As alluded to in the previous post in this series, Seventh-Day Adventism is sort of like a round peg that does not quite exactly fit in the square hole of groups that make up evangelical Christianity. Consider, for example, the most influential founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, Ellen G. White.
Ellen G. White was considered to be the prophetess who held together the fledgling Adventist/Millerite movement that nearly collapsed after the Great Disappointment of 1844, when William Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming of Christ failed to materialize. But among evangelical Christians, she is viewed anywhere from being an outright false teacher, such as in this Tim Challies blog post, to an eccentric visionary, who has since had her excesses corrected by reforming elements within contemporary Seventh-Day Adventism.
So, who is Ellen G. White, and how did she help define what would become Seventh-Day Adventism? Moreover, what type of movement did she and other early leaders help create?
Ellen G. White and the Making of Seventh-Day Adventism
Ellen Harmon grew up in a poor family. As a young girl, another girl in her school threw a rock that struck Ellen in the head. The impact permanently disfigured her and put her in a coma. Ellen survived, but just barely. She missed a lot of school, which is quite remarkable considering all of the mountains of literature she would produce later in life.
She came to believe in Jesus Christ at a Methodist camp meeting, but as a teenager became attracted to the teachings of William Miller, hoping for the soon Second Coming of Jesus in 1844. The sense of urgency to Ellen was in contrast to the rather lackadaisical posture of many of her friends influenced by the dominant “End Times” perspective of postmillennialism, held by the majority of Christians in the early 19th century in Protestant America. After all, if Jesus will be coming to establish his one thousand year reign of peace, before he comes as judge of all of the earth, what was all of the rush to prepare one’s soul for Jesus’ coming? In contrast, Ellen saw in Miller’s message a call to repentance now and get right with God!
So, it was quite a shock to Miller’s followers when the supposed events of 1844 never transpired. While most people abandoned the “Millerite” movement after the Great Disappointment of 1844, some like seventeen-year-old Ellen stayed on, trying to make sense of what really happened. Ellen was disturbed that so many in the former Millerite movement began to either deny the Second Coming, or otherwise, felt compelled to abandon the faith completely.
Ellen began to claim to receive a series of ecstatic visions, that some in the faltering movement accepted as God-inspired revelation. She soon married a young Adventist preacher, James White, and together they spread the idea that while Jesus did not physically come back in 1844, that nevertheless, something did happen in 1844. Their marriage, at first, was a very common-sense, practical kind of thing. They both believed that Jesus was still coming back any day, but they also believed there was plenty of work to be done to spread the message of Adventism. They would be more efficient in their work doing so as a married couple as opposed to remaining single. It was not a very romantic union, but it proved to be very effective in establishing their ministry.
A strand of ideas common in Adventism suggested that Jesus did not physically return in 1844 for a very sensible reason. The church universal had failed to keep some particular aspects of God’s covenant. So, the church essentially was not ready for Jesus’ bodily return. The Second Coming was delayed in order to spur the church on to restore the true pattern of the New Testament church. The standout idea associated with this line of thinking was the restoration of the true Sabbath. True believers in Christ needed to restore the correct day of worship, the Jewish Sabbath, what we commonly know as Saturday, hence the “Seventh-Day” in Seventh-Day Adventism. The theory was that the Roman Catholic church in the early medieval period had intentionally changed the day of worship in the early church from Saturday to Sunday, as a way to meld into the pagan practices of having religious festivities on Sundays, thus compromising God’s original covenant purposes with His people …(did I tell you earlier that the Adventists were not very keen on Roman Catholicism??)….
…Never mind the fact that Christians began to worship Jesus, even in the New Testament era (a few hundred years prior to the “ascendancy” of the Roman papacy), on the day after the Jewish Sabbath, as in Acts 20:7, to coincide with “the first day of the week” (John 20:1) , when Jesus was Resurrected, adopting this period of worship as the “Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10)… oh, well…
Another Adventist leader, Joseph Bates, managed to convince the Whites about the Seventh-Day Sabbath teaching, and together these three early leaders were able to sort out the thorniest theological problems raised by the Great Disappointment. The “cleansing of the sanctuary” in Daniel 8:14 (KJV), was not, as William Miller predicted, supposed to be the physical Second Coming of Jesus. Rather Jesus entered the sanctuary in heaven, not the physical earth, to enact the final “day of atonement,” as the last act in the story of salvation, on October 22, 1844. This event initiated a period of “investigative judgment,” claimed to be based on Daniel 7:9-12, whereby God would judge the visible church, in order to determine who were the authentic believers and who were not. So, along with restoring the “correct” day for the Christian Sabbath (to Saturday), the new Adventist movement had a message to proclaim that would prepare true believers for the imminent Second Coming of Jesus (Still confused about the whole 1844 thing? Let the Adventists explain it themselves).
