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From Rural Populism to Practical Christianity : the Modernisation of the Seventh- Day Adventist Movement / Du populisme rural au christianisme pratique. La modernisation du mouvement Adventiste du septième jour. - article ; n°1 ; vol.60, pg 109-130


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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1985 - Volume 60 - Numéro 1 - Pages 109-130
22 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Publié par
Publié le 01 janvier 1985
Nombre de lectures 14
Langue Français
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

Robin Theobald
From Rural Populism to Practical Christianity : the Modernisation
of the Seventh- Day Adventist Movement / Du populisme rural
au christianisme pratique. La modernisation du mouvement
Adventiste du septième jour.
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 60/1, 1985. pp. 109-130.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Theobald Robin. From Rural Populism to Practical Christianity : the Modernisation of the Seventh- Day Adventist Movement /
Du populisme rural au christianisme pratique. La modernisation du mouvement Adventiste du septième jour. In: Archives des
sciences sociales des religions. N. 60/1, 1985. pp. 109-130.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1985.2369
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0335-5985_1985_num_60_1_2369Arch Sc soc des Rel. 1985 60/1 juillet-septembre) 109 130
Le mouvement Adventiste du septième jour pour origine la va
gue de spéculations pré-millénaristes qui déferlé sur les petites
communautés agricoles de certaines régions Amérique du nord
dans les années 1840
Le mouvement pour vocation avouée de prévenir le monde de la
menace de destruction qui pèse sur lui ainsi que de le préparer au
retour imminent du Christ Pour acquitter de cette tâche il dis
pose un réseau évangélisation actif dans presque tous les pays
du monde Mais Adventismo est aussi lancé dans une série ac
tivités telles que la réforme de la santé éducation les loisirs il
propose des services conseil en matière de mariage de famille de
relations personnelles de choix de carrière et sur la plupart des
questions relatives au comportement humain
Cet article est un essai explication de cet engagement dans des
activités séculières en termes de besoin comment un mouvement
origine essentiellement rurale et destiné une population rurale
accommode-t-il de la transformation de Amérique du nord en
une société industrielle urbaine
Sont examinées ici les tensions possibles entre le souci annoncer
la fin du monde et engagement en faveur de amélioration de la
vie ici bas ainsi que les conséquences prévisibles entraînent ces
tensions pour le développement ultérieur du mouvement
The Seventh-day Adventist SDA movement is ostensibly dedicated to
warning the peoples of the world of the imminent return of Christ an event that
will be accompanied by the total destruction of the world and all work
within it In order to accomplish this end the movement has established over the
sonal research should grant like without to express which my gratitude much of the to the research Social on Science which Research this paper Council is based U.K. could for not the have per
been carried out
last hundred years global organization with branches in all but few coun
tries But in addition to its evangelistics apparatus Adventism has become invol
ved in wide range of ancillary activities In 1975 for example apart from its
1800 churches the movement was operating over 4000 schools 73 colleges
universities 32 schools of nursing 136 hospitals 261 dispensaries and clinics
28 food factories and other institutions such as orphanages and retirement ho
mes In that same year the SDA movement had over 430 million dollars inves
ted in medical facilities alone Confronted with such an extensive this-
worldly presence Edwin Scott observation that While expecting
kingdom of God from the heavens Adventists work diligently for one on
seems particularly apposite 2)
It is of course by no means unusual for protestant movements especially
American ones whilst apparently pre-occupied with other-worldly goals to dis
play an impressive this-worldly presence Nonetheless for movement which
still formally commits itself to belief in the imminent end of things such exten
sive this-worldly involvement particularly in institutions and activities which
are directed to the preservation and improvement of mortal existence would
seem to pose something of paradox The aim of what follows is to shed some
light on this paradox and in the process to examine some of the major changes
that have taken place within the SDA movement since it first emerged in the
1840s Basically it will be argued that these changes need to be understood
against the background of the modernisation of North American society The
term modernisation has been the subject of extensive discussion within the so
cial sciences and it is neither necessary nor desirable that we embark upon
protracted review in this context For our purposes the most significant fea
