Understanding Adventism

Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church evangelical?

Russell L. Staples, Ph.D., before retiring, was chairman of the Department of World Mission at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article is adapted from an essay in The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).

The Seventh-day Adventist movement cannot be understood apart from its history. This fact may apply more to the Adventist Church than to some others, on two counts. First, it grew out of the Millerite movement, and the events and meaning of that experience have been indelibly engraved on its corporate memory and serve as one of the beacons lighting its course. Second, the function of the inner Adventist conviction that this church was accorded supernatural guidance in the ministry of Ellen White must be seen in historical perspective in order to be understood. Therefore, it seems necessary to lay some historical groundwork before embarking upon the more explicitly theological concerns of this essay.

The Millerite experience

Millennialism almost always has been a characteristic feature of American evangelicalism, and millennial ideology has given shape to numerous ideas and movements, including an under standing of history that accords the American nation a special place in the divine purpose; experiments in perfectionism, such as Oneida, the Shakers, and the Mormons; the Christianization of society; ideals of liberty and health; and the relationships between church and state.

Recent studies have served to locate the Millerite movement in closer proximity to the religious outlook of American evangelicalism than was previously thought to be the case. 1 It now appears that the Millerites are better understood as comprising a normal cross section of society, rather than a group of fanatics and eccentrics, and their leaders as being those of reason, driven by what was to them inexorable logic, rather than fanatical prophets appealing to the emotions of the unstable and the disinherited.

The process of change accompanying the restructuring of social and political life in the early years of the United States was seemingly without historical precedent, and persons who believed in the divine ordering of history were motivated to study the prophecies to dis cover the meaning of what was happening. Thus, when William Miller began to preach about the soon coming of Christ, it was not an altogether strange message. He used familiar language and appealed to the accepted authority of Scripture. True, the predominant doctrine at that time was a postmillennial reign of peace, which was to be brought about, in part at least, by human agency, but it was be coming increasingly difficult to argue the case for the inauguration of a perfect society. Manifestations of evil seemed to be on the increase, and the times seemed to be growing less auspicious for the ushering in of the reign of peace. Miller therefore could undergird his case for premillennialism by appealing to the state of society.

Miller's epistemology accorded high priority to reason, and this was in keeping with the spirit of the age. It was on the basis of reason that he had become a deist, and it was as a rationalist that he returned to traditional Christianity. After two years' intensive study of Scripture, he wrote: "The Bible was now to me a new book. It was indeed a feast of reason." 2 Even more revealingly: "I felt that to believe in ... a Savior without evidence would be visionary in the extreme." 3 Hatch describes Miller's use of reason in the study of prophecy: "Miller was confident that by his inductive investigation a clear and simple system of truth was evident in the Bible.... Miller became a stickler for literal interpretation. . . . Upon applying mathematical science to the scriptural prophecy, thus eliminating theory and speculation, a precise formula emerged that pointed with awesome moment to the year 1843." 4

Miller painstakingly demonstrated how all people could understand the prophecies for themselves. Just as he sought to avoid speculation, so also he eschewed any form of inner enlightenment or appeal to subjective mysticism. Accused of fanaticism and religious excesses, the Millerites responded: "We have sought to spread the truth, not by fanatical prophecies arising out of our own hearts, but by the light of the Scriptures, history, and by sober argument. We appeal only to the Bible, and give you our rules of interpretation." 5

Millerism was a mass movement distributed across the Northeast and Mid west of the United States from Maine to Michigan. Its preachers came from many of the churches. Of the 174 preachers with identifiable religious affiliation, 44 percent were Methodist, 27 percent Baptist, 9 percent Congregational, 8 percent Christianite,6 and 7 percent Presbyterian, with smaller numbers of Dutch Reformed, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Quakers.7 The movement in its early stage was anti-separatist. Millerite prayer circles and study fellowship meetings were promoted, but followers were encouraged to remain in their churches. And a wide variety of theological opinion was tolerated. One critic reported: "Here we find annihilationists who unite with universalists...; Arians, Socinians . . . , and yet united on this one point [Millerism], they are all brethren, hale fellows well met." 8

The prophetic basis of the movement was Daniel 8:14 and 9:23-27. Simply put, Miller calculated the 2,300 years (on the day-for-a-year principle) until the cleansing of the sanctuary (Dan. 8:14) to begin at the decree of 457 B.C. "to restore and rebuild Jerusalem" (Dan. 9:25, NIV). By simple arithmetic, this period was calculated to terminate about 1843-1844. This basic formula was bolstered by a network of parallel prophetic calculations. The sanctuary to be cleansed was understood to represent the earth; the cleansing event, the sec ond coming of Christ. This was so, it was reasoned, because only Christ has the power to cleanse the world of sin and bring the millennium. Almost all the events of the last days were understood to occur at this time: separation of the righteous from the wicked, resurrection of the righteous dead, destruction of the earth, creation of the new heavens and new earth, and the commencement of the millennium.

