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Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement.

By Douglas Morgan. Knoxville, Tenn.: the University of Tennessee Press, 2001. 269 pp., np. cloth.

Received wisdom portrays Seventh-day Adventism as historically unengaged in the public arena. There was no time for other concerns (Christ's imminent return required attention to individual souls) and no hope for other concerns (Christ would not return to a positively transformed America but rather to a fatally flawed power in alliance with false religions). In sum, a premillennial theology of history riveted to Scripture (Revelation 13 and the attribution of the second beast to the United States) embarrassingly immobilized human institutions and actions vis-a-vis the world around them.

Not so, writes Douglas Morgan. In the first full-length study of its kind, a different and (at least to some readers) more encouraging picture emerges. With nuanced arguments and felicitous writing, Morgan contends that the Adventist church never consistently followed "the logic of premillennialism in regard to American public life." Pessimism about the future did not generate passivity. Rather, the church found a way to become--temporarily, warily, selectively, and without ever shifting over to the realm of postmillennial optimism-prophetic, activist, and engaged. Adventists preached the imminent demise of the republic and with equal zeal worked to delay that demise.

Exactly what trumped the quietizing implications of premillennialism? The short answer is that diverse influences supplemented the stark apocalypticism. For example, Anson Byington, elder brother of the first General Conference president, advocated a "taming" of the republic by use of the Constitution to achieve justice--a widely-circulated position that time eventually favored. Ellen White rebuked radical separationism and encouraged the church to do good in the world. Black and Latino Adventists and young academics and professionals began pushing in nonapocalyptic directions.

Justified in such ways, public involvement characterized the Adventist church from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The church opposed slavery, advocated Prohibition, ministered to the cities, and--belatedly--deplored the injustices of segregation. On one issue, religious liberty, Adventists became relentless champions. "By defending their right and that of others to be different," Morgan says, the church achieved "its most vigorous public involvement and greatest cultural impact." It campaigned against Sunday closing laws and teacher-led prayers in public schools; defended the religious rights of workers in the secular arena; and voiced deep (although not unanimous) skepticism toward government parochiaid.

Readers thus encounter a "complex combination of political passivity and selective activism." Some may regret this checkered story, hoping for a less ambivalent one. Others may challenge the church's stance on particular issues. But few will challenge Morgan's construction of the record. Apart from minor slips, it is richly documented and soundly interpreted.

Two things remain that he does not attempt: a study of the church's religious liberty work overseas, and a study of religious liberty at the level of the local parishioner. In the latter, he would find precisely the Bible-based paralysis that corporate Adventism apparently surmounted.
GARY M. ROSS
Andrews University
Berrien Springs, Michigan
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Author:Ross, Gary M.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:484
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