Seventh Day Adventism

by Nate Jacobus

Ellen G. White.

To Introduce the historical background of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, I will begin with an analysis of the social, political, and cultural environment of North America, specifically North and South relations in the country post-Civil War and pre-World War I. I wish to paint a picture of the North American environment which Seventh Day Adventism was born into so that one can understand and appreciate how this new denomination came to be; furthermore, I wish to bring to light social and political needs in which the denomination of Seventh Day Adventism was able to fill to succeed and spread across the nation. I will furthermore discuss Seventh Day Adventist’s major figures such as William Miller and Ellen G. White. The last point will explore how the Seventh Day Adventist denomination grows globally today.

After the conclusion of the civil war and prior to World War I, “social and economic tensions”[1] increased. During this time period the “era of good feeling… was splintered under the economic pressures of the depression of 1837 and the social tension and controversy surrounding slavery.”[2] The South was becoming more racist and unwilling to wrestle with intellectualism while the North struggled to balance rapid economic growth and increased institutional needs derived from African Americans migrating from the South. Because of the influx of migrants, a separation of social classes began to present itself as more and more African Americans were freed and migrated to the North. Migration into the Northern states created a power vacuum favoring individuals of a high socioeconomic status and putting the outsiders to the bottom rung of society. By outsiders, I mean to say persons who struggled to find success due to cultural and social limitations imposed upon them from current societal norms of this time period.

The political climate experienced a rise in local organizations such as YMCA, YWCA, and other non-profit organizations which functioned to serve outsiders who had fallen through the gaps in the socioeconomic separation of classes. The goal of these organizations was to serve the undermined population of free African Americans; however, they also helped oppressed peoples such as the sick or low-income persons who slipped through the cracks of governmental and For-profit services. Alongside the creation of non-profit organizations was the fragmentation of new denominations “in response to the urban challenge[s].”[3] For example, the Methodist tradition wanted to return to John Wesley’s teachings[4] which included serving the poor; moreover, the product of a desire to return to John Wesley’s teaching created the birth of the Salvation Army. Other churches like the Methodist tradition wishing to return to past teachings were called “holiness churches.”[5] Among the most famous holiness church was the “Church of the Nazarene, organized in 1908.”[6] Overall, the atmosphere of this post-millennialism period “gave rise to humanitarian reform movements and offered a compelling incentive for mass religious conversion.”[7] It is here among the preceding social and political conditions the rise of Seventh Day Adventism came about.

The movement began with William Miller, a retired military captain[8] and Vermont Baptist.[9] Miller was raised in the Baptist tradition but had doubts about his faith. Due to Miller’s doubts he converted to deism; however, Miller reconverted back to the Baptist faith after returning from the war. Because of Miller’s association with the Deist community, Miller “set out to prove his Deist friends that the Bible was accurate and consistent.”[10] Miller used a very literal interpretation from the Old Testament book of Daniel chapter 8:14. Through his study, William stumbled upon evidence to support and predict the second coming of Christ. He came to the conclusion the Lord will return in 1843. The former military captain took it upon himself to share his discovery with the world as the impending date was coming near. Upon hearing the immanent and exciting news of Miller’s message, Joshua V. Himes supported him in his efforts to share this urgent message. Himes “immediately embrace[d] nineteenth century technology available to him in an effort to tell the world about Miller’s Parousia”[11] or prediction of the second coming of Christ. The two gained masses of followers and soon called themselves the Millerites. The Millerites held meetings and conferences across America. “The very intensity of Miller’s prophetic supernaturalism drove … evangelical opponents toward increasingly nationalistic, immanentism, and liberal forms of [religion]”[12]; furthermore, Miller was creating the formation of a booming religious movement which began centralization of beliefs underneath a unifying platform. Unfortunately, 1843 came and went and most of Miller’s followers stepped out of his guidance returning to their original denominations. Miller adjusted his prediction and based it off the Jewish calendar coming to the conclusion Christ would come in the following year of 1844. Yet again, the date passed and the Millerites were extremely disappointed. The few Millerites who remained still met in conferences and became the original participants in the new forming denomination. The Millerites began to call themselves the Seventh Day Baptists because they valued Baptist theology and their way of living but held that the Seventh Day was meant for rest. The movement was slowly dying until the most prominent figure in Seventh Day Adventist history came to the rescue: Ellen G. White. Ellen White guided and brought this fading denomination back to life.

