At the end of a journey tracing how the belief and hope in the Second Coming of Jesus have manifested themselves in the two-thousand-year history of Christianity, the final part of The Second Coming Files presents the remaining elements that link that history to the present day: the Millerite movement and Adventism.
The great interdenominational millennial religious awakening initiated by William Miller is often called the Millerite movement in reference to its promoter’s name, or the Second Advent Movement (or Adventism) in reference to its essential message. The Millerites themselves referred to the movement as the “midnight cry,” an allusion to the parable of the ten virgins that Jesus used to illustrate the preparation of believers for His coming (Matthew 25:6).
A great religious awakening
“Father William Miller,” a self-taught American farmer and free thinker turned officer and Grand Master Freemason, converted to Christianity by leaving the army and the lodge and embracing the Baptist faith. Miller found in his study of the Bible a true “feast of reason,” and a general harmony and agreement between prophecy and history, which gave him the courage to explore the books of Daniel and Revelation more deeply. His Bible studies focused especially on the text of Daniel 8:14 (“It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated”).
Miller concluded, much like other contemporary millennialists, that this codified period would end sometime in 1843-1844, when Christ was to come to Earth a second time. But unlike most of these scholars, Miller understood from Scripture that the coming of Jesus, which would mark the beginning of the millennium, would not be another opportunity for repentance, but that the earth, with all its unrepentant inhabitants, would be completely purged by fire before the kingdom of righteousness was established (2 Peter 3:10-12) and that at the coming of the “Bridegroom” the door of repentance would be closed forever (Matthew 25:10; Luke 13:25; Genesis 7:16; Revelation 15:8; 22:11; Hebrews 3:13).
Miller’s message electrified the rural areas of Eastern America between 1831 and 1840. He was licensed as a Baptist preacher, but his ministry developed as an interdenominational movement in most American churches. Between 1840 and 1844, the Millerite movement became very powerful, attracting a number of leaders, preachers of various denominations, and converted free thinkers. At great personal and congregational sacrifice, the Adventist message was spread to other English-speaking countries through preaching, lay work, pamphlets, and magazines. After the last sermon had been preached and the last “fool” had repented, the expected glory was repeatedly replaced by the Great Disappointment (22 March and 22 October 1844) with all its social, economic, and spiritual losses. The year 1844 remained a turning point in the history of the church and the world.
Read the previous articles of this series:
The theological dynamics of Adventism after 1844
Following the repeated Great Disappointment of 1844, the Adventist movement underwent dramatic changes. Many believers returned to their home churches or to the secular world. Those who remained faithful to the Adventist hope, deeply frustrated and rebuked by the world, entered a period of disorientation and division, but also of great efforts at unity and reorientation.
More than the Great Disappointment, the misfortune of this period was the division based on doctrinal and organisational criteria. First, in 1845, Adventists formed an American Millennial Association under the leadership of Joshua Himes (1805-1895), the first editor of Signs of the Times. However, this effort at unity was not sustained. The spirit of independence (specific to Americans), new theological endeavours, and the lack of a general organised strategy for prayer and Bible study produced several separate denominations, which can be grouped into two main currents (“first-day” and “seventh-day”), each comprising several denominations.
The reasons for the doctrinal division among Adventists after 1844 were as follows:
1. The revision of the Sunday tradition
As early as the spring of 1844, under the influence of a Seventh-day Baptist woman (Rachel Oakes-Preston) and some Millerite pastors who affirmed the Christian identity of the Sabbath (Robert Wheeler, Thomas Preble, Joseph Bates, etc.), a minority chose the biblical seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) (described in Genesis 2:2; Exodus 20:10; Luke 23:56; Acts 16:13). Most Adventists at that time, however, defended and maintained the Sunday tradition.
2. Immortality of the soul and eternal torment
Some Adventists have accepted as biblical the conditionalist doctrine (which denies the inherent immortality of the soul and the conscious state of the dead, as aligned with 1 Timothy 6:16; Ecclesiastes 9:5), affirming immortality only through resurrection according to Scripture and the Christian creed. As a result, they also rejected the eternal torment tradition of hell, replacing it with the annihilationist biblical view (the final destruction of the lost as presented in Malachi 4:1; Obadiah 1:16; and Revelation 20:9, 14, not their eternal torment or eventual restoration).
