For Seventh-day Adventists, the future and imminent climax of God’s salvation program on earth is strongly related to the present state of the dead. Our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on that question is hardly popular or accepted across the world. And any historical survey of our understanding of the doctrine requires us to consider how our pioneers from the Christian Connection, Millerites, and Sabbatarian Adventists arrived at the church’s current position.
The Christian Connection was one of the first uniquely “American” Christian groups to emerge in the United States. The group emerged in the first decade of the nineteenth century from three different directions. These three groups formed a joint fellowship in 1810 known as “Christian”1 or later as Christian Connection. Among these three groups, the group in New England enthusiastically promoted the biblical belief that the dead know nothing. One leader in this group, Elias Smith, promulgated the idea in his periodical Herald of Gospel Liberty. The periodical sought to connect the groups scattered along the Eastern region of the United States. In 1808 he wrote that at the second coming of Jesus, “immortality, and eternal life will be ours.”2 Smith did not then believe in the immortality of the soul but in conditional immortality, meaning that the righteous would receive immortality as a gift from the Lord.3 Smith made this idea evident in 1809, noting “that in the year to come we shall believe, and see greater things than these, and at last meet in the coming world, to enjoy bless [sic] IMMORTALITY forever.”4 Smith’s conditionalist thinking changed between 1816 and 1817, however, when he accepted universalism and discontinued the Herald of Gospel Liberty. Because of this, conditionalism among Christian Connection members became less prevalent. Other periodicals, such as Christian Herald and Christian Palladium, promoted the immortality of the soul as their central teaching on the state of the dead. While Smith supported conditionalism up to 1816, according to Lynn Waller, this idea was not well accepted by Connectionists.5 From 1818 onward the immortality of the soul became the official position of Christian Connection churches, and conditionalism became a fringe idea.6
The diminishing of conditionalism’s influence in the Christian Connection makes more understandable Joseph Bates’ belief in the soul’s immortality after his baptism in a Christian Connection church in early 1827. In September of the same year, Bates expressed his belief in the immortality of the soul. He wrote to his grieving brother that his “little children are in heaven” and now are “rejoicing with the Angels [sic] in heaven.”7 In the following year he noted regarding his dead father that “he is with his . . . God in heaven.”8 James White, a former Christian Connection minister and one of the cofounders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, acknowledged that he accepted conditionalism from teaching outside this group.9
The majority of Millerites believed in the immortality of the soul. William Miller and his associates, including Joshua V. Himes and Josiah Litch, believed in innate immortality. George Storrs, a Methodist minister who had resigned from Methodist ministerial work in 1836, was an important preacher among Millerites. After reading a pamphlet from Henry Grew about conditionalism, Storrs was convicted that the dead knew nothing, and that immortality would be received at the Second Coming.
In 1841 he wrote about this new conviction in Three Letters10 and expanded on it in Six Sermons,11 published in May or June of 1842. In 1841 Storrs ministered to a small Christian Connection congregation in Albany that was not opposed to his conditionalism.12
Then, in 1842, Storrs became a Millerite, because of the influence of Charles Fitch. One of the reasons for his rejection of the immortality of the soul was that this doctrine “has led to a denial of the resurrection of the body.”13
It seems that among prominent Millerite leaders only Charles Fitch accepted conditional immortality. He wrote three letters to Storrs. In the first letter, dated January 25, 1844, Fitch stated his acceptance of conditionalism. In May 1844 his second letter testified his unwavering adherence to his new faith. The last letter was from July 3, 1844. Here Fitch told Storrs that he had accepted conditionalism sometime in 1843.14
The impact of the Six Sermons was significant for Advent believers. Storrs claimed that from 1842 to 1843 he had shared more than 20,000 copies of this publication in several states in America.15
Adventist pioneers recognized the influence of Storrs on the theology of the fledging group regarding the state of the dead. James White wrote: “Storrs’s Six Sermons on the immortality question were being widely circulated among Adventists, and the doctrine of man’s unconsciousness in death and the destruction of the wicked was being adopted by some and regarded with favor by many.”16 J. N. Andrews, in 1855, regarded the Six Sermons as “written in defense of the author’s views of future punishment; but the remarks are of equal value with respect to the Sabbath question.”17 J. N. Loughborough noted, “George Storrs published his six sermons” and “this doctrine was largely accepted by the Adventist believers.”18 Uriah Smith agreed that, as a result of the Six Sermons and the Bible Examiner, there were many “Adventists, almost as a body, [who] adopted the view of conditional immortality.”19 Arthur W. Spalding concluded that George Storrs “had introduced to Adventists the doctrine of conditional immortality, or the sleep of the dead.”20 His influence helped Adventist pioneers to share a common understanding that the dead know nothing.
