BY STEPHEN BAXTER
When I think about my faith story, I realize that in many ways, I have been blessed. I enjoyed growing up in the Adventist church. I had plenty of friends with whom I went to school and summer camp, and I even enjoyed church and Sabbath school.
My family, however, wasn’t the “ideal” Adventist family. My mom became an Adventist by default as a young girl when her parents joined the Adventist organization in a small town in Maine. Going to the local high school kept her grounded, though, and she eventually married a local boy—my dad.
Dad was never an Adventist. In fact, if you asked him about God, he would reply, “Well…I believe in a higher power. If you want to call it God, that’s OK with me, I suppose.” As a result of my parents’ dissimilar convictions, I was raised Adventist but with less rigidity (and less indoctrination in Adventism) than many who came from generational Adventist homes. I attended Adventist grade school and day academy, but I was home every night and also spent time with plenty of non-Adventist friends in town. Because of my dad, my sister and I grew up eating meat and indulging in many of the other taboos established by Ellen White—except the taboo of breaking the Sabbath. By all means, we kept the Sabbath.
Mom and Dad loved and respected each other, so their difference of religion was never a problem. On Sabbath mornings, we went to church, and my dad mowed the lawn; it was as simple as that.
During my middle school years, church had become boring, and God was some abstract concept. I never doubted His existence, but I also had learned that only perfect people go to heaven, and believe me, I knew I was not perfect.
I often wondered what the time of trouble would be like. Once, during week of prayer at the Adventist school I attended, I got a brief glimpse. The speaker read us the book Now by Merikay McCloud. It was the fictional story of a young person who lived through the end times, suffering persecution at the hands of the government and the “Sunday-keepers”. In the end, this young person barely escaped death by the electric chair because Jesus came back in just the nick of time. That book scared the “living daylights” out of everyone, including me.
I asked myself, “Could I be as strong as that young person and live the perfect life required for salvation?” I honestly tried to live without sin, out of fear if nothing else, but I always failed. I used to ask myself, “How many times will God forgive me for sinning?” I especially worried about His forgiving those sins I kept repeating! It is sad to say, but, like many Adventist young people, I just gave up. It was too discouraging to even try anymore. I figured that I was probably going to hell in the end, and that was that. Besides, I was taught that when I died, I would sleep until I was raised up among the sinners, and then I’d be destroyed. At least I wouldn’t have to suffer for long. I thought, “If that’s my fate… oh well. It’s impossible to be perfect anyway.” It was much easier not to think about God or my eternal destiny, so I didn’t.
By the time I hit my teen years, though, life suddenly started to get my attention. The Vietnam War was raging; college kids were sitting in, protesting, smoking dope and rioting in the streets. Man walked on the moon, a president resigned, and I had my very own draft card—reality looked out-of-control and scary.
However, right in the middle of the upheaval and noise around me, a newly married young couple became the youth directors in our church. Their names were David and Carolyn, and they were fresh from Southern Missionary College where people were listening to the controversial and scandalous Wedgwood Trio. These two quickly won the love of the youth, including me. Who’d have thought we’d have guitars in church? It was the late 60s and early 70s, though, so guitars are what we had—much to the consternation of some in the church whose economic and educational status gave them the authority to make the decisions. To them, we teens singing with guitars were “those hippie kids!”
One of those prominent, upper crust leaders held the position of musical director for the church and looked upon us kids as scandalous, misguided, and hell-bound. She openly opposed the changes in the youth department under David and Carolyn’s leadership. Her opposition was cemented when David decided that he was tired of playing the only guitar and offered to teach anyone who wanted to learn. There was overwhelming response, and I was at the head of the line. Sabbath School had become “cool”!
It wasn’t just music, though, that held our attention. This young couple was on fire for God—a God much different from the one taught in historic Adventism, and their enthusiasm was infectious. This was the time period when Morris Vendon, Robert Brinsmead, and others were breathing change and hope into Adventism with the teaching of “righteousness by faith”. Many Adventists latched onto this new understanding like poison victims who had found an antidote to the deadly potion of obsessive law-keeping and incessant confession. What we didn’t understand, however, was that one cannot transplant the true gospel onto a heretical root. Adventism did not change; instead, those who taught “righteousness by faith” had to harmonize it with Adventist doctrine—or ultimately jettison the doctrine. The result was a more-nearly Christian-appearing message, but under the surface the core of Adventism was alive and well.
David and Carolyn were riding that wave of hope that proclaimed God was Love. We freely discussed His love, righteousness by faith, current events, school, the future, and witnessing to others. This new openness and honesty hit a nerve, and I actually started to think about God and salvation again. Maybe there was real hope even for me!
At the same time, as a result of David’s musical influence, several of us formed a band that was really quite good. We had a couple of guitars, a banjo, a stand-up bass, and a mandolin as the core group, but anyone could join the praise and worship band in Sabbath School. People could bring their guitars or stand up and help Carolyn lead the songs.
The next few years were exciting, and our youth Sabbath School was very popular. It was so popular, in fact, that we outgrew our room and moved downstairs to the large multipurpose room. Before long even that room became impractical, and we had to find a new home.
