Adventist approaches to the Second Coming

What Seventh-day Adventists may learn from their past

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Eschatology sells! Translated into more than fifty languages, Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth (1970) sold over 35,000,000 copies.

Part of Lindsey's appeal was his emphasis on the nearness of the Second Advent. Readers were excited when he predicted that the Secret Rapture would happen in 1981, followed by the seven-year tribulation and the visible return of Christ in 1988.

How did the author of the bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s arrive at such specific information? His key text was Matthew 24:34: "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Defining a biblical generation to be 40 years, Lindsey concluded that all these things would take place within 40 years after the founding of modern Israel in 1948.1

Edgar Whisenant, picking up on a portion of Lindsey's fame, provided his readers with 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 (between September 11-13 according to his calculations). While Whisenant's tract sold only a measly 2,000,000 copies, it did have a profound impact on many believers. Paul and Jan Crouch's "Praise the Lord" TV program, for example, ran prerecorded broadcasts on the Rapture during those fated days of September 11-13 rather than produce the program live for those dates. The message was aimed, of course, at those "left behind."2

Track 1: Eschatological excitement

Seventh-day Adventists have not lagged behind other evangelicals in yielding to the temptation to engender untoward eschatological excitement and date setting. In fact, two of the three founders of the movement were date-setters.

The influential Joseph Bates sparked time-setting excitement in 1850 by interpreting "the seven spots of blood on the Golden Altar and before the Mercy seat" as representing "the duration of the judicial proceedings on the living saints in the Most Holy." Because each spot supposedly stood for a year, Christ's heavenly ministration would last seven years. He would return in the clouds of heaven in October 1851 seven years after the Millerite disappointment.3

The early James White, for a time also held to an Adventism that "nourished" itself primarily on eschatological excitement and date setting. In September 1845, for instance, he firmly believed that Jesus would return in October 1845. At that point in his experience he argued that an Adventist couple who had announced their marriage had "denied their faith" in the Second Advent. Marriage was "a wile of the Devil. The firm brethren in Maine who are waiting for Christ to come have no fellowship with such a move." That view, he later claimed, was held by "most of our brethren," since "such a step seemed to contemplate years of life in this world."4

Although Bates and White later moderated their date-setting tendencies, that spirit would continue in Adventism, as seen in the 1893 General Conference session. At that session A. T. Jones and W. W. Prescott whipped the delegates into a fever of excitement, claiming that the end was imminent and that the conference would not close without an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The denomination, Prescott argued, had failed in not fully accepting Christ's righteousness at the pivotal 1888 General Conference session. Using Christ's illustration of the unfruitful tree, he pointed out that Jesus did not cut it down at the end of three years. In mercy, He gave it a fourth year. It had been four years since the 1888 session. The time of decision had arrived.5

Never in the history of post Millerite Adventism had there been such an air of expectancy, such an eschatological excitement, as at that session. The basic foundations of that excitement rested on three elements:

(1) agitation regarding Sunday legislation that the Adventists interpreted in the light of Revelation 12:17-14:12,6

(2) certain statements from Ellen White regarding the beginning of the Loud Cry and "the time of peril" being upon the church,7 and

(3) the full acceptance by Jones and Prescott of the prophetic ministry of Anna Rice. While the first two of those items deserved serious consideration and an adequate interpretation, the third was problematic through and through.

What would have happened if Jones had been allowed to use all the powerful "spiritual gifts" at his fingertips during the 1893 meetings? A few weeks earlier he had approved of Anna Rice as a prophet. In the midst of the General Conference Session, he had received a testimony from her that he desperately wanted to present to the assembled delegates. The General Conference president, however, had forbidden him to read it publicly. Jones, therefore, could only hint that great things were coming. "Thank the Lord," he told the delegates, "he is not going to be content much longer with one prophet! He will have more. He has done a wonderful work with one. And having done such a great work with one, what in the world will he do when he gets a lot of them."8 It must have grated upon Jones's impulsive nature to be restricted from using his most powerful tool to bring about the latter rain.

What about the 1893 experience? While some claim that the failure to accept Jones's excitement was one of the central failures of Adventism,9 what the denomination actually missed out on were the charismatic excesses that would eventually surface in the Anna Rice crisis of early 1894, brought on through Jones and Prescott's leadership. Those errant leaders had proved anew that it is always possible to stir up people to extremes by the manipulation of data related to the second advent of Jesus.

That tendency is far from dead. Twentieth-century Adventism has seen quite a multitude of contenders stirring up dubious excitement based on false interpretations of end-time prophecy. Some, for example, generated enthusiasm for the Second Coming in 1944 on the centennial of the Millerite disappointment. Others saw the date as 1964. After all, didn't the Bible say that the last days will be like the days of Noah. And didn't Noah preach for 120 years before the Flood arrived?

