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Seeking a Sanctuary, Second Edition: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream

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The completely revised second edition further explores one of the most successful of America’s indigenous religious groups. Despite this, the Adventist church has remained largely invisible. Seeking a Sanctuary casts light on this marginal religion through its socio-historical context and discusses several Adventist figures that shaped the perception of this Christian sect.

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Introduction: Public Images

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IN A SURVEY conducted in North America in 2003, 44 percent of those questioned said that they had not heard of Seventh-day Adventism. Of those who had, two-thirds were able to provide further information. Some were aware that Adventism was “a religion,” and many knew that Saturday was observed as the Sabbath. Fifteen percent confused Adventists either with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Apart from the Saturday Sabbath, popular awareness of the church’s beliefs and practices was vague. One in fifteen knew of an Adventist hospital in their locality, but among those who muddled Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the church was believed to oppose blood transfusions. Altogether, a third of respondents viewed Adventism positively, while a fifth perceived it negatively.1

This is not the profile of a religious group that has captured the popular imagination. Indeed, younger people and some ethnic minorities are even less likely to have heard of the church. Sixty-two percent of adults born after 1964 know nothing of Seventh-day Adventism, as is the case with 38 percent of Caucasians as a whole, 43 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 75 percent of Asians.2 Such findings among the young and among rising racial groups indicate that ignorance of the church may actually be growing as time passes. The 44 percent average in 2003 was slightly down from the 47 percent who had not heard of the denomination in 1994, but it was a marked increase from the 30–35 percent who professed ignorance of Adventism in similar polls conducted in the 1970s and 1980s.3

 

1. Authority

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BORN IN 1827, the daughter of a hatter from Gorham, Maine, Ellen Gould Harmon had an uneventful childhood. At the age of nine, however, she was accidentally hit on the head by a stone, and her injuries prevented further formal education. She first heard about the imminent end of the world at twelve, when her parents took her to a meeting that William Miller was holding in her neighborhood. She waited until she was fifteen before fully committing herself to his movement, but when she did, she was expelled from the Methodist Church, into which she had been born, along with other members of her family.1

Her first vision occurred when she was still only seventeen, two months after the débâcle of October 22, 1844. This was a comforting revelation in which she saw that the saints would ascend from the earth to the Holy City after all. She continued to have such visions until 1878, although the frequency declined markedly in the 1860s, and she probably did not have more than about two hundred altogether. In 1846 she married James White, formerly a minister of the Christian Connection and a fellow disappointed Millerite.2 Together they worked for the Seventh-day Adventist denomination until James’s death in 1881. After this, Willie, one of Ellen White’s two surviving sons, became her closest confidant. She spent most of her life in the northern United States, but she visited Europe from 1885 to 1887 and lived in Australia between 1891 and 1900. On her return to America she settled near St. Helena, California, where she died in 1915. She never accepted formal office, thereby establishing a distinction between her charismatic role and the bureaucracy of the church. But throughout her long career, Ellen White wrote and spoke to Adventist audiences, who received her in the belief that she was the “spirit of prophecy” identified in the book of Revelation.3

 

2. Identity

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WILLIAM MILLER HAD NO desire to found a church; he hoped that his message would be received by members of all denominations. Millerite publications were circulated widely, but Millerite lecturers were drawn predominantly from Methodist or Baptist backgrounds.1 Although Miller’s teaching focused on a single theme that transcended sectarian differences, it was inevitable that those who believed the Second Advent to be only a few years distant felt more solidarity with fellow Millerites than with their coreligionists. Some Millerites freed themselves of their previous affiliations; others, like the Harmon family, were expelled from the churches they were attending.2 A gulf emerged between the Millerites and the Protestant denominations from which they were drawn.