After the Great Disappointment in 1844, the Sabbatarian Adventist pioneers indicated their acceptance of conditionalism. They also believed that the righteous would receive immortality at the second coming of Jesus. In 1846 Joseph Bates considered the soul as the whole person and not as an entity that could live separately from the body.21 The righteous would “change from mortal to immortality”22 when Jesus comes again. It seems that Bates was acquainted with Storrs’s view on the state of the dead. In his book Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates he mentions Storrs’s name and his ideas on the Second Coming and anti-slavery.23 The state of the dead doctrine was seen as truth but not much discussed during the 1840s. This attitude changed in the 1850s when modern spiritualism became rampant through the influence of the Fox sisters, and the Adventist pioneers realized that this doctrine was essential to fortify Christians against Satan’s deceptions.24 During this time key church leaders promoted Storrs’s conditionalism.25
As early as 1847 James White had declared his belief in conditionalism. When Jesus comes the second time, he stated, He will call “forth the sleeping saints,” then “gather the elect in the air.”26 At this moment Jesus would bestow “the resurrection of the just to the everlasting life.”27 White believed that the righteous do not have innate immortality until Jesus returns to confer it on believers. In 1853 he wrote about conditionalism that “we [Adventis
ts] were acquainted with the clear and powerful writings of GEORGE STORRS on this subject, also the Sonship of Christ, in 1843 and 1844. He then had access to thousands of minds, which would not have been the case had it not been for the Advent movement.”28 White acknowledged the influence of Storrs’s writings on conditionalism in Adventism, including on himself.
Ellen White accepted the idea that human beings were not immortal until the Second Coming after she joined the Millerite movement. She wrote that her mother introduced the idea that the dead knew nothing and there was no innate immortality for sinners. Initially, Ellen White wondered about it, but after hearing a sermon several months later she wrote, “I believed it to be the truth.”29 It seems that it was Storrs’s teaching that she heard at that time.30 She was the first among the Adventist pioneers to warn of modern spiritualism, which appeared in the Fox family in 1848. She observed that the manifestation would “draw the minds of God’s people to look at that and cause them to doubt the teachings of God among His people.”31 Several months after the Fox sisters publicly demonstrated their spiritualistic ability in November 1849, White wrote: “I saw the power of the magicians has increased tenfold within a few months, and it will still be on the increase and spread, and unless Israel is rising and increasing in power and strength and is growing in grace and in the knowledge of the truth, the powers of darkness will get the victory over them.”32 This warning drew the attention of Sabbatarian Adventists to this vital doctrine. A few years later this doctrine was regarded as present truth in Adventism.
George Storrs introduced the biblical doctrine of the state of the dead to Advent believers before the Great Disappointment. Sabbatarian Adventists accepted this doctrine and grasped its significance for refusing Satan’s deception at the end-time. Modern spiritualism, which appeared in New York in 1848, helped Sabbatarians to recognize the importance of the doctrine. The emergence of the Adventist Church in the 1840s was not coincidentally intersecting with the rise of modern spiritualism in the United States. It is by divine providence that this church, since its beginnings, opposed these false manifestations. The state of the dead became a crucial doctrine in Seventh-day Adventist theology and coalesced with other doctrines. Nearly one third of the statement of beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists in 1872 relates to this doctrine.
Donny Chrissutianto, Ph.D., serves as assistant professor of historical studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines.