The History of Adventism
I have, for many years, had an interest in reaching out with the gospel to those in other faiths, cults or groups with cult-like tendencies. It has always been a curious matter for me to explain why certain cults arose within a relatively short space of time (a matter of decades). Further, why several of those originated and located not far from each other in a particular geographical region within the United States. The answer seems to lie in that Adventism preceded the cults with an emphasis on a specific date when the Lord was expected to return.
Phil Johnson, Elder at Grace Community Church, preaching on whether Seventh Day Adventism is a cult, observed:
One of the classic works on quasi-Christian cult studies is a book titled The Four Major Cults, by Anthony Hoekema. The four cults he deals with are Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Seventh-day Adventism. It intrigues me that all four groups started in America. All of them began in the nineteenth century, in the wake of the religious fervor and perfectionist teaching that followed Charles Finney from New England across Pennsylvania to Oberlin Ohio. It was an era of significant religious confusion, homebrew doctrines, unchecked error. (Much like the evangelical movement today.) In the words of Scripture, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” so you had both men and women starting their own religions. Most of them had deep roots in the superstitions of freemasonry, spiritism, and other occult beliefs. They blended their superstitions with biblical language. They claimed they had some new light received directly from heaven and people followed them in droves. The four major cults Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Seventh-day Adventism all were born within a 250 mile radius of each other.’. i
The root of Seventh Day Adventism is found in a document written by William Miller in 1822 in upstate New York. Mormonism started in 1830, in Western New York, the first Seventh Day Adventist Church began in 1863, the Jehovah’s Witnesses started in 1870 in Pittsburgh, the Christian Scientists began in Boston in 1879 and each group grew rapidly. ii
Similarly, John Thomas the original leader of the Christadelphians was a keen student of Bible prophecy and sailed to the USA. He lived in New York and had an interest in the Adventist movement. It is notable that they are another non-Trinitarian cult that arose in the 1800’s from that locality.
Some have suggested that counterfeit movements crept in unnoticed on the bandwagon of genuine gospel proclamation and revival. It was a period of great religious fervour and excitement about the Lord’s return and individuals starting new movements could quickly gain a following. Others may comment that there was room for individuals to express their religious freedom with a lesser degree of resistance than in other parts of the world. I am convinced that whilst those are important factors, there is more to it than that when we look at the history and the similarities of the movements stemming from Adventists in comparison with the cults.
William Miller seems to have started a chain reaction with Adventism and then many cults developed rapidly. Coupled with this, there is a need to be aware of the incalculable damage that cult-like teaching inevitably causes within mainstream Christianity today. We must be careful not to be susceptible to the same resurfaced teachings and be fully equipped to reach others caught up with these doctrines so that we can reach them positively and lovingly with the true gospel once delivered to the saints.
Many doctrines of the cults are simply rebranded, renamed and repackaged forms of numerous heresies. They are easy to identify if you know what you are looking for and were refuted soundly and thoroughly in the early church. For example Arius rejected the equality of the Son and the Father as Jehovah’s Witnesses do today. Oneness Pentecostalism is similar to that of Modalism in relation to their non-affirmation of the Trinity. Augustine alone refuted numerous heresies, as did Irenaeus before him. That is not to say that the author agrees on all secondary matters with either Augustine or Irenaeus. It is the primary doctrines that we are concerned with here. Furthermore it is so often characteristic of the cults or those who espouse cult-like teachings that secondary matters become elevated to such an extent that they becomes primary This way a systematic theology becomes skewed resulting in a different gospel.
To ensure that I referred to some primary sources rather than relying entirely on what authors of my theological convictions have stated, I have made use of www.adventist.org which has been helpful. The fact that it is current is important to being accurate and representative, since views on several aspects have changed over the years.
I have also used a classic text ‘The Four Major Cults’ by Anthony Hoekema. Some may argue it is quite dated, but it is actually very useful for the task in hand, namely the history of Adventism in relation to other cults. Hoekema was wisely insistent upon drawing from primary sources and recommended that others also follow that example iii.
Lastly, I used ‘A look into Seventh-Day Adventism’ which was published twenty years ago by the Reachout Trust. In their efforts to provide a fair evaluation, they were in contact with the then Communication Director of the Seventh Day Adventist Church to obtain their 392 page book ‘Seventh Day Adventists Believe’ with a Biblical exposition of 27 of their fundamental doctrines iv.
