Post 55: Adventism as an Apocalyptic/Millenarian Movement

Note: Currently I am working on a series of lectures that will seek to illumine the General Conference session that convened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during 1888. Why did significant conflict erupt at that epochal event? What was at stake? Who were the thought-leaders in the discussion and, in particular, what was the role of Ellen G. White? What was the continuing legacy of the conference? Since Sabbatarian Adventism cannot be understood in isolation from its principal precursor, Millerism, this short paper opens the multi-phase discussion with reflections on Millerite Adventism as an apocalyptic/millennialist movement.[1]  

As far back as 1980, Dr Fritz Guy of La Sierra University offered a succinct description of contructive change within Seventh-day Adventism (hereinafter abbreviated to Adventism, Adventist, the church). Guy suggested that “theological reflection and construction” involves “an ongoing consideration of the bases, definition and implications of beliefs” and may include five processes: “(1) REFORMULATION, as eternal truth is understood in the language of each different culture and each generation; (2) CLARIFICATION, AND SPECICATION, as new questions arise and require a more careful investigation and more precise answers; (3) ELABORATION, as the church enlarges its thinking by probing deeper and thinking farther; (4) APPLICATION, as the ongoing course of human histiory produces new situations; (5) REINTERPRETATION, as further study and the witness of the Holy Spirit indicate that the Biblical revelation means something slightly different from what it has been understood to mean.”[2]

Such indicators of change are problematic for an apocalyptic/millenarian movement if there is an assumption that the understanding of truth is absolute and as unchanging as the character of God. By contrast, this paper suggests that human perceptions of truth are usually partial, and that the Adventist concept of “present truth” encourages the continuing discovery of the depth of meaning in the Scripture and the progressive application of its message. Such a view seems to embrace the essence of Ellen White’s counsel in numerous passages.[3]

The Nature of Adventism

Douglas Morgan’s ground-breaking study charts the development of Sabbatarian Adventism from its founding era to the recent past. Obviously, the early decades of the movement were fraught with particular difficulties, especially those years between the Great Disappointment of 1844 and the adoption of a denominational name and structure in the 1860s. Recent biographical studies highlight the continuing importance of the movement’s three co-founders: Joseph Bates (1792-1872), James Springer White (1821-1881), and Ellen Gould White (1827-1915). While the trio left a rich literary heritage, the output of the longest-lived of the three far exceeds the combined quantum of the other two. Ellen White is in a special sense the church’s mother, but nowhere in her vast literary corpus does she use the words apocalyptic or millennialist as descriptors of the Second Advent Movement. Even so, we would be seriously mistaken if we failed to recognise the profound inluence that Ellen White and her co-founders exerted on what Morgan well describes as an “apocalyptic movement.”[4]

Bates, James White and Ellen Harmon were introduced to what aptly might be described as “apocalyptic millennialism” by William Miller (1782-1849) and his colleagues.[5] The message proclaimed by Miller and perhaps fifteen hundred clergy and public lecturers[6] initiated a millenarian movement that spread widely in North America before the seismic shock of its Great Disappointment. While Millerism was related to revivalism, restorationism and several other impulses that were its contemporaries, its distinctive pre-millennialist emphasis sought to ready the planet for an imminent, cataclysmic (as opposed to a post-millennialist) Second Coming.[7] The key texts of the movement were many and they were explicit: “the people of the Advent near” (as they were apt to describe themselves) were literally “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:14, KJV).[8]

Defining and Applying Key Terms

At the outset, we need to define three nouns that are germane to our present discussion: eschatology, apocalypse and millennium. Eschatology (from the Greek eschatos, last, and logos, word, reason, or discourse)[9] focuses on “last things.”[10] Hence eschatology may “refer either to the fate of individuals (death, resurrection, judgment and afterlife) or to events surrounding the end of the world.”[11] The latter meaning carries most significance for this exploration.  An apocalypse (Greek, apokalypsis) is a revelation, discovery, disclosure; the noun is derived from apocalyptic writings that flourished in Judaism and then Christianity from 200BC to AD 350, claiming to reveal the ultimate purpose of God.[12] Mather and Nichols aptly observe: “Characteristic of apocalyptic literature is deep symbolism alluding to impending doom and judgment on the wicked, and deliverance and reward of the righteous.”[13]

Every Adventist knows that the word millennium implies a period of a thousand years, well described in Revelation 20:1-7.[14] However, we need to be acutely aware that millennialism has a broader frame of reference than just a period of a thousand years; its freight of meaning is loaded with a sense of present crisis and immediate hope. Note a recent encyclopedia begins its description of millenarianism with an indicative definition: “Religious movements that expect salvation to come very soon in this world.”[15]