The second stage of the movement commenced in 1844. By then it was realized that the 2,300 years commencing in 457 B.C. would end in A.D. 1844, not 1843. The cleansing of the sanctuary was now coupled with the Day of Atone ment—the day of the annual cleansing of the Temple in the ancient Hebrew cultic year (Lev. 16). The Day of Atonement thus was seen to be a prototype of the cleansing of the earth at the second coming of Christ. This day, it was calculated, would fall on October 22 in the year 1844.

Excitement ran high as this message was preached and rose higher as the day drew nearer. As enthusiasm rose, the movement became more volatile and overran many of its more moderate leaders. Some of the churches became alarmed at the excitement generated by Millerites within their communities and responded by disfellowshipping some of their members; some churches expelled ministers who were active in the movement. In place of the earlier anti-separatist stance, there now arose in some quarters of the movement a vigorous cry, in the name of the angel of Revelation 18:1-4, to "come out" of the churches that were refusing to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Several of the leaders took Millerite condemnation of the churches to its logical conclusion. Denominations were the anti-christ, were prophetic Babylon, and all saints must now "come out of Babylon" lest they partake of the destruction to fall on the wicked. "If you are a Christian, come out of Babylon. If you intend to be found a Christian when Christ appears, come out of Babylon, and come out now" 9 (italics in original).

There thus arose, among some Millerites, a rather sharp sense of particular ism.

Beginning of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

The Millerite movement was shattered by the delay of the Parousia—the unfulfilled hope subsequently being called the Great Disappointment. Some rejected the movement altogether. Perhaps the majority response of those who still affirmed the movement was to continue expectantly awaiting the Advent, on the grounds that there quite easily could have been an error of a few years in calculations. They experienced a difficulty, however, in that, because of prevailing anti-Millerite sentiment, there seemed to be no church home to which they could comfortably turn. The Ad vent Christian Church eventually arose out of this stranded group. Other Millerites argued that Christ's second com ing actually had occurred in a spiritual sense, and some such joined the Shakers.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church arose out of one of the smaller segments of the Millerites; however, it was comprised of a broad spectrum of evangelical Protestants, among whom Method ists and Christianites seem to have exerted a dominant influence. Reaffirmation of the validity of the Millerite mes sage provided positive incentive to re main separate from the churches.

Several developments contributed to the coalescence of this cohort of dis heartened Millerites into a committed core group. Perhaps the first development was a reaffirmation of the divine origin of the Millerite movement, 10 accompanied by an elongation of the time table of the awaited Parousia. The instrumentality of these affirmations was a vision received by Ellen Harmon in late 1844 and subsequently communicated to the group. 11 This message gave the members both the incentive and the sense of time necessary for the formation of an organization.

The second key factor was the reinterpretation of the meaning of the cleansing of the sanctuary. Continued study of the Israelite sanctuary services and comparison of the earthly type with the heavenly anti-type led to the conviction that instead of leaving heaven to come to earth, Christ had entered the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary to commence a new phase of His priestly ministry.

The third facilitating event was acceptance of prophetic guidance in the ministry of Ellen Harmon (later White). The idea of prophetic guidance was not necessarily strange to the Millerites. They lived close to the Scriptures, derived their models from the early church, believed they had seen the hand of God in recent events in human history, and were open to a progressive unfolding of revelation. Besides, these early Adventists identified themselves with the "remnant" of Revelation 12:17, who "have the testimony of Jesus Christ"; and they understood this phrase to mean the "spirit of prophecy," on the basis of Revelation 19:10.

Two other doctrines that came to be distinctive of the Seventh-day Adventist Church had surfaced in the Millerite movement: the seventh-day Sabbath12 and "soul sleep." 13 A logical concomitant of the latter is the rejection of an ever-burning hell. Interest in the doctrine appears to have arisen from immediate existential concern regarding the fate of the wicked at the Second Coming, and revolved about the theodicy problem rather than from a rethinking of Platonic dualism.

