Seventh-day Adventists: Saturday Worshippers Awaiting Christ’s Immanent Return

Did you have cereal for breakfast this morning? If you did, then you need to thank the Seventh-day Adventists. Their teachings led to the invention of corn flakes and, subsequently, to a revolution in what Americans eat for breakfast.

Who are the Seventh-day Adventists?

The Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) is a denomination that originated in America in the middle of the 1800s. Their beliefs overlap with many evangelical essentials but also include a set of beliefs that most evangelicals have not embraced, including the position that Christians are to worship on biblical Sabbath, Saturday (the “seventh-day” of the week); the view that Christ inaugurated a new phase in redemptive history in 1844; and the theological positions of soul sleep and annihilationism (see below). Seventh-day Adventists emphasize not only spiritual health but also have a deep concern for physical health and education, which has led them to establish hundreds of health resorts, hospitals, and educational institutions throughout the world. Their zeal for world missions is evident in the fact that well over 90 percent of their worldwide membership (18 million) reside outside of North America. Though originally considered a cult by mainstream evangelicals a century ago, there has of late been more of a willingness by evangelicals to categorize them as an evangelical denomination that holds to some unique views.

A Brief History

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a very complex history. For simplification, we will divide the history of its beginnings into two parts.

  1. The first part deals with rise (and fall) of the Millerite Adventist movement in the 1830s and 40s. William Miller (1782-1849) was a Baptist layman who began intensely studying biblical prophecy shortly after his conversion around 1815. Specifically, Miller devoted himself to studying the books of Daniel and Revelation in the hopes of trying to identify the exact time of Christ’s second coming. His complex calculations led him in 1818 to the firm belief that Christ’s second advent would be sometime in the early 1840s. Due to the energetic promotion by a zealous publicist named Joshua Himes, Miller’s views became widespread in the 1830s, leading to the formulation of a sizable movement. Throughout the early 1840s, tens of thousands of persons eagerly readied themselves for Christ’s second coming, some of them actually giving away the entirety of their possessions in preparation for the great event. Sadly, the great day of anticipation, Oct. 22, 1844, came and went without Christ’s return, and the Millerite Adventist movement subsequently fell to pieces. In Adventist history, this event came to be known as the Great Disappointment.
  2. The second part of their history deals with how the faithful remnant of former Millerites regrouped and reinterpreted their situation. Shortly after the Great Disappointment, several devoted followers, including Hiram Edson, came to the conclusion that the date of Oct. 22, 1844 was indeed the correct date, but that what occurred on that date was not the second advent of Christ but rather an important salvation-historic event that took place in heaven. On that day, they maintained, Christ actually entered into the holiest of holies in the heavenly sanctuary and began his review of the deeds of professing Christians to determine their eligibility for salvation. This position, known as the doctrine of “investigative judgment,” is unique to Seventh-day Adventism. By the late 1840s, a core group of leaders had gathered together the faithful remnant of former Millerites under this new teaching. These leaders included Joseph Bates, the vigorous itinerant evangelist for the movement who successfully convinced other SDA leaders of the vital importance of worshipping on the seventh-day; James White, publisher and educator; and most importantly Ellen White, James’ wife, who became the prophet, seer, and theologian of the movement. Throughout her long life (1827-1915) Ellen White’s 2,000 visions and five dozen books helped strengthen and clarify the unique theological positions SDA adherents embrace. She was acknowledged by Adventists to have been uniquely gifted with the spirit of prophecy, and she is still highly revered throughout the denomination today. In 1863 the denomination, consisting of numerous churches, formally organized in Battle Creek, Michigan under the name “Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

 

SDA theology is a quizzical mix of mainstream evangelical theology coupled with unique views. They affirm the Triunity of God (though throughout the 19th century there were expressions of Arianism in the movement), the deity of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, the substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, and a commitment to evangelism, revival, and world missions. Yet in addition to these, they affirm the following distinguishing views and practices:

  • The Doctrine of Christ’s “Investigative Judgment” that began in 1844 (see above).
  • Seventh-Day Sabbatarianism: Adherents believe that the New Testament nowhere explicitly sanctions Sunday worship, which they regard as an illegitimate practice introduced by the Catholic Church early in Church History. The Christian Sabbath is to be observed from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
  • The Unity of Human Nature: SDA theologians deny a dualist or trichotomist understanding of human nature (i.e. that man has an immortal soul and/or spirit united to a corporeal body). Rather human beings are a single unity. This teaching led them to embrace the next two views.
  • Soul Sleep: Once the body dies, believers are non-conscious until the resurrection, since their bodies decay and there is no detachable soul that exists outside of the body. SDA theology thus rejects the evangelical doctrine of the “intermediate state,” which affirms that believers’ souls shall, upon death, go to be with the Lord and commune with him until they are later united with their bodies at the resurrection.
  • Annihilationism: At the general resurrection and judgment, unbelievers shall be destroyed bodily and wiped clean out of existence, a work that effectively frees the universe from all traces of sin. As a result there is no doctrine of a conscious, eternal hell in SDA theology.
  • Health Emphasis: Similar to other new religious movements in 19th-century America, early SDA leaders commended certain dietary laws to guide believers as they care for their bodies. These laws include an embrace of vegetarianism, a rejection of most of the foods prohibited in Leviticus 11, and abstinence from caffeine (coffee, tea) and alcohol.