tures of the process of modernisation are urbanisation and social mobilisation
The United States during the first half of the XIXth century was predominant
ly rural society based upon small farmer economy organised around small
face-to-face communities By the turn of the century the axis of the US economy
had shifted to industry and to the city Into the northern cities poured millions
of immigrants whose background language and culture divided them not only
from their predominantly Anglo-Saxon predecessors but also from eachother
In the absence at that stage of the modernisation process of an overarching ci
vic culture the burden of integration in the urban context fell heavily on the
market Social mobilisation in mass markets is probably the most important
feature of modernisation in societies like the United States which followed
laissez-faire capitalist route to development This means that in the absence
of countervailing tendencies most obviously extensive state involvement in
economy and society the logic of the market penetrates particularly rapidly
all organisations and agencies and not just those manifestly established for the
pursuit of profit
Having committed itself during its formative years to mass evangelism the
SDA movement half century later had to come to terms with the fact that so
far as the USA was concerned the overwhelming majority of these masses were
now located within an urban context We shall see that in the process of adap
ting to the urban market and the perceived needs of would-be converts Adven
tism felt constrained to update to refine to modernize its message in order to
make it relevant to individual needs in the sense of the needs of individuals fa
cing the vicissitudes of existence in an urban industrial society
This process of adaptation to the market situation especially to competi
tion from secular agencies is of course by no means peculiar to Seventh-day
Adventism and to some degree is feature of all religious movements which
must operate in liberal capitalist context What is peculiar about Adven
tism is that for historical reasons to be examined the fundamenta
list core has much greater degree of salience of visibility than is the case with
the mainstream protestantism with which leading Adventists have latterly at
tempted rapprochement The persistence of this hardcore fundamentalism it
will be argued still determines to considerable degree the type of convert
which the movement attracts and as consequence the trajectory of its future
development In order to understand the basic changes which have taken place
in Adventism it will be necessary first to sketch the formative deve
lopment as well as outline the basic contours of its doctrine
The SDA movement has its origins in the millennial Millerite movement
which developed in the 1840s in the eastern United States William Miller
Baptist preacher of Low Hampton New York had prophesied the second co
ming of Christ some time in 1843 basing his calculations on the apocalyptic
books of Daniel and Revelation especially on the verse in Daniel Unto two
thousand and three hundred days then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.
teachings were taken up and publicized by growing numbers of people until at
the climax of the movement when expectations had come to focus upon Octo
ber 1844 there were over 100000 firm believers with perhaps million or more
sceptically expectant With the non-materialisation of the advent the Mille
rite movement virtually disintegrated handful of surviving factions each at
tempted to explain the apparent failure of prophecy From one of these factions
was to emerge the Seventh-day Adventist movement
Immediately after what became known as the Great Disappointment two
Millerites Hiram Edson and O.R.L Crosier developed re-interpretation of
the Daniel prophecy which came to provide rallying point for other Millerites
Edson and Crosier maintained that the cleansing of the sanctuary referred not
to an event which was to take place on earth but to an act of ministration in the
heavenly sanctuary which Christ had entered on the appointed day October 22
1844 The timing of the prophecy had been right after all the Millerites had
simply misunderstood it
crucial stage in the development of the SDA movement was marked by
series of meetings held at various locations in New England and New York du
ring 1848 Attending all these meetings were three individuals who were to be
come the architects and principal builders of the SDA movement Joseph Bates
and Ellen and James White Bates had been prominent figure in the Millerite
movement and in its aftermath had introduced to the coterie which was uniting
around Edson and sanctuary doctrine arguments for the observance
of the seventh day as the true sabbath In 1846 James and Ellen White
had read tract by Bates and soon after came to observe teach and defend the
seventh-day sabbath During the same year Mrs White experienced vision not
in fact her first) which she was transported to the heavenly sanctuary and shown
