Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 1 - Looking Back

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 1 - Looking Back

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“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” says Søren Kierkegaard.  This is all the more crucial for the new generation of Second Adventist leaders as they ponder the four stages of social movements and apply them analogously to our denomination, noting that we are currently in the final stage of decline and therefore soon failure.  The grave is dug, the tombstone is written, but the body has yet to fall.  Is there yet still vibrant life in this mortal frame?  In order to understand who we are, we must first look back:    

 “The story of Advent Christian beginnings is centered in a remarkable man. He, and the movement associated with his name, stirred American spiritually as has no other, before or since. For years newspapers recorded his every move and message. In the press, the pulpit, and even the political arena, he was praised and condemned, but never ignored. His following was never great – perhaps he had some fifty thousand at the height of his ministry. Few persons of prominence or wealth followed him, but thousands of dedicated Christians gave him a respectful hearing. He was the butt of interminable jokes, some bawdy, most of them crude, all of them slanderous. His career ended in a monstrous anticlimax called the “Great Disappointment,” but from his ministry came a great spiritual awakening and the renaissance of long-buried truths. This man, soldier, farmer, justice of the peace, and preacher, a skeptic turned believer, was William Miller.”[1]

So, our roots stretch back to Miller, but who were we?  That depends of course on how one defines “we.”  Does “we” mean the group of misfits and muts following after Miller’s prophetic proclamation of the immediate return of Christ?  Or, does “we” mean the group of Second Adventists who were left when the dust settled and who then gathered in Albany in 1860 for their first formal meeting of the Christian Association?  We might ask it another way:  How old are you?  When do you begin to track your age?  Customarily it begins at birth, but technically you are your age plus nine months because your actual life began sooner.  We do not count those formative months and yet, we would be nothing without them either.  Perhaps in the same way we can pull some salient historical points about our identity from both our spark of life and our birth to help us plot a way forward.  The following stand out:      

A Reformation Spirit:  William Miller (1782-1849) was an American Baptist preacher born in Pittsfield, MA.  After a foray in deism, and serving in the War of 1812, he settled down as a simple farmer.  Lost in the darkness of his own deism he began to see the light house of conviction warning him of the impending disaster of his soul on the rocks of God’s judgment ahead.  Months passed, the waves of his emotions beat upon him, and then the rays of hope burst upon his heart:  “At length when brought almost to despair, God by His Holy Spirit opened my eyes.  I saw Jesus as a friend, and my only help, and the Word of God as the perfect rule of duty.”[2] 

Soon after he took up Bible in one hand and concordance in another and with due diligence began studying Holy Writ.  Beginning with Genesis 1:1 he plowed the depth of God’s Word verse-by-verse through the whole book for the next two years sometimes studying for whole nights and days without rest.  He compared Scripture to Scripture and formed his conclusions.  He developed fourteen “Rules for Bible Study,” and composed his own 20 article “Statement of Faith.”[3]  Turning his focus to Daniel he pressed his analytical mind to calculating prophetic dates and corresponding them to history to discover their fulfillment.  He soon became convinced that Jesus would return “on or about 1843.”[4]  Interestingly, he continued to study, consider, reason, and validate his conclusions for the next 14 years before finally sharing them publicly.  Despite his excuses to the Lord of his inadequacy he finally gave into the unrelenting hound of heaven barking at his heels, “Go and tell the world of their danger.”[5]    

A Prophetic Voice:  The era of the 1840’s was one of hope when most believed the world was increasing in blessing and riches, long life, and better health, until finally Jesus would return after this thousand-year jubilee (postmillennialism).  Clearly the return of Christ was too far off to have any import on the average Christian’s life.  One pastor from the era recalled, “No sermon had ever been preached in my hearing about the coming of the Lord, no allusion was ever made to it in the course of my theological training, no book concerning it had ever been read.”[6]  

The 1832 publication of his articles in a Baptist newspaper, especially his declaration in the imminent premillennial return of Christ by 1843, shocked and shook the readers like sirens of war sounding in times of peace warning of impending doom.  An unknown farmer suddenly took center stage with large scale demand for his time.  He would go on to give 4,000 lectures in 500 towns, and continue to fan the flames through popular publications.  The Gospel message of repentance was proclaimed which resulted in three main notable effects for our purpose:    

