Clearly, these are very interesting times for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At a rally in Florida, Donald Trump assured his audience of his mainstream religious affiliations with the Presbyterian denomination. Alluding to Ben Carson, he added, “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.” Well, neither does much of the rest of the world. But that is now changing under unexpected circumstances. All the media attention surrounding Ben Carson has catapulted his beliefs, along with his church, to public scrutiny.
Though I am not a Ben Carson supporter (or any other candidate), the fact is that one man suddenly became the most prominent public representative of a movement I deeply identify with. That’s enough to make me uncomfortable. The unfortunate reality is that whatever Carson says and the positions he takes will be associated with Adventists at large. Frankly, that freaks me out. A few weeks ago when the Carson frenzy was really buzzing, my Twitter feed was bombarded with links to articles from The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Associated Press, and others, about Ben Carson’s Adventist beliefs.
Liberty is a Big Hook
One article in particular, published on October 31 by The Daily Beast, caught my attention. The title itself is calculated to raise eyebrows: “Ben Carson’s Church Believes the U.S. Government Will Team Up With the Antichrist.” Wasting no time, the author quickly gets to this statement:
“According to mainstream Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, the second coming of Christ will occur after the U.S. government teams up with the Catholic Church—which Adventists believe is the “Babylon” of the Book of Revelation, with the pope being the Antichrist—to compel Adventists and others to worship on Sunday, rather than Saturday.
“That may seem like a small hook on which to hang the fate of the world, but for Adventists, it is a core belief, taught at ‘prophecy seminars’ and elaborated in excruciating geopolitical detail by key Adventist leaders.”1
For obvious reasons, being confronted with these ideas from a popular news network would be shocking to most readers. As expected, the media does not always provide important context to serious claims. The article suggests that Adventist eschatology “is a small hook on which to hang the fate of the world.” But is it really a “small hook”? Well, if the issue really centers on a battle over two days—Sunday or Saturday—then it may very well be a small hook. That would suggest that Adventist apocalyptic beliefs are quite trivial.
But what if the central issue is actually much deeper?
The truth is that Sunday and Saturday are symbols of a much greater issue—liberty of conscience. Failing to distinguish the symbol from the issue it represents is tantamount to trivializing much of history. Speaking of symbols representing greater issues, one well-known example is the act of defiance that took place on December 16, 1773, when a group of Americans at Boston’s harbor challenged the British Empire and pushed the colonies one step closer to all-out war. And what was their issue?
They were furious about tea taxed by the British.
But was tea worth the risk of a small group of colonies lunging into a perilous war with one of the world’s greatest empires? Wasn’t that simply a good time to start getting used to hot chocolate instead? Sounds like a “small hook” to hang the fate of their world on. Yet most Americans view the revolt over tea during the “Boston Tea Party” as symbolic of the greater issue of freedom.
The truth is that Sunday and Saturday are symbols of a much greater issue—liberty of conscience.
The symbol is only as important as the idea it represents.
The Daily Beast article trivializes Adventism’s apocalyptic emphasis on the importance of religious liberty and its critical posture toward the power invested in the U.S. government. Is this posture somehow anti-American? Is it not, in fact, consistent with the essence of America’s bedrock principles? After investing the government with power through the Constitution, the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights declares the ideals of religious liberty as central to the American identity: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”2 It was George Mason who, at the convention of May 1787, famously opposed the proposed Constitution due to its initial lack of a bill of rights. The American experiment could not begin without a declaration of rights for the people to protect them “against the danger of maladministration” by the government.
It was Mason’s earlier ideas that all citizens “should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” that eventually influenced James Madison’s draft of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.3 The founders of the United States of America were leery of the government’s power in light of potential infringements on the rights of the people, including religious liberty rights.
Does maintaining close scrutiny on the government regarding this matter amount to being sensational or anti-American? Not according to the founding fathers.
In fact, historians continue to emphasize the tensions between church and state in American history. In his award-winning book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, Cambridge historian Andrew Preston compellingly argues that throughout American history foreign policy has been consistently driven by a Christian, particularly Protestant, impulse to cast the government as “executing God’s plan” and “fulfilling his providence.”4 It goes without saying that when the government sees itself as the arm by which God executes His plan for individual lives, the lines are blurred between civil and religious legislation.
