By now, I’ve come to expect their eagerness: their eyes widen as they lean forward in their desks, excitedly glancing at each other when they discover how urgent and progressive their spiritual ancestors were. Their questions roll with every lecture pause: “Why aren’t we like that now?” “Whatever happened to us?” “How can I find a church like that?”
I’m occasionally invited to lecture on Adventist college and university campuses about the commitment of early Seventh-day Adventists to moral and social change in nineteenth-century America. Drawing on my graduate study in the Age of Reform (1820-1860), I trace the progressive, even radical, beliefs and engagements of those who helped to organize this denomination in the midst of the American Civil War.
Joseph Bates was an early advocate for what was then termed “temperance”—a public stance against alcohol consumption and the industry that was destroying individual lives, homes, and the national economy. Decades ahead of other Adventists, he also advocated for removing laws against interracial marriage.*
James and Ellen White were ardent abolitionists, actively speaking and writing against the entrenched institution of Black slavery that denied more than three million Americans the promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” promised in the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Their articles in this journal during the 1850s even encouraged civil disobedience when the Federal government demanded that citizens of “free states” assist in the capture and return of slaves who had managed to escape Southern slavery.
Believers were not long for this world, so why make ungodly peace with it?
Hannah More, Seventh-day Adventism’s first foreign missionary, cut her teeth on a passionate refusal to accept her government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. Seething with moral indignation, she followed the exiled tribes to the thickets of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to give her life as an “atonement” for the sins of the Federal government. Also a passionate abolitionist, while living and ministering at mission stations in West Africa, Hannah read herself into Seventh-day Adventism, and planted the first Adventist congregations on that continent.
John Harvey Kellogg, raised as a teenager in the White home, adopted Ellen White’s deep commitments to reforms in diet, exercise, and wholistic living. His world-famous Battle Creek Sanitarium spun off other reform-minded initiatives that cared for the poor and marginalized in Chicago, even opening a city home for former prostitutes.
This was Adventism of the first generation—a potent mix of end-of-the-world biblical teaching and this-world realism that caught the imagination of thousands whom the Spirit was calling. Even the briefest surveys of the archives of the Adventist Review from 1849 to 1910 reveal an ongoing and passionate critique of abuses in organized religion, homes, workplaces, the economy, and government. The Adventism of that era seemed singularly unafraid of being criticized or even ostracized: believers were not long for this world, so why make ungodly peace with it?
The students in my lectures invariably want to know why that brand of Adventism is unknown to them—why they have usually experienced only the disengaged conservatism that makes a virtue of tranquility and disapproves of those who disagree. Adventism’s historic claim to be a movement of reform is often doubted by the generation on whom we count for future leadership and vision.
One piece of our past helps us here. Our historic—and accurate—self-understanding as the church of Laodicea, the last of seven churches in Christian history, is a continuing call to repent of our belief that we are “rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Rev. 3:17, KJV). The Saviour knocking at the door of our hearts and of earth’s history describes us as “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17)—a vigorous, unflinching, and, yes, reformist portrayal of what we are always in danger of becoming.
Accepting His critique—allowing Him to heal our spiritual eyesight, to relearn the moral wealth of Scripturally-aligned social commitments, and to clothe us in that “foreign righteousness” that makes us long for heaven—is exactly the reform to which the Spirit is calling us today.
*See Kevin Burton, “Joseph Bates and Adventism’s Radical Roots,” https://adventistreview.org/2002-32.