The last years of the twentieth century witnessed the circulation of theories related to the year 2000 and the beginning of the seventh millennium as the great heavenly sabbath. One of the most successful excitement generators of the 1990s was a book "demonstrating," on the basis of six completed millennia, that the Second Advent was just a few "prophetic seconds" away. Though rejected by an official church reading committee because of seriously problematic interpretations, the book was still printed and distributed by a major Adventist publishing house. Of course, it was a best seller. Its success in the Adventist market was not in spite of its problems but because of them. Many Adventists, in line with dispensationalists such as Hal Lindsey, still base their religious enthusiasm on excitement rather than solid biblical data.

The moral of the story should be clear by now. It is relatively easy to stir Adventists up eschatologically. Sensationalism is the "stuff" of such an achievement.

Track 2: Responsible living in the interim

The third founder of Adventism stood over against the early Joseph Bates and James White on the issue of date setting and placing an overemphasis on eschatological excitement. In 1851, for example, Ellen White rose to combat Bates's teaching that Christ would come that October.

"Dear Brethren," she penned, "the Lord has shown me that the message of the third angel [of Revelation 14:9-12] must go, and be proclaimed to the scattered children of the Lord, and that it should not be hung on time; for time never will be a test again. I saw that some were getting a false excitement arising from preaching time.... I saw that this message can stand on its own foundation, and that it needs not time to strengthen it....

"I saw that some were making every thing bend to the time of this next fall that is, making their calculations in reference to that time. I saw that this was wrong, for this reason: Instead of going to God daily to know their PRESENT duty, they look ahead, and make their calculations as though they knew the work would end this fall, without inquiring their duty of God daily."10

That was not the first time that Ellen White wrote against time setting. From as early as 1845 she had repeatedly warned that time was no longer a test and that every passing of a set date would weaken the faith of those who had put their hope in it. Her reward for taking such a position was to be accused of "being with the evil servant that said in his heart, 'My Lord delayeth His coming."11

It needs to be emphasized in Ellen White's 1851 statement cited above that she not only argued against the "false excitement" generated by date setting, but that she twice emphasized the present duty of believers over against excitement. Beyond that, she stressed that the preaching of the third angel's message of Revelation 14 implied a process rather than a point of time. Even her first vision in December 1844 hinted that the heavenly city might be a "great way off." 12

Ellen White moved not only Bates away from his date setting excitement and toward a more responsible minis try as he awaited the Second Advent, but she did the same for James White. After all, the anti-marriage young preacher of 1845 married her on August 30, 1846! The reason for his transformation helps one understand the ongoing tension between eschatological excitement and present duty. As the Whites saw it, "God had a work for both of us to do, and he saw that we could greatly assist each other in that work." 13

Thus between October 1845 and August 1846 the ground had shifted in the thinking of James and Ellen White. They had perceptively moved away from the immediacy perspective of the date setters to fully grasp the occupy-till-He-comes horn of the Adventist tension. Their marriage is an impressive symbol of that ground shift. They had a work to do. As a result, they took the first step toward the institutionalization of Adventism. If the end was not to come as soon as they first expected, they needed to take adequate steps to prepare them selves for service in the interim.

But they had not given up their Ad vent faith. Marriage for the Whites became a necessary means for the furtherance of the Advent message. On the other hand, their marriage also pointed to their acceptance of the continuity of time.

As it turned out, marriage was only the first step in the Whites' task of placing Adventism on a more permanent footing. Repeatedly they led out in creating stability in Adventist ranks so that the sounding of the third angel's message would be supported by an adequate institutional base. Yet at every step they had to combat those fixated on the immediacy pole of the Advent hope.

One example of this has to do with the establishment of Adventist schools. The immediacy wing of the church argued that such a move showed a lack of faith in the nearness of the Advent, be cause schooling implied that children would have time to grow up and use their education. James White replied that "a well-disciplined and informed mind can best receive and cherish the sublime truths of the Second Advent." His wife agreed. "Because time is short," she penned in her first publication on education, "we should work with diligence and double energy." 14 In their response to responsibly occupying the time until the eschaton, the Whites continued to maintain a sense of immediacy. With each step in the institutional development of Seventh-day Adventism they sought to put the denomination on a firmer base so that it could preach the nearness of this world to come.

Living in the tension between excitement and responsibility

Under the leadership of James and Ellen White the denomination developed a full array of denominational institutions aimed at engendering responsible action that would be carried forward until the Second Advent. Yet there is a sense in which failure was built into the very success of their actions. In short, in order to preserve the message of the imminent coming, institutions based on continuity and semi-permanence had to be erected. But in that very process subtle and not-so-subtle trans formations took place. As Michael Pearson puts it, "the survival of 'the remnant' has been ensured by the mechanism of institutionalization, but that which has survived appears to some to bear little resemblance to the original." Or, as American social historian Edwin Gaustad noted, "While expecting a kingdom of God from the heavens, [the Seventh-day Adventists] work diligently for one on the earth."15

Perhaps the temptation to move away from the immediacy wing of the Advent tension and toward the occupy-till-I-come end of the spectrum is best illustrated by John Harvey Kellogg, the developer of the influential Battle Creek Sanitarium and Adventism's premier "kingdom builder" at the beginning of the twentieth century. In order to get the funding and recognition that he needed, Kellogg progressively shifted from the immediacy emphasis of Adventism, eventually finding that emphasis both a bother and an embarrassment.16 The same temptation continues to be an ever-present possibility, especially for those Adventists whose focal point is social outreach.