In 1843 the Millerite leader Charles Fitch published a sermon, “Come Out of Her, My People,” in which he concluded that “[Babylon] is everything that rises in opposition to the personal reign of Christ on David’s throne, and to the revealed time for his appearing: and here we do find the professed Christian world, Catholic and Protestant, on the side of Antichrist.”3 This application of the concept of Babylon—traditionally used by Protestants for the Roman Catholic Church—to non-Millerite Protestantism was inspired by the experience of rejection. As Fitch commented: “Speak to them about the coming of Christ . . . and they show themselves sufficiently disgusted to spit on your face. Ask them to read anything on the subject and they put on every possible expression of scorn.”4 Those who believed Miller’s predictions should, Fitch argued, separate themselves from other religious groups: “Just remember then what must be the consequence of refusing to receive the truth and abide by it. Babylon must be destroyed and you with it.”5 His final appeal was direct: “Come out of Babylon or perish.”6

 

3. The End of the World

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THE ADVENTIST BELIEF that the earth is in its last days comes largely from a series of prophecies in the book of Daniel. Originally interpreted by the Millerites, the starting point was Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in Daniel 2, which was thought to depict the global empires to appear on the world’s stage. The head was Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom of Babylon; the upper body represented Medo-Persia; the midriff, ancient Greece; the legs, the Roman empire; and the iron and clay toes, the nations of present-day Europe, before the stone representing Christ’s kingdom symbolically crushed the colossus and became the “great mountain” that took over the earth. The four beasts of Daniel 7 were believed to describe the same four empires, with the ten horns on the fourth beast symbolizing Europe, and the little horn that “came up among them,” the papacy at the start of its final phase.1

The most important prophecy, however, was the prediction in Daniel 8 which declared that at the end of 2,300 days the sanctuary would be “cleansed.”2 According to Miller, this time span began in 457 BC, the year when Artaxerxes, the Persian king, issued a decree to rebuild Jerusalem. It ended in 1843–1844 when the Second Advent would purify the sanctuary, which Miller took to be the earth. The expositor based his arithmetic on the convention that one day stands for one year in a time prophecy of this kind.3 It was simply by adding 2,300 years to 457 BC that he came up with his nineteenth-century dates for the Second Coming, when Christ would come “in the clouds of heaven, with all his saints and angels.”4 But this was only the start of a complex series of events.

 

4. The Divine Realm

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IT TOOK THE EARLY Christian church almost four centuries to reach agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. During that time, there was fierce controversy about the nature of the three divine persons, particularly the relationship between the Father and the Son. Some, following the fourth-century priest Arius, believed the Son to be the first created being, while others taught that Father and Son were of the same substance and co-eternal. The latter view prevailed and has subsequently been accepted by almost all Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.

Today, Seventh-day Adventists are categorical in their affirmation of this traditional Christian teaching. The second of their current fundamental beliefs asserts that “there is one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons.” The nature of God is further clarified as being “immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present.”1 The issue appears to be above discussion. In the first edition of his textbook The Reign of God, published in 1985, the Adventist theologian Richard Rice argued that “a truly Christian doctrine of God is unavoidably trinitarian.”2 And yet in the nineteenth century, Adventists took the opposite view. In the words of one church historian, they were “about as uniform in opposing Trinitarianism as they were in advocating belief in the Second Coming.”3 But even then, Adventists only knew what they did not believe; some were Arians, denying the eternity of the Son, while others were close to orthodoxy.

 

5. The Human Condition

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THE BOOK Questions on Doctrine published the answers that church leaders gave to the Baptist Walter Martin and the Presbyterian Donald Barnhouse, who posed questions on Adventist beliefs between 1955 and 1956. In an interim report of the discussions that appeared in 1956, Martin considered four doctrines that Adventists were presumed to hold:

1. The atonement of Christ was not completed on the cross.

2. Salvation is the result of grace plus the works of the law.

3. The Lord Jesus Christ was a created being, not from all eternity.

4. Christ partook of man’s sinful fallen nature at the incarnation.1

He concluded that “to charge the majority of Adventists today with holding these heretical views is unfair, inaccurate, and decidedly unchristian!2 On the question of the eternity of Christ, Martin’s assessment was probably accurate. Although there was some resistance to Trinitarianism in the 1940s, and a minor anti-Trinitarian revival in the 1990s, most Adventists did not return to the Arianism of their forebears. But on the other three topics, Martin’s judgment was premature. From the publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957 to the end of the century, the atonement, the incarnation, and the nature of salvation were the subject of constant debate within the Adventist church.

