October 26, 2015: For the first time in the history of the United States of America, an Adventist has made it into the top echelon of candidates for president. Last week two polls in the State of Iowa, where the first presidential primary will be held, showed Dr. Ben Carson, the Adventist physician, ahead of Donald Trump, the colorful billionaire who has been the surprise front-runner for several months.
A poll conducted for the Des Moines Register and the Bloomberg news service had 28 percent of Republican Party voters supporting Carson compared to 19 percent for Trump. A poll taken earlier last week by Quinnipiac University also showed Carson overtaking Trump.
By the next day Trump was voicing questions about Carson’s Adventist faith. “I’m a Presbyterian,” the billionaire land developer told journalists in Florida, where he was campaigning over the weekend. “That’s down the middle of the road folks. … I mean, Seventh-day Adventists, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
In fact, Trump is not alone in such a view. In major surveys of the general public conducted for the Adventist denomination, about half of Americans say they have never heard of the Adventist faith and nine out of ten say they know nothing about it even if they recognize the name. The Adventist message has not connected with most Americans, leaving them uncertain about what it is.
Leading journals have in recent weeks published articles exploring the history of the Adventist movement and its slow acceptance by other Christians as a legitimate Protestant denomination. The Washington Post, the leading newspaper in the nation’s capital, published interviews with Dr. Paul McGraw, a history professor at the denomination’s Pacific Union College in California, and Kenneth Samples, a well-known Evangelical scholar and widely read author.
They sketched the early years of William Miller, who was actually a Baptist evangelist, and the leadership of Ellen and James White, who were the primary organizers of the Adventist movement. They admitted that for about 100 years, the Adventist faith was seen as a cult and not really Christian, until the dialog between Adventist and Evangelical scholars in the 1950s led to an acknowledgement by conservative Protestant leaders that although it has some different ideas on some topics, it is a Christian church.
McGraw is writing a biography of Le Roy Froom, who played a key role as an Adventist representatives in these meetings and the associated written materials. Samples worked as a young man for Walter Martin who led in these exchanges for the Evangelicals.
Ellen White helped the Adventist faith and gain acceptance, Samples told The Washington Post, by advocating basic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and salvation through faith in Jesus instead of legalistic rules. He also pointed out that in the 1980s there were renewed questions about White’s role when information surfaced about her use of published, human sources in much of her writing.
But in recent years the Adventist denomination has been recognized by the secular news media as the fastest-growing Christian faith in America and the most diverse. The writers concluded that being an Adventist does not appear to have hampered the careers of church members such as Representative Roscoe Bartlett who retired as the longest-serving member of Congress in 2012, Mayor John Street who served as leader of Philadelphia from 2000 through 2008, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and Dr. Raul Ruiz, who was unexpectedly elected a freshman member of congress in 2012.
Similar articles have been published recently in Newsweek and Mother Jones, a left-wing magazine. Although it is impossible for Adventists to control what is said and there some embarrassing aspects of the Adventist story that are likely to be mentioned, in general it appears that this attention is helping to make the Adventist message more widely known.
The Iowa caucuses will be held early next year and kick off a full year of campaigning and a series of primary elections that will winnow the large field of candidates. By late summer each of the two major parties will have picked a candidate for president and it will become clear if anyone attempts a third-party or independent run, something that has never succeeded in American history. It appears that Carson has strong enough support to continue at least through August if not into the final round in the fall. Commentary and background about the Adventist faith will likely continue in major news media through that time.