The process by which the scattered Millerites were drawn together and consensus was achieved centered on a series of conferences conducted in New En gland and New York for "friends of the Sabbath," which commenced in 1848 and ran for several years. The sense of distinctiveness inherited from the Millerites was reified in the process of establishing corporate and doctrinal identity. It was further reinforced as the members came to identify in their studies with the remnant of Revelation 12:17 and felt called to proclaim the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14. A denomination was officially established in 1861, when the members in Michigan signed an agreement associating them selves together "as a church, taking the name Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ." 14

Themes in Adventist theology

Having briefly traced some aspects of the historical origin and doctrinal orientation of the coalescing Adventist Church, we are now in a position to give consideration to the theological issues relevant to this study. What follows is not an exhaustive survey of the Adventist doctrinal system, nor an apologetic defense. The concern is more to place Adventist thought in perspective and describe some of its functions.

The Adventist corpus of belief, broadly speaking, is a set of biblically endorsed doctrines and is perhaps better thought of as a coordinated system of fundamental beliefs than as a theological system formulated about a central organizing principle. 15 In this it is consistent with its Millerite origins and the anti-creedal stance of the Christianite members of the founding group.

In the early days of Adventism, several of its leaders, who formerly had been Christianites, held mildly antitrinitarian and semi-Arian views, which derived from an earlier Socinian influence. Apart from these early deviant views, Adventists have held orthodox views regarding the Godhead and what are generally considered to be the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. The cluster of doctrines relating to the Fall and sin and salvation constitute a thoroughgoing evangelical Arminianism. Universal atonement is affirmed, while determinism is rejected. A degree of free will is endorsed, but without the subtlety of the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. The balance maintained between divine sovereignty and human effort is Wesleyan. And it is a balance that endeavors to safeguard the divine initiative in salvation without undercutting human responsibility.

As for Christology, both sides are well-developed in Adventist thought and experience. Theologically, emphasis is placed on the divine Christ, in whom was life underived, and who thus could make atonement for human sin. In practical piety, however, there has been a tendency to emphasize the human Christ, who suffered, was tempted, and over came in the stream of human time and who is therefore both a perfect example and the compassionate Saviour of the soul in need. In this, too, Adventism is akin more to American Arminianism than to the Wesleyan doctrine. There lies in this tendency an invitation to legalism—not in formal doctrine, for there salvation by grace alone is clearly defined, but in Christian experience.

In addition to broad-based Arminianism, there are those doctrines that, from a general perspective, might be designated as distinctly Adventist. These form a mutually supportive cluster, and it is the complex of ideas/beliefs that emerge from this cluster that mark Adventism off from the wider evangelical movement and inform its raison d'etre. These doctrines are: conditional immortality, seventh-day Sabbatarianism, a premillennial historicist eschatology that emphasizes the imminence of the Second Coming, acceptance of the gift of prophecy in the ministry of Ellen White, and teachings about the priestly work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. These doctrines coalesce into a distinctive eschatological theme that lies at the heart of Adventism.

Scholars have come to regard the concept of an immortal soul as an imposition of Platonic dualism upon the more monistic Hebrew concept of personhood. The doctrine of conditional immortality is listed here because it was characteristically distinctive in an earlier age and because it has served to support other strands in Adventist thought that affirm the significance of life in the body.

Adventist understandings of the Sabbath as a day of holiness and worship owe much to Puritan Sabbatarianism. The temporal identity of the Sabbath as the seventh day and as the literal memo rial of Creation was learned from the Seventh Day Baptists. What was thus learned was submitted to the test of Scripture and refined and enlarged upon. The keeping of the Sabbath entered the Adventist movement as a practical expression of obedience to God and a personal experience of fellowship with God in holy time. It is both a celebration of Creation and a proleptic experience of the age to come. The Sabbath has an additional significance for Adventists, in that the "remnant" of Revelation 12:17 are portrayed as keeping the commandments of God. For Adventists, therefore, the seventh-day Sabbath is one of the marks of the remnant, a badge signifying fidelity to God.

Ellen Harmon White (1827-1915) occupied a unique position among the founders of the Adventist Church, in as much as she was accepted as a special messenger of the Lord. 16 She lived to a venerable age, wrote much, and exerted a powerful influence in the developing church, although she eschewed direct leadership offices. She and her parental family had been active members in the Methodist Church before they became convinced Millerites. Her subsequent experience and lifework were thoroughly grounded in an underlying Arminian evangelicalism, 17 and she did much through her writing and personal influence to stabilize the movement in that tradition.

