June 2, 2011

What's in a Name?

Every editor ought to be allowed to be a crank at least once ?in his career. Perhaps this is my turn at the handle.
For the past 20 years I have been afflicted by an increasing auditory “tic” as I hear members of the church pronounce the name of this 148-year-old denomination. While the large majority still pronounce the name of this faith as Ad´-ven-tist—meaning one who believes in the Second Ad´-vent of Jesus Christ—a growing number regularly rely on a pronunciation that mystifies much more than it explains our core belief in the second coming of Jesus.
Yes, I know: you can find dictionaries, both online and bound, that allow for a second pronunciation—Ad-ven´-tist—proving only that these otherwise-reliable references are catering to the usage patterns adopted by English speakers who remain unaware of the history—and the meaning—of the name.
2011 1516 page6As one of those online references patiently explains, the second half of our denomination moniker is formed of two pieces—Advent + -ist—and hails from the era which birthed this heaven-blessed movement—1835-1845.1 While some credit Boston pastor and Millerite promoter Joshua V. Himes as the one who coined the term, others point to social usage patterns referring to almost all Millerites (those who believed in the imminent second coming of Jesus as taught by Baptist William Miller) as “Adventists.” In either event, the manner in which the name formed and came into common use is not contested: if you believed in the literal, visible, world-ending Second Ad´-vent of Jesus Christ, you were an Ad´-vent-ist.
Among liturgical Christian churches, our ambivalence must seem curious: they regularly celebrate a four-week season just before Christmas in which corporate worship, music, and Scripture reading are focused on expectation of the birth of Jesus: they call the season “Ad´-vent.” And when we nonliturgical types refer in noun form to our belief that Jesus is coming again, we invariably call the event His Second “Ad´-vent.”
Is it too much to ask for a little consistency—particularly when the original pronunciation actually underlines our biblical belief in the soon return of Jesus?
When church leaders met to found the “Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association” in 1860—an occasion whose sesquicentennial we globally celebrated just last autumn—there seemed no confusion about the name. Nor was there any pronunciatory ambivalence when the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was organized in Battle Creek, Michigan, three years later in May 1863. The name, which Ellen White emphatically endorsed because it “carries the true features of our faith in front, and will convict the inquiring mind,”2 went uncontested—and accurately pronounced—for at least a century. Only as secular media culture in the 1970s and ’80s became the dominant force for public mention of our denominational identity did we stumble into that second pronunciation—Ad-ven´-tist—usually on the lips of a blow-dried newscaster reading from a teleprompter.
Other faiths do not seem to struggle on this point—unless they are all hiding their stories and alternate histories of pronunciation.
Have you met any Bap-tists´ recently?
How about those Meth-od´-ists?
Got any neighbors who are Luth-er´-ans?
Ever been visited in your home by a Mor-mon´ missionary?
You smile, for you realize that mispronunciation is one of our social cues that the speaker does not have a full understanding of the entity they are describing. And you are right: you may rejoice—discreetly, now, in a humbly Ad´-ven-tist sort of way—in your rightness.
Remember, though, as Peter advises, to “add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Peter 1:5-7, NKJV).3
On that great and final Day—and every day between now and then—I will claim as brother or sister anyone who shares with me those core beliefs that “will convict the inquiring mind,” however they voice our common name.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 224.
3 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bill Knott is the editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published June 9, 2011.