Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons

 

I knew there are more Mormons and more Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands than Seventh-day Adventists. However, I was surprised to learn that the difference was that significant. I acquired this information this past week when reading the most recent issue of Spectrum—the independent quarterly journal of an Adventists organization in the United States. In a very solid article[1], three experts compare a few aspects of the three important religious movements that originated in nineteenth century North America and have since spread around the globe.

I learned quite a bit from the article. The Adventists, with about 17 million baptized members, are the largest of the three movements. According to the statistics provided by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (as the Mormon church is officially called) there are about 14 million Mormons in the world, while the Watchtower Society reports its membership at close to 7.3 million. In comparing these figures a few things need to be kept in mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses only report active ‘publishers’, while Mormons keep those who have strayed from the faith in their books, and also count youth from Mormon families, who have not yet made the choice to become a member. Adventists, on the other hand, only count baptized members, and those who leave the church are supposed to be taken off the membership list, but, admittedly, the Adventist membership registration is far from perfect.

The distribution of the three communities over the world differs a great deal. Half of all Mormons live in the United States. They have been reasonably successful in South-America, but not so in Asia and Africa. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are spread a little more evenly, but they have, by comparison, a good-sized membership in Europe (about 1.6 million).  Only around 7 percent of all Adventists live in North-America. They are more numerous in South- and Inter-America, Africa and some parts of Asia.

I was surprised to read that, of the three movements, the Adventists have thus far been least successful in Europe. This also applies to the Netherlands. According to the authors of article there are almost 9,000 Mormons in the Netherlands, almost 30,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, but only around 5,000 Adventists. Why have the Adventists not done any better? I can hardly suppose that Adventist theology calls for so much more resistance with people who consider changing their religious affiliation, than the teachings of the Mormons and the Witnesses.

How can the success of the Mormons be explained? Their theology, I think, is quite bizarre in many respects. I once talked about my faith with a lady, who at a given point said: ‘I have just become a Mormon. If you had come a bit earlier, I may well have become a member of your church. I was looking more than anything else for a warm church, where people are nice to me.’ The Mormons are well known for the cordial way in which they accept people into their midst and for the many social activities that strengthen the ties between the members.

The Mormons are also known for being very meticulous with their contacts. Wherever in the world you enter a Mormon center, you will be asked for your name and address. Soon after you get home you can be sure to have a Mormon missionary at your door.

And why do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have more success than Adventists? Years ago I had a talk with dr. Anne van der Meiden, a theologian and a specialist in the area of religious communication. His PhD dissertation dealt with the manner in which Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘win’ their converts. He believes their success is largely due to the absoluteness of their message. If you have heard the message of the Watchtower Society, you have no choice but to accept it, if you do not want to risk damnation. I asked him what he thought would be the best mission strategy for Adventists. He told me Adventists will have a problem if they are too reluctant to tell the people they will definitely be lost if they do not accept the Adventist message. Why, after all, would they want to take this awkward detour via Adventism, if the Lord is willing to accept them anyway?

It would seem to me that Adventists can learn more from the Mormons than from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not, as far as their theology is concerned. Adventists, I believe, have a far more coherent and convincing theology than the two other movements. But dealing very carefully with all contacts and ensuring that every Adventist church is a good place to be, are absolute priorities. On both counts, in many places, there is still a lot of improvements to be made.



[1]  Ronald Lawson, Ryan T. Cragun, Fritz Guy, ‘Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Three “American Originals” and How They’ve Grown’, Spectrum, Summer 2013, pp. 59-73.

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Communicating with youth in 1967

 

I am not very good in keeping my study tidy, even though I often plan to better my life. Piles of book and papers tend to form quickly all around me. But when my wife stays home while I am on a trip, she avails herself often of the opportunity to create some order. She is reticent in touching too many things on my desk, since she knows I would not be happy about that. But she tries to rearrange the piles of books and papers that have formed on the floor, and makes sure that the vacuum cleaner reaches the dust in the corners of my room. Sometimes unexpected discoveries are made.

