by Ronald Lawson   |  17 May 2019  |  


Seventh-day Adventism was born in America. Its forerunner, Baptist lay preacher William Miller, had gathered a considerable following as a result of his preaching throughout New England and upstate New York that Christ would return on October 22, 1844. Although Miller had stated that it was not his intention to found a new religion, his followers were typically expelled from their churches. After the bitter disappointment and humiliation of the failed prediction, which silenced Miller himself, some of his followers continued to cling together, convinced that truth underlay the prophetic interpretation and that the second coming of Christ was imminent. While they awaited the end of the world as they knew it, these studied the Bible intensely, and gradually arrived at a set of beliefs and behavioral expectations that sharply separated them from mainstream society.

Their urgent apocalyptic meant that they rejected the American Dream, for they believed that the nations were about to be destroyed with the return of Christ. Their insistence on observing Saturday as their Sabbath, when a six-day work week was almost universal, closed most avenues to employment. Their behavioral rules included diet restrictions (vegetarianism; no coffee, tea, or alcohol), entertainment prohibitions (no dancing, theater, gambling, card-playing, smoking, or reading of fiction), a commitment to “dress reform” for women and abstinence from jewelry and makeup, and a refusal to take up arms when conscripted. Moreover, Adventism’s view of itself, as God’s remnant people, the one true church and chosen vehicle of God’s final message to the world in the last days, and its declarations that other religious groups were “apostate” and had become “the whore of Babylon,” its brazen challenges in its evangelistic meetings to clergy of other denominations, and its expectation of persecution from the American state in collaboration with other churches, all tended to create bitter, mutually held, antagonisms.

These boundaries were strengthened by the close ties among Adventists, whose lives usually centered around their church, the subculture it created, and its mission, who attended church-run schools, often worked for the institutions developed by the church—sanitariums (hospitals), schools, health-food factories, and publishing houses—and were frequently drawn by educational opportunities and economic and social ties to live in what became known colloquially as “Adventist Ghettos.” They were also reinforced by rules such as endogamy and their dietary and social prohibitions, which made it difficult and uncomfortable for them to associate with others. Not only did Adventist peculiarities attract scorn, but their Sabbath observance caused employment problems and their refusal to bear arms and the insistence of Adventist farmers on working on Sundays had legal repercussions.

Early Adventism thus closely fits the definition of a “sect,” which has been described by Stark and Bainbridge as a religious group in a high “state of tension” with “its surrounding sociocultural environment” (1985:23). Tension, as defined by them, has three elements: difference, separation, and antagonism (1985:49-50).

However, church-sect theory predicts that if a sect grows it is likely to lower its tension with society, and thus move from sect towards “denomination.” This has been true of American Adventism, whose level of tension with society has fallen sharply in recent decades. The growth and accreditation of Adventist educational and medical institutions has required participation in society and provided members with opportunities for upward mobility; Adventist hospitals have become increasingly orthodox, and many of them have prospered and won friends; the five-day work week has removed many of the problems with Sabbath observance; and Adventist dietary and smoking prohibitions have won credibility as a result of medical research while Adventists have themselves been loosening the observance of their standards. At the same time, Adventism has lowered levels of antagonism with others: it has pursued good relations with governments, switched its stance on military service, and sought better relations with other churches. Adventists have, in effect, postponed the apocalypse, working hard to maintain the separation of church and state in the U.S., and thus to avoid the fulfillment of their prophecy that the “final events” will include persecution of them at the hands of the federal government (Lawson 1995a:337-38; 1996).

Meanwhile, Adventism has spread around the world as a result of a strong missionary program. It is now active in 207 of the 233 countries recognized by the United Nations. Most of its growth in recent decades has been concentrated in countries of the Developing World (see Table 1). Consequently, the proportion of its world membership located in the U.S. has declined steeply: only 9.0% of the 8.8 million members lived there at the end of 1995.

What are the dynamics of these mission churches?—Are their trajectories similar to that followed by the mother church in America? This paper asks whether church-sect theory, which has typically been applied to religious groups beginning schismatically in a single society, is applicable to groups imported into other societies. Although it cites comparative data from elsewhere, its examination of Adventism focuses primarily on Africa. After exploring the relevance of church-sect theory to international Seventh-day Adventism, the paper then broadens it further by testing it against the experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, again chiefly in Africa.

