Some Observations on the Millerite and Pioneer Seventh-day Adventist Movements
We will summarize our conclusions on early Adventism with some observations and questions concerning both the Millerite movement and the pioneer Seventh-day Adventist movement.
The Millerite Movement
However much we might wish to honor the leading of God in the early Advent Movement, we must not construct a history which fails to acknowledge Adventism’s immaturities and fallacies. We must learn from the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this history.
1. The final stages of the Millerite movement were marked by frantic time setting. There was much speculation, using calendars, types, times and seasons. As each date failed, another date was set.
2. In the seventh-month movement the acceptance of the October 22 date for the coming of the Lord became a “test” of salvation. Even after the passing of time, the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism still tended to believe that God had ordained the October 22 date as “a test.”1
In view of clear biblical prohibitions against speculation on the time of Christ’s coming, and in view of the disasters which have overtaken those in past ages who presumed to set such dates, can we justify the setting of a definite date by the Millerite movement? Would God be involved in making a date for Christ’s coming a test when His Word had already strictly forbidden this?
3. In the ending of the prophetic time periods, should not the Millerites have seen an indication that they were to restore the true preaching of the gospel in “the time of the end” rather than indulging in speculations on the exact day of Christ’s coming? Were they somewhat diverted from their task of preaching the gospel by frantic date setting? Did they thus delay rather than hasten the Parousia?
4. Was it right to brand all who rejected the October 22 date as Babylonian apostates and lost? While it is not hard to imagine that many rejected the message of Jesus’ coming from unworthy motives, was it right to conclude that all who failed to participate in the Advent movement were governed by evil motives? There were certainly many great and good Christians in the world who were unimpressed with the Adventists for setting an exact date for Christ’s coming. Are they therefore to be indiscriminately denounced as Babylonians?
5. Some of Miller’s arguments for believing that Christ would come in 1844 were certainly bizarre.2 God sometimes worked in spite of the immaturities of the movement, not because of them. While we can legitimately deny such excesses as the ascension-robe stories, we must not imagine that the Adventists were entirely free from false excitements or were always models of decorum.
6. Like many in that age, the Millerites tended to take prophetic and parabolic Scriptures and apply them exclusively to themselves. Fitch’s 1843 chart was regarded as literally fulfilling Habbakuk 2:2: “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” Their application of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 is an outstanding example of this. But is this parable a prophetic allegory, a detailed forecasting of the events of the Millerite movement? The Millerites failed to see the difference between a parable and an allegory. When Christ simply said, “While the Bridegroom tarried… ,” was He specifically talking about the six-month delay from the spring to the summer of 1844? Is Matthew 25 a detailed account of what happened in 1844? This literalistic use of Matthew 25—as if it were an allegory intended to describe the Millerite movement in advance—led the Adventists directly into the shut-door dilemma.
7. Certainly many people were stirred to think about the coming of Jesus by the Millerite preaching and by the ominous signs of that hour. In the providence of God it was an hour of expectation. But should not the Millerites have capitalized on the aroused consciousness of that generation by preaching the gospel more and indulging in speculation less? Besides, was the October 22 date really supported by irrefutable arguments?
8. The Millerites made deductions from the type which are not made by the New Testament. For example, they speculated that Christ would fulfill the type by coming out of the holy of holies on the day corresponding to the Jewish day of atonement. It is true that the antitypical passover fell on the exact day of the Passover and that Pentecost came at Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. But if that is used as an analogy, why did not the antitypical day of atonement come exactly seven months after Passover? Or why not say that the antitypical feast of tabernacles would come five days after the Day of Atonement, as in the type? Yet in the type the high priest went into the holy of holies and came out on the same day that he offered the Day of Atonement sacrifice. In short, the analogy of the types could be used in many ways. On what grounds, therefore, could it be conclusively said that the Millerites were using the correct analogy?
9. What proof is there that the Karaite calendar is superior to the Rabbinical calendar? Did the salvation of that generation depend on using the right calendar? Was God saying to the pioneer generation, “Unless you use the right calendar, you cannot be saved,” or, “Believe on the Karaite calendar and you will be saved”? While the evidence indicated that the prophetic periods were pointing to that era, there were obviously speculative elements involved in establishing an exact day. Of course, a Seventh-day Adventist might say, “We have the Spirit of Prophecy to confirm the October 22 date.” But while that may satisfy a Seventh-day Adventist, it is not Sola Scriptura.