This theology was introduced to Adventists as early as 1843-1844 by Adventist leader George Storrs, who borrowed it from the writings of Baptist Henry Grew (1837). Storrs influenced several Adventist groups, but most rejected the doctrine. From the advent of American Spiritualism in 1847-1848, the majority of Adventists, like the rest of the evangelical world, saw Spiritualism as an argument for the immortality of the soul and the survival of the spirits of the dead.
3. Revision of the Trinity dogma
The writings of Grew and Storrs, as well as the leaders of non-Trinitarian churches, introduced among Adventists the denial of the historical doctrine of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19; Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 John 5:20)—an idea of rationalistic-unitarian origin. Anti-Trinitarian objections are complex, but contemporary anti-Catholicism played a major role. However, the majority of Adventists retained the dogma of the Trinity, and some Adventist anti-Trinitarians returned to Trinitarianism in later generations.
4. Review of the Millerite interpretations of Daniel 8:14
The Adventist majority (with Miller, Himes, etc. leading the way) completely abandoned Miller’s apocalyptic calculations, including the argument in Daniel 8:14. Those in this majority admitted that Miller’s calculations were wrong, but could not agree on where the error occurred. Miller continued to believe that the Second Coming was imminent and could happen any day. Others revised their calculations: Jonathan Cummings determined that the Second Coming would occur in 1854, and Jonas Wendell announced it for 1868 or 1874. Others argued that the 2,300 days/years conclusion in 1844 was correct, and that Jesus had come, though not visibly, but secretly.
Another reinterpretation, mostly shared by Sabbatarian Adventists, was that while the millennial calculation for Daniel 8:14 was correct, the predicted event (the “cleansing” or “reconsecration” of the sanctuary) had been erroneously interpreted as the date of Jesus’ coming, since the holy place of Daniel 8 is the heavenly sanctuary, not the earthly church, the world, or Jerusalem. One of the first to introduce the new understanding of this text was the Methodist preacher Josiah Litch, who had published as early as 1841 that there must be a divine judgement before Jesus’ coming and receiving of righteous judgement (according to 1 Peter 4:17; Romans 14:10; Revelation 22:12). In 1842, he wrote that the holy place of Daniel 8 is the heavenly dwelling place of God (Exodus 15:17; Psalm 78:54, etc.), or “heaven itself,” the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-23), of which the Mosaic sanctuary was only a representation (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:23-28).
On 30 December 1844, the editor Enoch Jacobs published, without contradicting it, the opinion of some Adventists who claimed that in 1844 Christ had inaugurated the judgement of the world, beginning with the faithful.
After 23 October 1844, Millerite leader Hiram Edson began to disseminate the idea that Jesus did not come out of the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary to come to earth, as the Millerites had expected, but entered the Most Holy Place to receive the kingdom from the Father.
In April 1845, O.R.L. Crozier, a young Millerite preacher, wrote that 1844 marked the beginning of the true “Day of Atonement” (the cleansing of the sanctuary). Crozier’s Bible study with Edson and Dr Franklin Hahn (published in 1846 and revised in 1847) and the aforementioned interpretations of divine premillennial judgement became a distinctive Sabbatarian Adventist doctrine.
Between 1848 and 1850, they held twenty-two Bible conferences in which their distinctive doctrines were clarified.
5. Standards of Christian behaviour
A number of Adventists began to promote in the church and in society ideas they shared with other social and health reformers. In particular, Sabbatarian Adventists excluded from their lives the use of alcohol, smoking, slavery, and a number of worldly pastimes such as gambling, worldly entertainment, certain literature, vulgar music, and other related behaviours (sensual dancing, etc.).
A pioneer of this movement was the Millerite preacher Joseph Bates, a former sea captain. Pastor Stephen Haskell (1858) introduced the abstinence from pork (according to Leviticus 11:7, 44-45; 1 Peter 1:14-16), and the writer Ellen White (1863) promoted vegetarianism, natural remedies, healthy living, and the establishment of sanatoriums. Some of these values were shared by all Adventists and even by other American believers. However, these concerns were neglected or rejected by “First-day” Adventists.
