5.3
In 1969 the North American Union Conference Presidents in Council reviewed the matter of “to-wear-or-not-to-wear”: WBEGWSDAC 5.4
1. They recognized “that custom in North America is changing somewhat.”
2. They still felt, however, that the custom was not yet “obligatory” or “demanded” by custom on this continent.
3. They therefore continued to “discourage” its use in their territory.
4. They requested SDA ministers not to perform ring ceremonies.
5. They suggested that among members who felt it to be all right to wear the wedding band, they be counseled to remove it (a) During the rite of their baptism, and/or (b) While serving as an officer in a local church lest the consciences of fellow church members be affronted and offended.
On August 9, 1971 the North American Division Officers considered a proposal which, had it been voted [it was not adopted], would: WBEGWSDAC 5.5
1. Discourage the wearing of the wedding band whenever and wherever possible.
2. Remind pastors of the fact that the Church Manual did not prohibit baptism for those who felt they could wear the wedding band conscientiously.
3. Urge pastors “against establishing individual standards” [tests of membership or officership] in this matter.
4. Remind pastors of the earlier decision that they not conduct ring ceremonies for church members.
5. Discourage church employees [denominational workers] from wearing the wedding band on the grounds that to do so would exert an undesirable influence 4
As already noted, on Oct. 2, 1972 the General Conference Officers voted a Statement of “Counsel Regarding the Wedding Band in North America,” recommending that the practice need not constitute a bar to baptism/membership of conscientious Christians who felt that they must continue to wear it. But even in opening the door of accommodation ever so slightly, the leaders were concerned that the church not “lower its standard, blur its identity, or muffle its witness.” 5 Finally, again as already noted, on Nov. 11, 1986, the North American Division Committee voted to make the “counsel” of Oct. 2, 1972, the official policy of the Division. WBEGWSDAC 5.6
There is a growing number in the SDA Church today who affirm, vigorously, that the custom of wearing the wedding band in North America in the 1980s is as obligatory socially as was the custom in Australia, the British Empire, and Europe in the 1890s, which was addressed by Ellen White. Others, with equal vigor, aver that the two decades are not properly to be so equated. The fact remains that it is probably impossible to “prove” either position. We therefore turn next to a detailed examination of Ellen White’s position. WBEGWSDAC 6.1