Post 34, When Seventh-day Adventists Agreed on Their Name

“It seems to me that the child is now so grown that it is exceedingly awkward to have no name for it,” James White commented at an epochal conference that began 29 September 1860.

The “child” was the Sabbath-keeping branch of the Second Advent Movement, already sixteen years old. It was born amongst scattered groups of “the people of the Advent near,” now best known as Millerites. As earnest believers continued to study their Bibles, they added to their passion for the Second Advent four other “S” ideas: Sabbath, Sanctuary, State of the Dead, Spiritual Gifts. But they still couldn’t decide what to call themselves.

Ellen Harmon’s first vision was distributed as a broadside (a large sheet of paper printed only on one side) dated 6 April 1846, addressed in capital letters “TO THE LITTLE REMNANT SCATTERED ABROAD.” A year later, nineteen-year-old Ellen, now Mrs James White, teamed with her husband and Joseph Bates to produce a pamphlet entitled “A Word to the ‘Little Flock’.” During 1849, James White published a tiny hymnal, Hymns for God’s Peculiar People That Keep the Commandments of God and the Faith of Jesus. “Little Remnant,” “Little Flock,” “People That Keep the Commandments.” All Bible ideas, for sure, taken from Revelation 12:17 and Luke 12:32–but hardly suitable as names!

Many other titles were used briefly by various companies of believers: “Friends of the Sabbath,” “Those With An Interest in the Third Angel’s Message,” “Seventh-day People,” “Sabbath-keeping Adventists,” Seventh-day Brethren.” Some names were first hurled as epithets by critics who wanted to disparage the struggling groups now seeking a fresh identity: “Seventhday Door Shutters” and “Shut Door Seventh Day Sabbath and Annihilationists.” A Seventh Day Baptist wrote amicably to James White in 1853 stating that it was “resolved that we instruct our corresponding Secretary to correspond with the Seventh-day Advent people, and learn their faith.”

Discussion about a permanent name continued for seven more years; the pages of the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald often devoted space to it–and the need for effective organisation. Believers sacrificed to buy tents for evangelism in several states, but in at least one case the state evangelists left the Second Advent cause and took the tent with them. James White legally owned the infant publishing house, a fact that made him very uneasy. There was no one to guarantee that travelling ministers were reliable, or to ensure they neither starved nor became discouraged for lack of financial support. Churches were being built on donated property; they could quickly be lost if the erstwhile generous donor experienced a change of mind. So the need for a name was as dire as it was complicated.

Finally James White called for a general conference of believers to convene in Battle Creek, Michigan, on 29 September 1860–to settle such questions as the legal holding of church and publishing house properties and to choose a name. The discussion began on Saturday night and rolled through Sunday until, on Monday afternoon, it was voted to adopt a name. “Church of Christ” had been a favourite for some, “Church of God” was still zealously advocated. Finally David Hewitt, a layman, proposed “That we call ourselves Seventh-day Adventists.” Discussion surged on, but at last the conference voted its approval, agreeing also to recommend the name to the churches, and to report the decision in the Review.

There were cogent reasons why the process of adopting a name was fraught with great difficulty. The Sabbatarians had been cast out of churches that had names and creeds: they never wanted that to happen to anyone again–ever! Some feared the movement would become Babylon immediately it adopted a name, let alone organisational structure. The years of indecision were tedious, the resolution was a relief to most, but a few departed in sorrow. Ellen White confirmed the decision when she wrote: “The name Seventh-day Adventist carries the true features of our faith in front, and will convict the inquiring mind. Like an arrow from the Lord’s quiver, it will wound the transgressors of God’s law, and will lead to repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Testimonies, I, 224).

Arthur Patrick, written 22 June 2010, published (in edited form in Record, 7 August 2010), posted 16 January 2012