Since the focus of this article is the impact of Adventism on other cults, there are some areas in Seventh Day Adventism that are relatively unique and won’t be mentioned in detail here. For instance Sabbath observance, the Investigative Judgement (the teaching that in 1844 Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary to commence the work of investigative judgement) and the doctrine of Satan as the scapegoat.
The Impact of Adventism on the Cults
1. The End of the world
It is probably no surprise if a Jehovah’s Witness knocks on your door and, from the outset, asks you about the state of the world opening up a conversation on eschatology. A discerning Christian may well remind them that several predictions about the Second Coming have come and gone. Often a discussion follows about the precise meaning, interpretation and explanation of that. Similarly Adventists predicted the Second Coming and have been forced to offer alternative explanations.
You may well be asking, ‘How did the original founders of these movements arrive at these specific dates, not learn their lesson the first time round, and retain a significant proportion of their followers?’ On the official website of the Seventh Day Adventists, Elizabeth Lechleitner wrote an article entitled ‘Seventh-Day Adventist Church emerged from religious fervour of the 19th Century’. She tries to explain what is referred to as ‘The Great Disappointment of October 22 1844, by mentioning that William Miller was a Baptist Minister, many were expecting the literal return of Christ and they weren’t surprised that he had set a date. v
It is interesting that Lechleitner recounts the significance of the context of the times, speaks dismissively of the Second Great Awakening, yet affirms that many Millerites left their movement.
But the Millerites’ belief in a literal Second Coming—along with new understandings of prophecy, the seventh-day Sabbath and the state of the dead—would prove pivotal. These core doctrines would anchor the early Advent movement amid a climate of religious turmoil.
The U.S. Northeast in the early 19th Century was a hotbed of revival. The so-called Second Great Awakening ignited movements such as the Shakers, early Mormons, the forerunners of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Millerites and a host of eccentric offshoots. In fact, upstate New York was dubbed the “burned-over district,” referring to the fact that evangelists had exhausted the region’s supply of unconverted people.
In this climate, the Millerites weathered the Great Disappointment, when the group expectantly, but futilely, waited for Christ’s return. With what Adventist historian George Knight calls the “mathematical certainty of their faith” dashed, many Millerites deserted the movement. vi
Hoekema notes that Miller never became a Seventh-Day Adventist, though his prophecies are at the root of its history.
Though raised in a Christian home he had become a sceptic, even to the extent of rejecting the Bible as divine revelation.viiAfterwards, he studied for two years, aided by Cruden’s Concordance and, surprisingly, without the aid of commentaries, determined in 1818 that the affairs of that present state would be wound up within around twenty five years.viiiThough reluctant to publish his apparent findings, and following four years of further study, a friend encouraged him to publicly announce his views. This opened up frequent requests for him to speak, and he became a Baptist preacher in 1834.ix
Miller performed ‘mathematical gymnastics’ in order to calculate when he thought the Lord would return. He somehow decided to combine the reference in Daniel 8:14 regarding the 2300 evenings and mornings which must elapse before the sanctuary would be cleansedx (which refers to the Maccabean cleansing of the temple in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes) with the commencement of Daniel’s 70 week prophecy in 9:24-27. He assumed that the 2300 days were years and that Daniel’s prophecy in 8:14 started from Artaxerxes decree to enable Ezra to return to Jerusalem in Ezra 7:11-26xi, not the command given by Artaxerxes to restore and rebuild Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2:1-10.
It becomes apparent that many leaders of these early cults were formerly from mainstream denominations and broke away, starting their own movements. William Miller was once a Baptist Preacher and Ellen White was formerly a Methodist. We should also bear in mind that cults frequently attempt to draw members from various churches.
It is not just the likes of the Jehovah’s Witness and Adventists that have fallen prey to this type of end of world date setting. Today though, it is not uncommon to access teaching on some satellite channels where similar calculations are proposed again and again, often making great assumptions in their methods of calculation and interpretation. These supposed teachers usually comment that they are more certain now than people could have been in previous times because of specific events, or instead point towards a number of seemingly incredible occurrences that surely can’t be a coincidence. Time and again people are sucked in, failing to take Matthew 24:36 seriously, or to observe how many times others have predicted the end of the world and woken up the next morning and nothing has changed.
2. The Trinity
Though Seventh Day Adventists state that they do uphold the co-equality contained within the Trinity nowadays, there were serious problems amongst some of their advocates from their early Adventist beginnings, remarkably similar to that which Jehovah’s Witness teach. To quote Lechleitner again, we read the following.
