I come to you with something that is troubling my mind, for I can think of no group better qualified to give concrete help. Personally, I have always had the general impression in my mind that we were tied in to the advent movement of the early 1840's, known often as Millerism. While my impression was not too clear, it was none the less real. Hence, when a scurrilous story appeared in the Reader's Digest in January, 1943, which painted the Millerite movement as a fanatical spree, I thought to take issue with it, and set out to discover the facts.
The facts that came to light began to warm my soul, and I thought to share them with our people, both ministers and laity. Right then is when I made a startling discovery. I found that for the majority of our lay members the story of William Miller and the advent movement before October, 1844, was like a tale that is told—interesting, doubtless, but not necessarily relevant to Seventh-day Adventism.
I was even more than startled to find that a majority of our ministry seemed to be not much clearer on the matter than the laity. Occasionally a preacher challenged either the relevancy of the subject, or the propriety of consuming time in discussing it from the rostrum. Others made clear to me that in their preaching they rather let it be understood that Seventh-day Adventists are really something quite different from the religious movement that expected the Lord to come in 1844. Still others, who felt that perhaps we could hardly divorce ourselves from Millerism, had discovered a way of meeting various charges of fanaticism, by the technique of a soft rejoinder, such as, "What if they did wear robes ?" In other words, such preachers said in effect, We'll have to admit the queer actions of the Millerites, but we can minimize them. And hence they wondered why I should be interested in challenging the charges in toto; indeed, why I should be interested even in the history of the movement.
A year or more of such contacts and comments has naturally led me to believe that our people at large are quite ignorant of early denominational history, certainly of the history of the background of the movement. I do not profess to know how well this subject is being taught in our academies or colleges, though I have heard disquieting reports about the absence of it in the curriculum of many schools. But if the Gallup Poll technique of sampling opinions is valid, then I think it safe to conclude at least that if the students have been exposed to the subject, then for some strange reason, it has not "taken."
I believe it would be possible to draft a page of test questions on the historical setting of our denomination, which properly versed college graduates should be able to answer, but which they nevertheless would not be able to answer. And among those college students would be included theological graduates. Let me add, immediately, to free myself of any false appearance of greater wisdom, that I, also, would have failed such a test if it had been given a year and a half ago. Yet I am a product of our own school system from the first to the sixteenth grade inclusive.
Now, this general state of ignorance is an impossible situation. How can we be intelligent Seventh-day Adventists under such circumstances? It is like expecting people to be intelligent American citizens without knowing the historical background of the United States Government. How can people participate intelligently in the Fourth of July celebration unless they know the history of 1776 and the historical facts that led up to it?
This year we are commemorating the centenary of the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, only to discover that part of the price we have paid for lasting one hundred years is that we have quite forgotten what happened a century ago. What a story the pioneers would relate, what a centenary they would provide us, if they could rise from their graves. Yes, and how startled they would be to find the ignorance and apathy that exists, and the bold declarations of some that we have really little connection with the advent movement that flourished before October, 1844, that is, with Millerism. The only reason I believe the pioneers do not turn in their graves over what has taken place is that I believe in the true state of the dead.
In thinking over this unhappy situation, I have attempted to explain it thus : We have all heard from time to time the fantastic stories about the alleged fanaticism of the Millerites. The stories have seemed so plausible that they have almost deceived the very elect. We have taken no time to examine the truth or falsity of them. Dead are our pioneers, who formerly provided a living exhibit of how sensible were some Millerites, at least. Hence we have sought the only way out of an embarrassing problem of poor relations—we have tried to disown them, or at least to talk about them as little as possible. In place of the natural historical connection with such relatives and their activities, we have at times substituted a view of our origin which I think is strangely like the classic myth of the phoenix that suddenly arose out of the ashes of its own funeral pyre, and soared happily into the heavens, sounding forth an exultant song.