According to Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Matthew Lucio, who publishes an Adventist History Podcast, the new, fledgling Seventh-Day Adventist movement still struggled with theological controversy during the early years of their meetings. Lucio says that theses meetings sometimes would descend into long, theological controversies regarding how to interpret different passages of the Bible, eventually dragging out into a stalemate. Once folks were worn out over their arguments, Ellen G. White would stand up and then have some vision during these meetings. It was through these visions that these doctrinal disputes were resolved, as followers became impressed by Ellen G. White’s prophetic gifts.
The solidifying of doctrinal beliefs proved crucial in the wake of the Great Disappointment. At the lowest moment, the truly faithful of William Miller’s followers were reduced to a handful of small, scattered groups. By 1849, William Miller had died. But after years of struggle, particularly financial, White encouraged the rest of the Seventh-Day Adventist leadership to go into printing the message of the Adventist cause, relying on donations to keep the ministry afloat. It worked. A reading public managed to save and grow the movement. Not everyone was supportive of the influence of Ellen G. White, such as the Messenger Party, of the 1850s, that even went as far as denying the visions and prophetic gifts of Mrs. White. Nevertheless, support for White prevailed within the movement. Within a few years, small cells of sympathizers to the Seventh-Day Adventist message began to multiply and grow all over the world.
From Apostate Church to Remnant Faithful?
A few other particular beliefs helped to strengthen the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. At the core of these beliefs was the idea that the human soul is not naturally immortal. One belief that came out from this was that humans remain unconscious at death, whereby the dead do not directly go to heaven at the moment of dying. In other words, at death, you do not directly go to “be with Jesus.” Instead, the soul is not animated between the time of physical death and the Judgment Day, pejoratively known as “soul sleep.” The dead are simply laying there in their graves, awaiting to be awakened in the last days. The other doctrine related to the mortality of the soul is conditional immortality, whereby the saved do inherit eternal life, whereas the damned will eventually be annihilated in hell. In other words, the dammed will indeed suffer the punishments of hell, but their souls will eventually be completely destroyed.
As with the Sabbath issue, “investigative judgment,” and other doctrines, what drove this belief was the Seventh-Day Adventist reading of history. The apostasy that was Roman Catholicism, was blamed for incorporating a pagan, Greek belief of the immortality of the soul into Christian teaching, thus leading to the doctrine of conscious eternal torment for the dammed, in the early and medieval church. Particularly in the 19th century, as denominational confusion among Protestants tended to divide Christians, many felt that the Protestant Reformation, while a very promising start, had not done enough to restore the church back to its original, New Testament pattern of order and doctrine. Groups like the Adventists tried to restore the Christian church to its original intended state, by means of attempting to reach back into Christian history to find where the church had gone off of the rails doctrinally, and then replace these aberrations with what was considered to be “true” biblical doctrine. Seventh-Day Adventists have historically viewed themselves as being a godly “remnant,” given the charge by God to help call the rest of the church away from apostasy and back towards the true patterns of worship and doctrine.
From Doctrine to Diet
It was not just a particular set of doctrines that helped to define the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. Ellen G. White had a lot of health problems, all beginning with the rock in the head incident from her youth. She began in her prophesies to emphasize the importance of diet in the life of the believer, leading towards restoration of health. At first, the Seventh-Day Adventist movement urged believers to become vegetarians and observe the Kosher food law of Leviticus 11.
Over the years, Seventh-Day Adventists’ concern with health would extend to other areas. The use of alcohol and tobacco were discouraged, along with coffee, tea, and cola.
One story about the health emphasis in the movement involves a medical doctor and convert to Adventism, John Harvey Kellogg. As the movement continued to grow, it established its headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, where Kellogg founded a medical facility dedicated to improving health and nutrition, and drawing patients from all over the world to come and visit in order to get well. One idea among Adventists was the search to discover a type of healthy food that could be eaten on a regular basis, and that could be produced for the masses. So along with his brother, Will Keith, Kellogg helped to develop the corn flake cereal that you probably had for breakfast this morning.
Nevertheless, the story of John Harvey Kellogg illustrates a serious challenge to how Seventh-Day Adventism maintains its community life. Since doctrine plays such an important part of defining the movement’s unity, particularly a set of doctrines that are plainly contrarian to the larger Christian movements around them, any deviation from doctrinal standards could and would result in the splintering of the movement. Kellogg himself began to embrace the concept of panentheism, which led to criticism of Kellogg’s theology (panentheism, is a bit weird, so I can see why some folks were bothered with this).