Research Methods

The research reported here is part of a large study of Adventism, which has included over 3,000 in-depth interviews with church administrators, teachers, hospital administrators and medical personnel, pastors, students, and leading laypersons in 55 countries in all twelve divisions of the world church. The countries were chosen to represent the diversity of the global church, paying greater attention to those where it is more established and/or experiencing rapid growth.

Data concerning earlier decades were culled largely from secondary sources. Much of the data concerning more recent decades comes from my interviews; I have also drawn extensively on periodical articles to explore more recent pronouncements, practices and attitudes, the statistics assembled by the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, and official surveys of Adventists.

In order to keep the confidentiality of interviewees, as promised, the convention adopted is to refrain from citing their names when they are quoted except when they are major figures in the church.

The Adventist data utilized in this paper are drawn from interviews, periodical articles, and secondary sources. The comparative data concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals have been culled from secondary sources.

The Data

Adventists planted foreign missions on all continents during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. While their growth in what is now known as the Developed World has remained relatively slow, so that the majority of members there today were born into Adventist families, the situation in much of the Developing World is strikingly different. Because evangelistic strategies have been increasingly successful there in recent decades (see Table 2), Adventists there continue to be predominantly first-generation converts. Researchers have found that such a membership is likely to be highly committed and sectarian (Niebuhr 1929). We would therefore expect Adventism in these developing countries to be much more sectarian, with high tension between it and society, than in the Developed World.

However, the data suggest that Adventism there is, overall, much less sectarian than expected, for it is increasingly following a trajectory similar to that taken in the U.S. Several factors have contributed to this situation:

(i) Adventists were initially much less separated in the Developing World because of the manner in which they were received. In the Developed World, Adventists were stigmatized by the dominant Christian churches and denominations as heretical and sectarian because they were small and different. However, although the representatives of these same groups in the Developing World often complained that Adventists were “sheep-stealers” and their doctrine was heretical, their targets, the local people, did not distinguish among the missions, seeing them all “as part of the process of western cultural importations, rather than as special brands of them” (Assimeng 1986:53). Adventism found this pluralistic religious context, where it was not forced to compete with a dominant group, advantageous. Its missionaries, unlike Adventists in America, frequently joined ecumenical bodies, partly because these negotiated issues with colonial authorities (Assimeng 1986:222-25). Consequently, tensions between Adventism and these environments were lower—it was less sectarian. Moreover, because Adventism shaped its mission proselytizing strategies around educational and medical institutions, these helped it to build an increasingly positive reputation and to involve itself more deeply in these societies.

(ii) New members are attracted to Adventism because it is seen as offering opportunities for upward mobility. This is so in spite of the fact that missionaries are usually conservative members who emphasize that the world will soon end. In the New Guinea Highlands, for example, where Adventism is growing apace, newcomers are attracted because God is seen to be blessing this church—and the evidence for this is that Adventists get rich! The tradition of measuring wealth in terms of the number of pigs owned continues to some extent, even though this wealth is easily spent, given the cultural expectation that a “wealthy” person will throw parties for his extended kin. However, since Adventism prohibits keeping pigs (because they are viewed as unclean) and participation in parties (because of their association with alcohol and spirit worship), this has freed members from their cultural obligations to kin and fostered individualism, and has thus readied them for the emerging capitalist economy (interviews).

Adventism has also attracted converts because its schools offer members avenues for advancement. Adventist missionaries saw education as the keystone to evangelization: elementary literacy became a prerequisite for baptism, for it was essential if the people were to read the Bible and study Adventist doctrine; schools were also the means of preparing workers for the church. However, when they realized that education was a key means of upward mobility in rapidly changing societies, graduates began taking lucrative secular jobs rather than filling church positions. A missionary in East Africa complained that the Adventist schools there were “largely a waste of training effort and money. … [It is not our purpose to train teachers] to provide the government and other agencies with educated help” (Flaiz 1950: 30).

This trend continued as Adventism added the higher layers to its educational system, and administrators now lament that most students enroll in programs where there are few opportunities for church employment, ignoring the needs of the rapidly expanding church. A striking confirmation of this pattern occurred at the Adventist University of Eastern Africa, in Kenya, in the early 1980s. Protesting that having the church’s name on their degrees would limit their employment opportunities, students staged demonstrations and strikes, and eventually forced the University Council to change the institution’s name to the “University of Eastern Africa” (interviews).