the ark containing the law On looking down on the tablets of stone Mrs White
saw that the fourth commandment was encircled by soft halo of light This vi
sion was taken by those close to Mrs White as sign of divine affirmation of
observance of the seventh-day sabbath The fact that this and Mrs
other visions were accepted by early Adventists as being divinely inspired
played vital integrative role in the early stages of the develop
ment 7)
During the course of these early meetings the Sabbatarean Adventists the
name Seventh-day Adventist was not adopted until 1860) came to identify
themselves as members of the church of the last generation or remnant who
keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. Initially this remnant
was identified in quite narrow terms as referring to those who had accepted the
advent message prior to the Great Disappointment of October 1844 On that
day the door of salvation had closed so that those who had rejected Millerite
teachings could have no hope of redemption However strict adherence to such
position soon raised number of difficulties firstly there were those who had
rejected the message before October 22nd but had since accepted it Were they
to be excluded Secondly there were those who had not had the opportunity of
hearing the before 22 or as the fifties wore on an increasing
number who had they heard it would have been too young to have made deci
sion and so forth Faced with situation in which they were making new con
verts it was difficult for those at the centre of the emerging movement to do
other than gradually retreat from the shut door position By 1855 it had been
dropped altogether In moving away from the inherently exclusivist shut door
position the early Adventists not only abandoned doctrine that must have led even
tually to the obsolescence but also cleared the way for the expanding
missionary endeavour that has become the SDA chief characteristic
Whilst winning converts became basic goal the accession of
an increasing number of new recruits soon presented problems Although
Mrs personal charisma was able to bind together nucleus of hardcore
believers to the extent that the movement expanded its following dimension
and internal squabbling began to re-assert themselves The problem of exerting
control over new members was exacerbated firstly by geographical situation in
which an increasing number of small bands of believers were scattered over
wide area and secondly by the prevailing background of religious enthusiasm
which tended to give full reign to the extreme individualism inherent in reformed
protestantism 8)
Accordingly at the beginning of the fifties we find James White starting to
issue warnings through the regular paper the Advent Review ana
Sabbath Herald about those among the brethren who were advocating heretical
doctrines of various kinds Towards the end of 1851 general meeting decided
to withdraw fellowship from brethren who were continuing to ignore the spirit
of prophecy as manifested in the writings of Mrs White In the face of conti
nuing factionalism and internal disagreement the Whites eventually decided that
one of the principal causes of their difficulties was that number of the indivi
duals who were preaching the present truth were insufficiently qualified and
were therefore spreading confusion and disunion among the brethren In 1853
Mrs White called for the movement to set itself on gospel order by which she
meant that steps be taken to examine the lives and qualifications of those who
were professing to be its teachers 9)
However the call to regularize the ministry was prompted not only by
need for doctrinal conformity Throughout the early fifties princi
pal evangelists subsisted largely upon charity supplemented by intermittent
farm work This state of affairs proved unsatisfactory for number of reasons
the dependence upon charity led to unacceptable inequalities with more popu
lar preachers being amply rewarded while others received little or nothing In
the small-farm economy of New England New York and the mid-West pay
ment for farm work was usually in kind with all the attendant disadvantages not
least on the mobility of the preacher But probably most important the need for
farm work obviously reduced the amount of time that could be devoted to evan
gelism Pioneer Adventist J.N Loughborough describes how whilst conducting
camp meetings in New York and Pennsylvania in the mid-fifties he was cons
trained to work in the fields for four and half days week and hold his mee
tings on the sabbathand on Sundays 10 It became obvious that something
must be done to stabilize the ministry during the winter of 1855-56 when num
ber of the leading preachers including Loughborough gave up the
work and migrated west to Iowa primarily because of the penury and insecurity
of their lives as unpaid itinerant evangelists In 1858 group of leading brethren
were delegated to look into scripture to see if light was to be found on the sub
ject of the support of the ministry At the beginning of 1859 an editorial in the
Review and Herald was advocating plan of systematic benevolence based on