After a fire destroyed the Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1902, Ellen G. White urged that the facility not be rebuilt. However, Kellogg refused to listen to her prophetic advice and rebuilt it anyway. Kellogg was eventually disfellowshipped from the movement.
From Diet to Denomination
By the time Ellen G. White died in 1915, Adventism had grown from a handful of itinerant evangelists proclaiming the Seventh-Day Sabbath and the imminent Second Coming, to becoming an established organization with churches scattered all over the United States. The summer camp meetings that the Whites and Joseph Bates had started back in the 1860s to sustain the movement were no longer enough for the some 136,879 adherents to the Seventh-Day Sabbath. Missionary work extended all over the globe, from Europe to Australia, and even to the famous survivors of the Mutiny on the Bounty, on the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific (remember the tale of Captain Bligh?).
Before her death, White had encouraged the development of colleges and hospitals, to advance the growth of the church and expand their health ministry. So, it should be no surprise that Seventh-Day Adventism’s most favorite son a century later, presidential candidate Ben Carson, is probably one of the world’s most recognized neurosurgeons.
Ellen G. White herself is still best known for her extensive publishing efforts. Many of her prophetic and health visions and messages were put down into book form. The most ambitious and commonly known works still used today in Seventh-Day Adventist outreach come from her multivolume Conflict of the Ages series (How does your typical Adventist find the time to actually read everything this woman wrote?)
Nevertheless, her legacy has troubled people outside of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement, being lumped in with the likes of Mary Baker Eddy (of Christian Science) and Joseph Smith (Mormonism). In a sense, White’s success as the movement’s figurehead, built on her unifying charisma, has also been the greatest hindrance to those outside of Adventism.
But the Adventist movement has continued to grow, a hundred years after White’s death. Much to the embarrassment of Seventh-Day Adventism, the fact that the movement has continued on as long as it has, stands in contrast with the sense of urgency in those early years just after 1844, when Ellen G. White and others fully believed that Jesus’ Second Coming would come at any moment. On the other hand, the maturity of the movement over the years has put Adventism squarely on the Christian landscape, far removed from the “fly by night” status of those early years.
From Denomination to Disaster at the Extremes
But the Seventh-Day Adventist story has taken other, frankly bizarre, twists and turns in its history. Various doctrinal and organizational disputes over the years have threatened the unity of the movement, ranging from the slightly weird, as with John Harvey Kellogg, to the completely whacked out and bizarre Branch Davidian sect.
In the 1980s, when I first heard of David Koresh, a young, rock guitar-playing Christian singer, who was obsessed with Bible prophecies, thinking of himself as being within the lineage of the first King David, I thought the whole Branch Davidian thing was a joke. Most self-respecting Seventh-Day Adventists would also agree, branding Koresh and his followers in Waco, Texas as being on the lunatic fringe.
But some ten years later, Koresh and his followers were surrounded by federal agents, during a multi-week siege of their Waco, Texas community, after a search warrant for illegal firearms that went from bad to worse. It was then that I realized that these folks were serious. This Branch Davidian group had taken the “peculiarity” of the Seventh-Day Adventism theme to the most terrifying extreme.
The Branch Davidians were a spinoff from the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, who were themselves a spinoff of the main body of Seventh-Day Adventists, led by a Victor Houteff, in 1929. The Houteff spinoff resulted over how to properly interpret the Three Angels Message and the 144,000 of the Book of Revelation. With practically no accountability, the Branch Davidian attempt to “reform” Seventh-Day Adventism became a breeding ground for fanaticism some fifty years later. In the minds of the Branch Davidians, their former brothers and sisters in the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists had become apostate, whom themselves had declared that the wider Seventh-Day Adventist movement had become apostate.
Defenders of Adventism will probably object, saying that it would be wrong to associate David Koresh and his clan with the wider body of Seventh-Day Adventism. It would be like associating the radical Thomas Muntzer, who led a German peasant uprising in the 16th century, with the main body of the Protestant Reformation headed by Martin Luther, or even associating “Reverend” Jim Jones with the Churches of Christ. The objection is justified.
But it should cause one still to pause and think. Seventh-Day Adventism would have no distinct identity if there were no “whore of Babylon,” embodied as Roman Catholicism, as well as Protestants who do not share their commitment to the Seventh-Day Sabbath, to declare as being apostate. Once you brand those who brand others as being apostate, as being apostate themselves, the cycle of division and disfellowship often continues without any clear way to stop it. Drawing sharp lines between those who are of the “remnant” and those who are “apostate,” looses its punch when the “remnant” subdivide again and over again.
In the next and last post in this series, we will examine what Seventh-Day Adventism looks like today, and what lessons can be learned from the movement.