The Wedding Band, Ellen G. White, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church
Immediately upon the adjournment of the 1986 Annual Council Session of the General Conference at world headquarters in Washington, D.C., at 12 noon on Nov. 11, the “year-end meeting” of the North American Division Committee was convened (at 1:30 p.m.) to transact the business of this Division of the world field. The first substantive issue to be discussed was the question of Division policy concerning jewelry/adornment in general, and the wedding band in particular. The “lively” debate of three hours’ duration focused largely upon whether candidates for baptism and church membership should be permitted to continue wearing a “simple” [non-jeweled] wedding band if such had been their practice before. 1 [See Appendix A] WBEGWSDAC 1.1
Some 14 years earlier the General Conference Officers and North American Union Conference Presidents had met (on Oct. 2) prior to the opening of the 1972 Annual Council, to consider how the church in North America should relate to the growing practice of members wearing the wedding band. They reaffirmed their opposition to the wearing of ornamental jewelry (and an action to that effect was taken subsequently by the 1972 Annual Council). They voted a non-binding Statement of “Counsel Regarding the Wedding Band in North America” which: WBEGWSDAC 1.2
a. Recognized that some conscientious SDA Christians felt that cultural conditions in North America were substantially different from those obtaining on this continent in 1892 when EGW counseled Americans not to wear the wedding band, but added that she would not condemn those living in countries where the custom was culturally obligatory from so doing. 2
b. Recognized that there existed no prohibition to the wearing of a simple wedding band in the Bible, the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, or the S.D.A. Church Manual.
c. Recognized an “apparent” consensus still existing in North America which made little or no distinction between the wedding band and ornamental jewelry.
d. Urged SDA ministers to continue discouraging the wearing of the wedding band among their church members in North America.
e. Instructed SDA ministers not to perform ring ceremonies at weddings of members in North America.
f. Yet, finally, took “the position that a person who on the basis of conscience feels obligated to wear a plain wedding band should not be denied baptism.” 3
After more than “two dozen speeches, remarks, and declarations,” many still opposing any liberalization from the previous de facto total ban against SDA church members wearing a wedding band in North America, a resolution reaffirming the 1972 counsel statement was adopted as church policy in North America, along with continuing explicit opposition to the wearing of ornamental jewelry and an “appeal for a commitment to simplicity in lifestyle ... to halt the rising tide of worldly attitudes and practices” of recent years. 4 [See Appendix B] WBEGWSDAC 1.3
Publication of this policy, known to be controversial when it was adopted, resulted in an expected flue and cry of opposition by ultra conservative elements within the church, whose statements were generally characterized as strident (if not bellicose and belligerent), highly emotional, and not well supported factually. Much of the argumentation of the opposition was based upon four assumptions none of which is true: WBEGWSDAC 1.4
1. That Ellen White, during her lifetime (1827-1915) consistently forbade the wearing of any wedding band at any time and in any place within the SDA Church, that she classed the simple non-jeweled wedding band in the category of ornamental jewelry, and that she wrote extensively and repeatedly against the practice of the wearing of the wedding band.
2. That the General Conference, from its earliest days, adopted an official policy against the wearing of any wedding band, and that this policy continued until the 1986 action in Washington which overturned more than a century of precedent to the contrary.
3. That the SDA Church Manual historically always reflected the GC policy against wearing wedding bands, until it was forced to reverse itself by the more recent liberalization policy.
4. That the wearing of a simple, non-jeweled wedding band in North America is now no longer to be discouraged by pastors in that Division of the world field.
What are the demonstrable facts? Ellen White: WBEGWSDAC 2.1
1. Recognized that in her day the custom of wearing a wedding band was considered de rigueur throughout the British Empire, Europe, and in many other parts of the world—a cultural imperative—and she accepted the status quo as applicable to SDAs in such places. In this particular context EGW did not equate the wedding band with articles of ornamental jewelry proscribed by Scripture. She reproved a Swiss SDA minister as being an extremist for publicly urging SDA married women in his country to remove their wedding bands because he viewed them as jewelry. She voiced no objection to the wearing of a wedding band by her future daughter-in-law, when asked counsel by the young woman (an SDA) prior to her marriage to widower Elder William C. White in Australia, in 1895; and the couple were subsequently married in a ring ceremony in the State of Tasmania.