the tithing principle as means of supporting the ministry The practice was
adopted and soon became widespread throughout the movement 11 The tithe
one tenth of income remains the SDA principal
method of supporting ministers and other full-time workers
Having established its ministry on regular footing the 1860s saw further
efforts at consolidating the organisational base By 1863 several
states in the interests of unified and rationalised evangelistics programme had
organised their churches into conferences In May 1863 the SDA movement
held its first General Conference session at its headquarters in Battle Creek Mi
chigan The session was attended by twenty delegates representing some 3500
members The need for some form of central direction of the work had become
particularly apparent with the development of the practice of more populous
conferences like Michigan loaning on more or less ad hoc basis evangelists
to areas where missionary activities were only just beginning Three weeks be
fore the session James White explained in the Review and Herald that its princi
pal object would be to secure the united and systematic action of the friends of
the cause in every part of the wide field 12 White was evidently well-satisfied
with the new structure that was established as he wrote shortly after the session
organization has saved the cause Secession among us is dead 13)
It is unfortunately not possible to examine in this context the organizatio
nal development of the SDA movement in any detail 14 However there is one the emergence of interest in the health work which must be dis
cussed as its role is fundamental to an understanding both of the evolution of
the movement as well as its mode of operation in contemporary society
Shortly after the first General Conference session Mrs White experienced
vision during which she was given instructions regarding the importance of
health reform for the work
saw that it was sacred duty to attend to our health and arouse others to
their duty. We have duty to speak to come out against intemperance of every
kind intemperance in working in eating in drinking in drugging and then to
point to great medicine water pure soft water for diseases for health for
Since the 1840s Mrs White had exhibited an interest in health matters em
phasizing the importance of personal hygiene and the need to abstain from inju
rious substances such as tea coffee and above all tobacco These preoccupa
tions almost certainly reflected broader popular interest in the efficacy of na
tural medicine this interest being itself but one aspect of the more general refor
mism which so absorbed the minds and energies of North Americans during the
first tumultuous decades of the XIXth century 16 By the sixties Mrs White
perhaps spurred on by the incidence of serious illness within her immediate fa
mily continued energetically to advocate the health cause urging the General
Conference to launch co-ordinated health reform programme In second vi
sion the details of which were revealed to the General Conference session of
1866 Mrs White was shown that the SDA movement should provide home
for the sick and for those who wished to learn about health reform Her purpose
in calling for such an institution was not entirely altruistic She pointed out to
the delegates that as non-Adventists resorted to an establishment run by Adven
tist physicians imbued with the ethos their prejudices will be over
come they may be favourably impressed and especially if cured some may find
their way to the truth The session responded positively to Mrs appeal
resolving in favour of starting health journal and creating health institute
The decision was without doubt strongly influenced by the fact that the evan
gelistic work during the mid-sixties had been brought to virtual standstill by
the Civil War The mind of the nation is so absorbed in this dreadful contest
that it is almost impossible to call attention to religious subjects 17 In such
context Mrs suggestion that health reform programme might be an al
ternative means of reaching potential converts had an obvious appeal Thus was
launched the SDA formal involvement in health and medical work
an involvement that now extends to running hospitals clinics schools of nur
sing food factories and anti-smoking clinics all over the world The rationale
that receiving treatment at an Adventist hospital or dispensary reading an Ad
ventist health journal or attending an anti-smoking clinic might lead some to
an awareness of the continues to underpin the work in this
In accepting an expanding missionary frontier with the abandonment of the
shut door doctrine and in adapting to the exigences of the Civil War period
Seventh-day Adventism exhibited the pragmatism which we shall see has be
come one of the most distinctive features The first necessitated
rational and efficient organisational structure whilst the second marked cru
cial stage in the development of movement whose origins lay in an overwhel
ming preoccupation with the imminent destruction of mankind and his works
