My friend and former editor of Ministry, Nikolaus Satelmajer, and I often jokingly discussed the importance (or nonimportance) of properly understanding history and its meaning for the present. Satelmajer, a historian, would chide me as I feigned my lack of interest in past events. Of course, I do know the significance of recalling the past, ever keeping in mind the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1
I apply these words to myself both personally and professionally, remembering that I (as do we all) have a history. I am proud of certain elements of my past, while there are other portions of it I would gladly erase, if that were possible. But this editorial does not feature me; rather, my comments highlight my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose one hundred and fiftieth anniversary we celebrate this year. My church was born in May 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan, United States.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church possesses a rich history that encompasses the founding of the church in the United States and then spreading to Europe, Australia, and around the globe. In more recent years, we have witnessed meteoric growth in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. This expansion now counts for more than 17 million adherents among its membership. Over the years, the church has experienced both organization and reorganization in an effort to more effectively and efficiently conduct its main business of proclaiming the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14; and it does so through its various institutions, such as churches, educational entities, medical establishments, and publishing houses. When many think of Adventism, they think of our distinctive and Bible-based teachings. Our understanding of Scripture was not conceived in a vacuum; rather, this was born from days and nights of serious and intense study and later developed through a series of Bible conferences. Wrestling with Scripture has produced the 28 fundamental beliefs that define the theological beliefs of Adventists.
Without a doubt, there are some less than stellar portions of Adventist Church history, and those troubling realities have been played out on the corporate level of the denomination. This should surprise no one since humans have always been, since the inception of the Adventist Church, involved in the governance and everyday life of this entity. But I have always maintained an appropriate pride in this church into which I was born, whose preachers and teachers molded me, and whose teachings have formed the basis of my theology and worldview. This pride grew when, as a teenager, I attended my first General Conference (GC) session in 1980 in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, United States. Although the worldwide membership was significantly smaller than it is today, I felt that I was a part of a beautiful worldwide body. And that excitement has only grown in light of the GC sessions I have attended since then and as a result of having the humbling honor of serving the world church in my current capacity.
In an effort to highlight the sesquicentennial of the Adventist Church, Ministry features, in this month’s lead article, an interview that my colleague Derek Morris and I conducted with the director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR), David Trim, and his capable team of associates. ASTR serves as the church’s repository of history; and taking a walk through their offices in the GC building inspires the observer with a sense of the significance of our church’s history. As you read this interview, I believe you will catch a glimpse of the beauty of our historical past in much the same way that I experienced a fascination with it when I first took a class in Adventist Church history during my undergraduate studies. More than that, I hope you will catch the vision that God has a missionary present and a glorious future for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its imperfections notwithstanding.
The words of Ellen G. White ring true: “During ages of spiritual darkness the church of God has been as a city set on a hill. From age to age, through successive generations, the pure doctrines of heaven have been unfolding within its borders. Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of His grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts.”2
1 George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, vol.1 of The Life of Reason (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 284.
2 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 12.