If we are looking for the birthday of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, October 22, 1844, will serve as well as any other date. Which, at first glance, is not very auspicious since our name for that day is “The Great Disappointment.” Still, the spiritual trauma of that day gave birth to the social and theological streams that became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
A quick summary of the history:
In the early 1800s, a New Englander named William Miller was studying the Bible, especially the prophecies about the end of time. As he studied he believed he had stumbled upon the approximate date for the Second Coming of Jesus. He distrusted his conclusions, so he restudied the passages and double-checked his calculations. Every which way he approached it, he came up with the same answer. Jesus was coming back to earth in 1843, give or take a year or two.
He was amazed that no one else had seen this. How could it be that he was the only one? If it were true surely he should tell people. But if he was wrong, it would be irresponsible. So he kept quiet about it. But he experienced an intensifying inner conviction that he should tell others the good news. Finally, in an attempt to get the monkey off his back, he made a deal with God:
“You want me to tell people—you set it up.”
He figured that would take care of things. It was up to God. He was off the hook.
Shortly after he prayed this prayer, his nephew showed up at the house with an invitation to come preach at their church. Uncle William was not too happy about this, but a bargain was a bargain, so he preached. And the rest is history.
Other people got excited about his discovery. Invitations to preach started coming in. Over the next few years a huge movement sprang up as thousands, then tens of thousands of people caught Advent fever. Jesus was coming soon. In 1843, give or take a year.
Eventually, the entire nation was abuzz with Advent fever. People either believed it and thought it was the most wonderful truth they had ever heard or people dismissed it as fanaticism, fundamentalism, and a flat contradiction of Jesus’ statement that the day and hour of the Second Coming was a mystery known only to God.
Sometime in 1843 someone came up with a refinement of Mr. Miller’s prophetic scheme. This new interpretation pinpointed a specific date—October 22, 1844. That was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, according to one Jewish calendar. And on that day, according to the theory, Jesus was supposed to come back to earth. Farmers were so certain of this prophecy they left their potatoes in the ground unharvested. Why have a barn full of potatoes if Jesus was coming back? They could use their time more profitably sharing the good news with their neighbors. People spent their life savings to spread the word.
Finally, the day arrived. It was like Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It was the best day ever. Jesus was going to come. War would end. Sick people would be released from pain and suffering. Crushing debt would be lifted. Arthritis would quit hurting. The scourge of addictions—in those days that would have been alcoholism—would disappear. Life would be happy. People would be holy and healthy. What a day!!!!!!
The day passed. Nothing happened.
For the true believers it was a big oops, a devastating, crushing disappointment. It shook their entire religion to its very core. They had been so sure of their understanding of the prophecies, that this failure called into question the Bible itself and even the existence of God. If they had been wrong about this, what else did they have wrong?
In the weeks and months after this Great Disappointment, the true believers came up with new interpretations of the passages they thought had predicted the Second Coming. These new interpretations were still full of complicated calculations and leaping conclusions based on obscure Bible verses. While these interpretations of obscure prophecies have not done very well under the microscope of biblical scholarship, the mindset that allowed these novelties also opened those early Adventists to all kinds of questions about traditional Christian theology that they would have ordinarily suppressed.
What kind of God, they asked, would keep people alive for billions of years just so they could be tortured. The obvious answer—God would be a monster—had been obscured by centuries of Christian tradition. These early Adventists were free to reject this venerable tradition. A flat, bold rejection of the notion of eternal hell fire has been enshrined at the very heart of Adventist theology.
They rediscovered the Jewish Sabbath, which, as modern biblical scholarship has emphatically confirmed, was the Sabbath of Jesus and the apostles, and therefore the authentic Christian Sabbath.
These theological innovators rejected the doctrine of predestination. Even though it had been a popular doctrine for at least 1700 years, and was strongly affirmed by the leading founders of Protestantism, the shattering of their religion allowed these early Adventists to ask the obvious question: How can it be just for God to give people life with the express intention of damning them? Once we step outside the circle of internecine Christian argument, the notion of predestination is crazy. Incredible. Unacceptable. Those early Adventists rejected it. God could not be like that.
These theological advances would have been very unlikely apart from the upheaval of “The Great Disappointment.” It was the shattering of their theological confidence that enabled them to question all kinds of certainties and traditions. If the thing they had believed so happily and enthusiastically was wrong, what else could be wrong? It was a great question. It remains a good question.
Since our forebears through intense and sincere Bible study had arrived at utter confidence that October 22, 1844, was the date of the Second Coming, we might expect their subsequent theology would have been characterized by a great degree of humility. We could hope these early Adventists would learn from that terrible disappointment and find a better way. Alas, those early Adventists were also human. Instead of turning away from theological speculation, they redoubled their study of obscure Bible prophecies. They quickly worked out new theories of interpretation and defended these new ideas as adamantly as the earlier beliefs. Their certainty passed into the DNA of Adventism. In the church culture of my childhood it was assumed that if people disagreed with us, they were either incapable of correctly understanding the plain meaning of the Bible (i.e. they were unintelligent), or they were unwilling to admit what the biblical evidence showed (i.e. they were spiritually perverse). No one could honestly and understandingly disagree with us.
