The Millerites firmly believed that Jesus Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. When the second coming did not occur, many were disillusioned and abandoned belief in a literal second advent. Others, stung by disappointment and seeking any explanation, adopted extreme biblical interpretations. On the one hand, some embraced allegorical and symbolic readings of Scripture, adopting interpretations that Jesus had returned to this world—but not in a literal, physical form. At the other extreme, some ex-Millerites embraced exceedingly literal readings of the Bible, teaching, for example, that true believers should act like children (Matthew 18:3): they therefore cried aloud, sat on the floor rather than a chair, and crawled around their houses, or occasionally in the streets. A huge range of irrational and fanatical behaviours was spawned by the mental trauma of the Great Disappointment.
Some ex-Millerites, though, went back to studying the Bible with renewed determination, yet without extremism. During the late 1840s they met in a series of Bible conferences, during which they studied and debated the
Scriptures. Slowly, they identified a series of distinctive Bible truths they held in common, most of them largely forgotten since the days of the early Christian church. Key beliefs were:
We fail to recognise that young and old, men and women, and people of diverse ethnicities, all played leadership parts in the founding of our Church.
1) Christ’s second coming is imminent and will be literal, witnessed by all the world, and will begin the millennium described in Revelation 20.
2) The seventh day, Saturday, not Sunday, is God’s Sabbath and the obligation to keep it is eternal.
3) Christ ministers in the heavenly sanctuary, mediating to those who have faith in Him the benefits of His death on the cross (a doctrine first propounded by Hiram Edson).
4) The dead “sleep” until the second coming, when the righteous will be given eternal life, while the unrighteous will be instantly annihilated at the last judgement.
5) Just before the second coming, 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.
6) The remnant church will be marked by the gift of the “spirit of prophecy”—a recurrence of the prophetic ministry of the Bible.
In all this, they were guided by a young woman, Ellen Harmon (who in 1846 married a former Millerite evangelist, James White), believing that the spirit of prophecy was manifested in her. This was a seventh core belief—but was not, of course, a biblical doctrine, as Ellen White herself always emphasised.
While maintaining Miller’s historicist approach to apocalyptic prophecy and his belief in a literal, pre-millennial second coming, the Sabbatarian adventists, as they gradually emerged, were characterised by a decidedly rational approach to theology. They eschewed both highly literal and highly spiritualising or symbolic readings of Scripture. They engaged in collaborative, systematic Bible study, consistently seeking to compare text with text, and with an eye for the context. They would only accept a premise that seemed to have scriptural foundation if they could reconcile it with other beliefs whose biblical basis they had previously demonstrated. They actively sought criticism and comment from fellow believers.
Joseph Bates, who had been one of the Millerite leaders and was one of the first to adopt the seventh-day Sabbath, led the way in this, but his methods were also those of Hiram Edson, who won over Bates to his view of the sanctuary (while Bates converted him to the Sabbath); of Joseph Frisbie, forgotten today, but a powerful preacher and a theologian whose densely exegetical studies of theological issues appeared frequently in the early 1850s in the Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, the periodical that kept the Sabbatarian adventists in touch with each other; and by eager young Bible students such as John N Andrews and John N Loughborough, who emerged in the 1850s as leading evangelists and defenders of the developing Sabbatarian doctrines. Above all, these were the Bible study methods embraced, embodied and endorsed by James White, editor of the Review and Herald, as the journal was familiarly known, and by Ellen, his wife. Together, they provided a model of careful, holistic Bible study.
The group grew, slowly but steadily, and yet 19 years after the Great Disappointment of 1844 there was still no Seventh-day Adventist Church—only small groups scattered across the northern United States, who did not yet even have a name for themselves, and who, because of the way William Miller and his followers had been disfellowshipped and shunned by mainstream churches in the early 1840s, were wary of any kind of formal organisation. Gradually, however, inspired by Christ’s great commission to “Go and make disciples” and by the visions of Ellen White, the Sabbatarian adventists accepted the need to organise, so they could more effectively and more widely proclaim the third angel’s message. Finally, on May 21, 1863, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was founded—an organised 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. Seventh-day Adventists had united for mission.