 

6. The Development of Adventist Theology

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ADVENTISMS CONCORD WITH evangelicalism did not just cause problems inside the denomination. It also provoked conflicting responses from major evangelical authors of the day. Walter Martin hoped that “evangelical Christianity as a whole will extend the hand of fellowship to a group of sincere, earnest fellow Christians.”1 But Norman Douty disagreed, arguing that “as long as Adventism remains Adventism it must be repudiated.”2 Anthony Hoekema was more ingenuous, pleading with his “friends, the Adventists, to repudiate the cultic features and unscriptural doctrines which mar Seventh-day Adventism.”3 Other comments about the sectarian character of Adventist beliefs were carried by evangelical journals like The Sunday School Times and The King’s Business.4

The debate reflected, in part, a wider trend occurring in the movement at the time. In the 1950s, self-styled evangelicals were concerned to differentiate themselves from other Protestants. But as evangelicalism itself became more successful and moved closer to, and perhaps even became, the mainstream, it also became less concerned with defining its own boundaries. The acceptance of Adventism within the evangelical family may have had as much to do with changes in the latter as the former. As evangelicalism grew less sectarian, Seventh-day Adventism began to look more evangelical, and investigators like Martin came to the place where they could conclude that “Adventists are a truly Christian group.”5

 

7. The Structure of Society

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QUITE APART FROM its distinctive theology, Adventism is a remarkable social phenomenon. In 2001 the church in America operated 886 primary schools, 110 secondary schools offering a complete secondary education, eight colleges, five universities, and one home study-institute. This amounts to the largest Protestant school system in the United States and is second only to the educational program of the Roman Catholic Church. The denomination’s nationwide network of health care institutions consists of 62 hospitals, a total of 12,311 beds, and admits more than half a million patients each year. In addition, the church runs a chain of 37 nursing homes and retirement centers that provide a further 4,251 beds and has an average total residency of about 3,900 people at any one time.1

Two church publishing houses, the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Maryland, and the Pacific Press Publishing Association in Idaho, both publish and print Adventist books that include all Ellen White’s volumes; works on Adventist doctrine, history, culture, and worship; general titles on personal spirituality, self-help, and relationships; fiction for adults and children; and tracts and booklets for the public. The two houses also put out more than a hundred periodicals covering a wide variety of official, professional, and minority interests.2 The most important are the Review, the weekly organ of Seventh-day Adventism; Signs of the Times, Message, and El Centinela, the denomination’s principal evangelistic magazines, the latter two aimed at African Americans and Hispanics; Ministry magazine, the journal of Adventism’s clergy; Vibrant Life, a health periodical; and Insight (formerly the Youth’s Instructor), the paper for the church’s young people. The church’s large literary output is supported by a record label, Chapel Music, which distributes the work of more than a hundred Adventist musicians; the thirty-two stations that comprise the Adventist Radio Broadcaster’s Association; and the transmissions of the Adventist Media Center in California. Several television programs, primarily of an evangelistic nature, are produced there: Faith for Today, It Is Written, the African American Breath of Life, and Lifestyle Magazine. From the center, the church also broadcasts the long-established radio program, the Voice of Prophecy, and a recently created show, LifeTalk Radio.3

 

8. The Patterns of Growth

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AN APPRECIATION OF Adventism’s relationship to the United States helps explain the church’s development as a social system. But it does more than inform an understanding of the denomination’s vast institutional structure, hierarchical government, and collectivist ethic; it also provides insights into the nature of the denomination’s missionary appeal and rapid expansion. But before this phenomenon is examined in detail, it is useful to review the general trajectory of Adventist growth, both in America and overseas.