The change in leadership of the Seventh Day Baptist movement would have been a shock to any social or religious movement of this time period, but it was especially so for Miller. “Miller was succeeded in the leadership of the Adventist movement by a person who was in every respect different from him. For one obvious difference, [his successor] was a woman;”[13] Ellen G. Harmon “was born on November 27, 1827, in Gorham, Maine.”[14] Ellen was incredibly impacted by the religious revivals of the second great awakening which flourished through the northeast of America. The Harmons actively participated in family biblical devotion and attended a Methodist church. White was subjected to common Methodist expressions of faith such as shouting praises to God during the sermon or women taking part in leadership roles within the church. All was well for Ellen until the age of nine when the unthinkable happened. “Ellen was hit in the head by a stone thrown by a schoolmate angry at some trifle”[15] severely injuring Ellen. Ellen was sent into a comma for three weeks. Because of the serious trauma to her head, Ellen was unable to continue school. During this time of recovery Ellen turned her faith towards God and wrestled with questions of eschatology and preparation for end times. When Ellen heard of Miller’s teachings, she was completely taken by his theology most likely because she was so close to death herself. Despite her injuries, Ellen went on to have an experience of “personal conversion at a Methodist camp meeting in Baxton, Maine.”[16] She was baptized and accepted into the Methodist church. Yet, after Ellen attended Miller’s meeting, the Harmon’s were asked to leave the Methodist church. The Harmons refused and were excommunicated from the church. Immediately after the Harmon’s excommunication, they joined the Millerites’ movement. Ellen and her family’s faith in God and in the Millerites was unshakeable; during 1843 and 1844 Ellen suffered from “a collapsed lung and heart trouble”[17] yet they stood firm in their faith.

In December 1844 Ellen experienced her first vision at a prayer meeting. Ellen’s vision was about God’s acceptance of believers in the end times furthering her persistence in staying true to the Millerites’ movement. Others who heard of Ellen’s vision believed in her and this excelled her to greater opportunities within the movement and eventually the Millerites deemed her a “prophetess.”[18] Despite her health issues, Ellen moved to the top of the Millerites’ movement and travelled across the East Coast sharing her visions and the quickly approaching return of Christ. Moreover, “the leadership provided by Ellen White served to claim the religious intensity of early Adventists”[19] and eventually lead a group of disorganized Millerites into one organized body now called the Seventh Day Adventist’s. White simply had a gift of leading people. Ellen married James White and went on to live a life guiding the newly formed Seventh Day Adventist religion by her prophecies and literary works. Overall, White brought life to the dying Millerites and created a religion which exists to the present day. Through her visions, prophecies, and literary works, White was able to fill social and cultural needs of improving health systems, serving the poor, and bettering education which allowed the denomination to grow amid a culture of religious fragmentation and social deconstruction.

Today “Seventh Day Adventism has evolved in such a way as to … become a major shareholder in the Christian world with more than fourteen million members.”[20] The question now comes to what has contributed to their global growth?

“Adventists accept the inspiration and authority of the bible… [and] the inspiration of Mrs. Ellen White;”[21] thus the Adventists subscribe to biblical truths of Jesus and the inspirations Ellen received in her prophecies. Adventist’s view the atonement of sins by Jesus on the cross as fulfilled in a heavenly realm yet not fully complete; furthermore, one must prescribe to a moral and good Christian life so that atonement may be reached on earth: Jesus “satisfied divine justice and made provision for atonement for the sins of men.”[22]. There is an urgency to share the word of Seventh Day Adventists so that all can receive atonement through abiding to a moral life as laid out by Jesus and Ellen White in her literature and prophecies. Saturday is the chosen day of the SDA church because “Saturday was shown to be the Sabbath intended, by God’s giving a double portion of manna on the proceeding day; thus,”[23] Sunday is not observed as the Sabbath because God raised Jesus from the dead thus not working on Saturday and doing good work on Sunday. The growth of Seventh Day Adventism also filled the need of health. Adventists should prescribe to a vegetarian diet according to Whites teaching. White cared for the sick, the unhealthy, and the outsider in America and because of this, the denomination grew filling the needs social and cultural needs of people. Seventh Day Adventists seek to help the poor because Christ is coming soon, everyone is in need to hear this news. Good health care and education have been given emphasis by White because one must care for mind and heart as they are spiritual gifts of Christ. Finally, Seventh Day Adventists live as if each day was one’s last because Christ’s arrival is immanent. One is to live in expectance of Christ coming. For the latter reasons, Adventism has flourished in America and continues to spread not only in America but globally.