But this could never happen in America, could it? The United States would never even come close to legislating religion, would it?
Enter the winter of 1888.
Adventists at the Fiftieth U.S. Congress
On December 13, 1888, the Fiftieth Congress of the United States convened in Capitol Hill. During the second session, a bill was presented by Senator Henry W. Blair, Republican from New Hampshire, proposing to “secure to the people the enjoyment of the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day, as a day of rest, and to promote its observance as a day of religious worship.”5
This is not fiction; this actually happened. Sunday laws were on the legislative books in various states and in the 1880s their state-level legislation was sobering to religious minorities. In one example, Seventh-day Adventists were imprisoned in Arkansas after being reported on by neighbors for the crime of working on Sunday. In 1888, government legislation attempted to breach the separation of church and state on a national level. A bill was on the table to potentially legislate religious observance in the form of a government-regulated day of worship.
Widespread support was garnered, not only from mainline Protestant churches, but from Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who was “the nation’s leading Roman Catholic prelate” and advisor to many presidents.6 Despite this Protestant-Catholic alliance, Adventists, along with a few other groups, opposed the bill. It was the young and passionate Alonzo T. Jones who represented the Seventh-day Adventists before Congress. Basing his cogent arguments on the principle of separation of church and state, Jones insisted that to legislate religious observance was not only un-American, but also contrary to the fundamentals of Christianity.7
If freedom and liberty are themselves small hooks, then those small hooks are good enough to hang the world on.
At one point, Senator Blair even asked Jones if he would support the bill if the day of worship was legislated to be Saturday, instead of Sunday. Jones rejected this idea because, regardless of any benefit to his own church, that would be a violation of liberty of conscience, which is what makes America, America. In this, the Adventists were actually expressing genuine patriotism because they were exalting the principles on which the nation was founded—even if the nation herself was venturing in violation of those very principles.
Though the American public does not yet know much about Seventh-day Adventism, the movement has been a stalwart advocate for the protection of religious liberty since its early years and has therefore played an important role in American history. As Yale historian Sydney E. Ahlmstrom put it in his award-winning A Religious History of the American People, the Adventist church must be included as one of the “memorable American contributions to world religion.”8
Reducing Adventist eschatology to the trivial level of a “small hook” is only possible by completely bypassing the very essence of the Adventist message. If freedom and liberty are themselves small hooks, then those small hooks are good enough to hang the world on.
A Wake Up Call
As I continue to process the unexpected media attention that the Adventist Church has received, I’m struck with the reality that many Adventists actually do have a narrow concept of the church’s end-time teachings, overemphasizing different parts of the message while missing the big picture. I wish I could say that some of those unflattering articles in the popular media are not representative of how Adventists actually think. But for too many Adventists, it is representative.
Today, Adventists have been presented with a unique opportunity to articulate more clearly the salient features of the everlasting gospel. Perceptions, like it or not, often reflect realities. This is a wakeup call for the Adventist Church to consider what it is actually saying to the world. For what the church thinks it’s saying is not always what the world is hearing.
And there are some pretty awesome things to be saying.
- Jay Michaelson, “Ben Carson’s Church Believes the U.S. Government Will Team Up With the Antichrist,” The Daily Beast, October 31, 2015, accessed December 15, 2015.
- “Bill of Rights,” The United States Archives and Records Administration.
- George Mason, “Declaration of Rights,” 1776, Accession 21512, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
- Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Anchor Books, 2012), 13
- “The Miscellaneous Documents of the Senate of the United States: For the Second Session of the Fiftieth Congress and Special Session,” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889)
- Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (University of Tennessee Press, 2001), 48
- “The National Sunday Law, Argument of Alonzo T. Jones Before the United States Senate Committee on Education and Labor; at Washington, D.C., Dec. 13, 1888.” American Sentinel tract, 1892 (accessed December 14, 2015).
- Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 2004), 387.