by Ronald Lawson, Ph.D.  |  06 November 2018  |

During the period from about 1995 through 2007, several American publishers prepared and published encyclopedias that focused on various aspects of religion. Libraries were an important portion of the market that they had in mind when they considered marketing these volumes. Editors were appointed who were familiar with the field, who chose what topics should be covered and enlisted scholars with specialized skills in those areas to write the various articles. Many of these editors chose to include articles on Seventh-day Adventism, and because I had published a goodly number of papers addressing various aspects of Adventism, several of them asked me to write articles for them.

We have just uploaded the first of these articles to my website, www.RonaldLawson.net. This is an article on Seventh-day Adventism that was published in the Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism in 2001. The publisher was Routledge, and the editor of the volume was Brenda Brasher. I was commissioned to explore to what extent the Adventist church is or has been fundamentalist.

I chose to explore the topic primarily from a historical perspective. I pointed out that early Adventism was led mostly by earnest laypersons, together with Ellen White, the Adventist prophet. These were not highly educated, and they had little knowledge of the biblical languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. They were therefore very dependent on what we know as the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, which was the dominant translation throughout that period. They tended to read that version literally, adopting a proof-text method of biblical exploration and interpretation. As a result, some of the key Adventist teachings are heavily dependent on the particular wording adopted in that translation, and do not work with other translations. The most striking example of this is the KJV translation of Daniel 8:14, which was the basis of William Miller’s belief that Christ would return in 1844, and also of what was called the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment, later known more often as the Pre-advent Judgment, which became the Adventist explanation of the “Great Disappointment,” the failure of Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. I have checked the translation of that verse in every translation I have come in contact with, and found that they are almost all striking in their difference from the KJV. Consequently, many Adventists insist on regarding the KJV as the only acceptable version of the Bible in spite of the weakness of the sources available to its translators before it was published in 1611.

Nevertheless, early Adventists, and especially Ellen White, did not adopt a hermeneutic that was as conservative as those who would later be called Fundamentalists: the prophet held that although the Scriptures were inspired by God, they were not dictated by Him to the human authors. However, after the death of Ellen White in 1915, just as the fundamentalist movement rose to prominence in the USA, Adventists moved closer to their hermeneutic because of their disquiet with Darwinism and the threat they saw it as posing to the Sabbath, the belief and practice that set them apart from almost all other Christians: they held, after all, that the seventh-day Sabbath was the memorial of God’s creation of the earth and its inhabitants in the space of just six days.

Adventism’s embrace of much of fundamentalism during the 1920s followed closely upon the accreditation of their medical school in California, and the realization that if it was to accept the graduates of the other Adventist colleges located in North America that they too would have to pursue accreditation, which meant that their professors would be obliged to pursue doctorates at non-Adventist graduate schools. This process allowed Adventist students to pursue careers that were no longer limited to church employment, and thus to experience considerable upward mobility. It also resulted in a much better educated faculty at Adventist educational institutions, including those who taught religion courses, and a general yearning among Adventist leaders and members in the USA in particular for greater respect from the political and religious institutions and indeed from society in general. This was best exemplified by the extent to which church leaders chose to cooperate with Evangelical researchers and alter some long-held positions in order to persuade them that Adventists were fellow Evangelical Christians rather than members of a “cult.”

These trends gradually led to a modification of what was taught in the Adventist seminary and religion departments, especially in the USA and other countries of the developed world, concerning hermeneutics. However, what was taught to clergy in training in the developing world was much more conservative. This was especially well illustrated in the debates that preceded votes on whether Adventists would permit the ordination of women during sessions of the General Conference in 1990 and 1995: it became clear that the biblical scholars in the developed world had largely chosen a more “critical” approach to biblical interpretation, while their colleagues in the colleges of the developing world continued to rely much more on proof-texting and other traditional approaches.

In making such points in the encyclopedia article published in 2001, I saw a more open scholarship among Adventist biblical scholars, especially those located at the Adventist seminary that is linked to Andrews University in Michigan, than I would see now. The evolution of the understanding of hermeneutics by Adventist biblical scholars that I described then was largely a result of those scholars receiving their graduate education at the most highly regarded universities and seminaries in the USA, and the impact of upward mobility on the leaders and members of the Adventist Church, especially in the USA up until that time. However, once the Adventist seminary began to issue its own doctorates in the 1990s and to hire its own students as faculty members, until these became about half of the seminary faculty—a level of inbreeding that far exceeds that of any of the highly regarded universities in the USA—then the courses taught there and the hermeneutic embraced by many of its scholars, especially those who became active in the Adventist Theological Society, who are mostly drawn from the seminary, the Biblical Research Institute, and Southern Adventist University, became increasingly conservative and closed. Moreover, the current administration of the General Conference is now seeking to ensure that only people holding to such a hermeneutic are employed in Adventist seminaries and the religion departments of Adventist universities and colleges.

In 2001 I sensed that a bitter battle had emerged within international Adventism over the issue of whether or not it would be essentially fundamentalist in its approach. There was evidence during the administration of Robert Folkenberg at the General Conference (1990-1999) that this conflict was emerging, and that the church leaders were moving towards attempting to control who was eligible to teach at Adventist institutions of higher learning based on such issues as their hermeneutic and their stance on such issues as the age of the earth. Such moves calmed during the succeeding administration of Jan Paulsen, who was a scholar in his own right. However, since the election of Ted Wilson as president of the General Conference in 2010, it is clear that the administration is intent on enforcing the teachings that were common during the period when Adventism embraced much of fundamentalism. This is seen especially in the change to the Fundamental Belief concerning Creation and the age of the earth that was adopted at the General Conference Session of 2015, and in the embrace of male headship and the determination of the administration to enforce the decision taken at the same session that women clergy are not eligible for ordination or to hold the highest administrative posts at all levels of the Church structure.

In this paper (as well as some others) I explain the evolution of Adventism as from originally, and for close to a century of its history, being (to use a sociological term) a sect with considerable tension with other churches, the state, and society in general. Since about World War II it moved towards becoming a denomination with growing comfort with its environment and wanting a positive, widely admired image. However, if a religious group can move in that direction (as most groups that begin as sects do with time), it is possible, though unusual for them also to reverse course. This was tried by the Mormon president who took that post in 1950, and though he and his successors did not achieve remarkable change of direction they did put on the brakes in the previous direction of movement from about 1950 to the mid-1990s. I interpret the program being waged so strongly by the current Adventist administration as an attempt to reverse direction here, and to move Adventism quite strongly towards sectarianism once again. The books I am currently writing will elaborate on this in the final volume.

You can read the encyclopedia entry here.


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.

To comment, click here.