SDA Origins - How did we begin?
Daddy - where do I come from? This question can strike terror into the hearts of unprepared parents, or it can bring a smile to the faces of those who have been waiting for an inquisitive child to raise it.
Where did we come from? It is a question that has been debated in lecture halls, universities, and by great philosophers. People want to know where they came from and why they're here.
Where did the Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) come from? History records that many great organizations and movements were created almost overnight, but this was not the case with the SDA movement. Rather than being an immediate creation, the SDA movement was formed by a progressive series of historical events. Through much Bible study, the SDA pioneers came to a deeper understanding of Scripture.
The SDA movement's historical roots go all the way back theologically to the apostolic church and to the Christ event, but within immediate history they go back to William Miller, who was born 15th February 1782 in Massachusetts. Raised in a religious home in northern New York State, Miller was the oldest of 16 children. As a child he was regularly loaded onto a hard-case buggy and pulled to church by the family horse. His grandfather and two uncles served as Baptist ministers.
When he was a young man, Miller achieved the status of Captain in the war between the USA and Great Britain in 1812. He was brilliant and well read, but had become disenchanted with the Christianity of his childhood and had adopted deism. This particular philosophy of the time claimed that God had no genuine, personal involvement in the affairs of our world. It taught that He had simply set the world in space adn left it to its own devising.
Returning from the war of 1812, Miller came to his farmhouse in Low Hampton, New York. As one might expect, deism didn't ultimately satisfy the longing of his heart for real meaning. Sometimes he attended the local Baptist church, but he still had deep questions within his heart. In 1816 he began a thorough, systematic investigation of the Bible. He studied on his own, without the help of religious teachers, using his Bible and a Cruden's concordance to look up texts for comparison.
Miller's initial interest in prophecy led him to discover Bible truths that differed from the popular opinions of his time. However, these truths seemed minor in comparison with the conclusion that he reached after two years of meticulous study. He came to the stunning conclusion that Jesus Christ would return around the year 1843, around 25 years hence (this date was subsequently revised until 22nd October, 1844 was finally settled upon).
This major conviction, the soon coming of Christ, radically departed from the common consensus. Popular teaching insisted that there would be 1,000 years (a 'millenium') of peace and happiness in the world before Christ returned to earth. Aware of these teachings, Miller went back to his deliberations to make sure he was correct in his assumptions, and the more he studied, the great his convictions became.
On 13th August 1841, Miller felt the strong conviction that he should share his Biblical discoveries. He slowly made his way to a grove of trees, where he knelt in prayer and wrestled with the overwhelming conviction. He wasn't a preacher - he didn't want to preach. Finally, to settle th turmoil in his soul, Miller made a deal with God. He promised God that if someone were to invite him to preach, he would. However, he wouldn't seek any preaching appointments, and left the grove of trees confident - who would ever ask a farmer with no theological training to preach?
After returning home, Miller relaxed in his living room. After 30 minutes he heard a knock at the door, and on opening the door found Irving Guildford, his nephew. Irving had one purpose - to invite Miller to share his Biblical views with the Dresden Baptist Church, about 7 miles away. Miller reluctantly agreed to preach, keeping the promise he had made with God whilst in the tree grove.
And.....Miller didn't stop preaching. during the next 13 years Miller preached 4,000 times in over 500 towns. More than 200 clergy accepted his views on Christ's soon coming, and estimate of the number of believers in his message range from 50,000 to 100,000 persons. These followers were, and still are, referred to as 'Millerites'.
What was Miller's message? It was the simple interpretation of a prophetic chapter in the Bible. Taking the prophecy found in Daniel 8.14 (Unto two thousand three hundred days, and then shall the sanctuary be cleansed), Miller applied the Biblical principle that in prophecy a day can symbolize a literal year, therefore the 2,300 days of Daniel 8.14 represented 2,300 years of earth's history.
Miller wasn't the first student of Scripture to arrive at these conclusions. Records show that for centuries before Miller, renowned Bible scholars had arrived at the same conclusions, including Sir Isaac Newton, who in addition to investigating the laws of gravity, as was fascinated with Bible prophecy and wrote much on the subject.
In the early nineteenth century the understanding of how to interpret the time prophecies of the Bible was widespread. Many teachers of God's Word believed that the fulfillment of the 2,300 days spoken of by Daniel would soon take place.
Through Bible and historical study, Miller was able to determine that the starting date for the 2,300 day prophecy was 457BC, and when 2,300 years were added to this date, Miller concluded that the 22nd of October 1844 would be the date for the cleansing of the sanctuary (the starting point for the 2,300 day prophecy was the decree by the Persian King Artaxerxes for the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. He issued this decree in 457BC. Further investigation revealed that the exact date of the decree was the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month (Yom Kippur, the Biblical Day of Atonement). When adding 2,300 years to 457BC, one arrives at the date 1844 AD - there is no zero year in the transition from BC to AD).
In the popular religious thinking of his time, the term sanctuary represented the world. And how else could the world be cleansed but by fire? And if the world was going to be cleansed by fire, then it must mean that Jesus was going to come!