The Millerites were Advent believers par excellence; their Sabbatarian descendants developed their new movement with minds crowded by vivid biblical passages that included descriptors like “flaming fire” and “fervent heat.”[16] The Adventists re-applied the Old Testament prophecies about “the day of Lord” to the consummation of this earth’s history, Christ’s return, and the creation of “new [atmospheric] heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).[17] They fed avidly upon the apocalyptic portions of both the Old Testament and the New, especially the Book of Daniel, Christ’s Olivet sermon (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21), 2 Thessalonians, and the Book of Revelation. The Millerites had emphasised the cleansing of the earth by the fires of the last day; the Adventists could find no way of being faithful to Scripture that did not include an apocalyptic end for the planet and all the finally impenitent.[18] However, in their teaching and preaching they highlighted the theme of hope that climaxed in the restored Eden of Revelation 21 and 22.[19]

The experience of 1844 and its aftermath posed the crucial question for Adventists, What does it really mean to believe in the Second Advent? Within half a century, a major debate within the developing movement posed a parallel question, What does it really mean to believe in the First Advent?[20] Adventists slowly came to grips more fully with the pervasive concept that all Scripture orbits the two comings of Christ. “In every page, whether history, or precept, or prophecy, the Old Testament Scriptures are irradiated with the glory of the Son of God,” Ellen White wrote in 1898.[21] If this is true of the first major portion of the Bible, that replete with promise, it is even more evident in the New Testament that details the fulfilment of the promise in Christ’s incarnation, and affirms the further promise that he will consummate the plan of salvation with “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:20-21). Therefore, by the time of Ellen White’s death Adventists were aware that her challenge to “be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world” was indeed substantive, embracing as it did the Christ who saves from sin (Soteriology), the Christ who makes all things new (Eschatology), and more.[22]

Depth-Soundings: Adventism Approaches the Shore of Eternity

As the troubled ship carrying the Apostle Paul toward Rome neared the trecherous shore of Malta, “the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country” and twice “sounded” the depth of water (Acts 27:27, 28). It would effectively inform our investigation if we took numerous soundings from the 1830s and 1840s in order to better understand the Second Advent Movement, but we must limit ourselves here to a very few.

The life history, character and personality of William Miller are available for detailed analysis from both primary and secondary sources.[23] Miller’s years as a Deist were  a direct result of his personal associations with innovative thinkers in the upstate New York town of Poultney, and the books written by Ethan Allen (1738-1789), Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and other sons of the Enlightenment. Miller was influenced to the end of his life by the rationalism that so deeply informed his “common sense” approach to the Scriptures and predisposed him to reject the charismatic tendencies of some of his ardent followers, such as Hiram Edson (1806-1882) and Ellen Harmon. Joshua V. Himes (1805-1895) was a principal “publicist, promoter, and organizer” of Miller’s movement, most notably the publisher of some of its most significant periodicals, including The Signs of the Times and Expositor of Prophecy and The Midnight Cry.[24] Since the mid-1950s the contextual understanding of such matters has been faciliated by LeRoy Edwin Froom’s six volumes on prophetic and conditionalist faith, now refined by the more scholarly writings of Bryan Ball. In addition, “The Millerites and Early Adventists” microfilm collection conveniently references an enormous quanity of primary sources. We will be forever indebted to the conference that gave us The Rise of Adventism and thus laid an effective foundation for the more recent studies of Millerism so aptly described by Gary Land.[25]

The study of Millerite history leads us to ask penetrating questions about biblical apocalyptic and the hermeneutics that helped to unlock and apply its meanings. Miller and his associates were so possessed by a sense of urgency that they gave slight attention to making an abstract analysis of the genre of apocalyptic literature. During the twentieth century, however, extra-biblical apocalyptic writings, in particular the Jewish apocalypses that formed a backdrop for Miller’s favourite Scriptures, have been the focus of painstaking research. According to D.S. Russell, Jewish apocalyptic literature “has the prophetic tradition as its father and faith in the ultimate triumph of God in times of peril and persecution as its mother.” Its categories of thought often include a pessimistic view of human history, dualism, the division of time into periods, the notion of two ages, numerology, ecstacy, claims of inspiration, and the concept of esoteric privilege. Important to such literature is “the idea of the unity of history and the conception of cosmic history which treats of earth and heaven,” plus “the notion of primordiality with its revelations concerning the creation and the fall of men and angels,” and “the source of evil in the universe and the part played in this by angelic powers.” Often present is the idea of a “conflict between light and darkness, good and evil, God and Satan,” and the emergence of a transcendant figure called “the Son of Man,” together with notions of resurrection, judgment, and a future condition of bliss. Russell contends that while such “marks” are not present in all apocalyptic writings, they convey an impression of its “particular mood of thought and belief.” Hence the apocalyptists wrote of the dramatic conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, they affirmed both primordiality and eschatology, and they freely employed such categories as universalism, determinism and supernaturalism. They looked forward to a cataclysmic end of a “supramundane character” for all things earthly, believing, Russell says:

God has set a limit to the powers of evil in the world: the era of conflict will soon be over; the triumph of God’s predetermined purpose will provide the key to all life’s mysteries and problems. This triumph will come, not by a gradual transformation of the universe and not by a whittling down of the power of evil, but by a supernatural and catastrophic intervention. This intervention will take the form of a great crisis, usually seen as about to happen in the writer’s own day. God will break into history in a mighty act of judgement and establish his kingdom.[26]

It is apparent that the biblical diet on which the Millerites avidly fed nourished their sense of immediacy and gave them and their Sabbatarian descendants the “mood of thought and belief” that characterises the genre of apocalyptic literature.[27] It is easy in Century 21 for us to reflect on the pitfalls that this climate of thought embraced; for instance, Seventh-day Adventists see no light whatever in fourteen of Miller’s fifteeen ways of arriving at the date 1844, from a hermeneutical standpoint.[28] But there is much about Millerite millennialism that we can cherish.[29]

The “shipmen” made two depth soundings on the shore of Malta. We have, in this short paper, “sounded” Millerism in its climatic years; we should now ask how this “particular mood of thought and belief” persisted and was attenuated in Sabbaratian Adventism. Particularly instructive in this regard is Ellen Harmon’s first vision of December 1844 that gave the about-to-emerge new movement a presiding symbol of Millerism to guide its ongoing pilgrimage.[30] We might also make frequent soundings in Seventh-day Adventism thereafter, and expect fruitful results, especially it we enlist the help of the finest doctoral thesis ever written on the development of the church’s thought.[31]

Arthur Patrick, 18 April 2012

[1] This paper should be read in conjunction with other surveys that I have written, such as A Brief, Annotated Introduction to the Field of Adventist Studies for Higher Degree Students (Cooranbong, NSW: Avondale College, 2009), and “Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism: ‘A Constant Process of Struggle and Rebirth’?” Journal of Religious History 34, no. 3 (September 2010), 272-288. For an earlier snapshot of apocalypticism in a wider context see my article, “Seventh-day Adventism in the South Pacific: A Review of Sources,” Journal of Religious History 14, no. 3 (June 1987), 307-326, especially 318-320. I have published many other relevant studies in magazines, journals, book chapters, Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre CDs, and on See in particular “Doctrinal Development Studied,”  Record, 15 March 2003, 10, and the use I made of Rolf Poehler’s books in “Continuity and Change in Seventh-day Adventist Doctrine and Practice,” a presentation to the San Diego Adventist Forum, 12 July 2003; cf. “The Reality of Change in Seventh-day Adventist Doctrine and Practice,” Adventist Today, September/October 2003, 16-17.

[2] A typescript copy of Guy’s lecture, “The Future of Adventist Theology: A Personal View,” is available in an indexed Document File at the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, Avondale College, and (in edited form) appears in his volume Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1999), 73-83, and elsewhere.

[3] See, for one luminous instance, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1 (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press), 262-3.

[4] Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2001) presents a compelling, longitudinal view of the way Adventist millennialism has been attenuated and transformed over time.

[5] R. D. Linder offers an excellent context for understanding Millerism in the setting of the Second Great Awakening; see his introductory chapter “Division and Unity: The Paradox of Christianity in America,” in Daniel G. Reid, editor, Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1-22, especially 7-10.

[6] The Midnight Cry, 24 March 1844, page 282, suggested from 1,500 to 2,000 lecturers were “proclaiming the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

[7] A.H. Anderson describes Miller as an “interdenominational millennial revivalist,” in “The Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Dictionary of Contemporary Religions in the Western World, Chris Partridge, editor (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 2002), 339. Millerism is well introduced by Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1978). For wide-ranging bibliographic citations and comment, see Ted Daniels, Millennialism: An International Bibliography (New York and London: Garland, 1992.) Contextual data are given in the three-volume work, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism (New York and London: Continuum, 2000), that treats the Jewish and Christian origins of apocalypticism, its development in Western history and culture, and its manifestations in the modern and contemporary periods.

[8] Since this chapter engages with the early historical development of Adventism, it cites the King James Version of the Scriptures, the common Bible of Adventists until the middle of the twentieth century.