First, a prophetic spirit of unity around the Gospel that transcended denominational affiliation, gender, and race.  Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopals, Congregationalists, Methodists, women, blacks, Indians, educated, illiterate, all celebrated the return of Christ together as one body.  Ronald Numbers aptly records, “And with their backs turned on the world, they embraced each other in warm outbursts of communal emotion. Their gatherings convulsed with shouts, praises, weeping and “melting seasons of prayer.”[7] 

Another author summarizes the community attitude saying that Miller’s calculations
“...had fired the imaginations of believers to a white heat of longing and anticipation.  Nothing else mattered!  Doctrinal differences were overlooked in the commonality of belief that eternity was near when the nature of all things would be revealed.  Personality differences, while never absent, were somewhat blunted in their effect by the sure knowledge that each person must strive to present himself, or herself, faultless before the throne of judgment.”[8]

Second, a prophetic call to action.  Numbers says, “They met long-standing financial and moral obligations. They cleansed body and soul. They prepared for the end.” [9]  Bars were turned into meetinghouses, gambling halls were shut down, open air preaching including both men and women sounded forth, mass meetings gathered (some estimate Miller preached to nearly a million people in the run-up to 1844), and melodious hymnody prevailed.[10]  

Third, a prophetic zeal.  It was one thing to read a dissenting opinion in a paper, it was another thing altogether to actually hear Miller work out his apocalyptic calculations and answer objections with piercing reason.  For many we can only imagine it must have felt like the finger of God pointing down from heaven singling them out as if to say, “You.  There.  Repent!  The King is coming nigh, even at the door!”       

Numbers captures the ethos here:   

“Their expectation predisposed them to the powerful outpouring of charismatic prophesying, tongues, healings, and other “signs and wonders,” which fulfilled the biblical promise for the “last days.” …in the face of public scoffing and ridicule…they decried the decadent and corrupt old orders as they longed for the breaking in of a splendid and everlasting new order.”[11]

Even years later after the fervor and disappointment of 1844, the reserved Miller remained open to the Spirit.  He sent a letter to his friend Joshua Himes at the Advent Herald recounting the slings and arrows of ministry and recording God’s answer – a dream sent to console and comfort him.[12]  God still moves. 

Unity Within Diversity:  The nearness of the return of Christ kept this movement from developing any organizational structure, but in the subsequent fallout of 1844 many Millerites returned home to their own churches, and many more, finding only judgment, ridicule, and public shame (some even tarred and feathered for their belief), banded together and began asking themselves, “Who are we now?” 

Six Adventist denominations emerged out of the rubble, often rallying their respective groups around publications and camp meetings that brought a sense of unity within each group.[13]  Some of these meetings drew annual attendance of ten to twenty thousand people.  The Wilbraham, MA camp meetings were especially crucial in the formation of the 1860 Advent Christians.  “Blacks and Indians were welcomed in the pulpit,” writes Hewitt.  “Women spoke out freely and some of them, even, wore the newfangled and slightly scandalous “bloomers…”[14]  The spirit of unity began during the early days of the movement and was still present as the structures began to settle.  Dialogue was encouraged and there was an atmosphere of freedom of doctrinal expression that pervaded.[15]  Camp meetings were advertised to be independent of strife and sectarianism, and described as cordial, friendly, and harmonious despite differences. 

