If Adventists were asked to define the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, doubtless the answers would be quite varied. Some might see the church’s uniqueness in the way members worship on Saturday (Sabbath) rather than Sunday. Others might mention the understanding of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary or the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. Still others might point to lifestyle issues, such as refraining from certain kinds of foods, amusements, or styles of dress and adornment. In one sense all these answers would be at least partially correct.
But there is another way to define Adventism, and that is as a prophetic movement. When one does so, Adventism is seen to be unique because of three distinct characteristics. No other church claims these identifying characteristics, but Adventists saw them as defining the church even before its official founding in 1863.
Those three defining characteristics describe Adventists as the only people who find their:
1. Prophetic roots, or history, predicted in Revelation 10.
2. Prophetic identity defined in Revelation 12.
3. Prophetic message and mission given in Revelation 14.
Adventists do not make these claims with any attitude of religious exclusiveness or boasting. The issue is not that Seventh-day Adventists are “better than,” but rather “different from” other churches.
PROPHETIC ROOTS IN REVELATION 10
The apostle John in Revelation 10:1-10 depicts events that interest Adventists as they look for the prophetic roots, or history, of Adventism. Adventists understand the “little book” mentioned in verses 2, 8, 9, and 10 to refer to the book of Daniel. Although Daniel’s prophecy was primarily a time message, when he asked the meaning of the time that had been revealed to him, he was told to “shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:4). The message was not for Daniel to comprehend then, but at the time of the end, what for ages had been sealed, would be understood.
The period of time that Daniel wanted to understand was the 2300 days, at the end of which the sanctuary would be cleansed. That was the only sealed message in the book of Daniel. Many centuries later on the Isle of Patmos—in vision—John was shown a time in the future when a mighty angel would descend to earth, having in his hand a little book—open. Not closed. Not sealed. But open.
From our vantage point of history, we can see that it was near the end of the 2300-day prophecy in 1844 that this angel with the open book of Daniel did just as John was shown. At the precise time predicted, the angel’s prophetic message embraced the whole earth. As predicted in John’s vision, prophetic time had reached its climax.
Around the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, people began studying the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. In so doing, many came to the conclusion that the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 would end in the 1840s. Thinking that the cleansing of the sanctuary described by Daniel referred to the cleansing of the earth by fire at the second coming of Christ, they concluded that Jesus would return then. That exciting news was soon preached throughout the world.
For Seventh-day Adventists in particular, 1844 and the years immediately preceding it evoke the name William Miller. But he was only one of many during that time who preached the soon return of Jesus. People such as Manuel Lacunza, Joseph Wolff, Henry Drummond, Edward Irving, Hugh M’Neile, and the child preachers of Sweden were also proclaiming the fact that the great time prophecies were about to meet their fulfillment, and then—as they understood it—Jesus would return.
And it wasn’t just in America or Europe that people were making this proclamation. The message was circling the globe. Wolff preached in the Middle East and North Africa (from Egypt to Afghanistan and England to India). In 1837 he even visited the United States, where he also preached. Out in India, Daniel Wilson, Episcopal bishop of Calcutta, preached and wrote pamphlets specifically on the prophecies of Daniel.1 In Adelaide, Australia, the message of a soon-coming Savior was preached by Thomas Playford.2 Crowds there became so immense that his followers had to build a larger church for him.
At the end of prophetic time, precisely as the apostle John had been shown, and at the very time predicted by Daniel more than 2300 years in advance, the message was proclaimed with a loud voice around the world. No wonder the Adventist pioneers were excited when they realized that they were fulfilling prophecy!
Revelation 10:10 reads: “Then I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter.”
There could be no better summary of what happened next in Adventist Church history than those prophetic words. The church founders had all been Millerites—that is, followers of William Miller, an American Baptist farmer-turned-preacher who proclaimed that Christ would return about 1843 or 1844—at the end of the 2300-day prophecy, as he understood it. For Adventists living today some 165 years after that event, it is hard to imagine how precious was the experience of those Millerites as they approached October 22, 1844, the date they determined from their study was the end of Daniel’s long-time prophecy. Their experience was especially sweet during the last few weeks and days prior to October 22. By reading some of their accounts, we catch a glimpse into their happy, yet sober, feelings.
Joseph Bates, describing the Exeter, New Hampshire, Camp Meeting held in August 1844, when the October date was first preached, later recalled:
“When that meeting closed, the granite hills of New Hampshire were ringing with the mighty cry, ‘Behold the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet Him.’ As the loaded wagons, stages, and railroad cars rolled away through the different states, cities, and villages of New England, the cry was still resounding, ‘Behold the bridegroom cometh.’ Time is short! Get ready! Get ready!”3
“Like a tidal wave,” Ellen White wrote, “the movement swept over the land. From city to city, from village to village, and into the remote country places it went, until the waiting people of God were fully aroused.”4
The great day finally arrived. William Miller observed that, “even the wicked scoffers stood mute”5 that day. But he went on to say, “It passed. And the next day it seemed as though all the demons from the bottomless pit were let loose upon us. The same ones . . . who were crying for mercy . . . before were now . . . mocking, scoffing, and threatening in a most blasphemous manner.”6
The experience that had been so sweet in their mouths, as foretold by the apostle John, now turned nauseatingly bitter in their stomachs. Even as none of us can fully realize the experience they went through in anticipating Christ’s return on that long-ago Tuesday, neither can we fully comprehend their heart-wrenching disappointment in the days and weeks that followed October 22.
Hiram Edson probably summarized their experience as graphically as anyone: “We looked for our coming Lord until the clock tolled 12 at midnight. The day had then passed and our disappointment became a certainty. Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…. We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”7
But Revelation, chapter 10, still has one more verse: “And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings” (Rev. 10:11, KJV).
