by Ronald Lawson, Ph.D. | 13 November 2018 |
The paper just uploaded to my website, which you are invited to read, was, like the previous paper, originally written at the request of the editor of an encyclopedia. In this case it was an article simply titled “Seventh-day Adventism” that was published in the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, published by Routledge in 2000 and edited by R. Landes.
What is the meaning of the word “millennialism,” and what are “millennial movements”? “Millennialism” means much the same as “apocalyptic,” a belief that the end of the world will occur soon. Thus, “millennial movements” are movements for whom such a hope is at the center of their belief systems. These terms obviously describe the Millerite Movement excellently. The word “Adventist” in the name “Seventh-day Adventist” similarly indicates that Adventists are—or at least were in the early 1860s—millenarians, or expecting the return of Jesus and the end of the world as they knew it very soon.
In this article I naturally began by describing the history of William Miller and his Millerite Movement. I then described the manner in which Adventists, and especially Ellen White, developed their “eschatology”—their beliefs about “last things”—until they reached their final form in The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. I examined the extent to which her views reflected her times, and to what extent Ellen White’s eschatology diverged from that of other millennialist groups at that time.
But Christ did not come as quickly as Adventists in that generation had expected–indeed, several generations have passed since then, and the prophesied events have not yet occurred. Eschatology is still at the center of some Adventist preaching, especially that of Ted Wilson and most evangelists. But shortly after Ellen White published the first edition of the Great Controversy, when it seemed that what had been put forward as the last expected event was about to occur in the USA—the passage of a “Sunday Law” by Congress—she chose not to welcome such an event with excitement, but to do everything possible to prevent the passage of such a law, and so “to extend the time” before Jesus would return. Moreover, since 1888 Adventists have done much to achieve upward mobility and put down roots in society. So where are most Adventists now?—are they still urgent millennialists? Is there tension between the public presentations of the Adventist message and the determination of Adventists to foster religious liberty and, in the USA, the separation of church and state? Have Adventists made major changes in their behavior that have rendered them world-affirming? What does the evidence point to here? Has Adventist eschatology become incongruent with the lives and concerns of most Adventists? To what extent do Adventists still expect that Jesus will return “soon”? Is that belief still “the blessed hope” of Adventist youth?
In 1994 Adventists celebrated the 150th anniversary of the “Great Disappointment.” Was that appropriate? and what did it signify? Will we celebrate the 175th anniversary on October 22 next year? What is the significance of the passage of so many years?
I set out to address all those questions in this article. Should I have been so honest in an encyclopedia article on Adventists that was aimed at the general public?
Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives and works in Asheville, NC.