6. Attitude towards the gift of prophecy
Adventist leaders, led by William Miller, had taken a stand against any charismatic manifestations. As a result, the movement, though enthusiastic and willing to sacrifice, was very subdued compared to other American revivals. Beyond human control, however, there were manifestations, both positive and negative, that tended to polarise the Adventist community.
In 1842, William Ellis Foy (1818-1893), a young black Baptist minister and briefly a Millerite preacher, received heavenly visions of preparation for the coming of Christ, which he preached for several years and then published in 1845. Hazen Foss, a Millerite of the same age as Foy, received prophetic visions after the Great Disappointment of 22 October 1844, but refused to publish them in any form. Foss eventually became a secularist.
Shortly after Foss, Ellen Harmon, a teenage Adventist from Portland, Maine (1844), had divine revelations. At first, she used her gift by preaching in various Millerite congregations to encourage believers and combat manifestations of fanaticism and mass hysteria. After her marriage to the Adventist pastor James White, Ellen White wrote private letters, published many articles and books, and became the best-known Sabbatarian Adventist writer, a personality who greatly influenced Adventist history, including after her death in 1915.
The majority of Adventists rejected the authenticity and authority of the prophetic gift on principle, arguing that with the end of the biblical canon, no divine revelation could take place. This is probably why both Foy and Harmon were initially very reluctant to reveal their experiences, and why Foss never published them. Ellen Harmon-White had supernatural experiences and revelations for decades, as well as great popularity. But while she was more readily accepted and often consulted in the Sabbatarian group, the rest of the Adventists remained either reluctant or constantly opposed.
7. The place of Judaism in God’s plan
Unlike many contemporary millenarian preachers who expected the restoration of the Jewish theocracy at the end of the 2,300 days/years, Miller and other Adventist pioneers rejected this idea.
Most Adventists interpreted the Old Testament prophecies spiritually or understood them as literal but conditional (consistent with Jeremiah 18:7-10), seeing that, through Christ, the new covenant is universal, applied to the church made up of any nation. After 1844, however, prophetic interpretations involving the restoration of the Jews became popular among Adventists. The Adventist editor Joseph Marsh (1851) promoted the “Age to Come” theology, which advocated the restoration of Israel and a millennial kingdom on Earth.
Another aspect of the attitude towards Judaism was the place of the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament as the moral authority for Christians (Matthew 5:17; Acts 24:14). Sabbatarians rejected dispensationalism and accepted as binding all those commandments and instructions of the Law that had not been abolished by Christ and the apostles, such as the seventh-day Sabbath and the dietary restrictions of Leviticus 11, while denying the binding nature of the Jewish calendar and rites (Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16). Other Adventists regarded the requirements of the Law as unimportant, but promoted the religious and political restoration of Israelite theocracy in connection with the second coming of the Messiah.
Adventist Sunday (First Day) denominations
At first, First Day denominations constituted the overwhelming majority of Adventists. Over time, however, their numbers declined and some died out. Officially, they are known by the following names: the Advent Christian Church (exclusively in the USA, with about 60,000 members), the Bible Students (founded in 1881 by C.T. Russell, who had separated from the Advent Christians), the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (under 10,000 members, exclusively in the USA), and the American Millennial Association (Evangelical Adventist Church—completely extinct by 1916).
Seventh-day Adventist Church
The Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) is the largest Adventist denomination, with over 18,000,000 members in 202 countries, and is one of the most dynamic Protestant denominations today. It was formally established in 1863 from the Sabbatarian Adventist congregations that developed after 1844. The main founding pioneers were Joseph Bates, James S. White, Ellen G. White, John N. Andrews, and Uriah Smith.
