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150 years of Adventist history

The GC Logo for the adventist Anniversary

24.04.2013:

 

Bruxelles, Belgium [Reinder Bruinsma; CD EUDNews]. After the ‘great disappointment’ of their hopes in 1844, the ‘Advent believers’ who belonged to the Millerite Movement broke up into a number of different groups. One of these groups adopted the Sabbath as the weekly day of rest and rediscovered a number of other Biblical teachings. On May 21, 1863—now 150 years ago—representatives of this small, but growing movement—some 125 churches with 3,500 members in all—met in Battle Creek, Michigan (USA) and organized themselves as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

This seemingly insignificant new denomination—one among thousands of other faith communities that developed on American soil—grew during a century and a half into a vibrant world church, with some 18 million baptized members. Today it continues to be one of the fastest growing Christian organizations in the world.  Adventists can now be found in 209 of the 232 countries that are recognized by the United Nations.

A church with a mission

It took a few decades before Adventists understood that they had a mission that extended beyond the borders of the United States of America. At first they believed that ‘all the world’ could be found among the immigrants that had left ‘the old world’ in their search for a better future.  But this soon changed. John Neville Andrews, the first official Adventist missionary, left for Europe in 1874. Before the turn of the century Adventist missionaries had gone to all continents. By that time the mandate of Christ about the preaching of the gospel ‘in all the world’ was without hesitation applied to the mission of the Adventist Church: the worldwide proclamation of the ‘three-angels message’.  Over the years, the missionary consciousness fluctuated because of internal and external circumstances, but it remained strong.  The 1920’s and early 1930’s were probably the era with the most intense missionary zeal.  A new mission thrust to reach ‘all peoples’ was launched with the ‘Global Mission’ initiative of the 1990’s.

 

A church with a theology

Adventism perceives itself as a movement that is rooted in the 16th century Reformation, in particular in the work of Luther and of the ‘radical’ reformers.  But originating as it did in nineteenth century North America, it was also heavily influenced by several Protestant movements of that period, such as the Christian Connection and Methodism. The Millerite movement, that preceded the development of Adventism in its later form, was quite ecumenical in nature, and bequeathed Adventism with a heritage of teachings from various Protestant traditions. It took most of the nineteenth century for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to define its theology. This was not only true with regard to the specific Adventist doctrines, but also with regard to the basics of the Christian faith. It was not until well into the twentieth century before the Adventist Church had fully accepted such basic doctrines as the Trinity, the full deity and eternal pre-existence of Christ, and the personhood of the Holy Spirit.  Adventism thus moved from a theology with sectarian tendencies towards a theology that combines the essence of mainstream Protestantism with a number of specific views—such as a unique perspective on the sanctuary and on the continuing prophetic role of Ellen G. White, one of the church’s co-founders.

 

A church with a social responsibility

Almost from its very beginning Adventism promoted a holistic worldview.  The human person is not to be split into a spiritual and a non-spiritual component, but is an all-inclusive being, intended to have a faith and a lifestyle that combines ‘the head, the heart and the hand’.  This has implications for the Adventist perception of the nature of man and of his state in death. But it also explains the emphasis on healthy living and on stewardship in other areas of life. Furthermore, it led to the early establishment of innovative health institutions and thousands of educational institutions of different levels. In addition, it inspired welfare activities that eventually evolved in the creation of ADRA—a worldwide network for development and disaster relief, with offices in over a hundred countries.

A church that moves with the times

Adventists have ever been at the forefront in the use of new technologies, and, more recently, of the new mass media and of the Internet. The first institution of the church was a printing business. The simple printing operation that was started by James White was the beginning of a successful network of denominational publishing houses. Advent Verlag is proud to be part of that ministry of communication.

The church realized quite early the evangelistic potential of the radio, and built studios around the world, while establishing its own stations or buying time on available stations to broadcast evangelistic and health programs. For more than forty years Adventist World Radio has now been using short wave radio to evangelize the ‘unreached’, or difficult to reach people groups with programs in over eighty languages. When television became more common, the Adventist Church was among the earliest religious organizations to utilize this new medium. This was also the case when satellite technology made it possible to hold evangelistic campaigns simultaneously in many different venues. Today Hope Channel has its 24/7 programming all around the world in an ever increasing number of languages—German being one of them.

A united church

Most Protestant denominations have experienced numerous splits and divisions. For instance: there are well over two hundred different Baptist denominations in today’s world and more than 140 Lutheran denominations. By comparison Adventism has remained remarkably united. The manner in which Adventism is organized certainly has much to do with that. There continues to be a remarkable unity in the way the church operates. All 70,000 churches and 65,000 groups around the world use the same materials and follow to a large extent the same programs and policies.  The various levels of the church are in constant contact with each other. Frequent visits and consultations, and international publications and meetings play an important role in keeping Adventist believers together in their faith and lifestyle, and in keeping them focused on the church’s mission.

Challenges

Adventists have many things to be thankful for. But good things may all too easily be taken for granted. Or, there may be insufficient attention for the changes in the world around us, and for the way in which the church itself has changed (or has failed to change). 

Even though the church has become a truly worldwide movement, one may ask whether it has not retained too many American features in the way it operates. Today, less than six percent of all church members live in North America, but American values and approaches continue to dominate the church in many ways. And even though the church has by and large moved with the times, it presently seems to find it extremely difficult to relate to the postmodern thinking of the western world, in particular among the youth. 

It is gratifying to see how the church has retained its core values in the area of stewardship and discipleship. However, it does not find it easy to update the ways in which these traditional Adventist values must be translated to be relevant in twenty-first century daily life.  Once upon a time Adventists were at the forefront with regard to many health issues, but this is no longer the case. While Adventists should be leading the campaign for a cleaner world and for a more sustainable way of life, they have sadly missed that opportunity.

Thank God for the way in which the church has grown in its theology and for the fact that doctrinal change has been possible.  Sadly enough, however, many ideas now appear to be set in concrete, and independent thinking is not always appreciated. Furthermore, it is a sad reality that many members (leaders and the people in the pew alike) often succumb to the temptation to ‘major’ in theological ‘minors’.

These and other aspects continue to present challenges to our beloved church. Unity is an important ideal, but could it be that the concept of ‘unity’ is by many understood in terms of a rigid ‘uniformity’ that fails to take adequate note of the richness of the cultural backgrounds of the church around the world? And could it be that we must yet learn to use the contemporary media in ways that appeal to the secular people of the world around us? And that our organizational models need a revision to remain in tune with today’s society?

Nothing to fear?

One of the most quoted statements by Ellen White tells us: ‘We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history’ (Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 196).  This statement is as true after 150 years of Adventist history as it was a century ago. But it does not release us from the responsibility to learn from our colorful and inspiring past and to combine faith, creativity and courage in our efforts to learn from our history, and to face the future with the conviction that the Lord will continue to lead as long, as we are willing to keep our eyes open to discover the new ways where He may take us. As we celebrate 150 years of Adventism our prayer should be: Thank you, Lord, for what you taught us, but keep us learning . . .

To learn more about the Adventist Anniversary, please visit the following web page: www.adventist.org/150

 

pictures: 1. William Miller, Pioneer of Adventism; 2. The Seventh-Day Adventist Logo; 3. The Minneapolis General Conference session of 1888; 4. The Atlanta General Conference Session in 2010;

By: Reinder Bruinsma, european Adventist leader; CD EUDNews;