The preaching of William Miller and his associates was intended to warn as many people as possible of the impending Second Advent. Since Miller’s active ministry began only twelve years before the date of the anticipated Judgment, there was obviously little hope that every individual could be warned before the event. Although the Millerites were zealous evangelists and the movement grew to number approximately 50,000, the shortage of time meant that their missionary activity was understood as a symbolic “witness to all nations” rather than an attempt at world evangelism.1 After the humiliation on October 22, 1844, the movement fragmented. Its Sabbatarian wing was a small minority, and in 1849 probably numbered less than 100.2 Most of these people were located in the area between New Hampshire, where the practice of Sabbath-keeping seems to have emerged, and Maine and Connecticut, where James and Ellen White founded the church’s initial publishing operations. But there were already a few believers outside this northeastern corner of the republic. In Michigan, a handful of former Millerites had accepted Adventist teachings after a visit by Joseph Bates, Adventism’s first evangelist.3 There was, however, no real growth in the period 1844 to 1851, not only because the public was unlikely to sympathize with a group whose predictions had so recently been discredited, but also because the Great Disappointment had “terminated all mission efforts of Adventists because of their general understanding that the door of mercy was closed for humanity.”4

 

9. The Science of Happiness

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THE OBJECT OF Adventist evangelistic endeavor is to convert people to the beliefs of the church. But important as these doctrines are, Adventist evangelism is equally concerned to effect a change in the lifestyle of the prospective convert. As well as accepting the Sabbath or being able to identify the various beasts of the Apocalypse, joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church means embarking on a well-worn road to personal well-being and, it is hoped, to eternal happiness.

To this end, the denomination has sought to guide its members’ behavior in three important areas of human experience: health, family life, and recreation. In 1987 a new set of guidelines was issued on these subjects in Beyond Baptism: What the New Believer Should Know About the Adventist Lifestyle. The author, Fannie L. Houck, informed readers that “many Adventists choose to be vegetarians” and that even if they do not, they try to eat food that is “simple, wholesome, and natural.”1 On the family, she reminded new converts that they were uniting with a people who “believe God intended marriage to be a lifelong union, with both partners committed to making the home a ‘little heaven upon the earth.’”2 Parenthood, in her words, carried “weighty obligations of child care and disciplining,” and involved “nurturing the youth, guiding their character development, and training them for Christian service.”3 On recreation, Houck suggested the new member should from now on engage only in activities that “will refresh and renew the mind and body” or that “provide a change of pace, relaxation, and perhaps a challenge.”4

 

10. The Politics of Liberty

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IF THE ADVENTIST PURSUIT of happiness represented an alternative understanding of one of the key tenets of the Declaration of Independence, it also provided a hint as to the church’s relationship to the fundamental principles of the American state. By paying great attention to individual happiness, Adventism remained close to the ideal of the nation’s founders. However, it believed that the key to contentment was the practice of health reform. The church accepted the American right to happiness but interpreted it in a much more restrictive way than those who framed the Declaration of Independence.

It is in relation to liberty, the second of the inalienable rights enshrined in the declaration, however, that Adventists have most clearly revealed the subtle difference between themselves and the founders of the nation. As with the pursuit of happiness, Adventists accepted this basic American principle. But they redefined the meaning of liberty exclusively in terms of religious liberty. As a consequence, the church became unusually interested in the Antifederalist addendum to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and particularly in its two First Amendment clauses that were designed to prevent America ever becoming a religious tyranny: “Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”1 Although in recent years the denomination has invoked the more internationalist language of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to defend its position, in its native land it is the First Amendment the church uses to protect its rights, which as currently asserted are: “the freedom to meet for instruction and worship, to worship on the seventh day of the week . . . to disseminate religious views by public preaching, or through the media,” and “to defend the religious liberty of all people, including those with whom we may disagree.”2

 

11. The Ethics of Schism

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ENDLESS CAMPAIGNING ON religious liberty is one way to reduce the tension caused by the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. But it is not the only strategy. The simplest way is to give up the day itself. By doing that, the strains caused by being out of step with the rest of society disappear and individuals can live easier, less separated lives. This was the attitude adopted by the defector T. M. Preble, who in 1864 explained in an Advent Christian paper why he could no longer carry the “yoke” of seventh-day Sabbath-keeping.1

