Fundamentalism in Christianity: a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective


By Stephen Terry


In the mid-nineteenth century, the world was in transition.  Only a few decades before, the young United States of America had fought her last war with England.  The child had become an adult.  The mother country was forced to recognize the emancipation.  As an echo of the refrains from Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown played across the years, the world seemed indeed to be “upside down.”  Revolution was in the air in many places around the world throughout that turbulent century, even spilling into the next with the revolutions in Russia and eventually China.  Perhaps like no other time before, ideas became the most common commodity in the marketplace.


As in the world at large, so it was with the church.  In the centuries since the Reformation, the church had become comfortable and staid, one of the institutions necessary to a well-ordered society.  Those venerable souls, who had been the seed-sowers of these faiths, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, and others, had since passed into the hope of their rewards.  The vibrancy of their reforms had passed on with them.  Nonetheless, their writings continued with a life of their own.  Those writings were often venerated beyond any respect or admiration their authors received while living.  In paradox, these men who pushed the boundaries of their worlds were now represented by words that set clear boundaries beyond which no one could go and still be considered “faithful.”


Religion in the early nineteenth century had become like the institutions of government and business, staid and immovable. All three had become indifferent to suffering and without expected compassion.  More interested in both spiritual and secular empire, they sought to impose their will on lesser peoples in far off lands, enforcing the spiritual with secular means, both financial and military.  However, convinced of their nobility they found it easy like the Pharisees of old to pass by the suffering apparent on their own city streets with no thought to its relief.  As a result, the poor felt disenfranchised by the very institutions created to save mankind.  Early in his career, Dwight L Moody was rebuked several times for daring to bring poor street urchins to church.  While he was a shining star of his times, yet he struggled against what the church had become as did William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.


The need for a fresh understanding of the Christian faith was apparent and these men and others felt the calling to respond to that need.  Today, large and expansive church movements continue to promote their teachings.  We have Moody Institute in Chicago.  There is the Salvation Army, which is active all over the world.  The Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, came into existence at this time as did Charles Taze Russell’s movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Eventually the Pentecostal and Nazarene movements would spring from the Holiness movement of the 1800’s as well.


A seeming sea of confusion of efforts, all were trying to meet a perceived need of the people for spiritual direction that they felt the established churches were not meeting.  Into this spiritual sea change stepped a remarkable figure.  William Miller, a veteran of the American Revolution with the rank of Captain and eventually a Baptist preacher.  He had determined that the return of Jesus was imminent and began preaching an apocalyptic message based on what was then a unique understanding of Bible prophecy as it related to end time events.  While thousands thrilled to his preaching, many turned away when his date setting for the second coming of Jesus proved fallacious.  In spite of the many that fell away in this “Great Disappointment,” some continued to wrestle with Bible prophecy, in particular the books of Daniel and Revelation. 


Two of those who continued to search the prophecies for answers were James and Ellen White.  Guided by group Bible study and Ellen’s visions, they developed a following among the disappointed Millerites.  In the early years, several voices contributed to the development of the doctrinal understanding of what was eventually to become the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Notable among these is the influence of Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh-day Baptist, who introduced the concept of the seventh-day Sabbath to some of the Millerites.  Important, also, was Hiram Edson who brought the teaching known as “The Investigative Judgment” to the group.


Later as the various understandings coalesced into a more systematic doctrine, the teachings of the denomination were carefully brought together by Ellen White over time through several earlier writings such as “Spiritual Gifts” into a single volume entitled “The Great Controversy.”  Many other writings added detail to this understanding, not the least of which were the four other volumes written as companions to this one and eventually known as “The Conflict of The Ages” series.


“The Great Controversy” was very much a product of its times.  Heavily anti-Catholic it alienated some and found sympathetic understanding in others.  It still does today.  Were it to rely on a secular publisher today, it might never see print and might even be classified as “hate” literature because of its attitude toward Catholicism.  However, the church maintains its own large publishing houses with hundreds of workers working at lower than industry standard wages to make sure these books continue in print.


Although its rhetoric is dated, and it is a lengthy read at a little over seven hundred pages, “The Great Controversy” is the single most authoritative source for the systematic theology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  To read this book is to understand the church.  Because the church teaches the divine inspiration of Ellen White, the book is more authoritative within the denomination.  This is somewhat problematic for the church.


The church founders, including James and Ellen White were very much opposed to having a “creed” which they perceived as a test of fellowship that would have the effect of squelching independent Bible study.  They saw this as a serious problem within the existing denominations that prevented them from accepting “new light” that went beyond the language of their statements of belief.  However, what do you do with writings that are beyond the Bible, but you believe to be “divinely inspired?”  Ultimately, they have become more restrictive than a creed.  For if the writings are inspired, wouldn’t anything that says something contrary to them not be? 


Ellen White spoke of her writings being a “lesser light” illuminating the way to the “greater light” of the Bible.  Yet inspiration is not a matter of degree.  Something is either inspired or it is not.  The result is that no matter what statements say to the contrary, for many, disagreement with the writings of Ellen White is anathema.  We see some of the same attitudes among their followers in regards to the writings of Luther, Calvin or even Wesley’s Diaries.  Yet none make as strong a case for the divine inspiration of these men as is made for Ellen White. 