Adventist doctrine does not derive from the Ellen White writings, 18 although she did much to confirm Adventists in the doctrinal way worked out by the pioneers; but much that is distinctively Adventist derives directly from her writings and influence. Included are: the Adventist life of Bible study and piety; the Christian values that have engendered a distinctive lifestyle; ideas regarding the relationship between physical health and spirituality, which have resulted in a healthful way of living and eventually in a worldwide network of medical institutions; and ideas regarding Christian education, which have led to the establishment of thousands of schools. These institutions, both medical and educational, have served to transmit and foster the belief, value, and lifestyle complex that informs what it means to be Adventist—and these institutions in turn have exerted a reciprocal influence on the church. In addition to all of this, Ellen White constantly encouraged the church to break out of its narrow circuit and establish institutions and outreach programs of many kinds.

As is evident from the above, Adventism is as much a way of life as a system of belief—a way of life that is informed by an Arminian piety in which the gospel has relevance for every dimension of life. The seriousness with which life in the body is regarded—the health-maintenance and educational enterprises relate to this realm of thought—is supported by the doctrine of conditional immortality. On this view, there can be no dualism between salvation of the soul and life in the body. Relevant also to this way of life is a sense of continuity between life on this earth and the next. Faithful discipleship is regarded not as earning a place in that realm, but as developing a fitness for it.

The most distinctive item in the Adventist doctrinal storehouse is its teaching about the work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. The priestly work of Christ is conceived of as involving two distinct ministries commencing at different times. Upon His ascension, Christ took upon Himself the office of priest to mediate the benefits of His atoning sacrifice, to forgive sins, to provide direct access to God, and to guide the church. In 1844, it is believed, a second phase began, one that added to these functions; and there commenced an examination of the records of all those who have been servants of God. By the close of this investigation, or "judgment," the company of the justified of all ages will be made up. Thus has opened up the way for the return of Christ and the gathering of the saints into the presence of God. 19

This doctrine couples an understanding of the priesthood of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary with concepts of the judgment and final justification of believers. On the one hand, this may be regarded as an extension of the traditional teaching regarding the threefold office of Christ (prophet, priest, and king), and, on the other, as one possible exposition of the biblical doctrine of the judgment of believers.20

Teachings about soul and body, Sabbath, sanctuary, eschatology, and divine guidance have meshed with classical Christian thought to form the nexus of belief and hope in which Adventist identity and mission coincide.

Adventism and evangelicalism

Theologically, Adventists and evangelicals have much in common, and also some differences. Both stress the importance of doctrine and are concerned with the truth about God and His dealings with human beings. In spite of many affinities, however, there are broad theological differences that derive from the central traditions informing each. The major theological differences be tween evangelicalism and Adventism lie in the distinctiveness that is grounded in the cluster of doctrines outlined earlier in this article. The question about the relationship between Adventism and evangelicalism on this score cannot be given a unilateral answer. Much depends on the attitude of both parties, the degree of latitude and distinctiveness with which each is comfortable, and the constraints that make for a united front. The message here surely is one of hope that differences will always be weighed in the light of much that is held in common and of a mutual commitment to the gospel.

1 Edwin S. Gaustad, ed., The Rise of Adventism:
Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century
America (New York: Harper and Row, 1975);
Gary Land, ed., Adventism in America: A History
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); Ronald L. Numbers
and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed:
Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nine
teenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press,
1987); Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of
Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism,
1800-1930 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,
1970); and David L. Rowe, Thunder and Trumpets:
Millerites and Dissenting Religion in Upstate
New York, 1800-1850 (Chico, Calif.: Schol
ars Press, 1985).

2 Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller:
Generally Known as a Lecturer on the
Prophecies, and the Second Coming of Christ (Boston:
Joshua V. Himes, 1853), pp. 76,77; quoted in part
in Rowe, p. 13.

3 William Miller, William Miller's Apology
and Defense (Boston: J. V. Himes, 1845), p. 5.

4 Nathan O. Hatch, "Millennialism and Popular
Religion in the Early Republic," in The Evangelical
Tradition in America, ed. Leonard l. Sweet
(Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 1984), p. 119.

5 Quoted in Francis D. Nichol, The Midnight
Cry (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1944), p. 120.

6 A loosely embodied federation of churches
who had splintered from the Baptists in New York
and New Hampshire in the early nineteenth century
over the issue of clerical authority, forming
the Christian Connexion in 1836. They tended to
be antiformalist, anti-Calvinistic, anticreedal, antitrinitarian,
and revivalist. Several Christianites
became prominent Millerite leaders, and several
became Seventh-day Adventists.