The Millerites were very excited! Those who believed Muller believed that the Lord would return on 22nd October 1844. There were those who had buried loved ones just days or weeks before - now they were filled with eager anticipation of seeing their loved ones shortly. But Jesus didn't return as Miller and his followers expected. Needless to day, there was a huge disappointment for many of the Millerites. Some left the movement altogether, others returned to their previous churches. Some Millerites were so wrapped up in the sensationalism of what had happened that they wouldn't listen to anything that Miller subsequently said.
This unexpected turns of events dealt a hard personal blow to Miller. He had never intended that the movement be anything other than a search for truth. He had suffered scorn and ridicule whilst preaching. He had listened to the scoffers and had seen the cartoons mocking his message....even now after the great disappointment some of his closest friends were leaving him.
However, a small group was trying to obey the Word of God and continue the search for truth. These 'former' Millerites went back to the study of the Bible and saw where Miller had been mistaken. The dating had been conrrect, but the assumptions about what would happen had been wrong. After renewed study of the Bible, they concluded that Jesus was indeed coming soon, but they were equally certain that the exact date could not be determined.
The group discovered that there would not be 1,000 years of peace before Jesus' arrival. They believed instead that the world would be become increasingly wicked and that Jesus would come to put an end to unchecked sin in the world. Then the 1,000 year period spoken of in Revelation (often called 'the millenium') would begin.
As the small group of Bible students discovered that Miller was correct in his chronological conclusions, but wrong in the event, they also discovered other truths in the process. One of these affirmations was their rediscovery of the Biblical Sabbath - the seventh day of the week. The seventh-day Sabbath had been kept by different groups and individuals since creation, but now it was unearthed in the context of Christ's second coming.
Joseph Bates, a retired sea captain who had enjoyed an active and adventurous career, was one of the early Sabbathkeepers who also believed in the soon coming of Jesus. He actively promoted his views regarding the Biblical Sabbath and served as a member of the committee that would call for the first 'Advent General Conference'.
Many other Adventist pioneers sought further truth from God's Word during the mid-1880s. Hiram Edson's study of the Bible had led him to understand where Miller had made his errors in Biblical interpretation and thus why Christ hadn't returned in 1844. He saw that the sanctuary Miller preached about and referred to in Daniel 8.14 did not represent the earth but rather referred to the ministry of Jesus in heaven. Edson found new evidence from the Bible that Christ had indeed begun a new phase of His ministry and the prophecy had therefore been fulfilled in 1844.
As many struggled with their disappointment following the 22nd of October 1844, God chose to give the small group encouragement through a 17 year old girl, Ellen Harmon. Whilst praying with a small group of friends in Portland, Maine, she felt God's power and presence in vision. She saw that they truly were on the right path of Bible study and that as long as they kept their focus on Jesus, He would lead and guide them further. She shared what she had seen with the others, who were much encouraged. Once of those who heard her was a young preacher named James White. He and Ellen eventually married, and exerted a strong influence in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church.
In late 1846 James and Ellen White began keeping the seventh-day Sabbath themselves. they, along with Hiram Edson and Josephe Bates, led out in studying the Bible and promoting their doctrinal understanding based on God's Word. They were not alone. Hundreds of others were likewise sharing what they had learned. In 1848 the first 'Sabbath Conference' was convened in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, offering a time for prayer and Bible study.
As belief in the lasting importance of the Biblical Sabbath grew, so did the need to share it with others. Several papers and magazines were published, among them the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, which was first published in 1849. This periodical is still published as Adventist Review. In 1853 the movement began 'Sabbath Schools', which were patterned after Sunday Schools, and were organized around the local Adventist churches.
As the group of those who believed the Sabbath and the Second Coming grew, it became apparent that they could carrry out their mission more efficiently if they would organize. The first organizational step was to pick a name for the movement, and the name finally chosen was the name 'Seventh-day Adventist'. This name clearly described the denomination - those who kept the seventh-day Sabbath and looked forward to Jesus' soon coming.
In 1863 delegates from the various 'conferences' assembled together in Michigan and voted a list of officers to oversee the new denomination. The attendees asked James White to serve as President, but he declined the offer. John Byington, a former Wesleyan pastor, was then elected as the first president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Miller didn't discover all the truth that needed to be found, but he did take a giant step forward in understanding the Bible. Miller's teachings helped change the religious landscape forever. Millions of people today, across denominational lines, believe we cannot expect 1,000 years of peace before Jesus returns. Many churches also teach that the world is getting too wicked and will end soon. Is that so unusual? Well, it is if you realise that before William Miller began his preaching, you might have been disfellowshipped from your church for saying that Jesus was coming soon.
Those who believe in the soon coming of Jesus are today called 'Adventists'. In a sense, there are 'Adventists' in churches across the world today. Why not join Adventist all around the world in looking forward to the second coming of Jesus Christ, in preparing for this climactic event of human history through accepting Him today as your personal Lord and Saviour, accepting the gift of God's grace freely offered to you by a loving Father in heaven, and living a life of personal holiness, purity and love as you await the happy day?
Jesus says to us, 'Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me' (Revelation 3.20). Why not open the door of your heart today, wherever you might be at this moment, and ask Jesus in?