‘Modern Seventh-day Adventists might find early Adventist pioneers peculiar. Some didn’t believe in the Trinity or the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and thought Christ was a created being. Many observed Sabbath from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday, regardless of actual sunset times. They also had no qualms over eating unclean meats. All this, however, would change in the coming decades’. xii
Some evangelicals state that the Seventh Day Adventists are a cult whilst others that it contains an element of cult-like teaching. Most cults will in some way attempt to undermine the Trinity or the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is astounding from the above quote is that belief in the Trinity, personhood of the Holy Spirit, Sabbath observance and eating unclean meats are contained in the same paragraph, apparently as if of equal importance!
Similarly, Jehovah’s Witness deny that the Holy Spirit is a person and the New World Translation, (see paragraph below) substitutes ‘Spirit’ for ‘active force’ in Genesis 1:2. This despite the fact that there are numerous references to personal characteristics of the Holy Spirit such as Ephesians 4:30 which remind us not to grieve the Holy Spirit. Clearly you cannot grieve a ‘force.’
‘Now the earth was formless and desolate, and there was darkness upon the surface of the watery deep, and God’s active force was moving about over the surface of the waters.’ (NWT) ’xiii
Another similarity is that while some of the Adventist pioneers, according to the official SDA website, thought Christ was a created being, the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain that Jesus isn’t equal with the Father and have altered John 1:1 to uphold that, by changing ‘was God’ to ‘was a God’:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.’ (NWT)
3. Michael the Archangel and the Clear Word Bible
Adventism preceded the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults, although Jehovah’s Witness either tend not to mention their links and similarities with Adventism, or to downplay them, it is noticeable that they both state that Michael the Archangel is Jesus. Confusingly however, this doesn’t mean that Seventh Day Adventists believe that Jesus is a created being and therefore not divine. Rather, they believe that when Michael was manifested in the Old Testament, that was the pre-incarnate Christ who wasn’t created. xiv
In a peculiar reversal of scripture twisting the SDA’s brought out the Clear Word Bible in 1994 as a devotional paraphrase which leans heavily towards supporting Adventist teaching. In the same way that Jehovah’s Witness have had their version, the New World Translation, to justify their doctrines, the SDA’s paraphrase affirms SDA teaching. In Revelation 12:7 of the Clear Word Bible, we now discover, from the text itself, that Michael is God’s Son.
‘This controversy between God and the dragon began years ago in heaven. God’s Son Michael and the loyal angels fought against the dragon and his angels.’ (CWB) xv
Matt Slick from Christian Research Apologetics Ministry also notes that, while SDA’s affirm the Deity of Christ, the Clear Word Bible offers problematic citations more aligned to that of the Jehovah’s Witness rather than what the Bible actually affirms. Note how John 8:58 and John 10:30 are weakened respectively, removing the essential ‘I AM’ statement and adding the ‘so close, we’re one’ basing the statement on closeness as opposed to nature…
‘Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.’ (John 8:58)
‘Jesus answered, “Because I existed before Abraham was born.’ (CWB, John 8:58)
“I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:30)
“You see, my Father and I are so close, we’re one.’ (CWB, John 10:30)
4. Authoritarian Leadership and Extra Biblical Revelation
It is interesting that William Miller was formerly a Baptist preacher though never joined the Seventh Day Adventists, although Charles Taze Russell who founded the Jehovah’s Witness movement started out as a Seventh Day Adventist. xvi In 1840 and 1842, Miller lectured in Portland on the Second Advent and the Harmon family (Ellen White was formerly Ellen Gould Harmon) took on those teachings and were disfellowshipped from the Methodist Church. xvii
The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and Seventh Day Adventists all depend upon extra biblical revelation supplied by their founders. The Mormons have the Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants and the Book of Mormon that they hold on the same level as the Bible and Joseph Smith claimed to have special revelation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have the New World Translation developed from the teachings Charles Taze Russell which alters the meaning of several texts, particularly relating to the deity of the Lord. Mary Baker Eddy wrote ‘Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures’ which is her lens to interpret the Bible.
Some may say that Seventh Day Adventists don’t quite fit into this category, though Ellen White’s teachings are held in such high esteem it is difficult to even question them. Hoekema notes that although the authors of ‘Questions on Doctrine’ don’t place her with those who wrote Scripture they do compare her with the prophets that lived during the two testaments but whose utterances were never included in the canon of Scripture. xviii
The Official Seventh Day Adventist site states the following…
‘The Scriptures testify that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and we believe it was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. Her writings speak with prophetic authority and provide comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.’ (Num. 12:6; 2 Chron. 20:20; Amos 3:7; Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10; 22:8, 9.) xix
From a cursory reading this may appear almost reasonable. However the ‘remnant church’ here means exclusively Seventh Day Adventists which is characteristic of other groups that claim they alone have special revelation, or teaching which other groups don’t have. In addition, Hoekema makes the following astute observation.
