Origins of The Advent Christian Denomination
“The story of Advent Christian beginnings is centered in a remarkable man. He, and the movement associated with his name, stirred America spiritually as has no other, before or since. For years newspapers recorded his every move and message. In the press, the pulpit, and even the political arena, he was praised and condemned, but never ignored. His following was never great – perhaps he had some fifty thousand at the height of his ministry. Few persons of prominence or wealth followed him, but thousands of dedicated Christians gave him a respectful hearing. He was the butt of interminable jokes, some bawdy, most of them crude, all of them slanderous. His career ended in a monstrous anticlimax called the “Great Disappointment,” but from his ministry came a great spiritual awakening and the renaissance of long-buried truths. This man, soldier, farmer, justice of the peace, and preacher, a skeptic turned believer, was William Miller.” (“A Man Named Miller” in The Advent Christian Story by Clarence J. Kearney).
William Miller (1782-1849) was an American Baptist preacher born in Pittsfield, MA. After a foray in deism, and serving in the War of 1812, he settled down as a simple farmer. When he came to Christ he took up Bible in one hand and concordance in another and with due diligence began studying the book of Daniel, soon becoming convinced that Jesus was going to return on or before March 21, 1844 (he reasoned the Lord only said the day or hour was in doubt, not the year). At the time talk of the imminent return of Jesus Christ was either shallow or non-existent. One pastor from the era recalled,
“No sermon had ever been preached in my hearing about the coming of the Lord, no allusion was ever made to it in the course of my theological training, no book concerning it had ever been read” (Advent Christian History by Albert C. Johnson, p. 131).
As the date grew closer Miller’s popularity increased and the Millerites multi-denominational movement including Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopals, etc. was well underway. One author notes how the followers acted (Miller himself was more rational and reserved):
“They met long-standing financial and moral obligations. They cleansed body and soul. They prepared for the end” (The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century by Ronald Numbers, p. 192).
“Their expectation predisposed them to the powerful outpouring of charismatic prophesying, tongues, healings, and other “signs and wonders,” which fulfilled the biblical promise for the “last days.” …in the face of public scoffing and ridicule…they decried the decadent and corrupt old orders as they longed for the breaking in of a splendid and everlasting new order” (p. 196).
“And with their backs turned on the world, they embraced each other in warm outbursts of communal emotion. Their gatherings convulsed with shouts, praises, weeping and “melting seasons of prayer” (p. 196).
Bars were turned into meetinghouses, gambling halls were shut down, open air preaching including both men and women sounded forth, mass meetings gathered (some estimate Miller preached to nearly a million people in the run-up to 1844), and melodious hymnody prevailed (interestingly Ralph Waldo Emerson believed there could be no history of New England without reference to Millerite hymns, so Journals, p. 30).
As March 1844 passed without incident Miller continued to affirm his belief in the soon and coming return of the Messiah even while tramping through a muddied disappointment.
Samuel Sheffield Snow, a Millerite preacher, continued to predict the return of Christ (against Miller’s recommendation) and set the date for October 22, 1844. In eager anticipation many people sold all they had, houses, stores, farms, etc. as the fervency of belief boiled over. When that date too, passed without incidence it became known as the Great Disappointment and brought disillusionment to the movement as a whole.
After this, many Millerites returned to their own churches though many more, finding only judgment, ridicule, and public shame (some even tarred and feathered) for their belief, banded together into small congregations to continue affirming the soon and coming return of Christ. The Second Adventists gathered together at the Albany Conference on April 29, 1845 to address various theological issues that had worked their way to the surface in different factions. From this and the many subsequent meetings that followed six Adventist denominations emerged (Midnight and Morning by Clyde Hewitt, p. 229). By 1860 one of the few remaining groups claimed their identity formally as Advent Christians, an evangelical group proclaiming the imminent return of the Lord of Glory, Jesus Christ (the Sabbatarian views of what would later become known as the Seventh Day Adventist where rejected by this group).
The passionate, zealous, spirit of the Second Advent movement is still sought today by many in the Advent Christian denomination who pant with drought stricken desperation for the same radical demonstrations of faith. David Platt’s challenging call in Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, and John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life capture the essence of this spirit many seek while avoiding the pitfalls of fanaticism and abuse.