Although Adventists still insist that the health message must be firmly embed
ded in Adventist teaching generally entry into this area and the diversification
of resources which it entailed to some degree involves shift in focus shift
from an other-worldly preoccupation with the second coming to concern with
the preservation and enhancement of life on earth The secularising tendencies
that are inherent in this process of differentiation are evident in the following
from our point of view unconscious observation by Adventist historian
The church came out of the Civil War purified strengthened and fitted for
greater service in evangelism and living 18)
concern with living is readily apparent in movement whose list of pu
blications is replete with titles such as Hov to Get On With Others Hov To
Have Happy Home Guard Your Health 19) which offers its mem
bers advice on marriage childrearing education career development leisure
and virtually every area of human activity However before looking in more de
tail at the social welfare side of Adventism it will be necessary to consider the
doctrinal heritage from the surge of millennial expectation in which
it has its origins Having done this we can then move on to examine the extent to
which this heritage has come under modification during the last hundred years
or so and particularly at the way in which it has been adapted to the needs of
evangelism in the modern city
In looking at the origins of the SDA movement it is important to bear in
mind that at the beginning of the XIXth century millennial speculation was
not the obsession of tiny handful of fanatics but the daily preoccupation of
large number of serious-minded protestants For many the French and Ameri
can revolutions had upset ideas about gradual change and made the expectation
of an apocalyptic transformation seem much less fanciful The overthrow of the
papacy in 1798 gave particular force to the prophecies in Daniel and elsewhere
in the Bible which foretold the downfall of the beast The first years of the cen
tury saw remarkable upsurge in the appearance of publications with millennial
themes In Europe millennial societies were formed and millennial conferences
convened In the USA too millennial societies made their appearance In 1820
the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews was established
including among its members no less person than John Quincy Adams soon
to become sixth president of the United States By 1840 there existed in the Uni
ted States sizable millennial party made up principally of Presbyterian and
Episcopalian clergy who had come to accept the views of British millena-
rians 20)
Accordingly such evidence as is available concerning those who embraced
the Millerite message presents picture neither of an impoverished peasantry
nor desperate lumpenproletariat social groups characteristically linked with
millennialism 21) but of stolid respectability journalist who visited Millerite
camp meetings owned to being puzzled as to why so many sobre intelligent
men and gentle pious women should abandon their daily business in order to
proclaim the message of the second advent 22 large number of Millerites
although perhaps not wealthy were certainly respectable and influential mem
bers of the community clergymen scholars small businessmen and farmers
Millerisin then far from being an upsurge of mass irrationality 23) was as
Whitney Cross has put it the logical outcome of fundamentalist ortho
doxy 24 What was then fundamentalist orthodoxy was transmitted to
Seventh-day Adventism and forms the nucleus of the doctrinal sys
tem today
We have seen that Seventh-day Adventism has its specific origins in the re-
interpretation of 2300-day prediction of the cleansing of the sanctuary
The sanctuary doctrine remains at the heart of Adventism and is the one area of
belief that is exclusive to the movement As used in the Bible the term sanctua
ry refers firstly to the tabernacle built by Moses as pattern of heavenly
Hebrews l) and secondly to the true tabernacle in heaven In He
brews the cleansing of both earthly and heavenly sanctuaries is recounted The
cleansing of both is accomplished by blood in one case the blood of animal sa
crifice and in the second the blood of Christ
The ministration of the earthly sanctuary consists of the priest daily trans
ferring the sins of the people of Israel to the sanctuary by sprinkling sacrificial
blood before the veil At special ceremony on the Day of Atonement the accu
mulated sins are removed by the high priest who confesses them over the scape
goat which is then driven into the wilderness Likewise is work in the
heavenly sanctuary divided two parts after His ascension Christ began His
work as high priest pleading His blood before God on behalf of penitent belie
vers Although this work secures their pardon the sins of these believers none
theless remain on the books of record special work of atonement is therefore
required to remove or blot out these accumulated sins It was this special work
which began when the 2300 days of Daniel ended in October 1844 Then Christ
