On one early fall day of my senior year at Battle Creek Academy, I was beginning to panic. Mr. Young, the principal who also taught our senior religion class, had decided to poll each of us in the class as to when we thought the Second Coming would happen. By my senior year I had become a closet agnostic, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to respond when my turn came. Most of my classmates estimated that the time was very short, perhaps months or a few years at the most. One girl only wished that it would be postponed until after she had gotten married, since she knew that there would be no marriage (read, “sex”) in heaven. Another classmate hoped that it would not happen until after the World Series was over. No one was suggesting that it could be even decades off.
The world was clearly in crisis in 1962. In the escalating cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union were threatening each other with mutually assured destruction, and everyone was trying to cope with the ramifications--ICBMs, the Cuban missile crisis, civil defense drills, bomb shelters in the backyard. But that was not the only--and arguably not the most serious--crisis Seventh-day Adventists felt they were facing. They were concerned because the U.S. had just elected its first Catholic president, and they were speculating as to when Kennedy, under the thrall of the pope, the very anti-Christ, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Whore of Babylon featured in the book of Revelation, would begin the long anticipated persecution of Adventists leading up to Christ’s Second Coming.
To understand the origins of the Adventist viewpoint on the end of days, I need to go back in the history of the church. This will take some explaining, a lot of explaining, really. But I hope you will stick with me, because I think it is instructive to understand how commitment to a belief in the inerrancy of scriptures, coupled with tortured attempts to make sense of certain otherwise opaque Bible passages (“they were inspired directly by God and must be there for a purpose, but what?”), can lead to a belief system that, in my view, is bizarre beyond all rational sense.
I think I have to start with the Millerite Movement. Millerite Movement, you ask? This was a religious sect begun by one William Miller, who in the 1830s believed he had come to understood the true meaning of certain Old Testament passages, particularly in the book of Daniel. He thought, in fact, that they specified the very time of Christ’s Second Coming. The prediction was based on a 2300-day period cited in Daniel 8. The period was to begin with the time, in 457 b.c.e., when the Jews, who were then living in exile, were authorized to return to Israel to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Of course, 2300 days is only a little over six years, so this was reinterpreted as 2300 years. The scriptural authority for doing this was scant, but that didn’t deter Miller. And 2300 years from the beginning date would end in the 1840s. Now it was relevant to Miller’s time.
Initially, Miller had predicted that Christ’s Second Coming would occur no later than April 21, 1844. When that date came and went, he re-examined his analysis and concluded that he had miscalculated; the date was instead October 22, 1844. His followers, thousands by this time, were excited, and many quit their jobs or chose not to plant their fields, feeling that there would be no need. Turned out that October 22, 1844 also came and went, and at that point the movement fell apart and most of the Millerites lost heart, chastened by their experience, and returned to their former congregations.
But not all. One young Millerite woman, Ellen G. Harmon, began having “visions” in which she claimed to leave her body and be transported to heaven to be in the presence of Christ and the rest of the heavenly host from whom she learned the proper interpretation of scriptural passages. By the 1860s, now married to James White, she, along with James and a few others of like mind, formed what became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
And here’s the thing, Ellen White did not abandon the 2300-day prophecy or the date of October 22, 1844; she simply reinterpreted it. Instead of being the date of Christ’s Second Coming, it became the date on which Christ entered the most holy portion of God’s sanctuary in heaven to begin an active intercession on behalf of those righteous persons on earth, living and dead, who were deserving of salvation at the Second Coming. In other words, God began the task of considering the tallies of good and bad for each and every person who ever lived to determine whether they should be granted eternal life or perdition. And Christ acted as their advocate, if you will. Only after that job was completed would Christ return to earth. Note that the event that occurred on the critical date became one that was no longer empirically verifiable. Clever, and it worked.
Ellen White began writing prolifically about her visions and her views on the true interpretation of scripture, including the writings, not just of the Old Testament prophets, such as Daniel and Ezekiel, but of John in the New Testament book of Revelation. It all made sense to her.
This brings in a second important influence on her writings, in my opinion--the strong anti-Catholic attitude common particularly in the eastern United States during the latter half of the 19th century. Anti-Catholicism has been a persistent feature in American culture, but it was heightened in the mid-19th century following an influx of Catholic immigrants resulting from the Irish potato famine. It appears clear that Ellen White participated in that sentiment. Her prophecies regarding the last days before the Second Coming prominently featured the pope and the Roman Catholic church as the primary villains. As evidence, prominent Adventists have noted that the pope’s pontifical crown reads “Vicarius Filii Dei,” and if one adds up the value of the letters that also serve as roman numerals (including regarding a “u” as a “v”), the total is 666, the number of the beast in Revelation! What further proof does one need?
Here’s a brief synopsis of Ellen White’s view of the period leading up to the Second Coming: The Catholic church would command a greater and greater influence over the legal system and culture of the United States. The foot in the door would be the passage of so-called Sunday blue laws, prohibiting businesses from being open on Sundays. This would be followed by laws requiring businesses to stay open on Saturday, the Adventist sabbath. Of course, Adventists believe it is sinful to work on the sabbath, so they would be put into a bind, either disobey the law or disobey the fourth commandment. Next, it would be declared a felony to worship on Saturday, punishable by incarceration and torture. Finally, it would be declared “open season” to kill anyone who was found to keep the seventh-day sabbath. I kid you not. Adventists euphemistically refer to this as the “Time of Trouble.”
I still recall vividly an Adventist bus tour of Battle Creek, the headquarters of the church until 1913, that I took when I was back in town for a visit when in my early 20s. We were introduced to such landmarks as James and Ellen White’s home, the local Adventist church and school (which of course I was well acquainted with), as well as Ellen and James White’s graves. At one point on the tour the bus passed the local Catholic church. The tour guide announced that, of course, as we Adventists knew, beneath that church were chambers that had been prepared for the torture of Adventists during the Time of Trouble.
No wonder the Adventists were worried when a Catholic was elected president. According to Mr. Young, our principal, to make matters worse Kennedy had named his brother Robert as Attorney General. As Mr. Young stated, now the world’s two most powerful offices were held by Catholics. The stage surely was set for the Time of Trouble. Things, he felt, were going to move very rapidly.
So back to Mr. Young’s query to my classmates and me. When the question came around to me, I knew that I couldn’t lie. I also knew that I couldn’t say what I really thought. That would open up an enormous can of worms, with all sorts of sessions with the principal, and, worse, with my parents. It would have been a disaster. What I should have done was to quote Matthew 24:36 that no one knew the day nor the hour, but I was never fast on my feet. What I did say was that I thought it wouldn’t be for a very long time. Lame, but it got me out of the jam.
At the time, 1962, it had been less than 120 years since the critical year of 1844, less than 100 years since the Adventist church had been established, and less than 50 years since the death of Ellen White. There seemed to be one crisis after another. Matters seemed so urgent. But now another 50 years have passed, and I have not directly kept up with Adventist teachings about the end of days. Could it be that the church has sustained that sense of urgency? Do Adventists still believe that the pope is the anti-Christ, that there will be a Time of Trouble, that the Second Coming is imminent? How much play do these doctrines still have in the day to day thinking of the average Adventist parishioner? It would be interesting to know.
© 2013 John M. Phillips