When she tried to sort some things out, a little over a week ago, the 1967 July issue of the journal for Dutch Adventist youth (the Jonge Advent Heraut; literally translated: the Junior Advent Herald) was found between a few folders with documents. The very neatly printed black and white journal of 24 pages on A5-format was completely dedicated to the youth congress of that year.

At the time, now over 45 years ago, the tradition of having an annual youth congress already existed. It was always held in Utrecht. The congresses I remember were held in the ‘Kunsten en Wetenschappen’ building on the Mariaplaats in central Utrecht, and later in the temporary building Tivoli, situated at the Lepelenburg. At first I participated as a member of the youth club, where as, quite soon, I became gradually involved with the program.

In 1967 pastor K.C. van Oossanen was the youth director of the Netherlands Union. He was assisted by two other leaders (of the two ‘conferences’ which were still in existence): H.J. Smit and P. van Drongelen. I was a non-ordained pastor in the province of Friesland, and was stationed in Sneek, but became more and more involved with youth projects. It was not very long until I would move to our educational center ‘Oud Zandbergen’ in Huis ter Heide.

The youth paper was edited by K.C. van Oossanen. Only a small privileged group called him by his first name, ‘Karel’. It took some time until I also acquired that privilege. This, however, still was the time in Holland when only surnames were used! The first article in this issue—no fewer than 11 pages—reported on the youth congress. Its was signed by ‘a visitor.’ As time has gone by I have seen sufficient literary products of K.C. van Oossanen to be able to say with a fair degree of certainty that behind this ‘a visitor’ the hand of the chief editor is clearly visible.

The second article (eight pages of small print) provided the verbatim text of a sermon preached by dr. B.B. Beach. At that time Beach was the education director of the ‘division’ of which the Netherlands Union was a part. R. Bruinsma—even the first name of a young non-ordained pastor of 25 could not be mentioned—was the translator. This is also clear from the full page picture on which dr. Beach exhorts the audience with his characteristic gesture of his index finger pointing to audience. I stand next to him. Both of us have gained considerable weight over the years. After 45 years it was still pleasing to read that ‘R. Bruinsma provided an excellent translation.’ May my vanity be forgiven.

I have re-read the sermon. It is rather lengthy for a youthful audience and today the language sounds rather formal, but apart from that, the sermon would be well worth listening to today.

Our way of communicating, however, has thoroughly changed. Who today would want to publish a journal for youth, calling them ‘young heralds’? I suppose many young people might even wonder what a ‘herald’ is. Who would nowadays want to publish a journal for the youth in black and white, with 24 pages of almost exclusively small print, and with a main article of 6,000 words? Of course, I was well aware that today’s ways of communicating are not quite the same as those we used 45 years ago. But this unexpected archeological discovery in many study uniquely reminded me how big the difference is between then and now.  (PS: And who knows what might come to light when I decide to really reorganize my books and papers?)

 

 

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Peace

 

I have never been in the military service.  I could make use of the Dutch law that stipulated that those who were studying for a ‘ spiritual profession’ were exempt from this duty. So, it may be a little too easy for me to state that I have always been opposed to participation in any kind of military conflict or even to the bearing of arms. In those days, when I was approaching twenty, in most European countries Adventist young men were expected to avoid military service. Usually they chose to be a ‘non-combattant’ or they opted for a (longer) period of civil service.

In the United States the situation began to change around the 1960s-1970s. It gradually became more ‘normal’ for Adventist young men to enter the military, or, when the Selective Service system no longer existed, to choose a voluntary career in the military. The attitude towards military involvement changed drastically. I remember how shocked I was when, shortly after the first Iraq war, I visited an Adventist church service somewhere in Florida. During the worship service a few young men who had just returned from a term of service in Iraq received a heroes’ welcome!

I realize it is difficult to insist that using force is always, under any circumstances, wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes violence must be met with armed force. And, I realize that some people must be willing to implement that force in a responsible way. I realize further that I personally profit from the fact that we have policemen who arrest criminals and who can stop undue aggression.