One of the reasons SDA religion has grown so much is its uniqueness of bible study. SDA bible study is not “truth being taught by a higher authority such as a pastor, but [it is] everyone discovering the truth for themselves by way of investigation and dialogue.”[24] SDA bible study has led to the growth of Seventh Day Adventism in Madagascar as well as other countries who have come to practice this faith. Furthermore, “the Adventist church … gives tools to ordinary people to study the bible and to dialogue over emerging knowledge without privileging any particular set of views including those of the church pastor over others”[25] contributing to a more inclusive and involved faith.

Another reason Adventism grows is their emphasis on health care. Adventism in Tanzania “owes much of its origin to the idea of allocation by the colonial administration as well as to the choice of a healthy highland devoid of the many ills that plagued the low-lying areas.”[26] Seventh Day Adventism continues to place emphasis on reaching out to the sick as in its early days in America which contributes to growth in countries like Tanzania. These factors continue to fill the needs in social gaps not just in the states but on a global scale.

Despite global growth and with any practice of religion, there are problems facing the church today. In the SDA church, there is a “struggle to maintain a unified, global identity.”[27] Seventh Day Adventism struggles to stay unified due to the continuing fragmentation of religious culture. As in any religion, many ways of practicing the SDA faith have been presented since the death of Ellen White; thus, controversies on practices are brought to light. Another issue presented to the SDA church today is the role of women and ethnic diversity. Women and people of color have not experienced many leadership opportunities within the church leading to a need to reform in the 21st century.

To summarize, the historical period leading up to the official denomination of Seventh Day Adventism was a place where religious, social, and political fragmentation in society generated gaps in the social structure. As gaps immerged, outsiders fell through the cracks of major institutions and the religion of Seventh Day Adventism successfully filled those gaps. The success of Seventh Day Adventism and its global presence today can be attributed to Ellen White and her prophetic and literally contributions to the world of religion and academia. Overall, the SDA religion immerged from a fragmented society and was brought back to life through serving the outsider; Seventh Day Adventism continues to serve the outsider contributing to global growth.

 

NOTES

[1] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[2] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[3] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[4] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[5] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[6] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[7] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[8] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[9] Gonzalez, Justo. L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the present day.
[10] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[11] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[12] Numbers, Ronald L., and Butler, Jonathan M. The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century.
[13] Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects
[14] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[15] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[16] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[17] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[18] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[19] Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion
[20] Bull, Malcolm, and Lockhart, Keith. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream
[21] Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects
[22] Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects
[23] Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects
[24] Keller, Eva. The Road to Clarity Seventh-Day Adventism in Madagascar
[25] Keller, Eva. The Road to Clarity Seventh-Day Adventism in Madagascar
[26] Nderitu, Anthony. “Christian Remnant – African Folk Church: The History of Seventh-day Adventism in Tanzania
[27] Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bull, Malcolm., and Lockhart, Keith. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Gerstner, John H. The Theology of the Major Sects. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1960.

Hoekema, Anthony A. The Four Major Cults: Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963.

Kapitzke, Cushla. Literacy and Religion the Textual Politics and Practice of Seventh-Day Adventism. Studies in Written Language and Literacy. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub., 1995.

Keller, Eva. The Road to Clarity Seventh-Day Adventism in Madagascar. Contemporary Anthropology of Religion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Martin, Walter. The Truth about Seventh-Day Adventism. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1960.

Numbers, Ronald L., and Butler, Jonathan M. The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century. Religion in North America Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Nderitu, Anthony. “Christian Remnant – African Folk Church: The History of Seventh-day Adventism in Tanzania, 1903-1980. Studies in Christian Missions 34. By Stefan Höschele.

Vance, Laura Lee. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Rowell, J. B. Seventh-day Adventism Examined. 3rd ed. Susanville, CA: Challenge Publishing, 1960.

Tucker, Ruth. Another Gospel: Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1989.

Justo, Gonzales. Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present-Day Volume 2 of The Story of Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers. 2010