During Ellen White’s life she continued to write and expand on the understanding of her writings with many letters and personal audiences, but once she died, her writings underwent the same transformation as writings by earlier Christian reformers.  Writings that were originally meant to be lights along the path became instead fences to mark the boundaries of belief.  Just as a Lutheran minister would not dream of formulating a belief statement without regard to Luther’s teachings, so Seventh-day Adventists measure their belief system against the writings of Ellen White.  However, the inspiration factor gives even more credence to her writings. 


While a Lutheran minister might dare to examine Luther’s words in the context of current understandings of Scripture, this is not so with Seventh-day Adventists.  Today, any Bible study among Adventists can immediately be brought to an end with only four words: “But Ellen White said…”  Those who speak of Ellen White’s writings often speak of the “pillars of our faith.”  Rightly so, for one can almost feel the concrete setting in those pillars as they attend church each week.


A paradox for Seventh-day Adventism is that they promote advanced education and this education develops the ability to think critically for oneself.  Often this calls into question the rigidity of some aspects of the systematic beliefs of the denomination.  As a result, deep fissures have developed over time.  Some who are sometimes called progressives or liberals, who want the academic freedom to explore deeper and perhaps revelatory understandings of Scripture are pushing against the restraints imposed by having a voluminous library of divinely inspired writings that speak on almost every major topic from diet and clothing to forms of worship.  They also seek new understandings of the authoritative nature of the prophetic gift.


Others, who may be called conservatives or historic Adventists, oppose this academic freedom with an attitude of “Ellen White wrote it and that makes it authoritative and the matter is closed.”  In the middle are many who do not understand the issues and wonder why everyone cannot just get along.  They are also confused by the shifting “foundations” of the denomination.  At one time pastors were defrocked for daring to baptize someone wearing a wedding ring.  Today, even many of the pastors wear wedding bands.  How can both viewpoints be correct?


To those of a conservative bent, the church should return to the former practice.  They feel that the changes confirm them in their position as they are simply evidence of “the shaking” taking place in the church.  Ellen White wrote often of a great falling away to occur before Jesus comes.  They reason this must be what she wrote about.  They are as certain of this as the Pharisees were that Jesus was absolutely and emphatically not the messiah.  Both based their understanding on “inspired” writings outside of the Bible.


These conservative believers feel that the progressive or liberal believers are influenced far too much by the world outside the church.  Yet the wave of conservatism they are advancing is only a reflection of the right-wing fundamentalism sweeping through American society.  Dominion Theology and Theonomy as promoted by the likes of R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North have blossomed and born fruit among the fundamental churches and through the halls of government far beyond anyone's expectation. 


These teachings emphasize a behavior oriented faith that must produce a certain level of righteousness before Jesus will return.  Taken to its extreme, this belief advocates the overthrow of the U. S. Constitution and the institution of Biblical law from the Pentateuch. David Koresh who found his start within Adventism and pulled his followers from among the ranks of the fundamentalists within the denomination was not far from this position.  If this sounds eerily like the Sharia law promoted by the Muslim fundamentalists, that's because it is. 


Since the Dark Ages when the church chained Bibles to the pulpits and restricted common access to Holy Writ, fundamentalism has opposed enlightenment.  Enlightened minds ask questions in Adventism that are not easy to answer.  Questions like “If vegetarianism is important to my salvation, why was Jesus not a vegetarian?” 


The Seventh-day Adventist church believes in the inspiration of Ellen White, and she wrote “Among those who are waiting for the coming of the Lord meat eating will eventually be done away; flesh will cease to form a part of their diet.” (Counsels on Health, pg 450)  The implication is that those who are eating “flesh” are not waiting for the coming of the Lord.  This has helped to support a thriving industry that produces meat alternatives.  While many of those meat alternatives are themselves of dubious health benefit, they are not universally available.  Does this mean the Lord will not come for those people in areas where there are no soy hot dogs?


Ellen White vacillated on her position over meat eating. In 1890 she wrote the above statement in Counsels on Health.  In the book “Counsels on Diet and Foods” page 395, she wrote in 1894 that meat eating was acceptable under certain circumstances.  Then, following that, she wrote in 1895 (page 463 of the same book) to point out that for one to be conscious for another regarding the question of meat eating was an extreme position.    


It might appear that with the progression of time, or as she got closer to “the coming of the Lord,” her position regarding meat eating became more flexible.  This was not so for in 1903 through 1908 she again took what she she had called an extreme position in 1895.  This is documented on pages 380-381 of Counsels on Diet and Foods.  In 1902, she had cautioned not to make it a test of fellowship (Ibid, page 401), yet within a year or so, she is back to advocating that it is the only acceptable diet for God’s people.  For the conservative church member, this is no problem, and they are eager to point out how necessary it is to be a vegetarian to be one with them in understanding and sanctity.


