In 1848 a small Christian movement without a name or any organized leadership had just begun. Its advocates had recently suffered a keen disappointment—the Lord’s second advent had not happened, as they had hoped. They had few friends and even less money. The future seemed uncertain, even grim.
Little could they imagine what actually awaited them. They possessed something more valuable than their namelessness would suggest. They had a knowledge of truth that needed to be reviewed by the entire world before the Second Advent of the Lord. The question was “How?” They could not see a way.
It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine a time before the Internet. Imagining life before airplanes and automobiles, and yes, before the railroad, is unfathomable. When horse-drawn carriages through Maine’s often very muddy roads were the most common and quickest way to share information in the northeastern United States, reaching the world must have seemed an impossible task. America’s western regions didn’t even have railways in the 1840s.
When penniless preachers wished to share their take on matters of theology, the typical pathway forward was on foot. It was a constant reminder to message bearers of the humility needed by God’s messengers, and the beautiful simplicity of the truth.
But while the message this small movement felt burdened to share would be carried in part by foot, the Lord had another plan for a global movement that needed more than sermons. This was a message God wanted placed before people with the time to ponder what they were learning, to review it thoroughly, even from the comfort of their homes.
Today and every day we are entering into a future nearer the Second Advent.
It seemed impossible until God spoke. “Print a little paper” was the word of the Lord to 27-year-old James White, through the mouth of his 20-year-old wife and young mother, Ellen.
She had just emerged from a vision, and she reported to James, “I have a message for you. You must begin to print a little paper and send it out to the people. Let it be small at first; but as the people read, they will send you means with which to print, and it will be a success from the first. From this small beginning it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear round the world.”1
At the time, it must be noted, there were not as many religious papers as we have today, and very few were sponsored by nonexistent nameless organizations–quite literally a small “scattered flock,” as James described his friends and sympathizers. The idea of printing a periodical must have seemed quite out of reach for the small company of believers.
The first edition of The Present Truth appeared in July 1849: 1,000 copies printed with ink solicited by faith (a generous donor, not an Adventist, obliged the aspirant writer’s requests for help). Although James White had moral support from some of his friends, all the articles that appeared in the volume 1, number 1 issue were written by him.
The topics he addressed were the seventh-day Sabbath and the Ten Commandments. In the years following, the title Present Truth shifted to The Advent Review, from there to the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, and, since 1978, simply the Adventist Review. But the main theme and focus have always remained the same: to bring to light truth that would remain present until the Second Advent.
The world has changed in many ways from 1848 to 2019—the 170 years between the beginning of James White’s publishing career and today. Yet while the passage of time is often unkind to the “present” truth of the world’s many purported philosophical and scientific truthsayers, the core message that White and his company felt obligated to share has more than stood the test of time, inspiring thoughtful curiosity and dialogue, while likewise withstanding the continual critique of many scholars in various areas. From our theology to our health principles to our educational methods, and more. Always, the source of our pioneers’ inspiration was their commitment to a closer study of the eternal Word of God.
Written words may be human and fallible, but reviewing our history and reading our present times in which we live in the light of Scripture, shared through the Adventist Review and its many sister publications by believers and institutions the world over, those words helped make the Seventh-day Adventist Church possible. Through it the message of our pioneers has indeed spread around the world, reaching the hearts of millions, as Ellen White’s vision foresaw.
But while the impact of the message is staggering in its own right, we are reminded by Scripture that the work before us will see yet greater and greater miracles as the Second Advent approaches, with many more lives transformed from the darkness of misguided ideologies and false religions still dominant around the globe today to the glorious light of God’s truth. Adventists the world over every day feel the burden of White’s first words of volume 1, number 1, that remind us to “not be negligent to put [ourselves] always in remembrance of these things,” “and be established in the PRESENT TRUTH (2 Peter 1:12).”2
While our history as a denomination is truly an incredible story, and continually worth revisiting to inspire us by the passion and self-sacrificing spirit of our pioneers, many of whom have been forgotten to history,3 we should also remind ourselves of the meaning of our title (including some of its earlier iterations). That somewhat cumbersome title, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, stands out clearly in defining our ongoing mission.
It reminds us to review, or keep in mind, God’s leading in the past in pointing us toward His second advent. God’s design has been that this be a period that would require an explanation of Scripture: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commandments and remain faithful to Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
Despite what might be our personal preference at times, and the encouragement that we may in a manner hasten His coming, the Lord, in foresight, warned us that there would be time to review the Advent message, that it might reach all people of the world. That is not to deny that at times we may struggle to understand the delay of the advent, as our pioneers struggled with the bitter taste and disappointment of its announcement (see Rev. 10:9). Nor is it to deny that in our doubts amid today’s complexities we may not contribute with the passion we ought, to spreading God’s message (see Rev. 3:16). Rather, through it all, the title’s focus on reviewing the Advent message seems very appropriate to our mission.
Similarly, to be heralds of the Sabbath perfectly represents what we are to do. The Sabbath is a message of rest amid a work-obsessed and weary world. The speed of life in the Internet age has only accentuated the need for everyone to hear the voice of Jesus: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
It is no accident that the truth of the Sabbath is tied to the return of Christ and the end of a world that is losing itself further every day to work that bids us race ever faster to get ahead, and never lets us stop to catch our breath.
As we look forward from the vantage point of 170 years of reviewing the Second Advent and looking forward to our first heavenly Sabbath (Isa. 66:22, 23), we should recognize that to
day and every day we are entering into a future nearer the second advent.
Unlike James White and his friends, our challenge is not being constrained to spread the news by the speed of horse-drawn carriages. We have at our fingertips the power of the railway, the automobile, the airplane, television, and the Internet, with their instantaneous power to spread information.
But while these tools of communication may be useful, the task that remains before us is to maintain and uphold God’s original purpose for sharing present truth, which, as White reminded us, is because “present truth must be oft repeated, even to those who are established in it. This was needful in the apostles’ day, and it certainly is no less important for us, who are living just before the close of time.”4
Methods of reaching the world with our message remain very much the same, even as we use the many technological tools available today to hasten its delivery to far-flung corners of the world. We still need the simplicity, purity, and patient endurance of heart that motivated its passage by foot and the printed word. These will forever remain symbols of the personal touch needed to bring God’s light into people’s minds: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zech. 4:6).
Michael F. Younker is a historical research specialist in the office of Archives, Statistics and Research, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.