7 Everett N. Dick, "William Miller and the
Advent Crisis, 1831-1844" (unpublished
type script volume, 1932), p. 268; quoted in Land, p. 34.

8 Baptist Advocate, Sept. 14,1843, and July 4,
1843. Quoted in Rowe, p. 119.


9 Charles Fitch, "ComeOut of Her My People,"
The Second Advent of Christ, July 26, 1843, p. 2.
Quoted in Francis D. Nichol, The Midnight Cry
(Washington, D.C.: Review andHeraldPub. Assn.,
1944), p. 160.

10 Ellen White described this conviction and its
consequences thus: "We were firm in the belief
that the preaching of definite time was of God. It
was this that led men to search the Bible
diligently, discovering truths they had not before
perceived" (Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen
G. White [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 1915], p. 62).


11 Ellen G. White, Early Writings of Ellen G.
White (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1954), pp. 13-20; and LeRoy E. Froom, The
Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.:
Review andHeraldPub. Assn., 1954), Vol. IV, pp.
981, 982.

12 For further details, see C. Mervyn Maxwell,
"Joseph Bates and Seventh-day Adventist
Sabbath Theology," in The Sabbath in Scripture and
History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), pp. 352-363.

13 For further details, see Froom, pp. 805-808.

14 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 8,
1861; quoted in Richard Schwarz, Light Bearers
to the Remnant (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 96. At the time of the
organization of the General Conference of
Seventh-day Adventists in 1863, there were 3,500
members. Today there are about 770,000 members
in North America and 6 million worldwide.
In as much as the "believers' church, believers'
baptism" tradition is adhered to, the number of
adherents would be considerably higher than this.
There is an Adventist presence in 183 of the 215
nations recognized by the United States.


15 There are several studies that may be re
ferred to for a survey of Adventist doctrine. Three
books grew out of conversations between
evangelicals and Adventists: Seventh-day
Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Wash
ington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1957); Walter R. Martin, The Truth About
Seventh-day Adventism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1960); and Doctrinal Discussions (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., c. 1962).
The first is a quasi-official statement of Adventist
beliefs. So Much in Common (Geneva: World
Council of Churches, 1973 [documents of interest
in the conversations between the World Council
of Churches and the Seventh-day Adventist
Church]) grew out of conversations with the WCC,
1965-1971. An overview of many of the distinctive
themes in Adventist thought can be gained
from the papers read at a Bible conference in
1942: Our Firm Foundation (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1953). LeRoy E.
Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1971) is an
apologetic history of the development of doctrine in
Adventism. Richard Rice's The Reign of God: An
Introduction to Christian Theology From a
Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Berrien Springs,
Mich.: Andrews Univ. Press, 1985) is the most
systematic overview of Adventist thought to date.

16 For details of the life and work of Ellen G.
White, see Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981-
1986).

17 Almost all of Ellen White's writings betray
this Arminian orientation; it is overtly evident in
The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pa
cific Press Pub. Assn., 1898) and Steps to Christ
(New York: Revell, 1892). The latter, as the title
suggests, is thoroughly Arminian and borders on
the literature of the holiness movement.


18 For a fuller exposition of the relationship of
the E. G. White writings and Scripture, see Froom,
Movement of Destiny, pages 91-96 and 101-106,
and Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on
Doctrine, pages 89-104.

19 This teaching has evoked much attention,
both within and outside the church. No attempt
can be made here to give an exposition of the
doctrine or review the arguments raised against it
or in its defense. It is mentioned here because it is
basic to the Adventist identity. Froom, Prophetic
Faith, Vol. IX, pages 881, 877, describes the
genesis of the teaching. For further details, see
Edward Heppenstall, Our High Priest (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1972)
and Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on
Doctrine, pp. 341-445.

20 For instance, Berkhof writes: "The concept
of judgment is used [here] in one specific sense,
namely as the judgment of the works done by
believers in their earthly life; see Romans 14:10-
12; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10;
Galatians 6:8f. ... In Protestant theology, this
viewpoint is almost completely pushed aside by
the accent on grace" (Hendrikus Berkhof,
Christian Faith [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], p.
489). There appear to be positive adumbrations
regarding the judgment of believers and final
justification in Wesley's theology. See Harold
Linstrom, Wesley and Sanctification (Wilmore,
Ky.: Francis Asbury Publishing, c. 1980), pp.
205-218.

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Russell L. Staples, Ph.D., before retiring, was chairman of the Department of World Mission at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article is adapted from an essay in The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).

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