10. Was not the real test of that era one’s relationship to the Saviour? And was this not proved by one’s response to the message of His soon coming? Although Miller used typological and prophetic arguments to arouse people’s conscience, his sermons all ended with strong gospel appeals. A comparison of Adventist literature before and after the Disappointment indicates that there was far more gospel preaching in the Millerite phase of the movement than later.
The Pioneer Seventh-day Adventist Movement
- While we need to discern and acknowledge the divine element in history, we must also recognize the human element. As in the sanctification of the individual, corporate sanctification does not altogether cancel out human weakness and sinfulness.
The pioneer Seventh-day Adventist Movement was marked by the results of a crushing and bitter disappointment. This left a deep imprint on the pioneer psyche. In fact, the Disappointment has left a mark on Seventh-day Adventism to this day.
The result of the Disappointment was a severe withdrawal from association with the world. The unfortunate shut-door mentality, shared by all the pioneers for about ten years, was at least to some extent a psychological reaction to the Disappointment. In reading the literature of that period, one becomes acutely aware that the pioneers were deeply hurt by their rejection by other Christians and by the collapse of their fond expectations. They wrote much about persecution, suffering and ridicule—in fact, far too much. Yet there were no martyrs, no dreadful privations. The pioneers gave far too little evidence of a down-to-earth sense of humor. Luther’s humor might have helped them in their hour of trial. It has been said that all good theologians have some sense of humor.
The severe shut-door doctrine of the pioneers was certainly not an expression of the mind of God toward what they too often called “the wicked world.” God had not shut the door on sinners. To some extent the pioneers reflected Jonah’s attitude toward Nineveh. They should have been glad that God was extending further opportunity to the world to repent.
2. For the first several years after the Disappointment, “present truth” to the pioneers consisted essentially of two points—the seventh-day Sabbath and the shut door of 1844. One searches in vain for any clear expression of the gospel in the pioneer literature. The gospel was not their preoccupation.
The earliest pioneer publication, A Word to the “Little Flock”, contains no instruction on the way of salvation. This is quite understandable when we remember that they thought God was no longer saving sinners but was only concerned with saints. A Word to the “Little Flock” does contain this remark by Joseph Bates: “I believe her [Ellen G. White] to be a self-sacrificing, honest, willing child of God, and saved, if at all, through her entire obedience to His will.”3
If Bates had a clear grasp of the New Testament gospel, none of his booklets and papers give any indication of this. Perhaps the clearest statement on the pioneers’ concept of salvation was made in the Present Truth by James White:
The keeping of the fourth commandment is all-important present truth; but this alone, will not save any one. We must keep all ten of the commandments, and strictly follow all the directions of the New Testament, and have living active faith in Jesus. Those who would be found ready to enter the saint’s rest, at the appearing of Christ, must live wholly, WHOLLY for Jesus now.4
This hardly qualifies as gospel! The Present Truth issues cover eighty-eight pages of fine print, but one searches in vain for anything like an expression of the gospel. Yet this small shut-door group of less than one hundred souls thought they were the only ones who possessed “the everlasting gospel.” We admire their courage for believing that they alone had the everlasting gospel—if only they had told us what it was. This reminds us of the professor who asked his class, “Can anyone tell us what electricity is?” A young man put up his hand. “Fine, Jack,” acknowledged the professor, “tell us what it is.” “Ah, um . . . I’ve forgotten,” said Jack. “Isn’t that terrible,” replied the professor. “Only two persons in this whole universe know what electricity is—God and Jack. God won’t tell, and Jack has forgotten.”
We have been prone to idealize the pioneers. It has often been suggested that the dry, legalistic period began in the 1850’s or even in the 1860’s. But the evidence indicates that the pioneers did far better in preaching the gospel in the 1850’s than in their first ten years. During the 1850’s they at least began preaching and witnessing to real sinners. Our examination of early pioneer literature leads us to conclude that despite their continuing legalism, they made progressive improvement.
