By Reinder Bruinsma … Some twenty years ago, I attended a meeting in Miami about evangelistic strategies organized by the leaders of the Inter-American Division. In most countries in that part of the world, the majority of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. To my surprise, one of the top leaders of that division appealed to the participants to be much less aggressive in their attempts to “convert” Roman Catholics to Adventism. He argued that by constantly criticizing the leaders of the Catholic Church in the evangelistic programs, we lay the basis for, or reinforce, a critical attitude, which the new members are likely to maintain once they have joined the Adventist denomination.
I doubt whether this strong advice led to any major change because many of the evangelists in Inter-America and elsewhere continue to use confrontational tactics to get the attention of their audience. This may well contribute to the unfortunate reality that for many Adventists the ideal of defending the Truth implies aggressively confronting “the enemy,” who supposedly is bent on destroying God’s Truth and will, ultimately, fiercely attack those who have accepted and defend that Truth. In traditional Adventist thinking, the enemy is first and foremost found in the Roman Catholic tradition, but also in other Christian movements that have adopted some of the Catholic dogmas—Sunday keeping being, of course, paramount among these.
Where Did This Come From?
Not all Adventists think alike. Some feel that the time has come to end all bashing of other Christians, Catholics included. Others believe that protecting our Seventh-day Adventist identity, as the commandment-keeping remnant church, requires that we carefully maintain our traditional stance. No doubt, this discussion will continue, but it may be useful for a better understanding of the issue if we look at its historical context.
To say that early Adventism was rather combative in character would be a strong understatement. Admittedly, nineteenth century Adventists needed to be combative in the world in which they lived. The denomination began when a number of small groups of (mainly) former Millerite believers started to hold meetings, studied their Bibles and gradually reached consensus about a number of biblical truths that the members of other denominations regarded as totally unfounded or even as horrible heresy. During the first decades of their emerging movement Adventists were usually viewed as weird and not as bona fide Christians. In particular, their conviction that God wanted them to keep the seventh-day Sabbath rather than Sunday—which they denounced as a “popish” invention—created a lot of opposition.
As the nineteenth century progressed, a strong movement emerged that wanted to make America “a Christian nation.” One key element in this process would be legally enforced Sunday worship. As a result, several states enacted “blue” laws that made Sunday keeping obligatory. As this occurred, in several places Seventh-day Adventist were fined or even incarcerated for disobeying these laws. Ever since, there have been attempts from various political and religious groups in the United States (and in some places in Europe) to enforce Sunday keeping. And ever since, Adventists have feared that one day these tenacious attempts will succeed and make life for Sabbath keepers very uncomfortable indeed.
The Influx of Millions of Catholics
Also, as the years went by, the growing strength of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was seen as an immense threat. Originally the United States was staunchly Protestant. From a mere 50,000 Catholic believers in 1800, they had increased to 200,000 by 1820 and 2 million by 1860. And by the turn of the century, the number of American Catholics stood at 12 million (in a total population of 76 million). No wonder this created a lot of uneasiness. Moreover, it was widely believed that some countries exported their most undesirable citizens. Also, the newly arrived immigrants were often prepared to work for lower wages and this was considered unfair competition on the labor market. But what was perhaps even more important: people feared that the ultimate loyalty of these Roman Catholic newcomers would be to the pope rather than to American democracy. Perhaps the anti-Catholic sentiment of that time among Protestants in general, and Adventists in particular, can be compared to the resistance of many people of Western countries today to the arrival of large numbers of Muslims.
As the nineteenth century changed into the twentieth century, most of the strongly anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestants had gradually disappeared. But not so among Seventh-day Adventists. Their prophet—Ellen G. White—had developed a five-volume series of books about the conflict between good and evil. The books covered the Bible times, while also sketching the story throughout the Christian era. In her depiction of the history of Christianity, Ellen White vividly described the high points of faith and commitment and the low points of moral decay, the unbiblical notions and rebellion against God. As we look back and try to see her work in the context of the time in which she lived and wrote, we easily understand how for her—in her context—the Roman Catholic Church became the culprit par excellence. Her book The Great Controversy, which appeared in its more or less definite form in 1888, did not, however, significantly differ in its criticism of Catholicism from that of many other contemporary Protestant authors.