Yet those Adventists who argue that social outreach is important to Adventism are not wrong.17 They are quite in harmony with the conclusion of Christ's great eschatological sermon of Matthew 24 and 25. Whereas 24:1-41 encouraged Christ's followers toward the expectancy end of the eschatological tension, 24:42-25:46 directed them to the waiting and occupying aspect of the tension. Matthew 24:48,25:5 and 25:19 specifically indicate that it would be a "long time" before the return. At the same time the entire passage provides five parables on how Christians should live during the interim between the Ascension and the Second Advent. Whereas the first three parables in the sequence place the emphasis on watching (24:42- 25:13), and the fourth (the talents) emphasizes working while watching (25:14-30), the final one (the sheep and the goats, 25:31-46) emphasizes the social concern and the nature of the working that will be found in Christ's followers as they await His return. Thus the "Adventist" tension is built into the very structure of the Olivet Discourse.18

The temptation for Adventists in the future will be the same as for those in the past; that is, to gravitate toward either the immediacy end of the spectrum or the occupying end. That reality has continued to cause problems in the denomination. While those at one pole of the tension get so concerned with their social involvement that they are tempted to spiritualize their interpretation of the Second Advent and at times sound almost post-millennial, those at the other pole have a "faith" that is nurtured upon periodic excitement but largely fails in the daily task of living "Christianly" in the interim.

The ideal, of course, is to live responsibly in the interim. John Wesley was once asked how he would spend the day if he knew it was his last. He replied that he would just go through with the pro gram of preaching, visiting, and caring that he already had on his agenda for the day. In the long run, though this notion might not sell as many books as does Hal Lindsey, it is the only way for Christians to live as they await the Advent.

1. Robert G. Clouse, Robert N. Hosack, and Richard V. Pierard, The New Millennium Manual: A Once and Future Guide (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1999), 127,128.

2. Ibid., 125.

3. Joseph Bates, An Explanation of the Typical and Anti-typical Sanctuary, by the Scriptures (New Bedford, Mass.: Benjamin Lindsey, 1850), 10,11.

4. James White, "Watchman, What of the Night?" The Day-Star, Sept. 20,1845,25,26; idem, "Letter to Bro. Jacobs," The Day-Star, Oct. 11, 1845, 47; [James White and Ellen G. White], Life Sketches: Ancestry, Early Life, Christian Experience and Extensive Labors, of Elder James White, and His Wife, Mrs. Ellen G. White (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1888), 126.

5. W. W. Prescott, General Conference Daily Bulletin, 1893,105; cf. 39, 65, 384, 386, 504).

6. For more on the contemporary Sunday law crisis, see George R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A. T. Jones (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1987), 75-88.

7. Ellen G. White, "The Perils and Privileges of the Last Days," Review and Herald, Nov. 22, 1892. 722; Ellen G. White to William Ings, Jan. 9, 1893.

8. S.N.Haskell to E.G.White, Jan.4,189[3]; A. C. Rice to A. T. Jones, Feb. 21, 1893; C. McReynolds to L. T. Nicola, Mar. 22, 1894; A. T. Jones, General Conference Daily Bulletin, 1893, 153. For a fuller discussion of the Anna Rice crisis see Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy, 89-116; idem, A User-Friendly Guide to the 1888 Message (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1998), 125-132.

9 Robert J. Wieland, "Letters," Ministry, June 1988, 2; Robert J. Wieland and Donald K. Short, 1888 Re-examined, rev. ed. (n.p.: 1888 Message Study Committee, 1987), 91.

10 Ellen G. White, "Dear Brethren" Review and Herald Extra, July 21, 1851, [4]; italics supplied.

11 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1945), 22.

12 Ibid., 14,15.

13 [J. White and E. G. White], Life Sketches (1888 ed.), 126, 238.

14 W. H. Ball and James White, "Questions and Answers," Review and Herald, Dec. 23,1862,
29; Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3,159.

15 Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 26; Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 115.

16 For more on Kellogg's approach, see Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M.D. (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Assn., 1970); George R. Knight, The Fat Lady and the Kingdom: Adventist Mission Confronts the Challenges of Institutionalism and Secularization (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1995), 152-163.

17 See, for example, Zdravko Plantak, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

18. For a fuller discussion on the tension in Matthew 24 and 25, see George R. Knight, Matthew: The Gospel of the Kingdom (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1994), 234-250.

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June/July 2000

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