The determination of an uneducated man to take seriously the charge of Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures Alone as the only rule of faith and conduct) and revive both the study of prophecy (see The Final Prophecy of Jesus by the late Dr. Oral Collins) and the ardent study of the Word are also held out as ideals for every Christian, young and old, men and women, sitting in the pew. One need not go to college or Seminary in order to be an Advent Christian pastor, nor carry scholarly credentials to get published in the Adventist academic journal Henceforth, merely “present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Furthermore, before New Testament heavy weight N.T. Wright published his widely popular Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, or Randy Alcorn put forth his wildfire idea that the saints will dwell forever on earth in a restored paradise in his book Heaven, Second Adventists had already been beating that drum of resurrection glory in a restored kingdom on this earth a hundred and sixty years prior.
Perhaps more than anything else, today’s Advent Christians want to keep pounding those same drums as the Day dawns on the horizon of the eschatological reign of King Jesus on earth. While the world grows comfortable and Christians grow complacent, amusing ourselves to death or driven by the tyranny of the urgent, many new Advent Christians are teaching, preaching, fasting, praying, seeking, striving, for fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). “For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” and in His presence we behold the glory of the Lord (1 Cor. 3:17-18) so that we might gain a distinctive reputation for making life altering choices to sell homes, cars, businesses, to leave lucrative job opportunities behind, to quietly sacrifice our money, our goods, our time, all for intentional kingdom Gospel work and the Glory of God. This is the rightful impact of Second Coming preaching and it is our historic distinctive which must be regained and retained as our primary distinctive as well.
Secondarily, the seismic impact of fervently living in the shadow of the imminent return of Christ forever changed two aspects of traditional doctrine for Advent Christians (though this was a process and debated for nearly 20 years from 1845-1860).
First, if the central Gospel hope of all believers is in fact the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting in the kingdom of God (1 Thessalonians 4; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5), as some scholars like N.T Wright in Resurrection Hope or Randy Alcorn in Heaven only now realize, then nothing should detract from this most cherished teaching. The idea that we die and go into the immediate conscious presence of God in a cloudy trans-temporal heaven (without resurrection bodies and without a kingdom to rule) became seen as a distraction from the core hope of biblical theology. Specifically, Second Adventists saw the alarming rise of Spiritualism in the surrounding culture, including the practice of séances, and rise of female mediums, both in and outside the church (so Johnson 134; Numbers p. 203). However, an unconscious existence of sleeping in the “grave” (Sheol as it is called in the Old Testament, Hades in the New Testament) awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the reward of all the Saints, Jesus himself; served to answer the cultural challenge of Spiritualism and put full emphasis on the hope of glory. This became a defining distinctive of the Advent Christians often referred to simply by the biblical euphemism “sleep” as in “soul sleep.”
Second, all life and all hope for the coming kingdom of God comes through the resurrection of Jesus and his return. Adventists realized that “God alone is immortal” (1 Tim. 6:16) which means that contrary to many Greek philosophers such as Plato,we are not. Adam and Eve never gained immortality because they lost the right to eat from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24) and yet through the Gospel Jesus has freely given immortality (2 Tim. 1:10;Rom. 2:7) so that those who overcome will one day eat of the tree of life and live forever (Rev. 2:7;22:14). If immortality is not natural to us as humans and can only be gained through Jesus Christ, then what will happen to those who are raised at the Great Judgment who do not believe in Jesus? Adventists realized that imagery such as the wicked being “burned up” (Matt. 13:40), “burned up like chaff” (Matt. 3:12) or “ashes under your feet” (Mal. 4:3) as well as descriptions such as “everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), and “set them ablaze…leaving them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1) are far more literal than most may want to admit. “Eternal punishment” then, refers not to the process of “punishing”, though this occurs for some unspecified duration, but to the final result: complete eradication and destruction from the memory of God (Psalm 9:6; 34:16).
The Second Adventists of today are primarily concerned with how to actively wait in the shadow of a quickly passing cloud, living out the urgent, fervent, passionate expectation that at any moment the glory of the Son will be revealed and the long awaited hope of all the ages will be upon us as the voice of our Lord thunders the earth, the dead in Christ rise to their everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God, and we worship and enjoy our eternal king, Jesus Christ our Lord, forevermore.
Devotion and Development by Clyde E. Hewitt
Responsibility and Response by Clyde E. Hewitt.
The Advent Christian Story by Clarence J. Kearney.
The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century ed. by Ronald Numbers.
The Origin and Development of the Advent Christian Denomination by David A. Dean.