PART 2: SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS AND HISTORY
The first part of this article, "Stones of Meaning: Why History Matters"
appeared in the June 9, 2011 issue of the
his is the second of two articles that show why our denominational history matters—for all of us, not just scholars.1
One of the most beloved statements of early Adventist pioneer and prophetess Ellen White highlights the importance of our history: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”2
And yet, while we frequently quote these words of Ellen White, in a sense we don’t listen to them. To a great extent, Seventh-day Adventists are uninterested in much of “our past history” and so large parts of it are unknown and irrecoverable; in effect we have
“[forgotten] the way the Lord has led us.”
Now, sometimes we may feel that history just isn’t very relevant for us as Seventh-day Adventists. After all, our entire reason for existence revolves around looking forward to the imminent end of history. Sometimes we may wonder whether reflection on the past is necessary, or even appropriate, for a community of Adventists, who believe Christ’s second coming is near and whose purpose is to bring it closer by preaching the Word throughout the world. We may feel that knowledge of our history might be something nice for those who are interested, but that it is hardly important for the church as a whole. We may even feel that it might well be a kind of stumbling block—that, in trying to tease out obscure, “dusty” details of our past, we will take our eyes off the prize, and end up stumbling in the race of faith that ought to end with a heavenly crown (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24, 25).
The Scriptural Model
In fact, the opposite is true. We saw in the first article in this two-part series that, throughout Scripture, God urged His people to record, preserve, and be aware of their history. This is encapsulated in the story told in Joshua of how, at the miraculous crossing of the river Jordan, God had the Israelites take 12 stones from the riverbed and construct out of them a monument, “so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that” the Israelites “might always fear the Lord” (Joshua 4:24, NIV).
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments God constantly called His people to know their history, because our past empowers us for the present and for the future. Knowing how God has acted in history reminds us of how much we owe Him and our need to rely on His power, not our own. Knowing how He has acted in the past also gives us confidence that He will enable us to meet the challenges we have to face now and in the future.
Seventh-day Adventists and History
In our early days Seventh-day Advent-
ists were well aware of the potential for encouragement by learning from past deeds, including biblical figures as well as the pioneers of Adventism. Ellen White repeatedly stressed the importance of Adventist history.
In addition to the quotation with which this article began, she stated that God Himself “has declared that the history of the past shall be rehearsed as we enter upon the closing work”; as a result, awareness of our history is critically important in the proclamation of “present truth.”3 In consequence she also affirmed: “The past history of the cause of God needs to be often brought before the people, young and old.”4 Moreover, she believed that “reviewing our past history”5 was integral to mission, and she lamented the failure to record permanently “the precious story of what God has done for us,” contrasting it to the example found in the Holy Scriptures.6 In more general terms, too, she highlighted God’s desire for historical awareness among those who worship Him; she emphasized the need to record for future generations events in both Adventist and wider Christian history, and she urged the importance of sacred history in Adventist education.7
Nevertheless, Seventh-day Adventists collectively have been—and still frequently are—careless of our denominational history. This is partly, I suggest, because belief that Christ’s return is imminent has meant our past has seemed unimportant. Too often denominational records and the papers of leaders are not preserved; without sources, history cannot be written. In addition, scholarly examination of the past has just not been part of traditional Advent
ist culture, despite the clear model in both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. Of course our church and its schools and colleges teach our history—but it frequently is a low priority. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Unitarians all have active historical societies that publish scholarly journals; in contrast, although there was, for a while, a magazine dedicated to Adventist history, it appeared irregularly and eventually died for lack of interest.
The relatively low priority Seventh-day Adventists have given to our history results, I believe, not only from our feeling that since Jesus is coming again soon, we have no need to ponder on the past. It may also reflect the fear many of us have that discreditable things might be turned up by new historical research.
Learning God’s Lessons
We don’t, however, have to be afraid of what we will learn if we dig deeply. There are skeletons in our historical cupboard, but they do not discredit today’s living body of Christ, the church. Furthermore, ignoring unpleasant facts about the past is self-defeating, since those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past frequently repeat them more fundamentally; it is also at odds with the example of Scripture, which repeatedly turns its readers’ attention to examples not only of heroic faithfulness and divine intervention but also of dastardly faithlessness and divine punishment.
Ellen White pointed out that “one of the best evidences of the authenticity of the Scriptures [is] that the truth is not glossed over nor the sins of its chief characters suppressed,” observing: “Here only can we find a history . . . unsullied by human prejudice or human pride.”8 As she dryly remarked: “How many biographies have been written of faultless Christians, who, in their ordinary home life and church relations, shone as examples of immaculate piety. . . . Had the pen of inspiration written their histories, how different would they have appeared.”9
Biblical narratives, she observed, detail the lives of their protagonists in full, “[recording] the struggles, the defeats, and the victories of the greatest men this world has ever known,” with “all their faults and follies.”10 Yet this honesty is not depressing; instead, “seeing where they struggled and fell, where they took heart again and conquered through the grace of God, we are encouraged.”11
Seventh-day Adventists, individually and collectively, have not always done things efficiently, competently, honestly, or in a Christlike way. But that was true of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Joshua, and the judges; David and Solomon; and our Lord’s own disciples. When Seventh-day Adventist Christians research our history, as when we study the Scriptures, we will find the mistakes of sinful humans—and the triumphs granted by God in spite of them.
