A professor at an Adventist university in the US recently published an op-ed piece in an important newspaper where he reflected on the religious history of the United States and its importance for contemporary society. Nicholas Miller, professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, wrote in The Philadelphia Enquirer that US religious history is essential to inform the present.
“If we hope to make America great again, it would be good to know what made America great to begin with,” begins Miller’s essay. He then starts to look for historical hints in the life of William Penn, the 17th century Quaker lawmaker and founder of the State of Pennsylvania.
According to Miller, Penn was committed to an open, accountable government and the rule of law. He also “placed a special emphasis on the equal treatment of people of all religious beliefs,” since he believed in “the rights of individual conscience given by a divine Creator.”
In his essay, Miller states that Penn’s emphasis on religious freedom and ethnic diversity “led to Pennsylvania becoming a magnet for immigrants from many nations of the world.” The eastern US state also became the home of people of the most diverse religious backgrounds, as it embraced English Quakers, German Moravians, French Huguenots, British Baptists, Dutch Anabaptists and Mennonites, European Jews, and Catholics. These people, all of them “outcasts somewhere,” found “a new home of almost unparalleled inclusion and equality,” emphasized Miller.
The results of Penn’s ideas were startling, notes Miller, as Philadelphia “rapidly became the largest and most commercially successful city in the American colonies.” In a few decades, it became known as the “Athens of North America,” and “the most cosmopolitan city on the continent.”
Philadelphia’s success showed that, far from being an obstacle, religious and ethnic diversity can become instrumental for achieving “governmental and commercial success,” wrote Miller.
“If we hope to make America great again, it would be good to know what made America great to begin with.”
The Adventist professor is also a scholar adviser to the Faith & Liberty Discovery Center in downtown Philadelphia. Scheduled to open in 2018, the $60-million interactive facility “will invite people from all backgrounds to…learn about the Bible’s influence on American history and culture,” states the American Bible Society, which is spearheading the project, on its website.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been a longstanding advocate of a separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion. In 1893, the Protestant denomination organized the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), a non-sectarian and non-political entity promoting religious freedom for all.
In an interview with Andrews University News, Miller quoted church co-founder and author Ellen G. White, who in her book The Great Controversy wrote that “Republicanism and Protestantism became the fundamental principles of the [United States of America].” According to Miller, White’s “Republicanism” referred to the democratic process of checks, balances and free press, while Protestantism was the freedom of religion—a balance he finds difficult to maintain, but nonetheless important.
“In seeking a return to American greatness, we would do well to keep these foundational values in mind,” concluded Miller.
Konner Dent contributed to this story.