ATSS: Ronald Lawson on the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Polygamous Converts
14 July 2021 |
The following excerpt is mostly about the Adventist response to polygamy:
Christianity grew up in what was basically a monogamous world. The first recorded official Christian statement on polygamy dates from 1201, when the Bishop of Tiberius asked Pope Innocent III if polygamous converts should keep all wives or only one, and if the latter, which one. The Pope insisted on strict monogamy, calling polygamous unions adultery, and refused baptism to any parties to such a marriage.
When the Anglican Church addressed the issue in West Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century, missionaries had little theology of marriage and little understanding of the relativity of social patterns (anthropologists, for example, had not yet studied marriage). Their concept of Christian marriage was what they had known at home. They regarded much of African life as immoral and condemnable, especially polygamy and bride wealth, and they were almost universally repulsed by the practice. Missionaries often assumed that lust was the real reason for polygamy. Since polygamous unions were viewed as adulterous, the missions had little hesitation in ruling that these marriages must come to an abrupt end if the partners wished to become Christians. They thus turned the good news of the gospel into bad news. In 1857, Henry Venn, secretary of the Church Missionary Society, drew up a memorandum which was to influence the debate for the next century: its key statement was “a polygamist cannot be lawfully admitted by baptism into the Church of Christ.” However, some individual missionaries came to understand the human situation better and to have doubts.
Adventism and Polygamy
Adventists entered Africa when the Christian mission enterprise there was already well established. The first Adventist missionaries were sent to South Africa in 1887, and from there they spread north into Southern and then Northern Rhodesia (what are now Zimbabwe and Zambia) during the next 15 years. They entered English West Africa, beginning with the Gold Coast (Ghana), in 1894, German East Africa (Tanzania) in 1903, Kenya in 1906, and Ethiopia in 1907. The French and Belgian colonies were not entered until after World War I. However, Adventist outreach has been especially successful in Africa: At the end of 2019, 44.4% of its 21.6 million members were located there.
Since Adventists thought of themselves as God’s special Remnant Church, they kept their mission efforts quite separate from those of other churches. Consequently, they developed their own responses to polygamy. However, because their missionaries were also drawn from Europe and America, and they were often very conscious of their reputations with the major religious bodies, their policies often reflected the practices of other missions. They were wary lest the standard that they adopted be deemed too low by others.
Adventists steered an erratic course on polygamy for several decades. Their first attempt to reach consensus on a policy towards polygamous converts was made in 1913, when the missionaries present at church headquarters in Washington, D.C., were called to a “round table conference” to discuss a recommendation drafted by a “committee on the question of polygamy in heathen lands.” Their discussion revealed considerable variation in practice. While most Adventist missions refused baptism to polygamists, Adventists in India followed the practice among other missions there, baptizing converted polygamists but not allowing them to hold prominent church offices. There were wide differences in how the wives involved in a polygamous marriage were treated. While most missions encouraged polygamists to put away their additional wives, those in Korea and South Africa required the man to support all his wives while living with only one of them. Missionaries from China and Java found fault with their insistence on divorce as being unfair to the women and children. The group eventually recommended that when a polygamous man became a Christian “he be accepted into the church on condition that he support all his wives and children, but that he lives only with his first lawful wife as husband and wife”; he would not be eligible to hold church office. Similarly, a plural wife would need to separate from her husband before being granted membership. That is, no would-be convert who continued to live polygamously could be baptized. Although the original recommendation coming to the group had allowed wives who could not obtain a divorce from their husbands to be accepted as members, this was rejected when missionaries reported that other mission churches would not tolerate this [Bouit 1982: 118, 123]. These recommendations were then voted by the General Conference as guidelines for missionaries in the field.
The Adventist church finally settled on a conservative stance only a few years before such rules came under close critical scrutiny within the broader Christian community in Africa. This policy is still the official position of the Adventist church.
Almost everywhere the first option mentioned by Adventists I interviewed in Africa is for the polygynous man to divorce all wives except one before baptism is permitted; some referred to an additional waiting period before baptism to ensure that such a man is sticking to his decision. In some areas he is expected to continue to support the wives he has cast out.
However, because the experience in most of Africa has been that husbands are unwilling or unable to divorce their wives, a second option was usually listed. Under this, those wives who are converted are baptized (they are usually not regarded as polygamous because they have only one husband), but their husband is kept in a sad state on the periphery of the church, without baptism or access to communion, usually as a Sabbath School member. It is this second option which has increasingly become most used. Indeed, in Nigeria it has become the only practice, with no attempt being made to persuade the husband to divorce his wives. In Zimbabwe the policy is interpreted more strictly: if the second option is chosen, only the first wife is baptized, on the grounds that she is the only innocent party.
Beneath this pattern lies another level of diversity, which has appeared throughout Adventist history in Africa. This is the degree of flexibility allowed or encouraged by influential church figures—initially missionaries, later more frequently administrators–in different areas. One missionary reported that “we always tried to not disrupt a family if children were small,” another told of a division president who had often said to baptize everyone if people were going to be hurt badly–but who never put it in writing. While some administrators have tried to enforce the policy to the letter, others, noting the human disasters such actions have caused, have learned to back off.
Pastors were also deeply divided, often according to age. However, the leading laity, and especially teachers at all levels, spoke negatively of the official policy. Assessments differed most, to the point of being polar opposites, on how well the castoff wives were provided for and how frequently wives being supported by their former husbands become pregnant to them: administrators generally tended to give favorable reports, while pastors, who are much closer to how the system is put into practice, cited many examples of former wives becoming pregnant if their former husbands agreed to support them and of abandoned wives being separated from their children and being left so destitute that they are forced into prostitution.
When divorce is imposed or chosen, Adventists usually allow the husband free choice concerning which wife will be retained, and this is often the youngest. The wives have no choice here–in the words of a former union president, “wives must submit to what their husband chooses.” It is very sad for a woman to be cast out in old age, yet for a young woman to be considered no longer a wife, especially where she is not eligible for remarriage, must be devastating.
It is often the more conscientious husband who refuses the divorce option. While his wives are eligible to be baptized, become church members, and to partake of communion, he must remain at best on the fringe of the church so long as his plural marriage continues. He is always a second-class citizen: his tithes and offerings are expected, but he must leave when it is time for communion. Since he is not baptized, he worries that he may be eternally lost. The practice leaves him in spiritual limbo, marginalized from the community of faith–an almost impossible situation for a member of a communal society. Communities can never be “one in Christ” when there are two such distinct statuses.
It is not surprising, then, that many husbands tire of their ambiguous situation and disappear from the church, and that cast-out wives lose their conversion experience and often become embittered with the church. Consequently, the children are also often lost to the church. The progress of Adventism is slow among polygamists, whether animists or Muslims. Potential converts frequently reject the Adventist invitation once the rules concerning polygamy are explained to them and turn instead to the indigenous African churches or to Islam, where polygamous families are accommodated without problems. This leaves Adventist churches often so short of men that women have to provide leadership–a most surprising situation in societies where women are traditionally seen as very inferior. It also renders the Adventist church in Africa, although growing rapidly overall, economically poor since women can usually only give if their husbands are generous to the cause, and the policy on polygamy tends to exclude those men who are the most wealthy.
Ronald Lawson was Professor in the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, the City University of New York, where he taught courses focusing on the sociology of religion and political sociology. He is also the President of the Metro New York Adventist Forum, a position he held for 41 years. He is completing a book, Apocalypse Postponed, that will give a sociological account of international Adventism, the first major study of a global church.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today
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