Awareness of how God’s people have fallen short of His purpose allows us to learn from our mistakes; and it ought to move us to renewed commitment. It is not when we are focused on our successes and virtues, but rather when we acknowledge our vices and shortcomings and are focused instead on our holy omnipotent Father that He can work through us, transcending our weaknesses and transforming us into powerful witnesses to Him.
Running the Race of Faith
There is a final point. As well as being chastened by knowledge of past mistakes and missteps, we can also be encouraged and inspired by the example of lives of commitment and self-sacrifice. Here it is helpful to look back first to the scriptural model that I sketched out in the first of this two-part series, which showed that God constantly urges His people to look to their past because of its unparalleled capacity to inspire.
It was because of a strong sense of the historical record of God’s people throughout time that the author of Hebrews could encourage the first-
century believers, urging them not only to “recall the former days” of their own journey in faith (Heb. 10:32, NKJV),12 but also to reflect on the experiences of past generations. This prompts the author to begin that extraordinary narrative of people of faith and of sacred history from Abel onward, which makes up the whole of Hebrews 11.
The author emphasizes that even Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah “did not receive the things promised”; and so, in faith, they died (verse 13). The promise is still to come! But how then were Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, Moses, and all the judges and heroes of the faith able to continue in that faith? It was because each generation had the example of the previous generation that had lived by faith, trusting in the promise, but also being empowered by God to confront the terrible challenges that confronted them! We today have the record of so many more generations of faithful believers who endured torture, mockery, imprisonment, hunger, and all kinds of hardships, but nevertheless “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, . . . shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength” (verses 33, 34).
Every believer to whom the book of Hebrews was written was surrounded by a very “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1)—how much truer is that of us today! Because of their example, we are able to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares . . . and
. . . run with endurance the race” that concludes with Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith” in heaven (verses 1, 2, NKJV). Our history is far from a stumbling block—it encourages and energizes us.
The pioneers of our church faced poverty, ostracism, hunger, and imprisonment—but they were undaunted. The first Seventh-day Adventist missionary to Europe, J. N. Andrews, nearly starved himself to death, pouring all the money sent to him from America into his work, leaving insufficient funds for his own needs. Early missionaries to Russia and the Middle East were often beaten, fined, or jailed. Dozens of Adventists boldly went to western and central Africa and the islands of the South Pacific, though they knew this meant encountering tropical diseases for which no cures were then known; many of those who went died and are buried there in humble graves, forgotten by subsequent generations but not by the Savior they served. To echo Hebrews 11:32: “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about” Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, J. N. Loughborough, J. N. Andrews, Annie and Uriah Smith, W. W. Prescott, A. G. Daniells, G. D. Keough, A. S. Maxwell, W. A. Spicer, W. H. Branson,
C. H. Watson, and so many others. Adventism could have its own eleventh chapter of Hebrews.
Their examples can motivate us and give us new courage as we proclaim the good news of salvation to a world broken by sin. Knowing history connects us to all the past generations of God’s followers: from ancient Israelites, to medieval Christians, to Protestant Reformers, to those who founded our denomination in the mid-nineteenth century, and all who have followed—they are indeed the great “cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Heb. 12:1, NASB).13 They are the metaphorical stones that have built up the church: they remind us of what weak men and women can accomplish when they devote themselves to God, just as the 12 stones from the Jordan River reminded the children of Israel of all that God had done for them. And they point us toward the author and finisher of our faith, whose power alone will bring us into the kingdom.
Embracing Our History
It is very easy for me as a historian to tell others to devote time to church history, which is both my profession and my passion. I am not suggesting that we all become scholars! However, we can all encourage our youth to be interested in our history. Local churches can explore their own history and the workings of providence in their past, and they can regularly devote a Sabbath to the Spirit of Prophecy and to Seventh-day Advent
ist history. We can all affirm, encourage, and pray for those who research our history that they may have the courage to find and declare the truth.
For if we want to be true to our Lord, who bade us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), we need the confidence that comes from knowing how God has acted in our past. We need the chastening of knowing that when we rely on our own strength, we fail. And we need the power that comes from knowing there is a great cloud of witnesses, ordinary men and women who, despite flaws and imperfections, were made heroes of the faith, and potent vessels for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I suggested at the start that sometimes the details of our past seem like a stumbling block—like dusty rocks, fossils, which only get in our way. Seen aright, they really are stones of meaning, whose purpose, like those taken from the Jordan and erected at Gilgal, is “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord . . . is mighty”—and that we “may fear the Lord” our God, now and forevermore (Joshua 4:24, NKJV).
See Adventist Review, June 9, 2011, pp. 20-22.
Life Sketches, p. 196.
Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 389, 390.
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 365.
Life Sketches, p. 196.
Selected Messages, book 3, p. 320; see also book 2,
See Education, pp. 173-184, esp. p. 184; Messages to Young People, p. 176; Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 320, 321; Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 521, 525; vol. 6, pp. 364, 365; vol. 8, p. 307.
Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 9; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 596.
Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 10.
10 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 596; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 12.
11 Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 12.
12 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
13 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
David Trim, Ph.D., a native of Australia, was recently appointed director of archives and statistics at the General Conference of seventh-day Adventists. This article was published June 16, 2011.