But I continue to have a deep abhorrence for everything that is associated with war and violence. I find it utterly impossible to understand that some countries have laws that make it very easy for its citizens to buy fire arms. And I find it even more difficult to understand that some of my fellow-Adventist believers do not agree with me and have long abandoned the traditional Adventist viewpoint of non-combattancy. This sense of abhorrence for war and violence was re-ignited yesterday when I saw the pictures of the rows of victims in Damascus, wrapped in white cloth, of what most likely had been a poison gas attack by the Syrian army. How can people do something like this to other people? The sad reality is that Syria is not the only place on earth where people die because of armed conflicts.

I was, however, pleased yesterday to also see another bit of news. I received an e-mail message to inform me that there is a totally revamped website of what might be referred to as the Adventist peace movement: http://www.adventistpeace.org, sponsored by the Adventist Peace Fellowship. While I travelled yesterday by high speed train (equipped with internet) to Arlanda Airport (near Stockholm), to fly from there back to the Netherlands, I spent a considerable amount of time on this renewed site. I was pleasantly surprised by the great array of activities and initiatives. The interest for peace may actually be greater than I feared. I would like to suggest to all my readers to surf to this site and, may be, receive inspiration to also become more actively involved in the promotion of peace.

I could mention quite a few aspects of early Adventist traditions which I would not like to see return. But I would welcome a rekindling of the early Adventist rejection of everything associated with violence and war. I know that violence and war will continue to be part of our imperfect world. But followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, have been called to work for peace. Wherever and in whatever way they can!

 

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Heaven

 

I am about half way in the book by Hans Buddingh about the history of Surinam. It has over 500 pages, but as far as I am concerned it could even be thicker. I have visited Surinam only three times and, as I read this book, I am thinking how nice it would be to go there again. But if I should make another trip to Surinam, I would want to go further inland than I did on the earlier occasions, when I stayed mostly in Paramaribo and in the coastal region.

The book, of course, pays a lot of attention to the issue of slavery. On page 125 I found a short statement that I kept thinking about these last few days. The slaves were often treated in a beastly manner and many did not survive the punishments they received. But some reports indicate that the slaves were not afraid of death, for they believed that in the hereafter they would be served by white men!

Surely, they did not want to miss that! If you are a slave and must obey every whim of your white master, it is not so strange that your ultimate desire is that in the future the roles will be reversed. That would indeed be paradise!

At home I have an interesting book entitled The History of Heaven. It gives a lot of examples of how people, throughout the ages, have thought about heaven. These views have been very largely determined by historical and cultural circumstances. (I cannot take the book of the shelf and cite some examples, since I am, since last Monday, once again in Sweden, assisting further with the renovation of my son’s house.)

Muslim warriors are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing that they will be recompensed for all their suffering. In the hereafter they will enjoy the company of a good number of beautiful virgins.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah could not think of a better future for his people than that they would enjoy the fruits of the vineyard they had planted and would live in the house they had built for themselves. Heaven for him was the place where one did no longer have to work for the benefit of others.

For many Christians heaven is the place where, immediately after their death, they continue to live as immortal souls, waiting for the resurrection of their body. I have never quite understood why you would want to get a body if your soul is already enjoying eternal bliss and singing its eternal hallelujahs.

If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I inevitably think of the magnificent beach, some fifteen kilometers from Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, where my wife and I lived in the nineteen eighties for about four years. On Sundays we usually spent some hours under the palm trees at the beach. But when I think a bit further . . . We could enjoy our carefree time at the beach, but life was not quite as carefree and pleasant for the women who carried their baskets with pine apples on their head, and tried to sell them to the (mostly white) people on the beach in order to earn a small amount of money to buy food for their families. . .

For many Bible readers the last two chapter of the book of Revelation contain exciting information. There we read about the New Jerusalem with its golden streets and its pearly gates. To be honest, it does not mean all that much to me, but I realize that it must have been a picture that appealed to the people some 2,000 years ago: a city with high walls and strong gates that was totally secure. I am frustrated, however, when I read that there will be no more sea. No doubt, for the people of Bible times who tended to be afraid of the sea, this was good news. For the first century readers this new world was unbelievably wonderful, since all things that caused anxiety had been removed.