Quoting Paul, he described the Saturday Sabbath as a “middle wall of partition” that needlessly divided Christians.2 It might have served a purpose in separating Jews from Gentiles, but in an age when Sunday was the settled day of worship, he believed that all God’s followers ought to “mind the same thing and walk by the same rule.” But “those who choose to follow the . . . OLD ‘DEAD SCHOOL-MASTER,’” he said, “will probably teach the seventh-day Sabbath.”3His argument drew a point-by-point rebuttal from Uriah Smith, but the episode hurt the growing Adventist body because twenty years earlier the same Preble, in his Tract Showing That the Seventh Day Should Be Observed as the Sabbath, was instrumental in bringing the doctrine to the church in the first place.4 Preble was not the first Adventist to renounce his former views, but his apostasy shows that those who have separated from the denomination often did so on the question of time and its relationship to space.

 

12. The Art of Expression

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AMONG THE EARLY ADVENTISTS, the preferred mode of religious expression was shouting. In the 1840s they followed the practice of the “Shouting” Methodists, from whose ranks some of them were drawn, and uttered cries of spiritual exaltation. “Glory! Glory! Glory!” the phrase Ellen White repeated on falling into vision, was typical. Speaking in tongues was an unusual but not unknown manifestation of the same enthusiasm. In general, however, Adventists shouted out short, unconnected phrases of their own language, the vigor of enunciation making up for whatever was lacking in the sophistication of the utterance.1

At a contemporary white Adventist service, there is unlikely to be any comparable display of emotion. The congregation may clap in appreciation at various points in the proceedings or laugh at a joke. In black and Hispanic churches, there is more spontaneity: the words of the preacher may be affirmed with a chorus of “Amen,” and individual worshippers may call out “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah.” In “celebration” Adventist congregations, which imported Pentecostal-type practices in the 1980s and 1990s, there is even more zeal. Attendees may kneel, stand, clap, call out, or sway hands, as the spirit moves them.2 Despite these divergences, Adventist worship is generally restrained and carefully organized, and bears no resemblance to the unstructured, ecstasy-inducing practices of the church’s earliest years. It would be misleading to account for the change from an enthusiastic mode of expression to a more regulated approach solely in terms of the declining fervor and increasing respectability of the church’s membership. Adventist religious emotions, like those elsewhere, have been susceptible to various forms of expression: they have burst forth seemingly uncontrolled; they have been channeled into evangelistic endeavor; they have been clothed in the languages of art and music; and they have been repressed in mute but telling gestures of denial. The history of Adventist self-expression is not just the familiar tale of excitement melting into indifference; it is also a story of transformation and renewal in which the peculiarity of the Adventist experience is creatively reinterpreted and re-expressed by succeeding generations.

 

13. Adventism and America

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IN ADVENTIST ART, a dominant motif is the incongruous presence of an alien figure in familiar surroundings. The viewer realizes that the alien is displaced in time, but his interlocutors do not. The objects of everyday life are transmuted by the gaze of the stranger, who, in turn, is domesticated by the homeliness of his setting. The reassuring becomes threatening, and the startling becomes mundane. It is a vision of the world precisely aligned with Adventist eschatology in which today’s newspaper is a fulfillment of yesterday’s prophecy, and future salvation is an imminent reality. It accurately reflects a perspective from which American society seems foreign and Adventism is Americanized.

In early Adventist apocalyptic, the church was placed in opposition to the American nation. In the nineteenth century, many Americans believed that their country would be the vehicle through which a millennium would be realized on earth. Adventists came to believe that there would be no earthly millennium and that America would become an agent of the antichrist before its destruction at the Second Coming. Those who survived the final cataclysm would be identified by their adherence to the seventh-day Sabbath; those who gave allegiance to the American Sunday would perish. In this scenario, the division between the saved and the damned hinges on which day of the weekly cycle is considered more important. The essential criterion of salvation is a correct apprehension of temporal sequence. Time, the least visible of divisions, is the basis for an irreversible separation of good and evil. Access to eternity is gained through synchronizing weekly routines with those of heaven and enduring the difficulties created by being out of synchronization with the rest of the world.

