by Ronald Lawson  |  11 April 2018  |  

The paper I’m introducing you to here is titled “Sectarian Groups and Social Issues: Broadening Church-Sect Theory.”

I have been working on a series of four books as the main product of my major study of global Adventism. When I was planning the second volume, tentatively titled “The Caring Church? Seventh-day Adventism and Issues of Social Justice,” I found that the issues pretty much chose themselves. But when I assembled that list of chapters/issues, I noticed that they fell mainly into two groups with very different histories within our church

With three issues (the role of women, race relations in the United States, and polygamous families wanting to be baptized in places like Africa) which early Adventists realized were pertinent to the evangelistic mission of the church, we initially adopted radical positions, seemingly unconcerned with what others might think of us. However, later Adventists abandoned those positions. Why?

In the second group (divorce and remarriage, singles, cohabitation and births outside marriage, the physical and sexual abuse of children, spouses, and other adults, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and race relations in South Africa), which Adventists assumed initially would never occur among members, we took the negative stance typically held in American society during the early decades of Adventist history. Moreover, we changed these attitudes much more slowly than society did. Why?

In the case of one lone social issue, abortion, Adventists were especially slow to even consider it at all: we offered no advice to members who might consider having one, and some hospitals became known as locations where abortions were carried out. When eventually the church did issue a position, it was one that has been defined by some as fundamentally pro-choice and by others as pro-life.

I felt it was necessary to understand the reasons for the differing patterns and to assess their significance. I used the experience of the three other main religious groups born in the United States during the nineteenth century (Mormons, Witnesses, and Pentecostals) in addition to these Adventist case studies to develop my understanding. In 2001 I prepared a paper for the meeting of the Religious Research Association. It was the only one presented during a two-hour session, and after I finished, four scholars of the sociology of religion, including a Mormon and a Pentecostal, weighed the understanding I had arrived at.

In what will be the first volume of my series, I will show that Adventism began, as so often with new religious groups, as what sociologists call a “sect.” That is, it was in high tension with governments, other religious groups, and society in general. However, as time passed, and we became better educated, founded many hospitals and schools that improved the social standing of members and church; and as behavioral rules which had made us peculiar were gradually modified; we sought good relations with governments and other churches, especially the fundamentalists and evangelicals, and a good reputation in the societies where we were active, Adventists moved from sect towards denomination, and we felt much more comfortable in our environments.

My insight was that this process of lowered tension, of movement from sect towards denomination, also shaped the positions Adventists took on issues of social justice. In our early decades, when we were highly sectarian, what mattered was our mission, and we did not care about what others thought of us. Our mission required all hands on deck, all to be active in the mission, and this meant women could be pastors and evangelists just as could men. Similarly, when the mission boat on the Mississippi set out to evangelize African-Americans, those baptized were invited into the existing Adventist churches which had previously been peopled only by white believers—there was no concern that it was usual in the South for churches to be segregated. And in Africa, where the other Christian churches refused to baptize polygamously married men until they had sent all but one wife away—in the process separating them from their children and often rendering so without resources that they had to engage in prostitution in order to survive—Adventists deeply offended those churches for the sake of their mission, allowing the whole polygamous family to be baptized as long as the man henceforth took no additional wives.

However, as the Seventh-day Adventist Church became less sectarian and more comfortable with society, it became more sensitive to how it was regarded by others, especially the conservative fundamentalist and Evangelical churches. Women pastors gradually disappeared, our churches and later church administrations and even schools, hospitals, and the cafeteria at the General Conference became racially segregated, and we adopted the rules that the other missions had enforced towards baptizing polygamous families.

Coming to the second group of social justice issues, early Adventists assumed that no members would divorce, get pregnant before marriage, physically or sexually abuse a weaker person, be homosexual, or, later when it became known, contract HIV/AIDS.  Consequently the church had little to say about any of these issues, but was very embarrassed when these things were found among the members, who were then usually rapidly disposed of. As time passed Adventist leaders were eventually confronted with evidence that all these were common within their membership, and that the church had actually enforced its own version of apartheid within its structure and practice in South Africa. While society and the mainline churches gradually became more understanding of these issues, and fought discrimination, Adventists were much more slow to show love where it was greatly needed, for our role models were the conservative churches, and we craved their approval. We did not care how many divorced members, or LGBTQ Adventists were frozen out, for they were not part of the Adventist mission; since women were no longer worthy of ordination, the possibility of their being physically or sexually abused by men did not garner much attention, nor did the possibility of other weak Adventists, such as children being misused. We were not much concerned with American members who were dying of AIDS, for were they not usually gay sinners?

When the epidemic swept through African heterosexuals, including so many Adventist members, pastors, teachers, and administrators, it was only when GC President Folkenberg was shown how much this was going to cost the church in medical costs and sick pay that he took the danger of the epidemic seriously. And in South Africa, the Adventist church only felt sufficiently embarrassed to try to change its racially segregated structure after President Nelson Mandella had outlawed it in the broad society there. Meanwhile, the church structure in America is still divided between the black regional conferences and the now more mixed formerly “white” conferences; the General Conference Session in 2015, manipulated openly by the church’s President, Ted Wilson, once again voted against ordaining women as pastors, and the unions that vote to act differently face the danger of strong penalties. Adventists continue to insist that the extra wives of polygamously married men who want to become Adventists be penalized to an extent that surely makes them hate the church that was behind that action. The Anglican Church in Africa long ago abandoned this rule, adopting the position that Adventists used to hold, for the sake of the people involved.

Why did Adventists take so long to adopt a position on abortion, to advise their members who were contemplating having one? To then GC President Neal Wilson it was a Catholic issue, not our issue. Moreover, some of our hospitals were doing well as a result. The story of how Adventists finally chose to adopt a position, and what that was, will be told in a paper uploaded to my website next week.

The paper introduced here, “Sectarian Groups and Social Issues” has just been published on the website.


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.

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