‘Though Seventh-Day Adventists claim to test Mrs White’s teachings by the Bible, they call her writings “inspired counsels from the Lord” and that “the Holy Spirit opened to her mind important events and called her to give instructions for these last days.” If this is so, however, who may criticize her writings? If they are inspired, they must be true. If her instructions come from the Holy Spirit, they must be true. How then could anyone dare to suggest that any of her instructions might be contrary to Scripture?’ xx
Though some of what Seventh Day Adventists teach today seems to be much less problematic than what was affirmed from the outset, we would be wise to consider some of the splinter groups that emerged late in the last century with their roots in Seventh Day Adventism. Some of these groups again had extreme authoritarian leaders with delusions of grandeur who were able to obtain a following and cause much harm. Phil Johnson notes that several cults broke away from Seventh Day Adventists including the Branch Davidians, the Worldwide Church of God, and the Shepherd’s Rod. xxi
Interestingly many of Ellen White’s visions occurred in public meetings and she would swoon and then claim to receive revelation from God; not really that different to some of the more extreme hyper-charismatic cults and cult-like leaders today.
5. Soul sleep and annihilation
Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians hold the view that when a person dies, they immediately are no longer conscious until their resurrection. However Scripture affirms otherwise.
Psalm 16:10, 55:15, Isaiah 14:9-10 & Proverbs 23:14 demonstrate that there is life in Sheol after a person has physically died and gone there.xxiiLuke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and Philippians 1:23 affirm that at death our soul is separated from our body and goes immediately to be with the Lord, and Hebrews 12:23 confirms that the spirits of the dead are already with the Lord.
Again Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians state that the wicked will be annihilated, though Scripture clearly teaches otherwise (Matt. 25:46; Rev.14:11; 20:10).
Many of the cults persist with legalistic doctrines. So many issues from Colossians 2:16-23, such as being judgemental over what is eaten, or esteeming certain days and intruding into those things which have not actually been seen, are applicable to Seventh Day Adventism. Romans14 helps us to maintain a balance on secondary issues to enable unity on the essentials and avoid division on secondary matters. Consequently a form of legalism has resulted mainly through Ellen White’s teaching.
Whilst in one sense, avoiding alcohol, tea and coffee and keeping a diet that is similar to a kosher one could certainly be argued to have health benefits, this places a greater restriction than necessary and is legalistic when enforced. Interestingly the Mormons also abstain from alcohol, tea and coffee too. Jehovah’s Witnesses are burdened by the expected amount of hours that they are supposed to spend on the doors or on the street. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the elders determined to place no greater burden than necessary upon the Gentile believers and Peter said ‘Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear’ (Acts 15:10)?
Adventism and the religious fervour during the 1800’s in the United States had a massive impact on the cults which sprang up following the Great Disappointment in 1844. The similarities between some of the resultant cults are striking, not only with regard to the timing of their beginnings and their close locality, but their obsession on predicting the exact date of the Lord’s return, the extreme authoritarian styles of leadership, and spectacular claims to receiving special revelation.
This over emphasis on Adventist date setting shattered the hopes of some, though rapidly gained the attention and excitement of others who broke into various divisions. Their followers were kept interested by feeding an insatiable appetite for continual fresh revelation linked in with predicted dates of the Second Coming. It also opened the door to all kinds of errant teachings such as those that undermine the Deity of the Lord Jesus, the Person of the Holy Spirit, equating Michael with Jesus, soul sleep, annihilationism and legalism.
The lack of discernment resembles in many ways the cult-like teaching that has swept some of the mega churches and the Christian media channels now. Many of the cult leaders were originally from well- established denominations and, worryingly, sought to recruit followers from those churches. The same is happening in our climate today. Those from the cults resent being identified as cults and somehow claim to have a unique revelation though consider themselves as sound in the faith. They claim to affirm the Bible but interpret the Bible from extra-biblical writings or teachings and attempt to prove that they can be reconciled. The ones that are blurred round the edges are in some ways the most dangerous since they are the hardest to identify, though a lack of clarity is a tell-tale sign of unorthodox doctrine. The lesson for today is not to deviate from Scripture, to hold to the gospel and to learn from the past.