However, in recent years Adventist schools have become less important as a means for the upward mobility of members in the Developing World, for Adventism is growing so rapidly there that it is impossible for the Church to keep up with the demand for educational institutions. In Kenya, for example, where mission schools supported by government “grants-in-aid” were once the only source of education, most Adventists are now educated in government schools and those attending the remaining church schools receive an inferior education (Nyaundi 1993:241-2). This situation is repeated in many parts of Africa. Since Adventism’s reputation as a vehicle for upward mobility has been so important in attracting converts, it seems likely that the tarnishing of this image will eventually impact Adventist growth rates.

Nevertheless, the vast concern for, and experience of, upward mobility among Adventist members in the Developing World has left them with an experience that is closer to that of American Adventists than the predominance of converts and the emphasis on sectarian teachings among the missionaries would have led us to expect.

(iii) Adventists have become politically prominent in some countries. The rapid growth of Adventism and the upward mobility among its members have transformed Adventists into a political presence in parts of the Developing World. This is especially the case in Jamaica and in Papua-New Guinea and other island groups in the South Pacific, where there have been several Adventist members of cabinet, in Micronesia, where the president of Palau is a church member, and in Uganda, where the vice-president (who was formerly the prime minister) is also an active Adventist. A similar process has occurred at a more local level in other countries where the Adventist presence is more geographically concentrated, as in the provinces around Lake Victoria in Kenya. These developments took church leaders in the U.S. by surprise, for Adventists have rarely walked the corridors of political power in this country (interviews).[1]

Such political participation indicates that Adventists have become heavily involved in their societies and are not the objects of widespread antagonism. That is, it indicates that they have moved a considerable distance from sectarianism.

(iv) Adventists have established close relations with governments. In other parts of the Developing World, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, Adventists have sought to reduce political tensions with governments. They have been especially successful in establishing relationships with authoritarian regimes. These have often involved “exchange relationships,” where Adventists have gained liberties (freedom to evangelize, freedom to observe their Sabbath, protection of their institutions) and favors (such as accreditation of their schools and facilitation of their projects through the granting of permits or duty-free import of equipment) in return for helping to legitimate or otherwise assist the regimes.

In Kenya, for example, Adventists fostered a close relationship with the regime of President Daniel Arap Moi, who in return arranged to provide them with land and a charter for their University of East Africa. In 1988, when the General Conference staged its Annual Council in Nairobi, the speech of the then world president, Neal Wilson, was reported in the press under the headline, “SDA head lauds Kenya for upholding freedom” (Nyaundi 1993:209). This public support was offered to Moi at a time when he was under attack from the National Council of Churches of Kenya for brutalizing opposition leaders and attempting to make constitutional changes designed to help him retain power in spite of his growing unpopularity.[2]

Adventists have thus frequently demonstrated a wish to be involved rather than separate. In courting good relations with governments, they have set out to prove that they are cooperative, not antagonistic, and to assuage any hostility or suspicion towards themselves.

(v) Socialization of new members has sharply diminished. Beginning in the early 1980s, Adventist leaders placed increased emphasis on growth, promoting evangelism as a major proselytizing strategy in the Developing World and pressuring evangelists and pastors with high goals for new converts. As a result, the growth rate for the world membership increased sharply, from 69.6% during the decade 1970-1980 to 92.4% during 1982-1992 (derived from General Conference 1993). (See Table 3.) The bulk of this increase occurred in developing countries. The most dramatic change in procedures as a result of the adoption of this new policy occurred in Africa, where would-be converts had previously been required to be members of a baptismal class for two years before being admitted,[3] but are now typically baptized at the end of a three-week evangelistic campaign. Moreover, post-baptismal nurture largely disappeared, as pastors were forced to turn their attention to attracting the next wave of prospective recruits (interviews).

A factor isolated by Wilson is significant here. He found that those sects which he defines as Revolutionist, or urgently apocalyptic, tend to move much more slowly from sect toward denomination than those he defines as Conversionist. This is because the former demand that converts have considerable knowledge before they are admitted, while the latter add new members rapidly without a great deal of prior training and socialization (Wilson [1959] 1967). In terms of this analysis, Adventism in the Developing World has shifted sharply towards becoming a Conversionist sect over the past decade or so: the grounding of converts in the sectarian teachings and separating lifestyle of Adventism is now often much weaker than in earlier decades. According to Wilson, such a change is likely to reduce sectarianism and foster denomination-like characteristics.