During this time the two main competing groups were the Evangelical Adventists and the Conditionalist Adventists.  While each group would sometimes throw gas on the other’s fire, they eventually tried to unify by joining at a conference which resulted in a shared spirit of fellowship despite differences.[16]  This is not to ignore that heated debates, divisions, and conflict were scattered like potholes making the journey together rather jarring at times.[17] 

From the beginning Miller was set against forming a new denomination out of the movement, but as he passed and the discordant groups faced an identity crisis, they began to coalesce together.  The various 1860 meetings and beyond emphasized two words over and over again, “Christian,” and “association.”[18]  Historian A.C. Johnson notes this group was “broad in vision with the thought of appealing to and serving Christians of all ranks in a wide fellowship.”[19] 

The seismic impact of fervently living in the shadow of the imminent return of Christ forever changed two aspects of traditional doctrine for Advent Christians (though this was a process and debated for nearly 20 years from 1845-1860).[20]

First, if the central Gospel hope of all believers is in fact the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting in the kingdom of God (1 Thessalonians 4; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5), as some scholars like N.T Wright in Surprised by Hope or Randy Alcorn in Heaven only now realize, then nothing should detract from this most cherished teaching. The idea that we die and go into the immediate conscious presence of God in a cloudy trans-temporal heaven (without resurrection bodies and without a kingdom to rule) became seen as a distraction from the core hope of biblical theology (as it was for Justin Martyr who condemned such a view thousands of years earlier!).[21] 

Specifically, Second Adventists saw the alarming rise of Spiritualism in the surrounding culture, including the practice of séances, and rise of female mediums, both inside and outside the church.[22]  However, an unconscious existence of sleeping in the “grave” (Sheol as it is called in the Old Testament, Hades in the New Testament) awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the reward of all the Saints, Jesus himself; served to answer the cultural challenge of Spiritualism and put full emphasis on the biblical hope of glory.  Following in the footsteps of no less than Martin Luther and William Tyndale, this became a defining distinctive of the Advent Christians often referred to simply by the biblical euphemism “sleep” as in “soul sleep.”

Second, all life and all hope for the coming kingdom of God comes through the resurrection of Jesus and His return.  Adventists realized that if “God alone is immortal” (1 Tim. 6:16) then contrary to many Greek philosophers such as Plato, we are not.  Adam and Eve never gained immortality because they lost the right to eat from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).  Only through the Gospel does Jesus freely grant immortality to those who believe (2 Tim. 1:10; Rom. 2:7) promising that those who overcome will one day eat of the Tree of Life and live forever (Rev. 2:7; 22:14).  If immortality is not natural to us as humans and can only be gained through Jesus Christ, then what will happen to those who are raised at the Great Judgment who do not believe in Jesus?  Adventists realized that imagery such as the wicked being “burned up” (Matt. 13:40), “burned up like chaff” (Matt. 3:12) or “ashes under your feet” (Mal. 4:3) as well as descriptions such as “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), and “set them ablaze…leaving them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1) are far more literal than most may want to admit.  “Eternal punishment” then, refers not to the process of “punishing”, though this occurs for some unspecified duration, but to the final result: complete eradication and destruction from the memory of God (Psalm 9:6; 34:16). 

If this is who we are looking back, the pressing question remains, who do we want to become as we live forward?    

 

            Next week:  Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 2 – Living Forward. 

 

[1] Kearney, Clarence J.  A Man Named Miller in The Advent Christian Story, 1968.      

[2] Views of the Prophecies and Prophetic Chronology, Selected from Manuscripts of William Miller with a Memoir of His Life by Joshua V. Himes (p. 11).

[3] Hewitt, Clyde.  Midnight & Morning, 1983:  15-19; online in Memoirs of William Miller p. 77- 80.  

[4] Bliss, Sylvester.  Memoirs of William Miller, 1853:  79 (article 15).  As the time drew closer Miller’s followers pressured him for a more exact time frame.  He eventually gave March 21, 1843 - March 21, 1844.  When this passed without incident an adjustment was made to a different calendar thus arriving at April 18, 1844.  After this Miller wrote to his followers, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe the day of the Lord is near, even at the door…” (256).  Samuel Sheffield Snow presented his own views at a camp meeting in NH, called the “seventh-month” message and predicted a return for Christ Oct. 22, 1844.  Cf.  Evidences from Scripture and History About the Year 1843.      

[5] Miller, William.  Apology and Defense, 1845:  9-10.

[6] Johnson, Albert C.  Advent Christian History, 1918:  131.  Online in Christian Workers Magazine, Vol. 14, Sept. 1913: 264-265, “How I became a Premillennialist” by Rev. James H. Brookes. 