Ellen G. White was part of a nineteenth-century Protestant American environment, which differed greatly from our present globalized, multi-religious and multi- cultural world. Quite naturally, she saw Roman Catholicism as an ever-growing menace. It should also be noted that her thinking, in line with the attitude of most of her contemporaries, was almost exclusively focused on what happened in the United States and in Europe. She had very little to say about spiritual developments in other parts of the world or about the non-Christian world religions. In all her printed works one can only find a handful of references to Islam!
The Great Controversy Theme Is as Valid As Ever
What does this mean for Seventh-day Adventists in 2021? Does this mean that all traditional Adventist criticism of Roman Catholic dogma and Catholic history must be forgotten? And do I want to suggest that Ellen White’s The Great Controversy has totally lost its value? Certainly not. The fundamental theme of The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan is, and remains, a fundamental aspect of Adventist theology and of its perspective on past, present and future. However, we must try to discover how the principles of this basic philosophy apply to our current situation.
Looking with twenty-first century eyes at Ellen White’s The Great Controversy, we may wonder whether she might have changed her appraisal of Roman Catholicism if she were still alive today. In fact, already during her life, with her express approval, the anti-Catholic rhetoric of her book was toned down, as the 1911 edition shows. But, apart from this, just as the Bible needs to be interpreted to make sense for us who live so many centuries later, this is also required when we read the works of Ellen White. The trouble is that we may find this rather self-evident when we read the Bible, but many forget that this principle also applies to our reading of Ellen White. When I read in the Ten Commandments that I should not “covet” my neighbor’s donkey, I understand that, for me, that means that I should not look with jealousy at my neighbor’s Jaguar. And, even though some Bible texts clearly condone slavery, we do not take this as a recommendation for us but fit this into the biblical context.
The “great controversy” is still a very relevant theme, but in our time, it may play out in a way that differs substantially from what Ellen White and her contemporaries experienced and then extrapolated into the future. An important part of their future expectations was the prediction that Sunday laws would soon be enacted on a global scale. Today, there are still many church members who expect that a coalition of Catholics and (especially American) politicians will use some, as yet unforeseen, opportunity to put these Sunday laws into effect. This will then, it is argued, be the beginning of a series of actions which will eventually make life unbearable for Sabbath keepers, culminating in terrible persecution and even a “death decree.”
It has often been said that it is difficult to make predictions, especially when they concern the future. This certainly also applies to this matter of Sunday laws. Global enforcement of such laws might have been a credible future panorama, but as we look at currents in our contemporary society, this looks highly unlikely. All around us we notice that interest in a weekly day of rest and worship has been waning, with no signs that this trend will be reversed.
We must come to terms with the undeniable fact that the Western world is no longer dominated by Catholics who are bent on destroying Protestants—and especially Seventh-day Adventists. Today, the main threat to the Adventist Church does not come from other Christians, but from the rampant secularism that has pushed God to the margins of our society, while non-Christian religions and sheer paganism are constantly gaining territory. Let us remember that in plotting the prophetic scenario we have often been overtaken by actual events in the world. It remains to be seen how the great controversy will eventually take shape.
Finally, our Adventist hope cannot be based on a triumphant conviction that we belong to a movement which claims loyal adherence to biblical truth, over and against all those who are part of the machinery of the arch-enemy. Our hope is based on Jesus Christ, who has already defeated the enemy for us. In following Him, we must not be propelled by aggressive combativeness against what we consider false teachings, but by love for our Lord and for all people around us, without regard to their religious persuasion. After all, although we hope that many will feel attracted to our faith community, our ultimate mission is to “win” them not for our church but for Christ! They need a Friend, not an enemy.
— Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife, Aafie. Among is latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]