What is a Seventh-Day Adventist? To most people who know anything about them, Seventh-Day Adventists are those who go to church on Saturdays, instead of Sundays, and who have a pretty strict diet. Until recently, evangelical and mainline Christians have tended to view Seventh-Day Adventism as some type of strange sect or “cult.” But attitudes have been changing over the years.
I have not followed the political race for President much this fall. But what I have noticed is a large number of evangelical Christians have come out as strong supporters of Republican candidate Ben Carson. What is surprising about the Ben Carson phenomenon among evangelicals is that he is a Seventh-Day Adventist.
It was primarily through the influence of Baptist theologian and cult expert, Walter Martin, that evangelical Christians started to rethink attitudes towards Seventh-Day Adventism, as far back as the 1950s. In The Kingdom of the Cults, Walter Martin observes that there have been signs of change within the movement (p. 535):
It should be carefully remembered that the Adventism of today is different in not a few places from the Adventism of 1844, and with that change the necessity of new evaluation comes naturally…It is my conviction that one cannot be a true Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Christian Scientist, etc., and be a Christian in the biblical sense of the term; but it is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-Day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ despite certain heterodox concepts.
Not everyone agrees with Walter Martin’s assessment. Some still view Seventh-Day Adventists to be “outside of the camp.” But the general trend appears to be that Seventh-Day Adventists are “within the camp” of evangelicalism, even though they do possess some quirky beliefs.
So, how did Seventh-Day Adventism start, how did it get branded as being heretical, and then how has the movement become cautiously accepted today by other Christians as being relatively OKAY? No matter where you come down on Seventh-Day Adventism, the story of it all is quite peculiar.
William Miller and The Adventist Movements of the 19th Century
The whole Seventh-Day Adventist impulse has a number of different sources. But as a movement within the church, it would not have gone anywhere if it had not been for William Miller, (1782-1849), a young man of intellectual and spiritual curiosity growing up in a Baptist home in the newly formed United States. An avid reader, Miller, showed a great interest in books, having access to private libraries near his home in New York state. His dad needed him to work on the farm, so Miller would often stay up late at night, stealing away somewhere with a light to read his books. Miller’s dad caught him once reading and beat him severely, in hopes that his son would give up the books and focus more on farming. But this only encouraged Miller to try harder to please his father, while still finding creative ways run off and read those books.
As a young man, Miller left his Baptist upbringing behind and embraced Deism, as many of his friends who lent him books were Deist intellectuals. But when William Miller served in the army during the War of 1812, he had an experience that challenged his Deistic views. His American unit at the Battle of Plattsburgh was badly outnumbered by the British, but surprisingly the Americans prevailed. At the time, Miller did not know that the British had their supply lines cut off, which gave favor to the Americans. But Miller saw the American victory as a sign from God, that He truly does intervene in the affairs of men, thus undermining Miller’s confidence in Deistic beliefs.
After the war, Miller returned home, but he was still very conflicted about faith. Oddly, while still holding tentatively to his Deistic beliefs, Miller was asked one Sunday to read the printed sermon at the local Baptist church. Apparently, Miller was quite an accomplished public speaker and since the Baptist preachers were so bad, the church felt that they could make a decent compromise and have the Deist Miller read the Baptist sermons to them. Miller accepted the offer. After a few Sundays of doing this, Miller was himself deeply moved by one of the sermons he read in that Baptist church.
Miller was convinced of his experience with the God of the Bible. However, his intellectual obstacles to the Bible prompted by his readings of Deistic philosophy, still stood in the way. He resolved to the read the Bible, with no aid from commentaries or any other reference material, writing this in his memoir, William Miller’s Apology and Defence:
…in the fall of 1816, I was conversing with a friend respecting my hope of a glorious eternity though the merits and intercessions of the Savior, and he asked me how I knew there was a Savior? I replied that He was revealed in the Bible. He then asked me how I knew the Bible was true? and advanced my former deistical arguments on the inconsistencies, the contradictions, and the mysticisms in which I had claimed it was shrouded. I replied that if the Bible was the word of God, every thing contained therein might be understood, and all its parts be made to harmonize; and I said to him that if he would give me time, I would harmonize all these apparent contradictions, to my own satisfaction, or I would be a Deist still.
Over two years, William Miller went verse-by-verse, starting in Genesis and working his way through the entire Bible, only moving onto the next verse, comparing Scripture with Scripture, until he was satisfied with an explanation. He was able to finally resolve these “apparent contradictions” and whole heartedly embrace the Christian faith. His list of things he learned would prove to be quite consistent with the beliefs of most other Christians…. except when it came to biblical prophecy.
William Miller was a stickler for detail. Miller embraced an historicist approach to biblical prophecy, seeing that much of what was discussed prophetically in Scripture has been fulfilled over the past few thousand years of Jewish and Christian history, still with some future expectations in mind. Miller also followed the “day-year” principle, based on his reading of Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:5-6, whereby a “day” in the Bible with respect to prophecy could be understood best as actually signifying a “year.”
For example, the number of 1260 days in the Bible appears have a place in the historicist scheme. Ancient Roman Emperor Justinian recognized that the Pope in Rome was the head of all of the Christian churches and that the power of the last Arian king was driven out of Rome in the year 538 A.D. Fast forward to 1798 A.D, when the Roman pontiff was captured by Napoleon’s forces, taken into France, where the pope died soon thereafter. If you do the math, that means that the undisputed authority of the Roman Catholic papacy lasted from 538 to 1798, a period of 1260 years, which fits within this reading of the Bible (well, at least that is what folks like William Miller thought… not very Roman Catholic-friendly, were they?).
