October 27, 2009

A Holy Spell

2009 1530 page26 capary F. Maxson described an Advent meeting she attended in 1864.1 It began with “impressive and profitable discourses” that were part of a weekend series of meetings. Like most early Adventists it was a privilege even to be together, and when they were able to on a monthly or quarterly basis, the entire weekend was used to fellowship together.

Mary described the awesome privilege of getting to participate in the emblems of Communion. Like many other early Adventists who scarcely saw a minister, believers were excited to be able to celebrate church ordinances such as the Lord’s Supper when an ordained minister passed through. “As we bowed in prayer,” she wrote, “every heart seemed drawn out to ?God ‘in strong cries and tears,’ and in pleadings for a blessing. And the blessing came with great power. . . . Deep solemnity rested upon us while we partook of the emblems of our Saviour’s love [the Lord’s Supper]. In imagination we went back to the night on which He was betrayed, and stood with Him in the ‘upper chamber.’”

Maxson continued to describe how the sacred emblems were a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom that she looked forward to in the earth made new. The moment was so sacred that the “holy spell” was finally broken as they sang “one of the songs of Zion.”2
Early Adventist worship was a dynamic, faith-building event that focused on community. Scattered across the countryside, most Adventists could gather together only on a “monthly” or “quarterly” basis. Whoever had the largest farmhouse and barn was typically the person who hosted the meetings. The men would sleep in the barn while the women and children would occupy the farmhouse. Few early Adventists—except in large Adventist centers such as Battle Creek, Michigan, or Rochester, New York—had enough church members to even have a meeting facility (usually called a “meetinghouse,” considering its multi-purpose nature as a school, church, and community gathering place).3
Quarterly Meetings
The “quarterly meeting” was a festive time that usually began on Friday evening and continued through all day Sabbath and Sunday. If the group was fortunate enough to have an Adventist minister around, they would typically let that person preach his (or her) heart out. More often they would have a series of Bible studies interspersed by singing, prayer, and testimonies. The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald played a vital role in such services. Believers would study the Review and look up verses, or sometimes follow outlines for Bible studies about Adventist beliefs that had been published in the magazine.
2009 1530 page26A “testimony meeting” (alternatively referred to as a “covenant meeting” or “social meeting”) was described as one in which each person present testified to their faith at least five times. One report in the Review suggests that these testimonies were usually less than one minute each. In another instance there were 38 testimonies recorded as having occurred within 20 minutes.4 These opportunities to share were intended to encourage those who had gathered. Reports of such meetings typically described how those present were “greatly blest [sic]” and that “many hearts [were] made glad” as a result.5 Adventists frequently described such gatherings as a “melting time” when the “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ knit their hearts together.
As these early Adventists shared, the fervor of their faith increased throughout the weekend. Not only would they worship all day Sabbath, but such faith-building times would last all day Sunday as well. At the very end of the weekend, if a minister were present, any baptisms would occur and an offering collected. Sometimes these believers would describe how the meeting would be even better on Sunday than it had been on Sabbath. There was a spiritual intimacy that grew as believers shared their faith.
Early Advent Singing
“It is a fact that there was in those days a power in what was called Advent singing, such as was felt in no other,” wrote James White.6 Such songs were sung with enthusiasm. Ellen White encouraged early Adventists not to sing hymns as funeral dirges and required “right expression.”7 According to Ellen White’s granddaughter Grace Jacques, she apparently liked “hymns of progress.”8
The music early Adventists sang reflected their beliefs. The first bound book published by these same pioneers (thus showing the importance of music) was Hymns for God’s Peculiar People That Keep the Commandments of God and the Faith of Jesus, compiled by James White in 1849. The collection of 53 hymns on 48 pages was advertised in The Present Truth (now the Adventist Review) for 121⁄2 cents per copy. The hymnal contained titles such as “Lo! He Comes, With Clouds Descending” and “I’m a Pilgrim, and I’m a Stranger,” overtly expressing this hope in the soon return of Jesus.
During the formation of our church (up to 1863 when the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally organized) Adventist pioneers contributed original hymns that have become Adventist classics. One of the most beloved hymns was written by Annie Smith, an Adventist young person who in her early 20s penned the words to several hymns: “How Far From Home?” (hymn 439 in the current SDA Hymnal), “Long Upon the Mountains” (hymn 447), and “I Saw One Weary” (hymn 441). Her description in this latter hymn of Joseph Bates (stanza 1), James White (stanza 2), and then, possibly, either J. N. Andrews or herself (stanza 3) has become an Adventist classic.9
In many ways musical expression was at the heart of the American religious experience. Early Adventist worship had a profound spiritual power that was characterized by the hymns they sang. If you were walking by an early Advent meetinghouse, most likely you would know that you were getting near by the fervor with which these Adventists sang their music.10
The Advent Ordinance
As worship progressed during the weekend, one of the uniform highlights was the Communion service, or the ordinances of foot washing and ?the Lord’s Supper. Early Adventists described how there was a special “order in which the Adventists administer the Lord’s Supper” that made it particularly special. Communion, therefore, took on a significance for early Seventh-day Adventists that caused James White to describe it as the “Advent ordinance.”11