The problem with all human pictures about heaven is that they are human ideas. It cannot be otherwise. We only have human images for our dreams about eternity. But we must not forget that when dealing with eternity and everything associated with it, we are dealing with categories that belong to the domain of the divine. Our human words and imaginations can never be adequate. For the ex-slaves of Surinam, heaven will even be better than a place where they will be served by white people. And, even though I find it hard to believe that this is possible, eternity will be a lot better than the beach near Abidjan. (And for the time being I will assume that the statement about the absence of  the sea, should be understood symbolically.)

 

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El Negro

 

Several people have told me that a visit to the Polare book store in Maastricht—since 2004 housed in a centuries-old Dominican church—is certainly worth a special trip to Limburg (the southernmost part of the Netherlands). So far, I have not been in this bookstore. But since just over four weeks there is, much closer to where I live, a new bookstore that no doubt rivals the one in Maastricht. The well-known Waanders bookstore in Zwolle has moved to the Broerenkerk (one of the many old churches in this historic city).

In a tourist leaflet I read a description of this church (that, like the one in Maastricht, was built by the Dominicans): The Broerenkerk is a late gothic ‘hall church’. The choir is in the main nave, adjacent to the cloister. The southern transept is more narrow and shorter. The length, measured on the outside, is 65,5 meters, while the church is (also measured on the outside) 19 meters wide. The distance from the floor, with its tombstones, to the highest part of the main nave is 26 meters.’  So, we are talking about a substantial building! The interior has now been adapted to its new function. The magnificent church organ (that will be used for regular concerts), still dominates in its full splendor the wall at the end of the nave. ‘Waanders in de Broeren’ has a first-class ‘grand café’.  But it is what is claims to be: a very good general bookstore with a wide assortment of books.

Last night I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this church-made-bookstore. Of course, I succeeded in finding a few books to my liking. But, unfortunately, the book that I was specially looking for (Ingenieurs van de Ziel by Frank Westerman, a Dutch author) was temporarily out of print. I was reminded of this title, when, earlier this week, I was reading another book by Westerman: El Negro en ik.

If I am not mistaken, Westerman has so far written five books. He writes non-fiction, but one reads his books as if they are novels full of suspense. If you read Dutch and have not read his book De Graanrepubliek, about the atrocious way in which the (very pious) grain barons in Eastern-Groningen (in the North-Eastern part of the Netherlands) treated their laborers in the early part of the last century, you should certainly do so. The book has already gone through about 30 printings.

But El Nego en Ik also is a book that is a must. It describes the search for the identity and background of an African, who came from what once was called Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). In the early nineteenth century this African was ‘stuffed’—like a taxidermist ‘stuffs’ an animal—and exhibited in a museum in northern Spain. It immediately raises the question how in the world one can explain the utter disrespect of (white) people in colonial times towards the (black) local population.

While reading about El Negro I was reminded of a visit many years ago to the famous National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.  An American colleague gave me a tour through the museum. He had some friends on the staff of the museum, who allowed us to have a look behind the scenes. We came in a large hall, with high cabinets along the walls, with an endless number of drawers. Each of these drawers contained a human skeleton—a skull and a collection of bones that had once been a person of flesh and blood. I did not ask how the museum had been able to acquire this macabre collection.

I was also reminded of a plaque I recently saw in Urk, attached to the fence around the churchyard next to the church that is opposite the monument dedicated to all the Urker fishermen that, in in the course of time never came back from the sea. The plaque states that in this churchyard six skulls have been reburied, after they have been returned to Urk by the university museum in Utrecht. They were returned to where in times past they had, most likely, been stolen, on the pretext that they were needed for scientific purposes.

Often we see a great disrespect for dead people of the past, in particular for those from other cultures. It is easy to forget that the mummies and ‘bog bodies’ that are exhibited in museums at one time were real, living human beings, with real families, who were greatly missed when they died. In his book El Negro en Ik Frank Westerman helps us to realize that it was not even so very long ago that black men and women were treated like animals, and were sometimes exhibited as living objects, or—after their death—as ‘stuffed’ objects. It is impossible to read this fascinating book with a definite sense of shame.

 

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