Ecclesiologically, SDA polity resembles Presbyterianism where external bodies of SDA leaders (local conferences and the General Conference) have real doctrinal and spiritual authority in local SDA congregations. Their understanding of baptism, however, coheres with Baptist beliefs for they baptize believers only via immersion. They observe the Lord’s Supper four times a year and practice foot washing before each of these Communion celebrations.

The emphasis on the body and health led to the founding of several health resorts, the most important of which was the Battle Creek Sanitarium, founded in 1866. In 1876, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg became the superintendent of the resort where he practiced and advocated holistic approaches to health and medicine, including hydrotherapy, enemas, “dietetics, cold-air cure,” and vegetarianism. He, along with his brother Will, invented Corn Flakes, which Will turned into the highly successful business we know of today. Another entrepreneur who visited the Sanitarium in the 1890s, C. W. Post, also learned of the invention and began his own cereal company (Postum, later Post Cereals) with its own breakfast cereal invention, Grape-Nuts.

Seventh-Day Adventists Today

Earlier in the 20th century, evangelicals tended to categorize the Seventh-day Adventists as a cult, usually due to the denomination’s robust deference to Ellen White and her unique theological positions. Recently, however, there has been a tendency among some SDA theologians to subject White’s teachings to Scripture. Because of this, and because of their affirmation of many central evangelical teachings, there has been a greater openness among evangelicals to categorize the SDA Church as an evangelical denomination of sorts, though one that entertains aberrant (though not “deadly”) theological positions.

For instance, Kingdom of the Cults author Walter Martin devotes a lengthy, 90-page chapter on “The Puzzle of Seventh-day Adventism,” concluding that “it is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ despite certain heterodox concepts [that they embrace].” Also, the Evangelical Theological Society not only meets concurrently with the smaller Adventist Theological Society (one of only three official affiliated societies of ETS), but ETS’s Midwest Regional meetings are sometimes held on SDA college campuses. These factors demonstrate that the SDA is increasingly being recognized as confreres by the broader evangelical community.

Today Seventh-day Adventists boast more than 18 million members worldwide with strong concentrations in Central America (3.5 million) and East Central Africa (2.5 million). There are roughly one million members within the United States. This means that upwards of 95 percent of its membership derives from the result of their missionary endeavors. The SDA claims 74,000 churches worldwide and 18,000 ordained ministers. In addition to these, they have founded numerous other educational and health-related institutions including over 100 colleges, seven thousand schools (primary, secondary, and tertiary), 175 hospitals and sanitariums, and 136 homes for elderly care. Most of these institutions are not in North America.

Quick Facts

Founders

  1. William Miller (1782-1849) – Baptist layman (and later minister) whose calculations laid the groundwork for the timeline of Millerite Adventism.
  2. Ellen White (1827-1915) – theologian, prophet, and seer of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
  3. James White (1821-1881) – educator and publisher of the movement; husband of Ellen White.
  4. Joseph Bates (1792-1872) – evangelist, revivalist for the movement who convinced the leadership of the importance of seventh-day views.

Did you know…

  • … that Dr. Ben Carson (b. 1951), a pioneer in pediatric neurology and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of numerous books, is a Seventh-day Adventist?
  • … that Corn Flakes were invented by SDA members Dr. John H. Kellogg and his brother Will, who turned the invention into a wildly successful business in the 1890s?
  • … that C.W. Post , an entrepreneur who convalesced at the Battle Creek Sanitarium led by the Dr. Kellogg, was inspired to start his own cereal company and invented Grape-Nuts?
  • … that here in North Texas, the Christian radio station KJRN 88.3, The Journey is the radio station of Southwestern Adventist University, a Seventh-day Adventist college in Keene, Texas?

Numbers (according to SDA statistics for 2012 and 2013)

  1. Worldwide numbers:
    1. Total members: eighteen million.
    2. Total congregations: 74,000
    3. Active ordained ministers: 18,000
  2. North American numbers
    1. Members: one million.