[7] Numbers, Ronald.  The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, 1993:  196.  

[8]  Hewitt, Cylde.  1983:  228.

[9]  Numbers, Ronald.  The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, 1993:  192.

[10]  Ibid. 192.   

[11] Ibid. 196.

[12] Advent Herald, ed. J.V. Himes, 1848 (far left column).  7th Day Adventist view this as prophetic, we need not. 

[13] Hewitt mentions the 7th Day Adventists, the Church of God (Seventh Day who did not ascribe prophetic status to E.G. White), the Albany Adventists (who became the Evangelical Adventists in 1858), Conditionalists Advent Christians, soon after their formation a secessionist movement convinced God would not raise the wicked dead at all split off (Life and Advent Union), another group called “Age to Come” Adventists who followed Joseph Marsh (1983:  229-230).  Cf. wiki flow chart.  Ultimately, Advent Christians owe their distinctives to the Christian Connection group that came into its camp.  Conditionalism came from a pamphlet by Henry Grew which came to George Storrs and caused him to leave the Methodists and preach his famous “Six Sermons” (see History of the Advent Christian Church by Beulah M. Bowden).

[14]  Ibid.  234.

[15] Cf. Dean, David.  Diversity and Unity In Advent Christian Prophetic Study in Our Destiny We Know:  Essays in Honor of Edwin K. Gedney.  1996:  181-196.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing!  This ethos pervaded the entire movement allowing for too much pliability on orthodox issues such as the Trinity and the pre-existence of Christ, etc.   

[16] For examples of contention between the two groups see Hewitt, 1983:  231-241.  David Dean notes that both parties had such a desire to come together and put differences aside that they agreed on a series of resolutions that called for avoiding preaching that would offend unnecessarily considering the state of the dead and destiny of the wicked.  The votes were nearly unanimous.  Unfortunately, as he continues explaining, the love and affection was not transferable to the people whom these groups represented (The Origin And Development Of The Advent Christian Denomination, 1982:  69). 

[17] Cf. Brown, Steve.  Advent Christian DNA Theological Fragmentation Or Gospel Affirmation in Themelios Forum, Henceforth 32:1-2 (2005):  33-40.  Also, Going, Lou.  The Origins of the Advent Christian Church – A union of Unitarians and Trinitarians?  Or, Where Had All the Trinitarians Gone?:  18-32.  Dean, David.  The Trinity In Advent Christian History in Alpah and Omega, 1982:  35-55. 

[18]  Hewitt 1983:  241-245.

[19] Johnson, 1918:  271-272.  Of course, the name “Advent” was put forward by a vocal group to distinguish themselves from other Christian groups as well.     

[20] George Storrs was highly influential in bringing the doctrine of conditional immortality and soul sleep to the surface especially through the publication of his magazine Bible Examiner from 1843-1849.  His Six Sermons on the topic were popular both in sermon and book form.  He was influenced by Baptist minister Henry Grew’s pamphlet series on the topic.  Storrs later founded the Life and Advent Union sect which eventually merged with the Advent Christians in the 1960s.  During the run up to 1844 many in a group called Christian Connection joined and eventually took on key leadership positions (7 of the 16 signatories to the 1840 call for an Adventist general conference were Connection preachers).  Their insistence on “no creed, but the Bible” and “Bible names for Bible things” has created a hermeneutical quagmire for later Advent Christians.  Looking back, we can see that while the letter of the law of sola scriptura was active, the spirit of sola scriptura was lost and these beliefs did more harm than good.

[21] While he condemned the idea of the location being “heaven” specifically and especially that there was no resurrection of the dead, he did allow for an intermediate state so Dialogue with Trypho Chp. 5 an aged man questions him saying, “The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment.”  In context, he agrees with the old man (who may very well represent Christ).   

[22] So Johnson 134; Numbers p. 203. 

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 2 - Living Forward

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 2 - Living Forward

The Advent Christian Woman: Abigail Mussey (2/2)

The Advent Christian Woman: Abigail Mussey (2/2)