Pity the poor progressive or liberal Seventh-day Adventist who cannot quite handle the inspiration of these constantly changing positions.  But for the conservative there is no problem, for by Ellen White’s own hand, since they are consuming meat, they must not be “among those who are waiting for the coming of the Lord.”  This is a convenient argument for those who now have a way to assert the spiritual superiority of his or her position as opposed to the average church member.  


This fault line within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination over diet is only one of many.  There are fault lines over lifestyles, worship styles, apocalyptic interpretation, church structure, ordination, music and several other areas.  Many of these same fault lines affect other denominations as well. It is not the fault lines that are the greatest problem though.  It is the extreme fundamentalism that feels it is a spiritually purer form of Christianity.  Without this, the fault lines would be small to negligible.  The fundamentalists keep the fault lines open lest any should cross over from the perceived lesser group without proper repentance and humility.


Only those who accept the interpretations and lifestyle of the fundamentalists may cross over, even though they are already baptized members of the same church.  Like the Gnostics of old, the fundamentalists are the keepers of the secret knowledge that must be imparted to the new initiate before they can truly belong.  This knowledge is the arbiter of who is righteous and who is not, even to the extent of pulling down pastors and church leaders who do not show themselves to be proper fundamentalists.


A defense against these imparters of secret knowledge is education in the open marketplace of ideas.  While education does not guarantee a balanced mind, not having a balanced education in the liberal arts amounts to going to a gunfight at high noon with little more than a pea shooter to defend yourself.  The fundamentalists know that education is their undoing and in an effort to prevent this encourage parents to home school their children.  A fundamentalist parent educating their children will certainly never allow them to be exposed to any thoughts or arguments that might throw light on any problems with their conservative position.


In the United States, an effective Christian alternative to the secular school system exists.  The Seventh-day Adventist church has dedicated much money and resources to provide education from the earliest grades through doctoral degree programs.  In an effort to keep the children balanced and to avoid inbred thinking and theology, they have encouraged the teaching staff to seek broad educations.  This system is continually under attack by the fundamentalists.  Because they encourage independent thought that can result in students questioning fundamentalism, they are seen as the enemy.  Fundamentalists see home schooling as a viable counter to the liberalism they feel is in the parochial school system.


At one time they did not have this alternative and had less power to shape the minds of the coming generation.  With the growth of fundamentalism across the evangelical landscape came a desire for political power.  With political power, the home school movement became part of the agenda and home schooling is now possible almost everywhere, often without regard to the qualifications of the “teacher.”  However, when education becomes subservient to the requirements of religious orthodoxy, we all suffer.


It does not take much imagination to envision what effect there will be on a society that has leaders that have been educated to see themselves as spiritually superior and have no need to consider the ideas of others who are spiritually inferior.  Recently, I had the opportunity to see an example of this.  It was not pretty.


A young woman had travelled to India.  While there she saw poverty and disease.  She made a film where she took pictures of temples and shrines and juxtaposed them with images of the poor and diseased.  She narrated the film with a story of how these temples and shrines were the reason that the people were poor and diseased and that if they would accept Christ all would be well.  Apparently, while she was filming, the locals asked her what she was doing.  When she explained they became offended and attacked her.  She could not understand why.  She felt they were in darkness and could not even let her help them.  After all her way was superior to theirs and they should automatically acknowledge that.


Her education made her blind to other possibilities for poverty and disease.  It also made her blind to the fact that someone from India could travel to the United States and make a film with homeless people and people waiting in line at free clinics and juxtapose that with pictures of churches.  They could narrate it with a very similar story of how the people were poor, homeless and lacked health care because they were deluded by the churches and the ministers.  They could say that all would be well if they would only accept Buddha or become Hindus.


While we might expect such naive approaches to life from those in countries without proper educational systems, it is sad to see this from citizens of countries that offer better.  It is not far removed from those primitive societies that blame hidden, malevolent spirits for all their ills.  It is pitiful if not laughable on an individual level.  When it rises to the level of infecting large segments of society and even governments, it becomes extremely dangerous.  The self righteousness inherent in such movements carries its own momentum and coupled with a mob mentality it brings death and destruction to those seen to be spiritually inferior.


Centuries ago, the Inquisition was such a movement.  More recently the Ku Klux Klan had its heyday.  The Klan in the form of disparate white supremacist groups is having a comeback.  The homeschooling movement has given it new life.  They are now able to raise a whole generation in ignorance of the humanities without interference from the public school system.  With the growth of fundamentalism and home schooling in the churches can a rebirth of the Inquisition by some other name be far behind?  Remember, Dominion Theology wants to replace the Constitution with Biblical Law from the Pentateuch, including stoning people to death.


As Christians, we are in a struggle for the very soul of our denominations.  To fight this battle, we should encourage a broad education for our children.  We should determine we are not going to allow our denomination to be taken over by the right-wing fundamentalists.  We should stop being afraid to call this fundamentalism by its right name, extremism.  We should also model the behavior of Jesus.  Instead of shunning others as “unclean” over their lifestyle issues, we should go among them as Jesus did.  He touched the lepers, the blind, and the lame and they gladly touched Him.  We should stop making extremism a barrier between us and the secular world.