I was preparing to lead my first Adventist history tour to New England as the sophomore religion teacher at Spencerville Adventist Academy. While I had several years of teaching about the Adventist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under my belt, I couldn’t say I particularly enjoyed the material, or, outside of my own research, felt very prepared for the task (I had been exposed only to two, 10-week courses in the subject in 16 years of Adventist education).
One of my colleagues, Mindi Nix, had heard I would be leading the trip and offered to send along some notes from her husband, Jim, one of the Adventist Church’s preeminent historians. She was excited we were going to visit the home of Joseph Bates, one of the cofounders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “You know about Bates, right?” she asked.
Of course I knew about him. I knew that he was a sea captain, and was convinced about the seventh-day Sabbath.
She followed with, “But do you know about his adventures? He had some great adventures! Have you read his autobiography?”
I had not, but my interest was piqued. I picked up a copy at the Adventist bookstore on the way home, and was hooked: shipwrecks, grave robbers, shark attacks, imprisonment, a man who sailed to London across the Atlantic just to find a book and sailed all the way back home with it, and an author who radically shifted the culture on board his ship to coincide with his convictions.1
Bates’s life was complicated, intriguing, even dire. In reading the bigger picture of his life, I discovered more than a theologian or policymaker: I discovered a person.
I started reading about other Adventist pioneers. I discovered such people as Anna Knight, nurse/teacher/preacher/missionary extraordinaire; poet, artist, and hymnwriter Annie Smith; her brother, a patent-holding inventor named Uriah; and Bible teacher, missionary trainer, fund-raiser, requested speaker Hettie Haskell; all with fascinating personal histories and a contagious passion for communicating the gospel and mission in a myriad of constructive ways.
These were people I had never heard of, despite my saturation in the Adventist culture.
My reading led to a sense of camaraderie with the pioneering Adventists who came before me. I felt compelled to change the way I taught and presented Adventist history. I redirected my Adventist history students to discover the people I had been reading about, Adventists who loved Jesus and invested their whole lives into a movement that they felt was biblical, timely, and urgent.
On the tour my students presented material they had learned about in the geographic places that were connected to their pioneers. The student who selected Joseph Bates recounted the sea captain’s “adventures” while standing in the Bates family’s front yard.
Unfortunately, not many students will likely have the opportunity to experience Adventist history this way.
Ellen White, a major pioneer—cofounder and prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—wrote the oft-quoted statement: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”2
Yet over the past three decades, studies of Adventist and other Protestant youth and young adult behavior show a dwindling of congregational involvement and church attendance. In 2000, after a 10-year longitudinal study of hundreds of Adventist young adults, Andrews University professor Roger Dudley described an alarming trend in the findings of the Valuegenesis study: “As we have seen, 40 percent to 50 percent of those who are baptized members in their midteens will drop out of the church by the time they are halfway through their 20s. This is a hemorrhage of epic proportions.”3 Fewer than half of Adventist youth were still active in the long term.
He continued: “The disengagement of such a large percentage of well-educated young adults who should now be assuming leadership in the church threatens the future viability of our movement.”4
Dudley finally observed: “They [young adult Adventists] are rejecting Adventism, not because they are irreligious or lack commitment to Jesus Christ, but because they are searching for a deeper, more satisfying, more relevant church experience.”5 There are certainly reasons to be fearful of the future when the future may be characterized by the presence of fewer young adults.
I live in southern California, where desert heat can easily wither much of what we try to grow. Thriving vegetation teaches that a strong, well-developed root system plays a critical role in anchoring and nurturing each plant to maturity. My own Gen X and subsequent generations seem largly rootless when it comes to our Adventist heritage, as though the underground system has been severed. We do seem clear about how the Lord has led our church, but uninformed about the complex but committed community that carried the torch of Adventism before us. This lack of a root system may be uraveling our sense of identity, stalling the momentum and movement of our denomination.
In 1903 Ellen White wrote: “The record of the experience through which the people of God passed in the early history of our work must be republished. . . . We must study to find out the best way in which to take up the review of our experiences from the beginning of our work.”6
“Many of those who have since come into the truth are ignorant of the way in which the Lord wrought. The experience of William Miller and his associates, of Captain Joseph Bates, and of other pioneers in the Advent message, should be kept before our people.”7
While the first and greatest goal of Adventist education is to connect learners with Jesus Christ and help them develop a relationship with Him, a secondary goal has to be to equip students as connected and contributing members of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventist education does provide opportunities for students to be introduced to the history of Adventism, but the ways in which it has been presented have often been brief, and less than memorable and meaningful.
The current Encounter curriculum recommends only one five- to six-week long Adventist history unit throughout the entire high school experience.
The Crossroads curriculum series that has been widely used over the past 20 years of academy Bible instruction prescribed one quarter focused on the ministry of Ellen White and the major movements of the denomination’s development structurally and institutionally. While several individuals were named, their inclusion served mostly to explain the major developments as a whole, but the accompanying worksheets and Bible studies do little to create a sense of community or relevance.
Young adults are remarkably moved by stories of authentic, dedicated people who began with a wrong answer (1844) and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of present truth. We could be inspired by the account of Adventist forerunners who began their association with each other in adversity, but created a spiritual movement based on diversity of gender, denomination, occupation, age and generation.
We can connect to a community that had in common a passionate desire to know and be with Jesus. These people were progressive, active, intentional, anti-slavery, pro-health, pro-education, and engaged personally to the point of buildingschools, churches, hospitals, and communities. We can invest in a community that didn’t duck tough conversations or abandon projects that carried a message of hope and the everlasting gospel throughout the world despite intense personal sacrifice.
Although our founders were not always initially correct, in line with each other theologically, or in agreement on priorities and plans, they steadfastly fixed their focus on Jesus and citizenship in His kingdom to come (see Heb. 11; 12).
A better exposure to more of the people and perspectives that formed the denomination may inspire that sense of camaraderie, enable young contemporary Adventists to metabolize and take in stride the current challenges facing our denomination, and link them to a movement with a message that points to the God who is on the move, and is, indeed, coming soon.
In addition to redoubling our efforts to connect young adults with warm relationships and a relevant local church experience, let’s revisit how to connect these younger generations to our faith predecessors. Let’s commit to going deeper into our history than the great disagreement of 1888 or the organizational skirmishes of the early 1900s.
Let’s tell our pioneers’ stories in authentic, honest, modern, and compelling ways, developing resources that create in young Christians a sense of identity and heritage, pride and belonging.
Instead of a church experience that is, as the colloquialism says, a mile wide and an inch deep, let’s take inspiration from our brothers and sisters who gave generously, invested personally, and lived lives deeply rooted in the gospel. Let’s shift from an outgoing tide of talent, passion, and training to a rising swell of inspired, Christ-enamored, passionate, connected, informed, inspired, and rooted young Adventists.
1 Joseph Bates, Autobiography of Joseph Bates (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1868).
2 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White: Being a Narrative of Her Experience to 1881 as Written by Herself (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 196.
3 Roger Dudley, Valuegenesis. p. 60.
4 Ibid., p. 36.
5 Ibid.. p. 48.
6 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1993), vol. 17, pp. 344, 345.
7 Ibid., p. 344.
Somer Knight has served the church as a teacher, school chaplain, and pastor. She is working on a master’s degree in theological studies.