Seventh-day Adventists have the deep conviction that Jesus Christ will soon return, and the desire to keep His commandments as they were originally written in the Decalogue.
“If the Church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years. […] [But if] two-thirds of the church will hang back and do nothing but find fault in time of revival, the curse of God will be on this nation, and that before long.”
These are the words of Charles Finney, considered by many to be the most famous American preacher of the early 19th century. The first edition of his book Lectures on Revivals of Religion, to which the quote above belongs, appeared in 1835 and was reprinted in 1868 with the same explicit prediction—in just three years the millennium could begin, if the church did its duty.
His statement accurately describes the atmosphere in the Christian world of the early 19th century. In the United States, but also in Europe, the idea of an imminent end of history was a theme present in many sermons and publications. While the churches of the New World were already experiencing “the second great religious revival,” in Europe the missionaries of the British and Foreign Bible Society, established in 1804, made serious efforts to bring the Word of God to as many as possible, but with a significant emphasis on the mission to Jews.
The century of the discovery of Biblical apocalypticism
For the Protestant Christian world, the 19th century was the century of mission and discovery of Biblical apocalypticism. Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, and Hudson Taylor paved the way for thousands of strangers who would cross continents and oceans in an attempt to preach Jesus in places where He was completely unknown. Others, like Dwight Moody or Charles Spurgeon, preached in the midst of the Christian world, calling on those who had already heard the gospel to take their faith seriously.
Henry Drummond, a well-known English banker and member of the British Parliament, organised the Prophetic Conference of Albury Park in 1826, to which he invited all those interested in prophetic research. Twenty pastors and lay people were present, and after six days of intensive study of the second coming, they came to some common conclusions: the 1,260 days and the 1,290 days of Daniel were fulfilled, and the 1,335 days had begun. In “this period” Christ must come to raise the dead and bring the final judgement.
Therefore, when William Miller first spoke of an imminent return of Jesus Christ between 1843 and 1844, the world was not entirely taken by surprise. However, although the message of the parousia was preached on an unexpectedly large scale in the United States, in Europe and beyond, people had never before spoken with so much conviction about a time when this event was to take place.
Miller had an interesting ideological background. He was raised in the Baptist faith, then, after he married, he became a deist. Later on, observing God’s interventions in his life, he began to study the Bible again with seriousness and interest. As early as 1818, based on Bible study, he came to the conclusion that the end of the world would happen somewhere between 1843 and 1844.
The discovery disturbed him and challenged him to reanalyse the evidence that led him to this conclusion, which he did for another 13 years. To him it was clear: according to biblical principles of interpretation, the prophecy of the 2,300 evenings and mornings in Daniel 8:14 actually referred to 2,300 years; the beginning of this period was marked in Daniel 9:27 by the order to rebuild Jerusalem, the date of which he calculated by correlating the Bible with history—the year 457 BC. Everything was so logical that it seemed impossible to be a mistake.
Thus, in 1831, following providential events, he preached for the first time what he had discovered studying the Bible. Miller had no theological training and never even considered himself a pastor, yet in 1833 he received a preaching certificate from the Baptist Church.
Miller’s ideas generated “a shifting of opinions among Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Reformed, Quakers, and many others. No one imagined at the time that these ideas could cause them to break away from their churches.”
The Midnight Cry
Miller would have probably remained an unknown preacher if his movement hadn’t been joined by people of vision and influence who succeeded in giving this religious revival movement a national character in the United States. Perhaps the most important of them was Joshua V. Himes, a well-known pastor in Boston, who became the true strategist of the movement started by William Miller.
The message spread due not only to sermons, but also to printed materials, the main Millerite magazines having important circulations. In 1840, The Signs of the Times, the first publication of the Millerite movement appeared, and in 1842, the daily newspaper The Midnight Cry, which was initially printed in 10,000 copies daily. “In 1842 alone, more than 600,000 copies of the Midnight Cry were distributed in five months.”
Neither Miller nor his close associates set a specific date for Jesus’s return to earth, stating only that it would take place between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844. In the summer of 1844, when many began to wonder whether the precise calculations had not concealed an error, Samuel Snow began to preach that the long-awaited event would take place on October 22nd, 1844.
In the end, the date was accepted even by Miller and his close associates, which led to a movement “even more religious and popular than the previous one.” It was a unique moment in the history of the Christian church. Never before had such a large number of believers waited for Jesus Christ at such a precise date, with such enthusiasm and conviction. It is estimated that in the United States there were between 50,000 and 100,000 people who on October 22nd, 1844 eagerly awaited the meeting with their Lord.
For them, October 23rd was without a doubt the saddest day of their lives. Everything seemed so clear and easy to understand that they could not tell what they had done wrong. Some, perhaps most of them, eventually considered the prophetic interpretation to be wrong, so they returned to their churches or gave up the Christian faith altogether. Others began to claim that the interpretation was correct and the event took place, which led them to fanciful interpretations.
There was also a third category, with the fewest followers at the time, who considered the interpretation to be correct, but the expected event was wrong. They continued to study the Bible with prayer and dedication and formed the core of what in 1860 would be called the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
At that time, the small group of believers seemed to have no chance of survival. In addition to waiting for an event that had not taken place, they added to their teaching several unpopular truths for the Christian world of that time: the fact that the day of rest commanded by God is Saturday, not Sunday; the fact that the human soul is not immortal and, implicitly, it no longer continues to live in heaven or hell after death; and the fact that the food distinctions in Leviticus 11 are still valid.
Without financial support from rich people, without important personalities, without anything that could humanly ensure their success, they managed to gradually become the most numerous successors of the movement started by William Miller. Adventist historiography believes that nothing but God’s intervention can explain their success and development from those unpromising beginnings.
Seventh-day Adventists were officially organised only in 1863, when there were about 3,500 believers in the United States. Since then, they have continued to grow in numbers, reaching today, according to official statistics, more than 21 million believers, who worship every Saturday in more than 160,000 churches and groups, in 212 of the 235 countries recognized by the United Nations. Worldwide, Adventists operate nearly 10,000 educational institutions and more than 1,000 medical institutions, of which 227 are hospitals and sanitariums, and 15 are orphanages.
George R. Knight, one of the best-known Adventist historians, talks about some significant elements that shaped Adventist theological identity. Among the religious currents that marked Adventist theology are Anabaptism, the Restorationist movements, and Methodism. To these he adds deist rationalism, which challenged Miller to begin an organised study of Scripture, and American Puritanism, which valued the day of worship and rigorous morals.
Another decisive element in the development of the new Christian denomination was the work of Ellen White, who Adventists have considered to be an authentic prophetic voice. Ellen White’s role was important not only in the field of theology, but especially with respect to Christian practice and the direction of development.
She encouraged her husband, James, to publish a periodical newspaper as early as 1849. She also spoke of the need to establish medical institutions accessible to as many people as possible and which used simple natural treatments without side effects (in a time when people were treated with mercury and other toxic substances).
Based on her advice, Adventists opened their first educational institution in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1856, and ten years later, the first sanitarium in the same city. This model was then taken up in missions around the world. Wherever they went, Adventists would publish books and periodicals, and would set up a medical centre and a small school.
The first official missionary sent by the Adventist Church to Europe was John Andrews, a self-taught theologian with an impressive culture and memory. It was 1868. However, the Adventist message had been preached since 1864 by Michał Belina Czechowski, a former revolutionary Catholic priest of Polish descent who had fled to America, where he became a Baptist pastor and then a Seventh-day Adventist.
From there he returned to Europe and preached in the valleys of the Waldenses in Italy, then settled in Switzerland, from where he initiated missionary expeditions to many European countries. For a short time, in 1869, he moved to Transylvania, to the city of Turda, and from there he left for Pitești, where he lived between 1870 and 1876 and founded the first group of Adventist believers in Romania. After his death in 1876 in a hospital in Austria, the work begun by Czechowski continued to grow. Thus, in 1920, the Romanian Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was officially organised.
To this day, Seventh-day Adventists continue to support the great Protestant foundations: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. To these the deep conviction that Jesus Christ will soon return, and the desire to keep His commandments as they occur in the Decalogue are added.
Born like the apostolic church, out of disappointment, Adventists believe that the 1844 moment actually meant the start of a new stage in Christ’s service in the heavenly Sanctuary. Their teachings of faith, far from being a theological novelty, are inspired by the theology and practice of the apostolic church and remain to this day an invitation to all who want to faithfully follow “the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).
Adrian Neagu believes that the history of Seventh-day Adventism was providentially led by God to bring the fresh beauty of the everlasting gospel to the world.