Peter M van Bemmelen. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church originated in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. With more than 13 million members in over 200 countries, it is among the world’s ten largest international religious organizations.
Although in many countries Adventists constitute only a small part of the population, they have made significant contributions in the areas of health and medical care, education, humanitarian relief, religious liberty, and other fields. While working for the betterment of humanity in the present, Adventists believe that it is God alone who will ultimately solve the world’s ills through the Second Coming, or Advent, of Jesus Christ. For this reason preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ is their highest priority.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church originated in the United States from the widespread Advent Awakening of the mid-nineteenth century. The Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement in October 1844, so called because Jesus Christ did not return as expected, led many Advent believers to a deeper study of the Scriptures, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. A renewed hope in Christ’s Second Coming and a growing conviction that God had called them to proclaim the everlasting gospel to the world resulted in the formation of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in 1863.
The next 50 years witnessed the growth of Seventh-Day Adventism into a worldwide movement with a range of diversified ministries. Not only did the membership of the young denomination grow from a few thousand to more than a hundred thousand but Adventist missions were started on every inhabited continent on the globe and on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. During this same period publishing houses, sanitariums, schools, and colleges were established in a Christ-centered approach to bring healing and to restore the image of God in human beings.
Significant organizational changes in the early twentieth century laid the groundwork for the growth of the Adventist Church into the world church of today. While in the first 60 years the mission outreach of the church was predominantly from the so-called developed countries to other parts of the world, in the latter part of the twentieth century Seventh-day Adventism became embedded and self-reliant in many countries around the globe.
At the end of 2001 the educational system of the Adventist Church operated about 5,000 elementary schools and 1,350 secondary schools, colleges, seminaries, and universities worldwide. More than 550 hospitals, sanitariums, clinics, and dispensaries provided medical care for millions of patients. Loma Linda University in California is known for progressive medical research and advanced surgical technology. In Africa the church has established an international center to combat the AIDS epidemic. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency maintains development projects in many countries and provides humanitarian relief in scores of areas stricken by disasters. Adventists believe, however, that no institutional ministry can substitute for a Christ-like life and witness, so that ultimately Adventist history is the history of Christ living in believers and working through them for the salvation of the world.
Seventh-day Adventists hold many doctrines in common with other Christians. They believe in the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, as the unique Savior of the world. Christ crucified, risen, interceding, and returning forms the center of their faith and doctrine. They believe that salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone, as revealed in Scripture alone. This is the everlasting gospel, which, according to the three angel’s messages in Revelation 14, must be made known to all nations, tribes, and peoples. Adventists accept the entire Bible as the Word of the living God, and they hold the Scriptures to be the authentic record of the creation of the world, of the first human beings, of their fall and its terrible results, and of God’s dealings with humanity in history.
Among biblical doctrines held by Adventists, though not exclusively, is the doctrine of the great controversy. Behind the struggle between good and evil in the world, the Bible reveals a conflict of cosmic dimensions between rebellious angels, led by Satan, and the Godhead. The central issue in the controversy is the character and law of God. Satan, once an exalted angel in heaven, impeached God’s character and government as selfish and tyrannical. He incited other angels to join him in his rebellion and also successfully tempted the first human beings to sin. Christ’s incarnation, life of selfless service, and sacrificial death on the cross proved Satan’s accusations to be false. They also constitute the divine provision for the salvation of the human race.
In common with the mainstream Christian tradition, Adventists believe the law of God, the Ten Commandments, to be binding upon all humanity. Consequently, they also believe that the fourth commandment—to keep holy the seventh day of the week, which is Saturday, not Sunday—remains the God-ordained day of rest for the whole human family. In this their religious practice differs from many other Christians. Basic Adventist beliefs are summed up in the statement “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists,” which is published in each Yearbook of Seventh-day Adventists.
Moral Code of Conduct
While Adventists accept the Ten Commandments as God’s moral code for all humanity, they firmly believe that salvation is not earned through keeping the law, which is legalism, but only received through grace. They also believe, however, that faith in Christ results in the desire and will to obey God’s law. Grace does not abrogate the law, which is the doctrine of antinomianism. Jesus in his life on earth fulfilled the law perfectly and taught that whoever loves him will obey God’s commandments. In fact, only genuine love for God and neighbor fulfills the law.
Adventists recognize that there are distinctions in Scripture between eternal principles and temporary laws, but they hold that God’s moral principles are binding upon human beings in all ages and cultures. They see the moral law as an expression of God’s character, fully exemplified in the life of Christ and unchangeable, because God’s character and will do not change. Any human laws or traditions that are in conflict with God’s law or are substituted for God’s commandments are condemned by Christ and should be rejected by his followers.
The Scriptures are held by Adventists to be the sacred oracles of God. While aware that some changes may have occurred in the transmission of the original text, they believe that the whole Bible is the God-given standard by which all other writings and teachings should be judged. Adventists also accept the writings of Ellen White as having been given through the spirit of prophecy, but as she herself insisted, they are to be held subject to the Scriptures.
