The Adventist Church—was its past better than its present?


Many Seventh-day Adventists think that their church is not doing so well. They have no difficulty in listing a series of things which they feel should change. The solution, they feel, is a return to the past. Rather than opting for a ‘progressive’ Adventism they prefer a form of ‘historic’ Adventism. However, when you enter into a discussion with these people, you find that many of them do not really have a clear picture of what the church of the past looked like. They have a rather romanticized idea of the true state of the church of a century or so ago.

My mother was baptized when she was sixteen. This is now more than eighty years ago. At some point in time her father had accepted the Adventist message. I do not know whether this was also true for her mother. Her father—my grandfather—did not stay with his new faith for very long. From isolated statements from him and from  my mother I concluded that he left the small church of which he was a member after a protracted and ugly controversy among the members.

Years later, when I had already been a minister for some time, my mother sometimes said to me: ‘ If people tell you that in the past the church was better than it is now—don’t believe it. I know better.’ During the past week I received strong confirmation of that statement. I read the fascinating biography of Arthur G. Daniells, written by Benjamin McArthur, an accomplished Adventist historian.[i] Daniells was the president of the General Conference from 1901 until 1922—longer than any president before or after him.

Daniells is portrayed as a man with a strong will and a clear vision, a capable church administrator and a tireless promoter of the mission outreach of the church. He played a key role in the reorganization of the church in 1901 and the ensuing years. His experiences in New Zealand and Australia and his extensive travel had widened his vista. He selected strong people for his leadership team and had close ties with both Ellen White and her influential son Willie.

Much was accomplished during Daniells’s period in office and the church owes him a great deal. So much is abundantly clear from McArthur’s book. However, this biography also provides a wealth of information about the problems and challenges Daniells encountered wherever he turned, and the many negative things that came his way. A prominent example of this is his heated controversy with Dr. Harvey Kellogg.

Reading the story of Arthur Daniells by this capable author—based on meticulous research—does not make for unmitigated happiness. It is not just a tale of church growth and faith, commitment and courage, but also an account of lots of strife and unholy competition, of apostasy and bitterness. It tells us about the opening up of new mission fields and the founding of countless new institutions, but also about frequent financial mismanagement and about unchristian tensions between men (yes, almost only men!) with hugely inflated egos.

I realize that a book like this has its limitation. A basic problem is that history (including the history of a denomination) focuses mainly on leaders and the developments in organizations. This is also true for this biography. We learn preciously little about what happened at the grass roots and about how ‘ordinary’ members experienced their faith. But the over-all picture is clear. There is much in this period of our past that may inspire us, but is does not offer a blueprint for the church of today and does not tell us how to meet the challenges of our times. Even the theological views of this period do not offer a standard by which to judge those of today—as if we did not learn anything in the past one hundred years.

If people tell you that in the past things were much better in the church han they are today, this book about Daniells may help you to revise your opinion.

[i]  Benjamin McArthur, A.G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2015).