Which brings us to today.
The official Adventist creed currently has 28 statements. The unofficial creed includes many details of prophetic interpretation, including explicit condemnations of the Roman Catholic Church and American Protestant Churches as members of spiritual Babylon. The denomination has developed a “Church Manual” that is touted by some as an absolutely authoritative guide to doing church. Recently top bureaucrats in the church have taken to citing “General Conference Policy” as incontrovertible authority even in matters of morality and conscience. Each of these expressions of Adventist thought represents a temptation to imagine that we have it “just right.” The creed, Church Manual, and General Conference Policy have each been crafted through a critical review process. They have been developed in good faith by people of sound mind and good hearts who have been chosen as leaders in the church. Traditional Adventist prophetic interpretation goes back to the earliest days of Adventism and has been reinforced by generations of evangelists. It is easy to regard them as authoritative beyond question. But then we remember our history. Once before, in spite of thorough study with good hearts, we were wrong. We could be wrong again.
Oops is embedded in Adventist DNA as deeply as our confidence in the Bible itself. There should be no embarrassment in acknowledging that not everything we believe, not everything we say, not everything we publish is inerrant. We are Adventists. Our denominational birthday is October 22, “The Great Disappointment.” We could just as well call it the Big Oops. We knew we were right, but we were wrong. It is vital to recognize that this is not merely an Adventist reality. Christianity itself is full of “oops.”
It is common for Christians to imagine that the very best version of Christianity was “apostolic Christianity.” People will often pine for the glorious days of apostolic Christianity when the church was just as it should be. But this is fiction. The apostles made big oops.
The disciple John reported to Jesus: Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name. But he did not have authorization from you or even from one of us. So we told him to stop. Jesus said, “What? You stopped him? How could you? He was helping people and helping them in my name and you stopped him? John, don’t you understand that he is our ally? Do not tell him to stop.” (See Mark 9 and Luke 9.) Similarly when a denomination today imagines it alone can authorize people to work in Jesus’ name and do the work of Jesus, the denomination stands under the rebuke of Jesus. No one needs Adventist credentials or Catholic credentials or Lutheran credentials to work for Jesus. And if officials in a denomination denigrate Christian ministry because it is not under their control, they are acting “apostolic” in the worst sense of the word.
Another favorite story, one that we rehearse every time we dedicate a baby: Jesus was teaching and healing, doing the important work of shaping the spiritual lives of men. Some women approach, bringing their children to have Jesus bless them. The disciples stopped the women. It was their job to help ensure Jesus attended to the most important cases among the thousands of people who came seeking his attention. The disciples did not invent their status or function. They had been assigned their work by Jesus himself. And they took their work seriously. On this occasion, they officiously scolded the women for imagining that their children were important enough to merit the time and attention of Jesus. Men mattered. Men needed to be taught, instructed, responded to. Men were spiritual leaders and as such, they especially commanded the time and attention of Jesus. Women and children not so much.
But they were wrong. The apostles—disciples, brethren, elders—were wrong. Oops. Jesus publicly corrected them.
The disciples imagined it was their job to use their position of authority as members of the inner circle of Jesus to enforce the natural ranking of their society and make sure Jesus served the important people first. The disciples were wrong. It was a big oops. So today, when men imagine it is their job to control access to the “inner circle” of Jesus, they are wrong. Excluding women from ordination to ministry is simply wrong. Sure, the apostles, first “clergy,” were all male. They were also all wrong. Oops.
In the story of “The Canaanite Woman,” the disciples were unanimous in their urging of Jesus to get rid of her. She was an annoyance. Jesus seemed to share their bias and told the woman he was not authorized to bless her. His divinely-appointed ministry was to Jewish people, not people like her. In this story even Jesus is wrong, if we take his words literally. If the disciples (and Jesus’ first words) were right, the woman should have been excluded. But the woman was included, overturning both the authority of the apostles and the initial words of Jesus. Oops. The teaching of the Gospel in this passage clearly makes the authority of the apostles subordinate to authority of motherhood. The natural “authority” of humanity is higher than ecclesiastical authority wielded by modern day apostles.
Apostolic error and blindness did not end with the crucifixion or the resurrection or even with Pentecost. According to the story in Acts 10, the Holy Spirit had to overcome deep reluctance on the part of Peter to get him to go to the home of Gentile Cornelius. At Cornelius’ house, the Holy Spirit dramatically bypassed apostolic authority and agency. Before members of the household were baptized and completely apart from any “authorization” or laying on of hands by the apostle, the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles in the same dramatic fashion that was observed on Pentecost, the very “coming of the Holy Spirit” that inaugurated or validated the mission of the apostles. Those who claim that full spiritual authority is dispensed only through apostolic channels, are ignoring the plain meaning of this story. The apostles often got it wrong, especially when it came to their view of their authority. They consistently exaggerated and misunderstood their authority. (Application to the male clergy of Adventism who are fighting to exclude women from full ecclesiastical honor is obvious.)