For Adventists, as for many Christians, the cross is the major symbol of their faith in Christ. It symbolizes Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of humans and also the life of self-denial to which he calls his followers. Another symbol, unique to Adventists, is that of three flying angels, derived from the angel’s messages in Revelation 14. Adventists apply this symbol to their church in the humble conviction that they have been called to proclaim these messages as God’s final call to faith and repentance before Christ’s Second Coming.
Early and Modern Leaders
Adventists refer to the early leaders of the church as pioneers. Prominent among them were James Springer White (1821-81), his wife Ellen Gould (Harmon) White (1827-1915), and Joseph Bates (1792-1872). Of the three Ellen White is best known among Adventists because of her multi-faceted ministry and influence during the first 70 years of the church’s history. Her writings have been, and still are, a major factor in the growth of the church and its diverse ministries, in leading thousands of people to Christ, in encouraging a thorough study of the Scriptures, and in fostering a deeper relationship with God.
Many capable leaders have served the Adventist Church during the 140 years of its organized existence. Brief biographies of these men and women are given in the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia.
Major Theologians and Authors
Since the establishment of the first theological seminary in 1934, Adventists have increasingly stressed the importance of theological study. Today qualified theologians staff Adventist seminaries and college departments of religion around the world. Few of them have world renown, but many have made significant contributions to theological scholarship.
There are five levels of organization in the world Adventist Church. First are local churches, of which there are more than 51,000. Next are conferences or missions, made up of local churches in a defined geographical area, of which there are more than 500. There are 94 union conferences or union missions, made up of conferences and missions. Fourth are the 12 world divisions that coordinate the work in a number of unions. Finally, there is the General Conference, which is the main governing body of the world church. Leaders at every level of organization are elected for specified periods of time by representatives at regular sessions of the respective organizations. General Conference sessions are held every five years.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Adventist church buildings range from large modern structures to small jungle chapels. With a rapidly growing membership, especially in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, there is a great need for houses of worship. Many are built by volunteers. Simplicity characterizes most Adventist churches.
What is Sacred?
Adventists believe that only God can make or declare something sacred or holy. Although human beings cannot make anything holy, they are called upon to keep holy what God has made sacred. For this reason Adventists keep the Sabbath holy and receive the Bible as God’s sacred book.
Holidays and Festivals
For Adventists worldwide the Sabbath is the weekly recurring festival of joyful worship and fellowship. There are no other prescribed religious festivals.
Mode of Dress
Simplicity, modesty, true beauty, and cultural appropriateness are considered to be the guiding principles by Adventists not only for the way they dress but also for their total manner of life. Their aim is to follow the example of the Lord.
Adventists believe that God is greatly interested in the well-being of his human children, and they accept the biblical laws on health as still valid. Consequently, Adventists abstain from all harmful substances, including addictive drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. They promote a vegetarian diet as God’s ideal for humanity.
Like most Protestants, Adventists practice the Christ-ordained rites of baptism and Communion. Baptism is by immersion on a profession of faith in Christ. Infants are dedicated to God but are not baptized. The Communion service is preceded by the mutual washing of feet, following Christ’s example and command.
Rites of Passage
There are no rites of passage that are distinctive to the Adventist Church.
Adventists fully accept the command of Jesus to preach the everlasting gospel and to make disciples of all nations. Consequently, evangelism and missions have played a prominent role in Adventist history. Through public and personal evangelism, through the printed page, via radio and television, and in contemporary times via satellite and the Internet, the gospel and the message of Christ’s Second Coming are broadcast around the world. Since the 1960s mission institutes have prepared thousands for cross-cultural ministries. Supportive lay ministries, such as Maranatha Volunteers International and Adventist Frontier Missions, complement the worldwide missionary outreach of the church. Global Mission, a contemporary initiative, focuses on taking the Adventist message to formerly unreached groups.
For more than a century Adventists have been in the forefront of upholding and defending religious liberty for all human beings. Since 1906 the Church has promoted principles of religious liberty through the publication of Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom. In cooperation with other religious organizations and several governments, Seventh-day Adventists have also sponsored international conferences on religious liberty. Adventists understand religious liberty to be more comprehensive than religious tolerance.
Adventists believe that the most powerful liberating force in the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, through development projects, literacy programs, medical care, and education, Adventists endeavor to break the shackles of poverty, ignorance, sickness, and social degradation.
Adventists believe in marriage between one man and one woman, as ordained by God at creation. On the basis of the Bible, they hold all sexual relationships outside a monogamous marriage to be in conflict with God’s express command. They consider solid Christian homes as essential for the prosperity of both the church and society.
The Adventist Church believes that, as a result of sin and its consequences, the world is imperfect. There are, therefore, no easy answers to such issues as abortion, birth control, and divorce. A number of controversial issues are addressed from an Adventist perspective in the book Statements, Guidelines, and Other Documents: A Compilation.
Adventists foster a variety of arts in their homes and educational institutions, music probably taking pride of place. Adventist choirs and soloists have performed on many prominent occasions. In addition, the works of Adventist writers, painters, and sculptors have met with wide appreciation and professional recognition.