It is true that a flying creature in midheaven symbolizes this advent movement, but that flying creature is not analogous to the fabled phoenix, as I shall hope to make clear shortly. In other words, our haziness on the subject of our origin, coupled with the libelous stories of enemies, has led many of us to sever our connections. This, in turn, has only led to greater haziness. Thus a vicious circle has been set up.
Specifically, what is the loss we suffer from such a trend? First, and most obviously, we suffer the inevitable loss that comes to any organization or people who are ignorant of their history and background. There is a certain orientation and a certain sense of historical stability that come from a knowledge of the denomination's origin. Then there is the inspiration that comes from recounting the exploits of the founders and early pioneers.
In the situation before us the loss is double, for we claim to be a prophetic people raised up of God at a special time under special circumstances, and in fulfillment of certain prophecies. We must maintain that position or surrender our claim to being God's last movement in the world.
But prophecy demands history as a framework for its fulfillment. We cannot prove the fulfillment of Daniel 2 or 7, for example, without a certain knowledge of history. The same is true of the prophecy of Revelation 14 :6-1 1, and related passages, which forecast various features in connection with the rise of the advent movement. Most of us are probably much better acquainted with the history of Babylonia, and the Machiavellian plottings of medieval rulers, than we are with the historical facts of the early nineteenth century that provide the proof of the fulfillment of the prophecies on which the advent movement rests for its authentication. We have many preachers who know the measurements of the walls of Babylon who could not give even a vague description of the Boston Tabernacle or the Great Tent in which the advent movement was nurtured. And not a few of our college graduates are able to name an impressive list of ancient kings, in illustrating the fulfillment of Bible prophecies, who could not name half a dozen leaders in the movement that God raised up to preach the first and second angels' messages in fulfillment of prophecy.
I would not have you do one whit less in tutoring youth in ancient lore. But this point I wish to make clear—though we prove such prophecies, if we fail to anchor Revelation 14 :6-ii and related passages to history, we have missed our ultimate objective and have deprived Seventh-day Adventism of the best proof for its claim to a prophetic origin. And if we fail in establishing this claim, pray tell, where are we as a religious movement?
To protect you against any temptation to view my remarks as the overenthusiastic convictions of one who has been focusing on this field, I wish to submit certain testimony from our own Seventh-day Adventist pioneers. This testimony, I believe, will throw convincing light on four points:
1. The origin of Seventh-day Adventism as the outgrowth of the earlier advent movement commonly known as Millerism.
2. The significance of this fact.
3. The specific prophecies involved in the rise and development of the advent movement.
4. The inspiration that comes from studying the lives and actions of the Millerites, and the need for keeping the history of the early advent movement ever clear in our minds.
[Then follows an extended presentation of evidence from the writings of our Seventh-day Adventist pioneers, such as was presented in THE MINISTRY Centennial Extra, September, 1944.]
The historical record and the testimony of our Seventh-day Adventist pioneers leave no possible doubt regarding our origin, and as to the honorableness and prophetic significance of that origin. What shame to leave any Adventist youth in ignorance of this history ! We should remember the words of Uriah Smith: "Every advent theory that has been devised, which ignores the past work ['of the once harmonious body of advent believers,' before October 22, 1844], is a castle in the air, a pyramid without a base, a building without a foundation."—Review and Herald, Dec. 17, 1867, p. 8.
We may not be wittingly promoting a new "advent theory," but this much is certain : we are ignoring "the past work" if we leave our students in ignorance of it. We are at least guilty of a sin of omission. And in this case, if the testimony of these pioneers is to be taken at face value, such a sin of omission finally becomes the heresy of silence. We do well to remember here the admonition of God's messenger, who, after "reviewing our past history" from Millerite days onward, declared, "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history."—Life Sketches, p. 196.
My plea is that our students, and particularly those preparing for the ministry, be at least as well tutored in the origin and history of Seventh-day Adventism as they are in the rise and fall of pagan empires.