entered into the inner sanctuary in order to cleanse it through an examination of
the books of record in order to determine who through repentance and faith is
entitled to the benefits of His atonement This examination the Investigative
Judgement as Adventism terms it deals only with the cases of professed follo
wers of Christ the aim being to see if they have kept their faith When Christ has
completed the investigative period of the judgement He will remove His priestly
robes and prepare to return to earth in order to execute the judgement
The importance of the Investigative Judgement for the SDA movement is
paramount The fact that judgement is come or as an Adventist pamphlet has
it Life sentences are now being decided in heaven acts as driving force
behind the movement This is the message that must be preached to the world
literally the whole world and everybody in it before Christ can return
second coming is thus in some sense conditional upon this monumental
task being accomplished This is fairly obvious ideological lever and is used at
the level of the local church to exhort members to get out and proclaim the gos
pel Since we do not put our backs into the work which He has given us to do
we delay His glorious return 25)
But although Christ in His infinite mercy may be delaying His return in or
der that as many as possible might hear His message Adventists are nonethe
less sure that that day will come soon The signs after all are fulfilled increa
ses in crime violence growing materialism and greed rising apostasy all are
foretold in scripture One sign however stands out above all the others Adven
tism interprets prophecy to foretell move during the last by apostate
protestantism in alliance with Rome to enforce Sunday observance As result
keepers of the true sabbath will be subjected to restriction and eventually to
outright persecution This persecution will reach its zenith during the time of
the terrible period immediately before the final cataclysm when every
kind of privation will be visited upon mankind as foretold in the Book of Reve
lation Since the righteous minority will be under the protection of the angels
during this period they will be blamed for the sufferings of the majority who will
turn their murderous rage upon them But just as the wicked are about to rush
in for the kill the final conflagration will be unloosed The earth and everything
on it will be completely destroyed The graves will open and the righteous dead
will be resurrected to eternal life They together with the righteous living will
have been translated into the immortal state and will be caught up to meet the
Lord in the air 26 Departing from the established millennial tradition Adven-
tism rejects entirely the idea of an earthly reign during the millennium by Christ
and the saints over unregenerate sinners The saints will pass the millennium in
heaven where they will be engaged on second work of judgement this time of
the wicked those who have rejected Christ At the end of the
Christ and the saints will descend to earth in the New Jerusalem which will then
be attacked by Satan at the head of the resurrected wicked However God will
send fire from heaven destroying Satan and his unrepentant hordes This fire
also purify the earth removing every last trace of sin The great controversy
between God and Satan will be ended Christ and saints will dwell for eternity
in completely regenerated earth 27)
This is the basic eschatology which lies at the heart of Adventism today
and which is the hallmark However leaving aside for the moment
the involvement in the health work to regard what has just been outlined as Ad
ventism tout court would be gross simplification In fact certain profound
shifts have taken place in Adventist theology over the last hundred years and an
appreciation of the nature of these shifts is vital to proper understanding both
of the evolution as well as its contemporary dilemmas
Given the nature of the SDA development it was inevitable
that heavy emphasis be placed upon scriptural exegesis Adventism after all
has its origins in widespread upsurge of interest in particular time prophecies
Having established the basic tenets of their doctrine the early pioneers went on
to strengthen the inter-relationships by paying particular attention to prophecy
and the interpretation of prophetic symbols Apart from the pages of the Review
and Herald during the 1860s brief acquaintance with what was
first commentary in book form Uriah Thoughts on Revelation reveals
an excessive preoccupation with the fine details of prophecy
It was probably also inevitable that in the highly diversified religious situa
tion of North America movement with what it regarded as distinctive reli
gious message should come to emphasize those features of its doctrine that dif
ferentiated it from other groups in this case inter
pretation of prophecy particularly in relation to the observance of the seventh-
day sabbath Again and again Adventists found themselves defending the sab
bath and in so doing proved themselves to be formidable debaters In fact the