This month, 150 years later, is a good time to pause, reflect on “the way the Lord has led us and His teaching in our past history”, as Ellen White urged (Life Sketches, p 196) and to recommit ourselves to the mission of the Church. There are many lessons that can be learned from God’s “teaching in our past history”, but here is just one—the inclusiveness of the early Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the model it offers for our mission to the world.
Because our image of the founders of our Church is shaped by photographs of middle-aged or elderly white men, we often do not realise how diverse our pioneers were. We fail to recognise that young and old, men and women, and people of diverse ethnicities, all played leading parts in the founding of our Church.
Most of them were young. To take just a few of the future founders and leaders of the Church, at the time of the Great Disappointment of 1844, James White was 23; Merritt Cornell was 17; Ellen White and Annie Smith were 16; John Andrews 15; Minerva Loughborough was 14, while John, her brother, and Uriah Smith were only 13; Stephen Haskell was 11; and George Butler was just 10. Yet it was these young men and women, aided by elder statesmen like Joseph Bates and John Byington (aged 52 and 46 respectively in 1844), who played essential roles in establishing the General Conference in 1863.
The Whites, George Amadon, the Smiths, and Minerva Loughborough published the Review and Herald, the Youth’s Instructor, aimed at children, and books and pamphlets that persuasively set out the new beliefs. Andrews, Loughborough, James White, Cornell, Haskell and Butler led the evangelistic efforts that increased the ranks of the Sabbatarians from around 200 in 1850 to about 3000 in 1863 when the Church was organised. The Whites, Uriah Smith, John Loughborough, Andrews and Amadon played key roles in transforming the network of small, widespread groups of Sabbatarian believers and uniting them for mission. The teenagers and twenty-somethings of the 1840s and 1850s continued to provide leadership to the Church into the 1880s and beyond.
It is the case that only white males were delegates to the original GC Session in 1863. Yet among the first members of the new Church was the African-American Hardy family, members of the Battle Creek Church (where the first General Conference Session was held). Women too were prominent among the first members of the Church in 1863, several of whom were subsequently leaders around the world: Ellen White, the prophetess: Minerva Chapman (nee Loughborough), a key figure in the publishing work and treasurer of the General Conference; Nellie Druillard (nee Rankin), pioneer missionary to Africa and an influential educator and health reformer; and Maud Boyd (nee Sisley), educator and pioneer missionary to Europe, South Africa and Australia, who taught at Avondale (where she is buried), influencing many future Adventist leaders in the South Pacific.
We forget the age of the men and women who played key roles in building up and uniting the Church. We forget, too, that though Adventists never ordained women to gospel ministry, they accorded women an important role in leadership. And too few Adventists know that in 1889, when blacks were being legally relegated to second-class citizens across the United States, Seventh-day Adventists ordained a black man, Charles Kinney, as a minister; and that within a few years they sent a Chinese-American man, Law Keem, and an African-American woman, Anna Knight, as missionaries.
As we mark 150 years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there’s more need than ever for all Adventists to follow the example of our founders. There’s a need and a place for everyone—young, old and middle-aged, men and women, of all ethnic and social backgrounds—to proclaim Christ and Him crucified, and His desire that we be reconciled with Him and strive to “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).
This anniversary is a significant moment. It’s not a time for triumphalism or boastful celebration—it’s easy to imagine what those who founded the GC would say if we could somehow travel back to 1863 in a time machine and tell them we are still here! But it’s a time for prayerful reflection and thankful commemoration, even quiet celebration, not of what we have done, but of what God has done through us and despite us.
This Sabbath, Adventists across the world will commemorate our 150th anniversary with prayer, remembrance and recommitment to mission. As we reflect on 150 years of Seventh-day Adventists united for mission, let’s recommit ourselves, regardless of age, gender, colour or race, to preaching “the everlasting gospel . . . to every nation, tribe, tongue and people” (Revelation 14:6).
Dr David Trim, an Australian, is director of the General Conference’s department of Archives, Statistics and Research.