October 1, 2015: Dr. Philip Jenkins is a scholar at Pennsylvania State University who studies religions, one of the most widely read contemporary writers on the topic. His column this week in Christian Century, historically the leading journal for mainstream Protestants in the United States, focuses on the Adventist denomination. It “has become one of the world’s fastest growing and most diverse” religions, he writes.
“In the mid-20th century, Seventh-day Adventists stood on the far fringe of the North American religious spectrum,” he stated. In “the late 1950s, the church celebrated the fact that it had surpassed the milestone of a million adherents, the vast majority of whom were in the United States.” Much to the surprise of scholars, “sixty years later, Adventists constitute a global church that plausibly claims 18 million members, only 7 percent of whom live in the United States,” and many of these “have ethnic roots in Africa or the Caribbean.” The denomination has 75,000 congregations in 200 nations, Jenkins reported.
Adventists have a “rich network of educational institutions and media outlets around the world … medical schools and hospitals abound [reflecting a] long-standing Adventist commitment to health care. … Adventist humanitarian … efforts are celebrated for their reach and efficiency.”
The largest Adventist institution is Northern Caribbean University in Jamaica. “Latin America and the Caribbean account for almost 6 million believers, almost a third of the church’s strength.” Brazil has the largest number of members.
Jenkins shares why he thinks the Adventist faith has been so successful in recent decades. “As part of their basic teachings, Adventists show believers how to improve their lives in physical terms, as well as spiritual, and that practical message carries enormous weight in societies overwhelmed by disease and substance abuse. Faithfully following Adventist principles promises a major improvement in life chances and in longevity.”
It is not a one hundred percent rosy scenario; Jenkins points out that all denominations have scandals and conflicts. “The worst blot on the movement … was its experience in Rwanda, where some Adventist clergy were prominent in the genocide of the 1990s. This horrible experience raised questions about the depth and sincerity of conversion, in this country at least, and the need for fundamental Christian instruction.”
Nonetheless, overall Jenkins see the Adventist faith as a “powerful” example of “how churches adapt to the massive opportunities and challenges of globalization.” And he highlights the lasting contribution that the movement has made to the general welfare of humanity. “Much of what we know today about the linkage between diet and health grow out of Adventist health and mortality studies.”
The article is on page 45 of the Christian Century dated September 30, 2015.