The specialness of the experience was not so much in the manner in which it was celebrated, but in the distinct emphasis Adventists placed on the second advent of Christ.
Early accounts uniformly describe the service as a deeply spiritual experience in which believers renewed their covenant with Jesus Christ to be ready to meet Jesus when He returned. In reality, the ordinance focused on both the first and second advents. As they reflected on the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ on the cross they were led to contemplate becoming overcomers with Christ at His return. Such reflections were “quite comforting.”12
The theology of the great controversy between Christ and Satan took on special significance. The Communion service was their battle cry of victory over the powers of darkness on their journey to the heavenly city. It was emotional. The “falling tear, and acclamations of glory to God” accompanied mutual admonishment to prepare to meet Christ again.13 Altogether, the “Advent ordinance” was a time to renew their faith that Jesus was coming again and to live out the “solemn truths” they believed.
Lessons to Learn
Early Adventist worship was a dynamic experience. Though most early believers were unable to get together very often, when they did it was a community-building time in which they shared and strengthened one another’s faith. They made the most of their time together, frequently worshipping all weekend long.
The highlight of these “monthly” or “quarterly” meetings was the Communion service. The “Advent ordinance” took on new meaning because it was an outward expression of their faith—both in Jesus Christ as their Savior and as an outward expression of the renewal of their hope in His soon return. Early Adventists knew that they lived in the midst of a “great controversy” between Christ and Satan. Worshipping together was one of the ways of renewing their faith in the midst of this conflict.
Seventh-day Adventist congregations today can learn much from early Adventist worship. There were few debates about the actual order of service, the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, or one of the many perennial conflicts that seem to regularly emerge in congregations. Adventists didn’t have these luxuries. Instead, on a very practical level, the worship service itself was intended to be simple and faith-building, as brothers and sisters in Christ sought to both share and strengthen their faith. 
1Mary Maxson (later Fish) (1843-1868) was an early Sabbatarian Adventist who lived in Adams Center, New York, and who was a close friend of James and Ellen White. See J. N. Andrews, “Sister Fish,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 25, 1868; obit, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 4, 1868.
2Letter from Mary F. Maxson, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 16, 1864.
3Michael W. Campbell, “A Holy Spell: The Ordinances of Foot Washing and the Lord’s Supper Among Early Seventh-day Adventists, 1844-1880” (term paper, Andrews University, 2002).
4A. C. and D. T. Bourdeau, “The Cause in Vt.,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 9, 1864. In another instance more than 40 testimonies were given in less than 50 minutes (see letter from L. G. Bostwick, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 4, 1864). In another instance there were 74 testimonies given in “about 60 or 70 minutes” (letter from C. J. Pearce, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Jan. 17, 1865).
5Letter from J. H. Sparks, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 15, 1863; Joseph Bates, “Labors in Michigan,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 1, 1863.
6James White, Life Incidents, as quoted in James R. Nix, Early Advent Singing: A Collection of 52 Early Adventist Hymns With Illustrating Stories (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1994), p. 11.
7Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, June 22, 1882.
8James R. Nix interview with Grace Jacques.
9Nix, Early Advent Singing, pp. 90-92.
10For an overview of the broader American social context for hymnody, see David W. Stowe, How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Richard J. Mouw and Mark A. Noll, eds., Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History and Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004).
11William Russell, “Quarterly Meeting in Wis.,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 14, 1864; James White, “The Conference,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 24, 1864.
12Cf. letter from A. B. Underwood, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 12, 1865; letter from A. O. Thompson, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 20, 1866; Joseph Bates, “Meetings in Mich.,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 14, 1866.
13C. O. Taylor, “Sabbath, Aug. 27, 1864,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 6, 1864.
Michael W. Campbell is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Western Colorado. This article was published October 22, 2009.