Admittedly, in their disappointment the Adventist pioneers did not fully comprehend this verse, especially the part about prophesying “again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.” The worldwide work being assigned them would only gradually dawn upon their minds. And so also the expanded message that they were to preach—including the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the state of the dead, the health message, and so forth.
Even this brief overview, however, reminds us why Adventists see their prophetic history foretold in Revelation 10. But this is only the first of the three prophetically identified characteristics.
PROPHETIC IDENTITY IN REVELATION 12
Revelation 12 covers more historical time than does any other single chapter in the Bible: from the fall of Lucifer to A.D. 1798. In the chapter’s final verse, 17, we find God’s true church emerging from its “wilderness” experience; and there comes to view a “remnant” (KJV) people identified by two characteristics:
1. They “keep the commandments of God”—all 10 of them, including the fourth, or Sabbath, commandment.
2. They possess the “testimony of Jesus,” which in Revelation 19:10 in the King James Version is defined as the “spirit of prophecy”—a renewed bestowal of the divinely inspired gift of prophecy.
While a few other churches keep the seventh-day Sabbath, and others claim the prophetic gift in their midst, not one of them fits both identifying characteristics given here. Consequently, Seventh-day Adventists find their prophetic identity in the two characteristics given in Revelation 12:17.
It was upon a now unknown day in the month of December in 1844 that a 17-year-old, Ellen Harmon, while praying with four other women, experienced the Holy Spirit resting upon her as she never had before. God had done it again—another prophetic messenger had been commissioned! Just as He had done at so many other crucial junctions in salvation history, such as Noah before the flood and John the Baptist before the ministry of Christ, God now sent another prophetic messenger. Another crucial beacon light in prophetic history had arrived— the great time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation were coming to their end; and just as predicted, the gift of prophecy was restored to God’s remnant people.
In 1846, Ellen Harmon married James White. Her ministry would:
1.Extend for a period of 70 years—from 1844 until her death in 1915;
2.Include an estimated 2,000 visions; and
3.Incorporate her authoring more than 5,000 periodical articles and 24 books (plus two unpublished manuscripts) before her death.
Now, after more than 150 years to observe the fruit of her work, it can be demonstrated that the counsels God gave the church through Ellen White are sound—they have stood the test of time. Any candid appraisal of the denomination’s history reveals that the church has prospered when it has followed God’s leading through the Spirit of Prophecy, and faltered on those occasions when it has not.
This brings us to the third characteristic.
PROPHETIC MESSAGE AND MISSION IN REVELATION 14
Seventh-day Adventists believe they have a message for the world found in Revelation 14:6-12. To the best of my knowledge, no other church today is proclaiming the “three angels’ messages” in its totality.
It is worth noting that when translating the Bible into contemporary English for Roman Catholics, Monsignor Ronald Knox included an interesting footnote quoted below for Revelation 14:6 in his Knox translation.8
1. In Revelation 14:6, the King James Version in English identifies the three angels’ messages as the “everlasting gospel.”
2. In his translation, Knox translates it as “a final gospel.” He then adds the following footnote: “‘Final’; literally ‘eternal.’ It is not clear,” Knox says, “why the ‘gospel’ preached by the angel is so described; but the context suggests that it is the last call to repentance which will be offered to men this side of eternity.”9
Regarding this very point, many years earlier Ellen White wrote: “In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import—the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 19).
For more than 160 years Adventists have been proclaiming the three angels’ messages. The first two—the preaching of the “everlasting,” or “final,” gospel in the setting of the judgment-hour message, and the call to come out of Babylon—were both first sounded by the Millerites. It would take those disappointed Millerites who eventually founded our church some time before they determined the significance of the third angel’s message. But after discovering the obligation and privilege of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, they soon also came to realize its theological and prophetic significance in relation to the third angel’s message.
Ellen White wrote: “Every feature of the third angel’s message is to be proclaimed in all parts of the world. This is a much greater work than many realize” (The Upward Look, p. 277).
A UNIQUE PROPHETIC PEOPLE
Yes, at the end of time there will be a faithful, commandment-keeping group of individuals here on earth who are distinguished from all other religious bodies in three unique ways.
Only Seventh-day Adventists fit this description exactly. The fact that Adventists have been called to say something unique just before Christ’s second coming is nothing to boast about. After all, the message is not the church’s message, but God’s.
That being so, Adventist Church members need to be living differently, acting differently, and preaching differently. Many other churches are doing a good work, but none is preaching the “everlasting,” or “final,” gospel in the setting of the final judgment-hour message. This should give Adventists a sense of urgency about their preaching.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a special end-time work to do. God forbid that Adventists ever lose their sense of prophetic focus and mission, but rather again experience the excitement and commitment of the church pioneers who realized that God wanted to work through them to finish His work here on earth. May that same sense of wonder and dedication be the experience of each member of the Adventist Church today.
1 L. E. Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 3, pp. 617-622.
2 M. E. Olsen, Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists, p. 103.
3 Joseph Bates, Second Advent Way Marks and High Heaps, 1847, pp. 30, 31.
4 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 1911 ed., p. 400.
5 William Miller manuscript letter to J. O. Orr, M.D., December 13, 1844, cited in F. D. Nichol, The Midnight Cry, p. 250 (CHL ed., p. 266).
7 Hiram Edson, undated autobiographical manuscript fragment located in the Andrews University Library, pp. 8a, 9.
8 Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, The Holy Bible, 1944, 1948, 1950.
9 Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, The Holy Bible, Sheed & Ward, Inc., New York, 1956, p. 270, footnote on Revelation 14:6.
Special thanks to Roger Coon for concepts used in this article.
James R. Nix is director of the White Estate at the General Conference world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA.