Adventism’s past: a mixed bag

The book had been on my reading list for some time, but other reading—related to a current writing project—took priority. Last week, as I was considering what books to pack for our short holiday in Denmark, I decided that the 733-page biography of J.N. Andrews by Gilbert Valentine would be one of them. I am keenly interested in the history of our denomination and of the American context in which the Advent movement was born. And I admire Valentine as a gifted historian. I found his book on W.W. Prescott very much worth reading, but I enjoyed, in particular, The Prophet and the Presidents and his recently re-published account of the complicated arrangements regarding the literary heritage of Ellen G. White. Valentine is a meticulous researcher who tells a story as it, with the good things and the bad things that he encounters.

As I write this week’s blog I have almost finished the Andrews biography, and my high expectations have certainly been met. It is fascinating reading, and, although I think I am reasonably well-read in Adventist history, every chapter contains information that was totally new to me. The book provides a meticulous description of Andrews’s life—of the kind of person he was, his background, his family relationships, and his career as a preacher, author, scholar and missionary. But its value is hugely increased by a wealth of background information about the beginnings of Adventism and the way in which the key personalities in the church—in particular James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith—related to each other.

It remains a fascinating and inspiring story how in a few decades a small disjointed, discouraged group of people grew into an organized denominational entity, with a few hundred congregations spread over the Northeast of the United States and beyond. It is a story that has strengthened the conviction of millions of people around the world that their church is not just any religious organization, but that it constitutes a movement called by God for a special mission at the end of times. Valentine tell this story of faith, commitment, personal sacrifice, and of the steady growth of the church against all odds. But he also tells another story that must also be heard. The “pioneers” were no saints, who always operated in total harmony, and the doctrinal development was not as smooth as has often been suggested. Fanaticism and extremism often raised their ugly heads. Controversies about organizational and other practical matters could turn quite nasty. Interpersonal relationships between the leaders of the fledgling movement were frequently marred by jealousy, misunderstandings and suspicions. The question whether or not the visions of Ellen White were of divine origin remained a hot issue for many Adventist believers in the early decades.

Why is it important that the positive as well as the negative elements of our church’s history are carefully chronicled? The answer to that question is that a balanced view of our history will help us deal with the challenges we face today. A sizable group of Adventists believes that the past of our church must guide us in our dealing with the present. Our present-day doctrinal views and our policy decisions must reflect those of the pioneers. This is what the defenders of “historic” Adventism tell us. They maintain that the only safe way to stay on course is to remain true to what the founders of our movement have modeled for us! This way of thinking is based on a highly romanticized view of the past, as if the church of the first half century of its existence was a period of unmitigated brotherly and sisterly love, when all were united in their search for truth and allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit in all their practical decisions. The reality is that Adventism’s past is a mixed bag of lots of inspiring things, but also of many elements that showed all too clearly the human weaknesses of the leaders and their followers.

The past can inspire us but it also provides us with warnings and case studies of what went wrong. Moreover, the context in which early Adventism developed differs so greatly from our twenty-first century world that the beliefs and actions of our early leaders cannot furnish us with clear-cut answers for all present challenges.”Historic Adventism,” with its one-sided view of the past, cannot be our compass for the present and for the future. Those who believe that it can, should carefully read Valentine’s biography of J.N. Andrews. All others will, however, also benefit greatly from this captivating book.