The Adventist Story
The Questions of History
By Bill Knott
W ho gets to write the history of your church?
It seems a simple enough question—one that could be answered with a name and a brief description of the author’s skills.
But it is a question that invites many other questions. What group or entity are you meaning when you use the word “church?” Do you mean that you are seeking a history of your local congregation—the 25 or 250 or 2,500 believers you gather with each Sabbath? Or are you seeking someone to write the larger history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? That’s a story, depending on when you start it, that can stretch back nearly 200 years.
And whose history will it be? Will the story told be mostly a record of buildings, leaders, and successes? Or will it be a story told from the perspective of a family whose members have experienced some or all of that history? Will we hear of the succession of pastors who served your congregation, and call that the history? Or will it be a history of missions—how the three angels’ messages arrived in your community; by whom they were carried; and how rapidly they spread?
Will we understand the history of the church against the backdrop of major world events—wars, famines, hurricanes, and innovations? Or will it be a history of Adventism as experienced in one small congregation, where members’ lives have been remarkably the same for more than century?
Will the author be a man or a woman? It surely makes a difference whether the author takes the care to notice the contributions of women to the growth of your church—both the local congregation and the worldwide denomination. Women now make up nearly two thirds of the 17 million baptized members of the church.
Will the story be told primarily from the perspective of North America, where most histories of Seventh-day Adventism begin? Will all other territories then be deemed “foreign” because they are “foreign” to North Americans? Will the focus be on the brave men and women who crossed salt water to carry the gospel, or will it be on the even braver men and women who sometimes stepped out of their existing cultures and religions to believe and practice the faith of Jesus?
These are just a few of the questions that the editorial team of Adventist Worldwill be asking as we launch next month a new 14-month series of articles about the history of this faith. The series is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the organization of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in May 1863, but will include much more than a celebration of the history of the church’s headquarters. Depending on how you count, you can date the earliest references to the term “Seventh-day Adventist” to the organization of the church’s first publishing house in 1860, or the organization of its first local conference in 1861. In print, the term appeared in the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (now the Adventist Review, sister journal of this magazine) as early as 1853.
Each of the church’s 13 major regions—called “divisions”—will be invited to tell its story through an author from that region. In some cases, that will surely be a history of how mission work produced the thriving collection of congregations, institutions, and evangelistic outreaches the region is known for today. In others the story will be more personally told, focused on the individuals who responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit with faithfulness and courage.
In our May edition we will tell the story of the handful of persons who began the formal organization of this worldwide faith in Michigan, United States, 150 years ago. In the months to come you will come to know the richness and variety of the Adventist story from many different perspectives—all of them accurate, and all of them important.