[9] Cf. William Arndt, “Eschatos,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[10] Note Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, editors, “Eschatos,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), 264. 

[11] See T.W.Weber, “Eschatology,” Reid, editor, Dictionary of Christianity in America, 397-401.

[12] J.A. Patterson, “Apocalypticism,” in Reid, Dictionary of Christianity in America, 70-71. For worthy cautions about attempts to “record the shadow of Providence over human affairs,” see Tom Frame’s Review Article, “Making History for God: A discordant review,” Lucas: An Evangelical History Review ns 1 (2009), 163-173.

[13] George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 23.

[14] Few non-Adventist publications clearly portray the distinctive Adventist stance on the millennium that is so well described by Kenneth Newport, “The Heavenly Millennium of Seventh-day Adventism,” in Stephen Hunt, editor, Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco (London: Hurst, 2001), 131-148.

[15] Robert Ellwood, General Editor, The Encyclopedia of World Religions, Revised Edition (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2007), 293-4.

[16] Observe the stark contrast between premillennialism and postmillennialism. The former envisions a world in which “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse” (2 Timothy 3: 13) prior to a cataclysmic end that introduces a thousand years of “justice, peace and righteousness on earth.” The latter maintains that Christ’s coming will climax a thousand years of increasing “peace, prosperity and righteousness.” See R.G. Clouse, “Premillennialism” and “Postmillennialism,” in Reid, editor, Dictionary of Christianity in America, 929, 919

[17] Raymond F. Cottrell wrote the most influential survey of “the fundamental problem of the interpretation of the prophetic portions of the Old Testament in terms of their message to Israel of old and to the church today,” in “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Seven Volumes (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1955), Vol. 4, 25-38.

[18] See Richard P. Lehmann, “The Second Coming of Jesus,” in Raoul Dederen, editor, Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, Commentary Reference Series (Washington. D.C.: Review and Herald, 2000), Vol. 12, 893-926.

[19] For an overview of the rapidly-growing discipline of Adventist Studies, see Patrick, A Brief, Annotated Introduction to the Field of Adventist Studies for Higher Degree Students available on the Avondale College website,

[20] Cf. the fuller expression of similar ideas in George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000).

[21] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898), 211.

[22] Gospel Workers, 156, cited in Evangelism as set forth in the writings of Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), 188.

[23] A recent, substantive account of Miller is that by David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2008).

[24] “Joshua Vaughan Himes,” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, Commentary Reference Series, Second Revised Edition (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1996), Vol.10, 694-5.

[25] Edwin Scott Gaustad (ed.), The Rise of Adventism: Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1974); Gary Land, “The Historians and the Millerites: An Historigraphical Essay,” in Everett N. Dick, “William Miller and the End of the World, 1831-1844 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1994), xiii-xxviii. An excellent index to the micoform materials is that by Jean Hoomstra, editor, The Millerites and Early Adventists: An index to the microfilm collection of rare books and manuscripts (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1978).

[26] D.S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 200 B.C. – A.D. 100 (London: SCM, 1964), 104-6. Currently, Russell’s writings are widely discussed on the Internet. For succinct summaries with bibliographies see John J. Collins, “Apocalypse,” and Hillel Schwartz, “Millenarianism,” in Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, sixteen vols (New York: Macmillan, 1987), Vol. 1, 334-6; Vol. 9, 521-532. A multi-volume reference work (with helpful indexes) progressively available in English is that by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S, Browing, Bernd Janowski, Eberhard Jungel, Religion Past and Present (Leiden and Boston: Brill, Volume 1, 2007; Volume 9, 2011).

[27] For a contextualised account of such matters, see Arthur Patrick, Christianity and Culture in Colonial Australia: Selected Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist Perspectives, 1891-1900 (Sydney: Fast Books, 1993), 81-83.

[28] Kai Arasola, The End of Historicism: Millerite Hermeneutic of Time Prophecies in the Old Testament (Uppsala, Sweden: K.J. Arosola and Datem Publishing, 1990).

[29] See, for instance, Arthur Patrick, “Revisiting Millerism,” Record, 23 April 1994, 8-9, as well as many Signs of the Times articles in which I present evidence for the enduring significance of Miller’s movement.

[30] The broadside account of this vision addressed “TO THE LITTLE REMNANT SCATTERED ABROAD” (Portland: Ellen G. Harmon, 6 April 1846) offers an accurate account of what the early believers read. Subsequent versions (as in Early Writings) are edited in terms of later understandings.

[31] Rolf Poehler completed his magisterial dissertation at Andrews University in 1995 and subsequently published it in two books. Poehler will offer lectures in Australia during September 2012.