Adventism and the American Republic: the Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement.
The years of the Great Disappointment, 1843 and again in 1844, when thousands confidently awaited the Second Coming of Christ, should have been the end of the Adventism movement. Instead, it was the beginning. True, many turned away from the popular preaching--and predicting--of William Miller, but others soon found a new focal point in the counsel and guidance of Ellen G. White (1827-1915). By 1860, this group had a new headquarters (Battle Creek, Michigan) and an official new name: Seventh-day Adventists.
Both parts of the name carry great weight. "Seventh-day" points, of course, to the observance of the original Sabbath, Saturday, as still a sacred obligation. Just as the rest of the Ten Commandments had not been revised, so also the injunction to "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" remained in full force. But this denominational "peculiarity" turned the young group into a powerful force for religious liberty. Growing into its full stature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Adventists confronted Sunday laws on every side. In fighting against the real threat of a legally established National Day of worship, these Sabbatarians had to fight for their liberty on a daily basis. Soon, they were fighting for religious liberty on a broader, less parochial basis.
The other part of the name, "Adventism," bears even greater burdens. For apocalyptic prophecy still flavors where it does not control the "theology of history" about which Professor Morgan writes with such perception and passion. Just because Christ did not return to earth in the 1840s did not mean that his return was not imminent, nor did it mean that preparations for that return should not remain uppermost in the minds and hearts of Seventh-day Adventists. And so it does remain as the essential element in the identity of the group, but also as a troubling factor in maintaining constructive relationships with the American Republic.
The concern about establishing a Christian Sunday expanded into a concern about establishing a Christian nation. This led to easy alliances with the left in the American political spectrum. Also Adventist emphasis on health and healing coincided with broader emphases on proper diet, nonsmoking, and temperance--which usually meant abstinence. From Kellogg's Corn Flakes (an Adventist innovation) to sanitaria emphasizing natural cures to first-rate nursing and medical schools, to say nothing of medical missions around the world, Adventists formed many alliances with more progressive forces, both secular and religious.
But then anxiety about declining moral standards led to some coziness with the Christian Right--but not on school prayer! Indeed, the more closely that Adventists looked into the Right and its dispensationalist eschatology, the more they regarded that segment of American theology as a threat to separation of church and state. So partnerships and pacts in the larger society form something of a crazy quilt pattern that the author traces and elucidates with impressive skill.
On the apocalyptic vision, complexity could also be seen, especially with regard to the American nation. Morgan provides the iconography that reveals the United States first as the two-horned beast who does "great wonders so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth" (Revelation 13:13), but then is symbolized by a buffalo, and finally by a lamb. Nonetheless, "for Adventists, America itself was always on the verge of becoming an apocalyptic villain" (211). The other beast in Revelation 13 always remained a beast, the awesome Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church. Any liberalization in Catholicism, as in Vatican Council II, was viewed far more with suspicion than with hope (133-34). And when the President appointed an ambassador to the Vatican in 1984, no voice raised in protest was more strident and unrelenting than that of the Adventists. Mainstream Protestantism, meanwhile, had grown soft on that issue, as (in the view of the Adventists) it had in so many other matters--including a return of Christ to earth and the establishment of a New Jerusalem.
In fact, the Adventist persistent fascination with apocalyptic signs of the times slowed, or even reversed, the group's otherwise steady progress from sect to denomination. This fascination also led to constant tensions or schisms between "historic Adventists" and "progressives" (see 163-66, 177, 180 and passim). In the 1990s, an Adventist attorney even resorted to the long-discredited biblical chronology of Bishop Ussher to suggest that Christ's return would occur around the year 2000 (189). And conspiracy theories abounded: the Roman Catholic Church, in league with the New Christian Right and a flabby Protestantism, "would enforce religious oppression throughout the world" (191).
Finally, this apocalyptic fixation strained the relationship with the American Republic. When in 1825, Thomas Jefferson was asked his opinion about a commentary on the Book of Revelation, his curt reply was that "what has no meaning admits no explanation." The majority of Americans in the twenty-first century, if forced to choose between defining the beasts in Revelation 13 and dismissing the subject altogether, would most likely opt for the latter course.
Edwin S. Gaustad
University of California, Riverside
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|Author:||Gaustad, Edwin S.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2005|
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