Distinctive doctrines include: the imminent, undated, universally visible, glorious, and catastrophic second coming of Jesus after the Tribulation; the seventh-day Sabbath as a universal commandment and universal eschatological test; belief in the premillennial judgement of believers (inaugurated in 1844) and the closing of the door of grace before the coming of Jesus; the mission of the church as the final warning to the world as prophesied in Revelation 14: 6-12; immortality only through resurrection; final punishment and annihilation of the lost, instead of the torture of eternal hell; acceptance of the principle of the sanctity of the body and health; representative organisation; support of the pastoral body through the biblical system of systematic giving of tithes and offerings.
Although Ellen White was not an official church leader, Seventh-day Adventist progress is recognised to be largely due to her counsels and writings, which they officially regard as divinely inspired and important for the church and believers, but with authority subordinate to the Bible. At first, Seventh-day Adventists were generally non-Trinitarian (semi-Arian), without making this a distinctive point, but between 1888 and 1930 they definitively adopted Trinitarianism, emphasising the full divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Many of the current specific doctrines were gradually developed and adopted. It is specific to the official Seventh-day Adventist confession of faith that the only creed of the church is the Bible. Seventh-day Adventists uphold the biblical account of the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and accept the philosophy of biblical history and its historical, spiritual, and doctrinal truth as the supreme authority of faith. To this end, the Church encourages theological and scientific research through appointed institutions.
The Adventist Church has developed its own educational system, with over 48 universities, 72 colleges and seminaries, over 100 secondary schools and high schools, and dozens of other institutions worldwide. Adventists have their own radio, television, publishing and bookstore networks. They carry out creative social and missionary work, from children’s and youth organisations to health campaigns, health facilities, charities, and so on.
As they are the main Millerite denomination, the name Adventist is now usually applied to Seventh-day Adventists.
Other Sabbatarian Adventist churches
In addition to the Seventh-day Adventists, there are several other Sabbatarian Adventist churches, such as the Church of God (Seventh Day), with 140,000 members in over 20 countries, the Worldwide Church of God, which is another schismatic movement stemmed from the former, marked by many subsequent schisms. Since 2009, the main group, with just over 30,000 believers, has been called Grace Communion International. A third church separate from the Adventist body is called the Seventh-Day Adventist Reform Movement (SDA-RM), with fewer than 50,000 members worldwide. Finally, the Adventist Church of Promise—a movement with a Pentecostal character with an emphasis on glossolalia (speaking in tongues), prophecy, miraculous healings, etc.—was founded in 1932 by separation from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It has almost 200,000 members, most of them in the Americas and in Africa.
This information about Adventism after 1844, both in terms of major theological themes and organisations, is only the framework of a story. Real life has manifested itself in the continuous expansion of the Adventist Church on every continent and in every country, and in the history of the people who have served it, often at the cost of their lives.
The emergence and progress of the Seventh-day Adventist Church after the Great Disappointment of 1844 is a true creation born out of chaos and nothingness. While the majority of Adventists, who did not accept the principles of faith that are unique to Adventists today, broke up into various groups and gradually disappeared, a minority of only a few dozen believers, poor and unpopular, seemingly without a future, became 3,500 members in 125 local congregations in 1863, when the church was officially organised, and within a few years spread to Europe and, by the end of the century, to all the continents.
The Adventist Church was born in a storm, and gained notoriety through its distinctive doctrines, through the hostility of “first-day” Adventist groups, but especially through the distinctive Christian life of Adventist laymen, through sacrificial missionary work, and through all that the world and its churches did for and against it.
The history of the Adventist Church crowns the history of the world church in a unique way, as God’s final invitation to a lost world, while the judgement favourable to believers unfolds in heaven. Adventists do not see themselves as the only believers loved by God. But while God’s nation is much larger than the Adventist community, Adventists believe that their role is that of the prophet Elijah for the benefit of people who are led astray from the Scripture and afflicted by suffering. Therefore, beyond all objections, the Seventh-day Adventist Church seeks to fulfil its role as an embassy of the kingdom of God, preparing the world for the imminent coming of the Saviour.
Florin Lăiu is a former Bible professor at the Theological Seminary of the Adventus University in Romania where he worked for 28 years, specialising in biblical languages, biblical exegesis, and apocalyptic and biblical translation. Now retired, he is an Adventist apologetic, poetry and music enthusiast, author of articles and books, husband, father of four, and grandfather of six.