The Movement Begins Moving
Imagine a time that the Seventh-day Adventist Church—currently including more than 17 million members attending 71,000 churches and 66,000 companies on almost every continent and in almost every country speaking almost 1,000 languages and dialects—did not exist. Instead, picture only a tiny, loosely connected group of mostly poor young adults scattered throughout the northeastern United States who had recently been crushed by a hope that they had banked everything on, yet who were slowly putting the pieces together about the ministry of Jesus, Bible truth, and their role in earth’s history. Above all, bear in mind that to these individuals living in the grinding day to day, their future was not as sure or inevitable as it seems to us in hindsight more than a century and a half later.
And so it is the year 1848. The Millerite movement, a countdown replete with fervent preaching, urgent preparation, all-out witnessing, endless study, and stretching prayer that climaxed in unspeakable disappointment, is still fresh in the memory. Some Millerites, including Joseph and Prudence Bates, the recently wed James and Ellen White, and others, discovered in one another a common desire to reemerge from tragedy stronger and truer. Tirelessly they traveled day and night, through heat and cold, across mountain and valley, more often in sickness than in health, to visit with former Millerites and anyone interested in Bible truth, all the time comforting, strengthening, and teaching.
During this fertile period neglected truths from Scripture were rediscovered, and they united the growing movement now led by the hardworking and diligent 27-year-old James White and his 21-year-old wife, Ellen, who was blessed by God with powerful visions that guided the believers. These truths alone united the believers. Awareness of these truths came from places diverse and intriguing: from three letters to a friend written by George Storrs and turned into a booklet about the dead being unconscious awaiting the call of Christ at His coming; to a field of corn and pumpkins where Hiram Edson had an epiphany about Christ’s intercessory ministry in the heavenly sanctuary; to the indefatigable Rachel Oaks Preston, a Seventh Day Baptist who announced the true day of worship to a speechless Frederick Wheeler in a humorously abrupt encounter.
In the spring of 1848 the first of almost two dozen conferences convened at which the believers met to search the Bible to determine their beliefs. These gatherings, held variously in barns, houses, and other venues throughout New England and New York State, were often downright contentious, characterized by loud and protracted arguments, with bizarre beliefs bandied about. Yet inexplicably, yes, providentially, from these unpromising sessions a doctrinal system began to emerge like the stages of a painting, the piece of art gradually filling in and beautifying as the collective understanding deepened.
Print, Print, Print
That same year the young Ellen White had a vision in which she foresaw the eventual worldwide reach of the still-puny movement. Her husband was to “print a little paper and send it to the people,” and although it would be “small at first,” it would be successful, beaming “like streams of light that went clear round the world.”* This must have seemed utterly impossible, for at the time of this revelation James and Ellen White were homeless and penniless, and there were approximately 100 believers. Yet husband and wife obediently produced in July 1849 an eight-page paper titled The Present Truth, the precursor to hundreds of periodicals and tens of thousands of issues that circled and continue to circle the planet daily. Thanks to the reach of the printed page and the growing number of evangelists—comprised of men, women, boys, girls—the body that would become the Seventh-day Adventist Church multiplied from 100 in 1848 to approximately 2,000 in 1852.
To Organize or Not to Organize?
Because of the rapidly growing number of adherents, some sort of organization was needed. As it stood in the first years of the 1850s, there was no system or plan in place to responsibly address the needs of believers, manage finances, recognize ministerial leadership, or legalize ownership of real estate. This need was increasingly remarked upon in the church paper, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, but discussions began in earnest after the Whites began to press the issue, the burdens of the growing movement most heavily resting on them. But the former Millerites, wary of the church structures from which they had departed and from which they had suffered mistreatment, were resistant to organization. No one could have guessed that a devastating national war would have to impel the fledgling movement to finally organize and thereby be empowered to reach the world with the gospel message.
* Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 125.
Benjamin Baker holds a Ph.D. in history and is the assistant archivist at the world church headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.