But the real kicker in Miller’s view of the end times was when he supposedly figured out the meaning of Daniel 8:13 (KJV):
And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.
Miller believed these 2,300 days, associated with this great vision of the prophet Daniel known by the King James Version in Daniel 8:26 as “the vision of the evening and the morning” (note: singular), to be actually 2,300 years. But when do you start counting the years from? This is where Daniel 9:24-27, the favorite passage of J. N. Darby’s dispensationalism, comes into play. This is pretty complicated, but Miller saw that the 70 weeks of Daniel 9:24-27 began with a decree by King Artaxerses to rebuild the temple (Ezra 7:1-27), in the year 457 B.C.
Fast forward that up 2,300 years and you get the magic year of 1843.
So what does the “the sanctuary be cleansed” mean, from Daniel 8:13? For Miller, this signified the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, a few mere few decades away from when Miller made his discovery.
At first, Miller was very unsure of himself regarding this discovery. Had he interpreted everything correctly? What if he was wrong? After a few years of sitting on his doubts, he decided to test his interpretation with some friends. After all, he reasoned, what if he was right? What if he was right and he had failed to warn everyone of the true date of this biblical prophecy? Would not God hold him accountable for keeping silent? So, Miller spoke out.
As Miller expected, many ridiculed his ideas. But Miller was a very persuasive rhetorician. A number of folks became convinced of his views. So Miller went on the speaking circuit, where he was able to present his case before thousands of people over the next few decades. Different publishing societies began to produce pamphlets by the thousands promoting Miller’s date-setting ideas. By the eve of 1843, Miller’s views became quite controversial in America. Many of those who were persuaded made the journey to Miller’s farm to wait for Jesus to come back in 1843.
Well, just in case you have not figured out what actually happened: Jesus did not come back in 1843. Miller and his followers were a bit confused by this. But perhaps they were off by year. So, they recalculated for 1844 (October 22, 1844, to be precise).
1844 came and went and, as you probably guessed, Jesus did not come back.
This became what is known in American history as the Great Disappointment. As one Millerite follower put it, as quoted by Seventh-Day Adventist historian George Knight (found on Wikipedia):
I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.
Disappointment and Division
Now, I have to say that all of this is really bizarre. But then it is probably no more bizarre than Hal Lindsay’s theories about the coming of the Rapture in the 1980s, other Rapture theories, or the recent Blood Moon craze. Folks like Hal Lindsay, John Hagee, and Mark Blitz needed to tell us about what might be coming, to avoid blame just in case something did happen and they never said anything about it (Well, I will let you think about that one… I am not so convinced… I still think that such prophecy date-setting warnings, even the most benign ones, merely open the faith to unnecessary ridicule).
Miller and his followers were probably very sincere in their anticipation of Christ’s coming. The enthusiasm over the Miller predictions probably did inspire many people to rethink their priorities and refocus their attention on what really mattered, seeking the things of God as opposed to things of this world.
When William Miller read Matthew 24:36, where Jesus talks about “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only,” it appears that he just brushed off the objection that even Jesus does not know the time of His Second Coming. Furthermore, even Daniel was confused as to the meaning of the 2,300 “evening and morning” prophecy in Daniel 8:27. For a man who seemed attuned by his previous Deistic convictions to detect possible Bible “inconsistencies, contradictions, and mysticisms,” you might have thought that he would exercised a bit more caution when it came to the area of Bible prophecy.
Well, I have to credit William Miller with one thing. He did admit after the 1844 disappointment that he was wrong. Most folks just went home and started over. But some of Miller’s other followers were not convinced of the total error. Perhaps, it was just Miller’s timing for the Second Coming event that was wrong. Or perhaps, was Miller’s timing right but the event being predicted was wrong? These type of questions divided the confused Adventist movement. Different ideas were discussed, and groups were divided following this or that theory.
One early story in the Adventist movement at this stage illustrates the problem well, that I learned from Matthew Lucio’s Adventist History podcast. A group of Adventists were meeting to try to discuss some of these issues regarding the failure of Miller’s prophecy and what it all meant. Could it be related to a wrong understanding about the Millennium? Did it have something to do with the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:3-8? No agreement could be reached that would satisfy everyone. Someone at the meeting suggested they should just table the discussion for now and simply gather together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Surely, this would unify those present! But someone raised an objection that the Lord’s Supper was merely an extension of the Jewish Passover and should only be celebrated once a year….Talk about division!
Seventh-Day Adventism and the Fatigue of Denominational Division
Seventh-Day Adventist and Presidential candidate Ben Carson, in an October 28, 2015 interview, made a general comment lamenting the denominationalism spirit evident in a lot of evangelical Christianity today:
The reason that there are like 4,000 denominations is that people have looked at this and said, ‘Let’s interpret it this way. Let’s interpret it that way. Sometimes they get caught up in that and forget about the real purpose of Christian faith.
No matter what someone’s politics are, this type of weariness over endless disputes about doctrine, while still having a clear focus on Jesus Christ, resonates with many evangelical Christians today. But it also reminds me of the type of confusion experienced by Ben Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist forefathers in the wake of the post-1844 Adventist movement (or movements, to be exact).
This chaotic situation after 1844 was eventually where a woman named Ellen G. White comes into the picture. Ellen G. White was one of those people who stayed up many nights on Miller’s farm waiting for Jesus to return, only to do a lot of soul-searching and Scripture-searching to figure out what went wrong afterwards. Her story is remarkable in that her influence reinvigorated a splintered movement and redefined its purpose and focus.
We will examine Ellen G. White and her seminal influence in defining what would eventually become Seventh-Day Adventism in the next blog post.