3. The use the pioneers made of Scripture was often unsatisfactory. The Old Testament was not interpreted in the light of the New Testament. In fact, deductions from Old Testament types and prophecies were used to overrule the plainest revelation of the New Testament. For example, it was said that the atonement was not made on the cross, that the last days did not begin until 1798 or 1844 and that the remnant did not appear until 1844. The pioneers apparently did not understand that the apostolic revelation was God’s final and definitive revelation, which must interpret the meaning of the Old Testament, including the book of Daniel.
The parables of Christ, especially the parable of the ten virgins, were used as allegories to be interpreted in literal detail. Interpreting Matthew 25 as if it were a prophecy literally describing the events of 1844 caused much of the difficulty over the shut door. This was a far-fetched method of handling parable. A parable is not an allegory. Every detail of a parable does not have a meaning to be deciphered. A parable is a story illustrating an essential point. Thus, the parable of the virgins illustrates preparedness for Jesus’ coming. It is not an allegory of historical events in 1844.
Parables should not be used to establish doctrine. They simply illustrate doctrine. “Mixing” parables together is worse than mixing metaphors! To this day, Adventists tend to treat parables as allegories. Of course, we make a notable exception of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus!
The Millerites and the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism based much of their reasoning on analogy. Damsteegt has shown that:
- The principle of the analogy of Scripture and its application to a particular subject he [Miller] frequently used as a means to understand Scripture.5
- Miller’s interpretation of this text was based on the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of Scripture.6
- It was reasoned from analogy.7
- An analogy was drawn. … On the basis of typology it was argued….8
- … employed the analogy-of-Scripture principle.9
- Employing typological reasoning….10
- Reasoning from analogy….11
- Reasoning from analogy, Bates …..12
We should not exclude the use of analogy. For instance, we used the analogy between Jonah and the pioneers. But analogy must not be used for proof. One can “prove” practically anything by analogy.
4. Early literature of the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers was overwhelmingly preoccupied with apocalypticism and with typological and parabolic speculation on the details of last-day events. In this period Adventism was not preoccupied with apostolic religion. It was definitely sub-New Testamental.
Those accustomed to reading the mighty outpouring of New Testament gospel exegesis by the sixteenth-century Reformers would be acutely conscious of the severe deficiencies of the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism. This should temper the triumphalistic Adventist attitude and the “remnant-church” superiority complex toward other Christian movements.
5. The pioneers were theologically unlearned and immature. They had no great theological heritage, and they had no experience in leadership. They entertained serious heresies. Many of them were Arian. And James White, for example, rejected the Trinity. They were a few survivors from the shipwreck of the Great Disappointment. Adventism was born in a barn, and its founders were as unlearned as the Galilean fishermen, Peter, James and John. We do not make these observations to damn the pioneer memory but to truly honor the divine leading despite human weakness.
6. If Daniel 8:14 only points to what happened in 1844, we might conclude that the 1844 event was a “fizzle.” In the light of history the 1844 movement certainly looks feeble compared to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But we have to say that “1844” is not finished yet. The 1844 event was not a static event. We must see that Adventism is a dynamic movement. Wisdom will be justified by her children. If we try to freeze Adventism—as if the revelation of nineteenth-century light is all there is—we are not really following in the footsteps of the pioneers, who dwelt in tents like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our God will become the God of the status quo. Holding to the forms of the pioneers, we will reject their spirit!
If the shut-door formulation of the first ten years was not the final revelation of truth about the 1844 event, perhaps the investigative judgment doctrine, also formulated in the nineteenth century, was not the final word on the meaning of 1844.
7. In the providence of God perhaps the heavy pioneer dependence on the Old Testament was used to prepare for something beyond their own dreams. A framework was developed in which the New Testament gospel could eventually be proclaimed.
- They saw the Sabbath as “the final test.”
2.William Miller had 666, the seven years of Nebuchadnezzar and Usher’s chronology all mixed together in some very ingenious speculations.
3. Joseph Bates, “Remarks,” in A Word to the “Little Flock, “p. 21.
4. James White, “Dear Brethren and Sisters,” Present Truth, July 1849, p. 6. A letter.
5. P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission, p. 17.
6. Ibid., p. 38.
7. Ibid., p. 52.
8. Ibid., p. 104.
9. Ibid., p. 123.
10. Ibid., p. 124.
11. Ibid., p. 125.
12. Ibid., p. 143.