2. Wrote once (and only once) on the subject, in 1892, in a testimony addressed jointly to SDA church members and SDA missionaries from North America resident in Australia, in which she: (a) Told the Americans they did not need to wear it in Australia because it was not then a custom of imperative obligation in America, and that Australians would understand that distinction and (b) Told Australians she had no disposition to condemn them (or others living in a country where the custom was “imperative”) if—in such places—the SDA Christian could wear it in good conscience.
The General Conference has never explicitly addressed the question of the rightness or wrongness of SDA Christian church members wearing a wedding band, as such; in countries where it is considered a matter of imperative social, cultural obligation, it “had no disposition to condemn.” From 1925 through 1986 it has asked SDA ministers not to perform ring ceremonies. WBEGWSDAC 2.2
The SDA Church Manual, reflecting the position of the General Conference (for which it serves as the official “constitution”), has referred to the wedding band in only two ways in its entire history: WBEGWSDAC 2.3
1. From 1932 to 1951 it reiterated the 1925 Annual Council action which looked “with disfavor upon the ring ceremony” at SDA weddings, and
2. From 1951 to 1986—the most recent edition—it recognized that in places where the wearing of a wedding band was deemed a matter of imperative social, cultural obligation the church “had no disposition to condemn this practice.” [See Appendix C]
The Church Manual will not necessarily be affected by the 1986 NAD policy action because the CM speaks for the world church, whereas the NAD policy seeks to apply an unchanged GC policy to the North American field. WBEGWSDAC 3.1
The 1986 NAD policy reaffirmed the recommendation (“counsel”) voted by the GC Officers and North American Union Conference Presidents in 1972, that in North America “we discourage the use of the wedding band” in SDA churches; and that “discouragement” is still the official policy of the church in North America. The only thing that changed in 1986 was that the wearing of a simple wedding band would now no longer be a bar to baptism and/or church membership. WBEGWSDAC 3.2
For the past two decades, especially, the question of “to-wear-or-not-to-wear” has increasingly polarized congregations (especially in North America, where the issue is most acute). It has threatened the life and vitality of the local church in many places. Churches have been sundered, with “a great gulf fixed” between two opposing camps. Members often tend to defend their personal position to the death. Such tend not to listen to fellow members with opposing views, and to dismiss out of hand evidence and arguments offered by such. The result is two sides not talking to—but, rather, past—each other, a virtual “dialogue of the deaf,” and they tend to consign opponents to hopeless oblivion. As a result, the topic has been artificially (and unnecessarily) inflated to an importance vis-a-vis the subject of salvation, all out of proportion to that which it properly deserves; and other important issues, of greater significance, which should be discussed, are either relegated to the background, or are not considered at all. WBEGWSDAC 3.3
This presentation, therefore, does not purport to be either the “General Conference position,” nor the “White Estate position.” Rather, it represents the present thinking of one minister, as he reflects upon experiences and problems with which he has had to deal in the past 40 years of service to his church. I here speak only for myself. My own personal policy—and practice—in North America, for the past four decades has been consistently to discourage the wearing of the wedding band by members and candidates for baptism and membership, for reasons which I think are still rational, valid, and compelling. And, after having made the approach which I share later in this paper, I have yet to be turned down for the first time! WBEGWSDAC 3.4
I have, however, increasingly resisted efforts of those who share my conviction that compelling arguments may still be offered for the non-wearing in North America, where such have gone about their task: WBEGWSDAC 3.5
1. In what (for me) is the “wrong” way, rather than the “right,” and
2. Using what (for me) are “bad” reasons/arguments, rather than the good
Neither I nor my wife have ever owned or worn a wedding band, though we lived in another culture on another continent for 12 years, and though we have both traveled and worked since on all six continents of the world. In this paper, therefore, we will examine, successively, WBEGWSDAC 3.6
1. The historical background of the issue among Adventism.
2. The contribution of Adventism’s prophet, Ellen G. White, on the subject, from the perspective of both her teaching and practice.
3. Suggestions for those who join me in continuing to seek to discourage the wearing of a wedding band by SDA Christians, in North America, with regard to what I view as: (1) The “right” way, rather than the “wrong,” and for (2) “Good” reasons, rather than “bad.”