We Cannot Pass This Way Again
by Edwin A. Schwisow, May 21, 2015: Dear Adventist Today Friends: The year was 1843, and the word “Gold” echoed coast to coast in the US, continent to continent, in a muscular elegy to instant wealth.
Borrowing that theme, the American poet and polymath Edgar Allan Poe discovered a new source of material wealth in a ”mystery” he wrote that same year and christened “The Gold Bug.” In it the hero claims that a yellow-colored insect is guiding him to a trove of long-buried pirate riches. It all seemed a bit insane—perhaps Edgar had imbibed a bit too heavily as he wrote. But to the bemused amazement of the reader, the bug does indeed manage to guide the protagonist directly to a cache of millions dollars’ worth of loot along the South Carolina coast.
Poe’s story epitomizes the 19th-century’s ferocious determination to cash in, in an era of gold rushes when instant wealth was a supreme theme. The religions hatched in the West during that era predictably all emphasize riches and prosperity unknown both here and in the sweet bye-and-bye.
Gold in That-thar Bible
That same year (1843), the Baptist lay preacher William Miller lifted eyes heavenward to gold untold, citing the biblical book of Daniel as his celestial Gold Bug. A golden age had arrived for all, he preached, on earth as it is in heaven—a Gilded Age, as humorist Mark Twain would later christen the latter decades of that self-focused era.
Though the coming of Christ did not happen at Miller’s predicted time, the psychology and faith of the times were such that the golden flame continued to burn, and it seemed to paradoxically glow most fervently among young, selfless idealists, who saw the Great Disappointment as a bitter, but not fatal, test of faith. God was in the advent movement, they believed, and the prediction’s immediate failure was due to human lukewarmness—not divine error.
As the Advent Movement became more and more corporatized, it developed skill in mass-producing Christianity and became a far, far cry from the days in the 1840s when it consisted largely of a group of bright, socially integrated teenagers.
A Return to the Gilded Age?
Today some heirs to the mantle of William Miller look back wistfully to the Gilded Age of the Movement—now widely referred to as its Historic period.
We are told now that these were times of ardent, simple faith, in which the golden themes running through the Bible’s apocalyptic pages were taken literally and to the death.
The denomination was united on all salient points of salvific doctrine, but alas and alack, liberalism crept in and we took our eyes off the gold and concentrated instead on bigness and numbers.
Problems with a Neo-gilded Proposition
But there’s a problem. There is no recorded Golden Era of early Advent purity. Rather, Adventists during that period were haggling to the death on such urgent matters as which horn on an apocalyptic beast represented which European nation, and whether or not the denomination should or should not have a president. It was during this time period, in fact, that Ellen White seemed most insistent that too much kingly power was held by men who believed their way was the only way to operate the church. Do we—should we— move “forward” to this historic era? Are we prepared to reap the consequences of returning to a “Historic” era of centralized authority that had Adventist membership and theology gasping for air?
During the past 50 years, two denominations founded during our “Historic” period have learned that lesson in a dramatic way. Both the Southern Baptists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in recent times moved toward a centralization of conservative power, and the growth of both has been seriously compromised. In fact, the downfall of denominations rarely comes from relaxing doctrines and standards; ordinarily, decay comes from adamantly imposing unalterable requirements that discourage creative expressions of faith and thoughtful Present Truth.
A Better Response
One of Adventist Today’s serious reasons for existence is to keep the lines of communication open among members of major ideological preferences, in creative ways that constantly transcend the past to present the original gospel in ways that speak eloquently to generations today. From the days of St. Paul onward this has always been the way of cutting-edge Christianity. And as in the case of Paul, it is often a quasi-independent group on the periphery of the corporate center that finds the freedom to seek out and test better ways.
In turn, we are calling on more younger writers, writing more in-depth material related to their youthful concerns, for it is among our youth that we are seeing a particularly high rate of membership loss—a group of largely progressive youth who have absolutely no interest in returning to a neo-Gilded Age. This outreach, today, is consistent with one of the founding goals of Adventist Today two decades ago—to reach out to young adults from Adventist families and keep them engaged with the faith. This is an even more important issue today, as many youth remain inactive, as their parents and grandparents illustrate more and more the “graying of Adventism.”
Adventist Today has added two additional staff members over the past year, both in their 30s, believing that you, our donors, will support us with the additional income necessary. Within this budget we are also inviting several journalism students from Adventist universities and colleges to be part of the team in San Antonio this coming summer, to provide coverage of the GC Session. The perspectives of these young adults are important not only to attract more young adult readers, but also to help the rest of us understand how young people perceive the Church.
We have also expanded the distribution of Adventist Today by adding a Facebook edition, which is updated daily by Emmy Halvorsen, our new Facebook editor and the youngest member of our staff. It is reaching a significant number of young adults around the world, especially among the burgeoning Adventist populations in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
The percentage of those who leave the faith is climbing to all-time highs, and prominent leaders seem intent on moving us back to one of the most dissonant and controversial Adventist eras in our historic existence. This ill serves young, educated Adventists who derive inspiration from both the Bible and from nature/science—books that in most arenas agree in principle.
Adventist Today needs to raise $15,000 more in the weeks before General Conference opens in early July. We’re almost there, thanks to those who have already given in April and May.
There are some who would have us return to the rusty past, where great controversy was far more than the title of a great book. This Session could be the breaking of a new and better day of creativity, or as in the case of other 19th-century denominations, it could herald an acceleration of the withering already being experienced among our youth and educated classes. There is a time for everything, wrote the Wise Man. The Gilded Age of the 19th century cannot fully address those needs in our time. We must broaden our base and strengthen our financial cords to serve a world seeking widely for solid reasons to explore the pathways of Jesus in this generation.
Guest Columnist Edwin A. Schwisow is Adventist Today Secretary of Development.