One hundred Years Ago: In the Year of Our Lord 1910, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, now some 47 years into its formal history as an organized denomination, reported a total membership of a little over 90,000 of which about two-thirds lived in North America. Most of its members belonged to the dominant ethnic group that then composed the population living in Canada and the United States.
Despite a lifetime of chronic physical and psychological health problems, the Adventist Church's prophetic figure, Ellen White, was still alive. Her lifetime corpus of writings were beginning to be codified into a body of what were being represented by a professionalized clergy as totally authoritative and even inerrant statements obtained directly from a supernatural source—from God directly to Ellen White. Although many of her contemporaries knew this view represented a fundamental misunderstanding, the myth of the "Red Books" would be employed over most of the next century very effectively by many of those who controlled the internal communications and institutional agencies of corporate Adventism as essentially the final arbiter of Adventist orthodoxy.
In 1901, the church had reorganized itself so as to centralize administrative functions. This laid the foundation which would allow the church's clerical administrators to create over the following decades one of the most hierarchically-structured Protestant sectarian groups in the United States—what sociologists of religion characterize as an institutionalized sect.
Along side these developments, the denomination began to build and staff many medical and educational centers both in North America and in what were then called "mission lands." In many cases, these efforts made positive and lasting contributions to the long-term health and welfare of the people they helped and would not have existed but for the religious convictions of the founders of these institutions.
And many Adventist evangelists were proclaiming with great conviction and certainty that the Second Coming was near—only a year or two at the most.
Today: In the Year of Our Lord 2010, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, now some 147 years into its formal history as an organized denomination, reported a total world-wide membership in excess of 15 million individuals of which fewer than 5% now live in North America. The church's prophet has been dead for 95 years.
Despite the development of Sabbatarian Adventism into a fundamentalist-oriented denomination in the 1920s and 1930s, a series of unintended consequences of the subculture's emphasis on education had set into motion a subtle process, the effects of which by 2010 were clearly in evidence. So that its flagship academic institution, a medical school now part of an Adventist university, could obtain and retain its accreditation, Adventist undergraduate institutions in North America had been required to be accredited.
A largely unforeseen set of events ensued. For one, a small cadre of professional historians obtained graduate degrees, some from the best research universities in the world. Some of these historians, using primary sources, had examined the 19th century roots of their church. Several early stories which had been told about some of the miracles which had purportedly occurred in the early, mythic period of Adventist history had been shown to be, at best, historically unsupportable. A few apparently had simply never happened as told to later generations. Discoveries about the actual source of many of the writings attributed to Ellen White revealed that she and her editorial assistants had copied—in most cases without any attribution—a considerable percentage of what had previously been stated to have come exclusively from God directly to Ellen White.
As another largely unforeseen consequence of its emphasis on education, the Adventist Church had also developed a small group of theologians and Biblical scholars, some of whom had received their degrees from the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Some of them turned their attention to various elements of the traditional theological content of Adventism. Some of these theologians concluded that a number of the positions that institutional Adventism had adopted in its infancy and adolescence as core doctrines were simply not Biblical.
Despite a strong fundamentalist ethos, the Adventist Church by 2010 had been able to evolve its body politic and religious culture in a number of different directions and a pluralistic Adventism could be seen. While its fundamentalist and traditionalist wings remained strong, it had developed an active evangelical and a small, but rapidly growing progressive wing. It now could reflect on the fact that it operated one of the largest denominationally-affiliated system of hospitals and medical establishments then in operation. Its primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions spanned the world. It also operated a humanitarian organization, ADRA, which made major contributions to the health and welfare of large numbers of individuals in third world countries.
And a few Adventist evangelists in North America and elsewhere proclaimed that the Second Coming is near—only a year or two at the most.
One Hundred Years From Now: In the Year of Our Lord 2110, what will have happened to Adventism? By this time, the denomination will almost 250 years old. Its prophet will have been dead for 195 years. Given current trends, will the Adventist Church in North America exist in its home land? Will the General Conference have its headquarters located somewhere in Africa or in South America? How many of its educational institutions, hospitals and medical centers in North America will still be officially affiliated with the church? Will the great efforts expended at keeping Adventism organizationally unified been successful or had the church broken into different national and ideological fractions?
And how many Adventist evangelists will be proclaiming that the Second Coming is near—only a year or two at the most?
I invite those who wish to exercise their prophetic vision to offer their own answers to these questions.
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