Our expectations were raised high, and thus we looked for our coming Lord until the clock tolled twelve at midnight. The day had then passed, and our disappointment had become a certainty. Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept and wept, till the day dawn.”1
This was how Hiram Edson depicted the sentiment of that faithful group. Restless efforts through sermons preached, articles written, and uncountable hours of travel to spread the good news of the second coming of Jesus on October 22, 1844. The next day dawned, and Christ had not come. One would assume that a group with such a tremendous disappointment would simply fall apart to complete extinction.
However, the smallest portion of that sorrowful group persevered and became a church with more than 22 million members almost 180 years later. What was the secret to that unexpected growth? Even though it does not make any sense at first, the Sabbath message studied by Joseph Bates, the doctrine of the sanctuary, and the three angels’ messages played a significant role in this process.
Recovering From the Disappointment
After the Great Disappointment the vast majority of the more than 200,000 Millerites either gave up on their faith or kept studying to set other dates for Christ’s return. A small group wiped their tears and went back to the Scriptures to understand what happened and look for a deeper understanding of God’s plan.
The investigation of the sanctuary in correlation with the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 was one of the most important keys to unveiling the mystery. The Millerites initially believed that the fulfillment of the first angel’s message began in 1798 with the preaching of Christ’s return (Rev. 14:6, 7). The message of the second angel began in 1844, mostly with the proclamation of the Midnight Cry and the call out of “Babylon” (verse 8). The third angel emphasized the sanctity and validity of God’s commandments (verses 9-12).
In 1845 some Adventists began keeping the seventh-day Sabbath as a result of the influence of the Seventh Day Baptists. Right after that, Joseph Bates began to preach more emphatically about the importance of that day, stating that this commandment had to be restored so Jesus could come.2
At first Ellen White did not understand the reason for emphasizing so much the fourth commandment over the other nine,3 but after reading a tract written by Bates in September of 1846, Ellen and James White accepted that truth. The trio began to preach more boldly about the seventh-day Sabbath. God used Joseph Bates to accomplish one of the most crucial discoveries in Seventh-day Adventist history.
The Discovery That Made a Real Difference
Bates became more acquainted with the significance of the third angel’s message and connected this context with the Sabbath theme and Revelation 11:19, which says: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a severe hailstorm” (NIV).
He concluded that the Ten Commandments played a special role in the end-time, and linked the seventh-day Sabbath to the third angel’s message. A few months later Ellen White had a vision in which God took her on a tour through the heavenly sanctuary. When the veil between the two apartments was lifted, she saw the ark of the covenant.
Inside the ark she observed an interesting detail. “I saw the ten commandments written on them [the tables of stone] with the finger of God. . . . But the fourth, the Sabbath commandment, shone above them all; for the Sabbath was set apart to be kept in honor of God’s holy name. The holy Sabbath looked glorious—a halo of glory was all around it. I saw that the Sabbath was not nailed to the cross. If it was, the other nine commandments were; and we are at liberty to break them all, as well as to break the fourth. I saw that God had not changed the Sabbath, for He never changes.”4
Bates’s suggestion of tying those three aspects together was confirmed as correct. After Jesus’ passage from the holy place to the most holy place in 1844, He approached the ark with the Ten Commandments, which include the fourth commandment, the only precept left behind by most Christians in history. Therefore, the last message of exhortation and salvation should include the restoration of the seventh day as the genuine day of rest. The connection between the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and the three angels’ messages gave them a prophetic identity.
After the Great Disappointment, predicted in Revelation 10:8-10, Jesus says in verse 11 that they still need to prophesy “about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.” The same words are used to introduce the message of the three angels in Revelation 14, giving them a clear hint of what God wanted from them.
Furthermore, the words used by the first angel in his message to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7, NIV) is not new in Scripture. “This language makes an unmistakable allusion to the Sabbath command with reference to creation (Ex. 20:8-11), thus indicating that the Sabbath has particular relevance in end-time gospel proclamation. . . . The admonitions to ‘fear’ and ‘worship’ in this verse are placed directly in the larger immediate context of keeping God’s commandments (see Rev. 12:17; 14:12), with obvious references to the Decalogue.”5
Seventh-day Adventists did not simply have those beliefs because they were Bible-based and should be preached. It went far beyond that. They found themselves in the midst of that prophecy, and they perceived God delegating them to spread a specific message to their generation. At first Joseph Bates’s belief in the sanctity of the seventh day presented in his book The Seventh-Day Sabbath, A Perpetual Sign reflected essentially what the Seventh Day Baptists believed, that the seventh day was the correct day to be kept and that it should never have been changed.
But now the seventh-day Sabbath belief was strengthened by the prophetic message that God would restore the seal between Him and His people. James White stated: “Our past Advent experience, and present position and future work, [are] marked out in Revelation 14 as plain as the prophetic pencil could write it.”6 The prophetic identity resulted in the urgency to preach that message throughout the world. Their hearts were filled with a missional ideal, and from that moment on, no barrier was too great for that brave group. They went through a great disappointment, but now they were invigorated to spread the gospel to all the world.
The difference that this prophetic identity and their calling to preach made becomes clearer when the Seventh-day Adventist movement is compared with other similar groups at that time. Seventh Day Baptists grew from an estimated 6,000 members in the 1840s to 50,000 in the 2010s. Today they are present in 22 countries around the globe.
On the other hand, according to the first census made of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there were an estimated 3,500 members in 1863. This number jumped to almost 22 million members in 2020 in 213 different countries.7 As the Advent Christian historian Clyde Hewitt said: “The tiniest of the Millerite offshoot groups [Seventh-day Adventists] was the one which would become by far the largest.”8
The difference in growth between these denominations was the prophetic understanding of this message as part of a larger plan, with an urgent call for it to be preached throughout the world. Sabbatarian Adventism understood that Sabbathkeeping was not a means to salvation but a part of a prophetic identity to be shared with “many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” (Rev. 10:11).9
Seventh-day Adventism is the most widespread unified Protestant church in the history of Christianity. Why? Because we believe that God has a message to be preached that nobody else is preaching. This has given people the dedication to give of their money and their lives to the cause.
As members and heirs of so great a legacy, we must bring onward the message that granted us an identity and a mission, a reason to go “to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6). Our DNA was essentially composed in mission, which clearly was the key to the church’s increase. Now the torch of truth is in our hands, and we hear a voice from heaven with the straight appeal: Preach! Preach!
1 Hiram Edson, unpublished manuscript on his life and experience, in Review and Herald, June 23, 1921, pp. 4, 5.
2 Gerard P. Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-Day Adventist Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 136-142.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, pp. 75, 76.
4 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1882, 1945), pp. 32, 33.
5 Study note on Revelation 14:7, in Andrews Study Bible (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2010), p. 1677.
6 James White to Brother Bowles, Nov. 8, 1849, in George R. Knight, If I Were the Devil (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2007), p. 140.
7 “Seventh-day Adventist World Church Statistics 2016, 2017,” https://www.adventist.org/en/ information/statistics/article/go/-/seventh-day-adventist-world-church-statistics-2016-2017/.
8 In Knight, p. 142.9 See also Matt. 28:18-20; Rev. 5:9, 10; 7:9.