(vi) Member commitment has weakened significantly. Given the pressure for rapid growth and the consequent pattern of reduced socialization of converts, it is not surprising that the apostasy rate is high. The official statistics show an apostasy rate that was equal to 26.7% of conversions in the Developing World during 1995. However, interview data suggest that this is a serious undercount. This is because the system of record-keeping, which was designed in the U.S., often proves too complex for those who must report from churches where the standard of education is lower, especially when pastors who can show notable growth are rewarded and they can be penalized when the growth rate is considered low. Consequently, the one datum these churches can be relied on to report accurately is the number of baptisms. Deaths and apostasies are likely to be ignored, while transfers often result in people being counted as members by two or more congregations. There is no doubt that the apostasy rate is a serious problem. For example, during the three years before my visit to Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, two evangelistic campaigns had resulted in 1,500 baptisms. However, at that point only 50 of these members, a mere 3.3%, were still attending church (interviews). The data suggest that this kind of situation is common.

A cultural factor in Africa amplifies, and helps explain, the seriousness of the “apostasy problem” there. Africans do not share the Western understanding that commitment to one faith precludes adherence to others: “In Africa, it is very rarely the case that a person is exclusively a member of only one religious movement at any particular time, and very few movements succeeded in imposing the exclusivity principle” (Assimeng 1986:16). Indeed, many Africans see advantages in identifying with several religious groups, for this, in effect, gives them multiple insurance policies, or access to different kinds of magic that will be effective in varying circumstances. Consequently, some persons who respond to the call of an Adventist evangelist to be baptized, and who thereby become members of the Adventist Church, may respond similarly some months later to an invitation from a Pentecostal preacher. In Latin America, also, several recent studies have reported patterns of multiple loyalties and serial affiliation among Protestants (Gooren 1996; Stoll1993:8,9; Rostas and Droogers 1993:10-11; Burdick 1993:7).

During the early years of their missions in Africa, Adventists insisted that converts and those preparing for baptism withdraw from their villages and form a new Adventist village that was built around the church and church school (Nyaundi 1993:93-94, 108-17). This had the effect of strengthening ties to the church. However, that practice was later abandoned: in Kenya it was ended by government legislation in the late 1940s. The long period of training in baptismal classes was also designed to cement commitment; however, as noted above, this has also been discarded.

Given the evidence of limited commitment among Adventist members—with poor socialization, focus on opportunities for career advancement, multiple memberships, and high apostasy rates—it is not surprising that many members have proved willing to compromise the standards of their faith in the face of difficulties. The major test for Adventists has usually been observance of their Sabbath on Saturday. American Adventists fired for refusing to work when scheduled on that day have fought the issue all the way to the Supreme Court (Lawson 1997). However, African students reported that when they were faced with the problem of classes and exams being scheduled on that day—which is a regular occurrence at all educational levels in the former French and Belgian colonies and is increasingly an issue in several former English colonies—most of them participated rather than risk educational penalties (interviews). Members in other parts of the Developing World have frequently made similar choices. Indeed, in Korea and India so many members spend Saturday mornings at their jobs that churches have arranged special worship services for them on Saturday afternoons (interviews).

The weakening of commitment among Adventists reduces tensions with society, since this renders them more ready to compromise and therefore less different—and thus less sectarian.

To summarize: Adventism is growing so rapidly in much of the Developing World that it is still largely a first-generation religion there. However, contrary to what this fact might lead us to expect, it is not stridently sectarian in tone. Indeed, to invoke Stark and Bainbridge’s three markers of tension between a sect and its sociocultural environment, it is far less different, antagonistic, or separated from society than when its American forebears had a similar proportion of first-generation converts.

Two Contrasting Examples

I am not arguing, however, that this trajectory is typical of all imported religious groups in the Developing World. Assimeng’s study of Jehovah’s Witnesses in parts of Africa, for example, finds that they were, and are, the most apocalyptic of all the imported Christian groups; they have remained much more separate from other religious groups and from government, and, since they refused to build and operate schools, they have not provided their followers with a means for upward mobility (1986:53-113). In some countries in particular, such as Zambia and Malawi, their “relationship with political authorities…has been characterized by acute strain” (1970:112). Here, then, is a group, which Wilson would classify, like early Adventism, as a Revolutionist sect, which has remained highly sectarian, and which has therefore followed a totally different trajectory from Adventism, even though both originally shared the same category and were, in their origins, extended kin (Lawson 1995b:351-2).