Adventists may be tempted to dismiss all that I have written so far because we have not traditionally lionized apostolic authority. We give much greater prominence to “prophetic authority.” Because Ellen White had a prophetic gift, we imagine the Adventist Church is immune to the kinds of misunderstanding that have tripped up other Christians. Through the prophet, God has kept us correct. At least that’s what we say. The story of the people of Israel during the life time of the prophet Jeremiah can help protect us from this kind of arrogance.
When Jeremiah was born, Judah was an independent nation. Then the armies of Babylon began threatening. Jeremiah called the nation to repentance. He warned that unless they repented, doom was unavoidable. The Babylonians broke the Jewish defenses and the Jewish king became a vassal of the king of Babylon. The Jewish people rebelled in an attempt to recover their God-ordained independence. The Babylonians returned, broke the Jewish defense and deported 10,000 people to Babylon. Again the Jewish people attempted to assert their God-ordained independence. Again the Babylonian army besieged the city. Against this background, consider this prophecy:
And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, and in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azur the prophet, which was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of the LORD’S house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried them to Babylon. And I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went into Babylon, saith the LORD: for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”
Then the prophet Jeremiah said unto the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests, and in the presence of all the people that stood in the house of the LORD, even the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! The LORD do so. The LORD perform thy words which thou hast prophesied, to bring again the vessels of the LORD’S house, and all that is carried away captive, from Babylon into this place. Jeremiah 28: 1-6
The words of Hananiah were spoken in the name of the Lord. The hope for Israel he announced was well-supported in the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah before him. The doom of Babylon was also announced by previous prophets. But he was wrong. God did not break the yoke of Babylon. The captives did not come home—at least not for another seventy years, then to a city and temple that had been razed.
During Jeremiah’s long prophetic career he frequently had conflicts with other prophets. He himself was charged with treason for the content of some of his prophecies. His predictions, especially late in his career seemed unbelievable and unholy because of their gloom.
What were people to do in light of the prophetic confusion?
Do not trust in prophecies that proclaim God’s favor on this temple or this city. Instead do this: Provide for justice. Be careful to protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood. Jeremiah 7
Jeremiah came back to this theme more than once. The message above was delivered at the temple and was addressed to the people as a whole. Below is a prophecy Jeremiah gave at the royal palace.
Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word.
Say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, sitting on the throne of David, you and your officials and every citizen who enters through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue those who have been robbed from the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22.
All the debates about which scenario was correct—whether Babylon was going to break through Jewish defenses or give up the siege, whether the exiles in Babylon were going to come home soon or not—all these debates ultimately were of secondary concern. What mattered before God was social justice, morality, generosity toward foreigners, poor people, and those without the security of stable family life. If the Jewish people would devote themselves to this exalted moral vision they would find themselves acting in concert with the will of God.
Jesus made this same point in Matthew 24-25. He talked about end times and prophetic speculations. Then he told the story of the sheep and goats. The people whom the judgment revealed as wise people were not those who understood prophecy, but those who served. In fact, in the story it is precisely those who were most religious, who made clear distinctions between good people and bad people, between people worthy of help and people unworthy of help—these are the people who are revealed in the judgment to be fools.
Among Adventists it is common to cite the “presence” among us of Ellen White and the certainty of her prophetic guidance as proof that we are on the right track. We are the people of God. Our church is the exclusive corporate agency of God for doing God’s final work in the earth. In making these claims, we ignore two obvious facts. First, she is dead. We cannot know definitively what she would say were she alive among us today. Just as Hananiah echoed the words of the true prophet Isaiah and was then denounced by the true prophet Jeremiah for uttering false prophecy, so those who quote Ellen White in support of optimistic assessments of the stability and triumph of the denomination may find themselves in error.
Second, Ellen White herself often made statements which contradict each other according to their plain reading. She wrote that the General Conference was the highest authority of God on earth. And she wrote that the General Conference was not the highest authority of God on earth. She wrote that no one is authorized to ignore the slightest detail of her words, then she scolded a missionary for following her instructions to the letter regarding drug use, an obedience that resulted in the death of the missionary’s child. Famous debates among Adventists about the nature of Christ and soteriology have been fueled by passages in Ellen White that could readily be adduced in support of contradictory views.
When we devote ourselves to championing some particular prophetic interpretation or some bit of arcane theology like the interpretation of Daniel 8:14 or the correct scientific application of Genesis 6-9 or the correct interpretation of Paul’s prohibition on women instructing men, we are skating toward irrelevance and ultimately toward folly. We are heading toward another oops.
We are most likely to avoid religious oops when we devote ourselves to the mission described by Jeremiah and Jesus:
Do what is just and right. Rescue those who have been robbed from the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me water. I was a foreigner and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. In prison and you did not abandon me.
When we devote our energy, our minds, our treasure to pursuing this vision we can expect the commendation of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s better than oops.