Post 27, Apocalyptic, Adventism and America

Note: This volume is reviewed here because it is one of the outstanding publications (relating to Adventism) that appeared during the first decade of the 21st century.

Seventh-day Adventists began as a marginalized fragment of the millennialist ferment that stirred the United States during the 1830s and 1840s. Their millenarian ethos persists into the present, one result being their energetic advocacy of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Now the complex factors sustaining continuity and effecting change in Adventism are more understandable, with the help of Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2001).

Morgan’s volume is essential reading for quite diverse individuals: those with an interest in the way that religion and society interface with each other, wishing to explore what H. Richard Niebuhr called “the double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis”; those who want to understand the motivations and constraints that operate in millennialist movements; those who are drawn to or repelled by North American public policy, and many others. An important segment of the others will be Seventh-day Adventists who find themselves intrigued by almost an alphabet of concerns: church and state, civil liberties, ecumenism, eschatology, fundamentalism, labor unions, military service, political involvement, religious liberty, Sunday laws, and a complex of related issues.

Morgan is assistant professor of history at Columbia Union College in Maryland, so he is a believer-participant as well as a researcher of Adventist thought and history. But his book has satisfying depth. It was born at the University of Chicago, developed under the supervision of Martin Marty, honed into a doctoral thesis, and now, after a dozen years and ongoing research, it is published as a highly-readable monograph.

Insights in Marty’s foreword are worth the price of the book, not least for the way he packages Adventist peculiarities or distinctive characteristics. “Adventists see Catholicism as part of a conspiracy, along with ecumenical Protestantism”; we are “confused when official Catholicism celebrates religious liberty and when Protestant ecumenists come through not as conspirators but as consecrated fellow Christians”; we care a great deal about religious liberty and have “made major contributions in the American legal tradition by helping expand the liberties of all Americans.” Even though we are moving from the position of “religious outsiders” (Moore) and “cognitive minorities” (Berger), Marty notes that we make our “peculiar view of the Second Coming active” in our lives, mingling “major efforts to effect conversion” with “Endism.”

Marty separates Morgan’s book from what some would expect to be “a work of apologetics and public relations” on the one hand, or “a work of destruction” on the other. He rates Morgan as an author who “deals with controversy serenely” and, in a word that he likes “better than ‘objectively’ or ‘disinterestedly,’ with fair-mindedness.”  Marty testifies that he has been Morgan’s “teacher and colleague” and that he remains “an admirer and friend of this historian who taught me so much about Adventism and religious liberty.”

Currently, Adventism is viewing itself in more mature ways with the help of a plethora of books and journal articles from presses outside the church. We would be greatly the poorer without Numbers and Butler, The Disappointed; without Michael Pearson’s Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas; without Roland Blaich’s articles on Adventism and Nazi Germany; without Ronald Lawson’s continuing sociological analyses reported in the best journals of their genre. Morgan must now be added to any list of such pioneering calibre.

No evangelist should preach on Revelation 13:11-18 before reading the way in which this passage has been exegeted since 1844; no religious liberty author should write on Adventism and the public sphere without an in-depth understanding of this aspect of our heritage; no young person should engage in military service without an awareness of the struggle of his or her forebears; no college or university president should guide an institution through the issues of public funding without examining the relevant precedents; no member should relate to labor union issues uninformed by the past. For all such, Morgan has performed a great service.

This “must-read” book is also a “can’t stop” book. It divides Adventist history into six epochs characterised in its chapter titles: Remnant versus Republic, 1844-1861; An Activist Remnant, 1861-1886; Apocalyptic Faith and Industrial America, 1886-1914; Conscientious Cooperators, 1914-1955; A Flexible Wall, 1955-1976; A Pluralistic Remnant, 1976-2000. This reviewer found the prose so accessible and the narrative so compelling that it was an effort to put the book down; there was always the urge to follow the strands of continuity through the processes of constant and often significant change. Such is the nature of the Adventism that Morgan enables us to better understand.

The book has 269 pages, including 40 pages of notes and references, six pages of bibliography, nine pages of index.

Marty gives a perceptive context to Jonathan Butler’s observation about Adventists: “They wished to delay the end in order to preach that the end was soon.” Now, with Morgan’s help, we can perceive more fully the nature of our faith and the ways in which it motivates us. The spin-offs are numerous: not least, we can now function with increased awareness and greater effectiveness in the public sphere.

Arthur Patrick, 6 April 2002