Yet another extraordinarily different trajectory has been followed by Pentecostals. Wilson classified them, in developed countries, as a Conversionist sect ([1963] 1969:365); however, when imported to Africa and Latin America they mutated to Thaumaturgical (magical). Assimeng found that “Their concern with salvation and the advent tends, in day-to-day practice, often to be eclipsed by their distinctive teachings of Holy Ghost power, spirit blessings and physical manifestations—particularly glossolalia. These charismata—and especially the ‘gift’ of divine healing—have been popularly embraced in Africa where traditional religion was itself strongly thaumaturgical, instrumental and expressive” (1986:xiii). In Nigeria, where the impact of Pentecostalism has been greatest, it took on a number of indigenous characteristics: for example, it seemed to confirm from Scripture the traditional witchcraft theories of disease (Assimeng 1986:150). Similarly, in Mexico “many rural pastors are former shamans who, in effect, continue to divine and cure under the new religion, as a more effective source of power and legitimation. In Haiti…pentecostal healing tends to validate belief in voodoo…” (Stoll 1990:113). Martin concludes that Pentecostalism “became truly indigenous…” (1990:231).


What is the explanation of these differing patterns? The connections between imported religious groups and their sponsoring global organizations can play a key role in shaping the trajectories taken. When the structure of a global church, and its relationship with its national branches, is centralized and hierarchical, as with Adventists and Witnesses, its influence can be compelling. In this case, the central organization is likely to export the patterns of the relationships between the religious group and its surrounding environment that developed in the group’s home base.

Adventism has considerably reduced tension between itself and American society over time: Adventists there have become comfortable, patriotic Americans. Meanwhile, the patterns that created these changes were transferred via the church structure to Adventists abroad. International Adventism was soon typified by the centrality of its institutions, as these were promoted as the chief means of Adventism’s evangelistic outreach. However, institutions soon performed the additional functions that they served in the U.S., such as providing opportunities for the upward mobility of members—and thus of helping to reduce tension between Adventism and the societies where it was located.

The relationship of Witnesses in the Developing World to their central organization, the Watch Tower Society (WTS), which is also located in America, was also crucial. But in this case the outcome was the reverse to that with Adventists: the patterns which had prevented the tension between American Witnesses and their surrounding society from abating to any discernible degree were exported, under the strongly centralized rule of the WTS, throughout the international organization. For example, it was the WTS that decided that Witnesses should “eschew all association and co-operation with other missionary bodies,” so that they stood aloof from the Mission Councils in Africa; they refused to build schools even though Africans requested them; they developed the policy that adherents should not recognize secular authority and imposed prohibitions against singing national anthems, saluting flags, voting, and entering armed forces, which greatly heightened tensions between Witnesses and newly independent states following decolonization (Assimeng 1986:53, 218; 1970:100). Such decisions had the effect of keeping Witnesses separate, of protecting their peculiarities or differences, of bolstering antagonisms against them—of maintaining their sectarianism.

Pentecostals contrast strongly with these examples. They exhibit much greater variety because the absence of a single centralized umbrella group has allowed the local churches to blend much more closely with the environments in which they have found themselves.

This paper, accepting that church-sect theory has proven useful in understanding and predicting the evolution of schismatic religious groups such as Adventism in the U.S., asked whether the theory is also relevant to the dynamics of such groups in countries to which they were exported. It compared the experiences of Adventism, the Witnesses, and Pentecostalism in the Developing World, where all have been growing rapidly.

The theory was shown to be pertinent to the evolution of religious groups introduced through missionary endeavor. It also proved useful in accounting for the profiles developed by global church organizations in those cases—Adventists and Witnesses—where their umbrella organizations are structurally centralized and hierarchical.

[1] There are currently three Adventist members of the U.S. Congress, which is the highest such number to date

[2] Several similar examples are cited in Lawson 1996.

[3] They had often also been exposed to Adventism during several years in church-run schools.

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Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY.

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