From Great Disappointment to General Conference
The Millerites firmly believed that Jesus Christ’s “second advent” (His second coming to earth) would occur on October 22, 1844. When His second coming did not take place, many Millerites were disillusioned and gave up belief in a literal second advent; but others went back to studying the scriptures.
Over the next 15 years, former Millerites, meeting in a sequence of “Bible conferences”, identified a series of Bible truths forgotten since the days of the early Church. The key beliefs they adopted were:
- That Christ’s second coming is imminent and will be literal, not metaphorical, seen by all the world
- That the seventh day, Saturday, not Sunday, is God’s Sabbath and the obligation to keep it is perpetual
- That God does not eternally torment sinners, but rather that the dead “sleep” until the second coming and last judgment
- That Christ ministers in the heavenly sanctuary, thereby mediating to us the benefits of His death on the cross, saving us by His righteousness, not our own deeds
- That in the last days Christians will be tempted by apostasy, but will be called back to divine truth — the “third angel’s message” of Revelation 14 — by a small “remnant” of faithful believers
- That the remnant would be marked by a recurrence of the prophetic ministry
In all this, they were guided by a young woman, Ellen G. White, who, further to their sixth belief, they recognized as a prophet, inspired by God.
These beliefs emerged gradually. In the 1850s there was no Seventh-day Adventist Church — only small groups scattered across the northern United States, who had these beliefs in common but who did not even have a name for themselves, though some, like James White, identified themselves as belonging to “the Great Second Advent Movement”, while others used the term “sabbatarian adventist.”
Eventually, however, inspired by Christ’s great commission to “Go and make disciples”, the seventh-day sabbatarian adventists recognized that they needed to organize, so they could more effectively and more widely proclaim the third angel’s message. A vital step was taken by a gathering of delegates from across the northern United States on October 1, 1860, who agreed to “take the name Seventh-day Adventist.” Then, on May 20 and 21, 1863, at a further meeting, delegates from all those American states with Seventh-day Adventist congregations formed the “General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists” — an organized church, focused on mission and on proclaiming the good news of a God who created us, lived among us, died for us, and redeems us.
Drawing inspiration from our pioneers
Because our image of the founders of our church is largely shaped by photographs of middle-aged men, we often do not realize how diverse they were — in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.
During the formative years of the movement, its leaders were mostly young, in their late teens, 20s and 30s. At the time of the Great Disappointment of 1844, James White was 23; Ellen White and Annie Smith were 16; John N. Andrews was 15, and Minerva Loughborough not quite 15. Uriah Smith and John N. Loughborough (brothers of Annie and Minerva) were only 13, and George I. Butler was just 10.
Yet it was these young men and women, aided by elder statesmen like Joseph Bates (who in 1844 was aged 52), who took the lead in the Bible conferences of the late 1840s and the 1850s, during which the beliefs of what became the Seventh-day Adventist Church were discussed, debated and agreed. It was they who published a series of pamphlets, persuasively setting out the new beliefs, as well as a magazine, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (today’s Adventist Review), which connected all the widely scattered believers together, and without which the church would never have been founded. It was they who led the efforts to transform a network of small groups of believers into an organization that would unite all Seventh-day Adventists and provide a basis for mission. Most of the youngsters of the 1850s provided leadership to the church into the 1880s and some into the twentieth century.
Although only men attended the original General Conference Session in 1863, among the first members of the newly created church, women were prominent. In addition to Ellen White, there were Minerva Chapman (née Loughborough), a key figure in the early publishing work who later became Treasurer of the General Conference; Maud Sisley Boyd, who became a pioneer missionary to Europe, South Africa and Australia; and Nellie Druillard (née Rankin), who became a pioneer missionary to Africa and an influential educator and health reformer. Also among those first members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1863 were the Hardys, a prominent African-American family.
Today we see pictures of our pioneers in later life, their faces creased by the strain of lives struggling against overwhelming odds. It is easy to forget that they created our church when they were still in their 20s and 30s — easy, too, to forget that, although Adventists did not ordain women to gospel ministry, they accorded women important roles in leadership. And it is too little known that not only were most of the believers in the 1850s fervent abolitionists, but also that, in the late nineteenth century, when blacks and Chinese were being relegated to second-class citizens across the United States, Seventh-day Adventists ordained them to the ministry and entrusted important mission work to them.
American society of the time did not place much value on youth and marginalized women and ethnic minorities. Further, Seventh-day Adventist doctrines were unpopular among religious scholars. Whence came the boldness to defy both social conventions and the general consensus of leading theologians? Seventh-day Adventists were inspired by love for Jesus and conviction that He was coming soon, by confidence in divine prophecies, and by belief that the Spirit of Prophecy was manifested in Ellen White. They were, in consequence, willing to dare anything. While it took them until 1874 to realize that fulfilling the Great Commission meant they had to send missionaries overseas, they swiftly thereafter became committed to worldwide mission. They sought to reform not only theology, but also lifestyle, promoting radical health reforms and prioritizing education. They preached prophetic truths, but also wanted to make men and women whole in the here and now. To this end, during the denomination’s first half century Adventists worked in big cities and among people of all languages and social classes, inspired by the example of Jesus, Who, as Ellen White stressed, “mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.'” (Ministry of Healing, p. 143).
As we mark 150 years of Seventh-day Adventists being united for mission, there is more need than ever for Adventist men and women of all ages, and all ethnic and social backgrounds, to follow the example of our founders. Founded in love for our Savior and His love for sinners, we need to proclaim Christ and Him crucified, His longing that men and women be whole, and His desire that we “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
After 150 years
Our 150th anniversary is not a time for parties or celebration — those who founded the General Conference in May 1863 would have undoubtedly been deeply disappointed to know that their descendants would still be on earth in 2013. This important anniversary is rather a time for reflection; for repentance; for thanksgiving; and for renewed commitment to the purpose for which God called this movement into being.
The worldwide church has designated Sabbath May 18, 2013, as a day of prayer, remembrance, and recommitment to mission. Each local congregation is encouraged to find appropriate ways to mark the “sesquicentennial” of Seventh-day Adventists being united for mission, including a focus on their local church history. Throughout our 150th year, individual Seventh-day Adventists can also be inspired by our history.
This important anniversary should prompt us to reflect on how God has led His remnant church “and His teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches , 196). We should both thank Him for miraculous leading — and reflect on what we have done, and not done, that grieves our God, and repent. It is a good time to commit ourselves, both individually and corporately, not just to “a revival but [to] a reformation”, as Ellen White urged (R&H, July 15, 1902, p. 7). It is time to pledge ourselves anew to preaching “the everlasting gospel … to every nation, tribe, tongue and people” (Rev. 14:6).
As we reflect on 150 years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is time to recommit ourselves to the prophetic destiny of the Great Second Advent Movement.