 

14. Gender

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SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISM is the largest Christian denomination to have been founded by a woman. It has also attracted many more women than men, and although there is a preponderance of women in most Christian denominations, the Adventist ratio of 3 to 2 is unusually high.1 The church thus offers unique opportunities to researchers interested in female religious experience and in women’s roles in social movements. Such questions fall outside the scope of this book, but the analysis of the church’s relationship with America provides some indication of the ways in which Adventism exemplifies female responses to a patriarchal social order.

Within patriarchy, women are excluded from the centers of power and are confined to the margins of society. They are denied the possibility of self-definition, save in opposition to, or in imitation of, dominant male groups. Their ability to control and occupy space is limited by the boundaries established by men.2 These characteristics apply to Adventists as well as to other peripheral social groups. What is particularly interesting about Adventism is that it represents a feminine response to these conditions—feminine, that is, within the norms of modern Western culture. Adventists, like “feminine” women, have made virtues out of the limitations imposed on them by their social subordination. They have managed to coexist with their potential persecutors by defining themselves in the mirror image of the dominant ideology. At no stage have they attempted to confront the state. They have, rather, remained quiet and malleable, not seeking to draw attention to themselves lest this provoke a hostile reaction.

 

15. Race

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WITHIN AMERICAN ADVENTISM, almost all major ethnic groups are now well represented. But the fact that the demographic profile of Adventism broadly reflects that of American society is also a measure of the church’s distance from the standard patterns of American denominationalism. The United States may be a melting pot, but its churches are not. In many cases, ethnic identity and religious affiliation are closely linked. The English and Scots are still dominant among the Episcopalians and Presbyterians; Germans and Scandinavians among the Lutherans, and so on. Evangelically orientated groups like Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals have made headway in attracting converts from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but perhaps no American denomination can match Adventism’s degree of inclusivity. Its members can claim ancestry in almost all the countries from which the American population is drawn, with only Poles, Italians, and East Europeans being significantly underrepresented.1

 

16. Ministry

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DISHARMONY AMONG ADVENTISTS can, of course, be occasioned by many issues in addition to that of race. The smooth running of any congregation is often upset by the disruptive behavior of a church member or by disagreements over theology or worship styles. On these and other issues, surveys have found that Adventist churches have a higher level of conflict than the congregations of other religious groups.1 Adventist leaders generally try to maintain unity and order even when they need to disfellowship members. Their agents in this difficult task are the ordained ministers of the church. They are expected to lead exemplary lives while at the same time giving priority to their pastoral responsibilities. This chapter examines the tensions inherent in the position of those called upon both to be model individuals and to be committed to sustaining the efficiency of a complex social organization.

The Adventist church had ministers from its earliest days, largely due to its distinctive origins. The Millerites had converted many established clerics, some of whom later became Sabbatarians. Joseph Bates and James White had both been ministers in the Christian Connection, so the church’s leadership always accepted the need for ordination. But being ordained in the Christian Connection was essentially a license to preach, and neither Bates nor White had ever been the pastor of an established congregation. The first who had was Frederick Wheeler, who was an ordained clergyman of the Methodist Episcopal Church when he became impressed with Millerite views around 1842. Two years later, he accepted the Sabbath and thereafter led what was effectively the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Washington, New Hampshire.

 

17. Medicine

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IT WAS NOT ANTICIPATED that the church’s ministers and doctors would come to represent alternative interpretations of the Adventist tradition. The two groups were to work in tandem. Like harnessed horses, they were to pull the Adventist carriage at the same speed, along the same route. Perhaps for a time they did. Until the 1890s, Ellen White did not find it necessary to discuss the relative status of ministers and doctors. They were both equally vital in disseminating the church’s message, which concerned, on the one hand, a distinctive theology, and on the other, an unusual emphasis on health. But ever since Dr. Kellogg had taken over the Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1876, he had slowly been redefining the nature of Adventism. He presented a reinterpretation that challenged both the church’s internal management and the way which Adventism related to American society. Ellen White’s implicit rebuke of Kellogg was not simply an attempt to put the Adventist doctor in his place. It can also be seen as an effort to stem a form of Adventism that, by the 1890s, threatened to upset the balance of the church’s relationship with the republic.

 

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