A few years ago, our congregation decided to recruit Adventists from around North America to move to our city to help us participate in God’s mission there. We created a promotional video that we paid to show Adventists on Facebook®, explaining our vision and inviting those Adventists who had a heart to reach a secular context to join us.
One of the lines in particular is rolling around in my mind right now. In it, we said, “Maybe you want to join a movement that is pursuing authentic Adventism in the midst of America’s most secular region.” By “authentic,” what we had in mind was an open-minded, forward-thinking, relational community that’s imagining creative ways to live out the gospel and connect with the growing unchurched population.
But as I was reflecting about that idea after we produced and published the video, I really got to thinking: is that “authentic” Adventism?
And who gets to decide what’s “authentic” anyway?
It’s a question I’ve really been wrestling with for quite a while—one that has resulted not only from my pastoral and personal pursuits, but my academic ones as well.
After all, one popular way of telling the Adventist story is that we started out as a progressive, non-traditional, anti-institutional, anti-creedal movement. Emphasizing “present truth,” we were ever open to “new light” and didn’t want to draw doctrinal boxes, nor exclude people on the basis of theological differences.
Perhaps the “patron saint” of such a story is J. N. Loughborough, who, in 1861, famously outlined the quickest way to create a heretic. “The first step of apostasy,” he thus explained, “is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.” 1
Such a quote, and others like it, are frequently cited as evidence of the progressive nature of early Adventism—and, by extension, what we should be like today—which is a perspective I’m very sympathetic to. We therefore shouldn’t carefully police theological boundaries, but be more inclusive and open-minded about further doctrinal development and ways to express our faith.
Unfortunately, the historical record is a lot more complicated. As I’ve gone through early Adventist materials, I’ve found most of the early “pioneers” to be a lot more closed-minded and self-confident than I’d originally thought, expected, and hoped for. While we were very critical of other denominations that failed to continue to “advance” into further “light,” we ourselves seemed to suffer the same fate. By and large, our own theological system was mostly developed by the early 1850s, and we didn’t really budge from it after that.
We were also very intent on defending that system, and quick to attack any perceived threats.
Thus, two years after Loughborough’s famous reflections on creeds, the General Conference Committee, for example, very publicly defrocked Moses Hull from ministry and expelled him from Adventist membership for being a “heretic of the most obnoxious kind.” 2 Hull had been Adventism’s most celebrated and accomplished evangelist up to that point, and had even, somewhat ironically, toured with J. N. Loughborough in New Hampshire just months before his defrocking in an attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow.
But by this time, Hull had started flirting with Spiritualism, after he debated a Spiritualist, and, by the end of 1863, had essentially cast his lot with the movement, apparently abandoning, at least according to an Advent Review and Sabbath Herald article entitled, “Astonishing Apostasy: Elder Moses Hull Departed from the Faith, and Gone to Spiritualism!” all the foundational teachings of Christianity and most of the doctrines of Adventism (except, interestingly, the Sabbath).
The relevant point here is a question: which episode is “authentic” Adventism? The sentiments of Loughborough in 1861, who expressed grave concerns about doctrinal witch hunts, or the General Conference Committee in 1863, who carefully guarded theological orthodoxy and publicly shamed a celebrated evangelist for going astray (no doubt, by the way, with the approval of Loughborough, who was intimately acquainted with Hull’s theological outlook)?
Of course, perhaps neither represents “authentic” Adventism. Perhaps we shouldn’t look to the 1860s or even the 1960s to determine what is the truest expression and representation of the faith. Perhaps there are as many “authentic” versions of Adventism as there are Adventists—which, as of this writing, is over 20 million persons worldwide—which is somewhat of an attractive approach, since we don’t believe in Popes who can single-handedly declare, by fiat, what is the truest and most authentic expression of faith.
But, for my part, as I look especially at our history, searching for clues as to what our denominational identity and trajectory has been and should be, my gaze turns in one particular direction.
What is that direction? Ellen G. White.
Ellen G. White’s “Authentic” Adventism
Whether one recognizes Ellen G. White’s prophetic gift or not, it’s hard to deny one simple reality: her ministry has been unparalleled when it comes to shaping Adventism. Some view this as a great thing, others as catastrophic. I think it’s a mixed bag.
I don’t say this because I don’t believe in her prophetic ministry. Quite the opposite. I say it because any “battle” over what constitutes “authentic” Adventism is, to some degree, a battle over how one interprets Ellen G. White.
The truth is, just like people do with Scripture, we can all make Ellen G. White say whatever we want to say (and perhaps even more than we do with the Bible, since we have so much more material from her).
So, obviously, my appeal to Ellen G. White is just one perspective. I can probably see what I want to see in her writings.
But here’s what I see: when I read many of the other pioneers of her time, I get very discouraged. While I’m incredibly grateful for the determination they had and the convictions they remained committed to, I don’t see the gracious, large-hearted, and open-minded spirit that is sometimes attributed to them.
I see people who were confident in and dogmatic about their own opinions, judgmental towards other Christians (some of whom they said weren’t even Christians), and resistant to anything new or novel. I say this with all due respect.
And I’d also say that Ellen G. White herself saw—and identified—this. Especially as her own understanding developed
in the 1880s, and she recognized how Adventism was gospel-deficient, she started sounding the alarm and trying to correct the denomination, centering it firmly on Christ.
Thus, she started saying stuff like, “Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.” 3 She also said that “we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn.” 4 She started writing prolifically on the life of Christ, and began and ended her Conflict of the Ages series with the words “God is love.” She even wrote, in Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, that we should not intrude upon the “province of conscience” of another and make our “interpretations of Scripture” the “criterion” by which to judge them.
In short, “authentic” Adventism for Ellen G. White, was—grounded firmly in Scripture—open-handed, large-hearted, and centered on Jesus. And she desperately tried to steer the denomination in this direction.
This doesn’t at all mean she was theologically-shallow or that she lacked doctrinal convictions, having an “anything goes” attitude. She was firmly committed to the “pillars” of the faith, as she called them, but presented them in the light of Christ, refusing to turn everything into a theological debate, or majoring in minors.
And this is what discourages me so much. There’s such a huge and tragic paradox between what Adventism could be, and what it is.
I do believe Adventism, when properly articulated and lived out—because of the “God is love” paradigm we have access to (but so often ignore or deny)—could be the most beautiful, awesome, loving, and powerful religious movement in the world. Instead, we are so often the opposite.
This doesn’t mean we should run everything through Ellen G. White, especially since she wanted us to base our lives on Scripture, rather than on her. But we can at least gather a few hints from her about what “authentic” Adventism is: a Christ-centered, love-saturated, open-minded, world-engaging movement.
Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com
1 Bates J. and Smith, U. (1861). “Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, Oct. 5 & 6, 1861.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Vol. 18, No. 19: p. 148.
2 See Byington, J., AndrewsJ.N., and Amadon G.W. (1864). “Astonishing Apostasy: Elder Moses Hull Departed from the Faith, and Gone to Spiritualism!” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Vol. 23, No. 6. p. 45-46.
3 White, Ellen G. (1888). The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials. p. 891.
4 White, Ellen G. Review and Herald. July 26, 1892.