Our youth class became so large that we moved across the street to the Lutheran church. It was a small church that accommodated about 125 people, but it suited us just fine and gave us room to grow—and grow it did. Youth were coming from other surrounding Adventist churches as well as non-Adventist “town” kids whom we invited. During this growth spurt, David & Carolyn started a coffee house/reading room—popular establishments in the day—downtown next to the local college. They named it The Way, and people could come in, have a beverage and a snack, hear about Jesus, study and discuss the Bible—and read Adventist literature and ask questions.
The Way became our home away from home. We could always find a friend or two among the strangers who wandered in, and often we were playing music which drew folks in from the street. As a result of this youth-sponsored music/coffee house ministry, about 25 people were baptized into the Adventist church, and hundreds heard about Jesus and His love. Interestingly, this booming youth ministry was funded entirely by private funds. The local Adventist church never gave the youth program a single dollar—not because money wasn’t budgeted for the youth. The local church leaders, however, didn’t approve of our long haired, hippie ways, so funds were not available for “that Youth project”.
Eventually I graduated high school and moved on. The dynamic young youth leaders persevered with the next generation of young people, but internal church politics coupled with the drying up of the private funds finally ended that dynamic period of local Adventist youth ministry. David and Carolyn resigned, and Youth Sabbath School gradually went back to the standard, Adventist-approved format. Needless to say, attendance dwindled. Traditional Adventism had squelched the longings of those who had been drawn toward a God of love.
Subsequently, I left the Seventh-day Adventist Church. David and Carolyn, meanwhile, had become like my older brother and sister, and we’ve maintained a loving friendship for almost 50 years. They, too, eventually left the Adventist church.
Years of upheaval
The next couple of decades were a blur. I settled in the Chattanooga area, worked, married, had two sons, and was divorced. Life kept me busy, and I didn’t have time for the Adventist church or its meddlesome prophet. During the summer of ’91, however, my mom contracted cancer, so I transferred to Virginia to be closer to my family. This move meant I could be back in Maine within 12 hours by car instead of 20 hours from Tennessee.
It was during that time of transition and loss that I turned back to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I told folks that I slinked back in through the rear door out of which I had slipped so many years before. My job transfer occurred suddenly, so I contacted the local Adventist church for help in finding a place to live until I could establish myself properly. Adventism was familiar, and the folks I contacted were so friendly that I was really surprised. I asked myself, “Is this the same church I left so many years ago? Maybe things have changed a bit since my youth.” Regardless, I thought that I should at least make an appearance and thank the folks who were so kind in helping me. “Who knows?” I thought. “Maybe I’ll keep going; we’ll see.”
Indeed, when I first attended church, everyone welcomed me, and they quickly involved me in many activities. I even started to feel at home. Then they asked if I would teach the youth Sabbath School class, and I agreed. I really should have known better.
With the example of David and Carolyn inspiring me, I threw out the youth Quarterly. (What was I thinking!) I asked the kids what they wanted to talk about, just as I had been taught in my youth. We read the Bible, discussed righteousness by faith, Ellen White, what they thought about current events, and how Biblical teaching influenced them. It wasn’t long, however, before I heard complaints from the parents via the pastor who was, in all fairness, a wonderful man whom I liked very much. Nevertheless, it was his job to mediate the concerns. Parents worried about what I was reputed to have said about the Ten Commandments, about Ellen White, about the investigative judgment, and about endless other topics. In fact, the complaints sounded familiar, except now they were directed at me instead of David and Carolyn. Needless to say, when my term was up, I declined to renew my office.
During this time of my re-immersion into the Adventist church, I started dating my wife, the lovely and gracious Mary. I also started looking critically at church doctrine and Ellen White (EGW).
So many things EGW counseled just made no sense at all. I had grown up hearing my grandmother say, “Mrs. White says this” or “Sister White says that,” but as a kid, I didn’t really give her admonishments much thought. (Besides, my non-Adventist father paid no attention to EGW.) As a youth, I didn’t think about the prophet much, either. The only things I knew about her were those things I learned in my school Bible classes and in Sabbath School.
We had been required to read several of her books in school, and I had learned about Adventism’s health message, EGW’s visions, and Sabbath-keeping. Now, however, I was an adult who had gone back to Adventism, and I felt I needed to find answers to my questions. Reading EGW’s writings again, as an adult, was eye-opening, and I seriously started doubting her veracity.
One day during the time I was beginning to question Adventism, I had a very odd experience. I was on the golf course with my then-pastor (the pastor I had admired so much had retired several years before), and I asked him a pointed question regarding Ellen White. I also expressed doubt about whether or not I would remain an Adventist because of her. I was looking for a good answer, a justification to remain in the church.
His response startled me. He said, “Well, you don’t have to believe in Ellen White to be a good Adventist.” I was, frankly, stunned! Wasn’t EGW the Adventist church? Weren’t Adventism’s unique doctrines and Three Angel’s Messages based on her visions and teachings? His logic just wasn’t sound. What better example of cognitive dissonance could one find? The pastor’s answer fueled my study and skepticism even more.
One weekend, after a hectic week of work and caring for aging parents, Mary and I decided not to attend church. Our plan was for a completely quiet, restful Sabbath with no church and no social interaction—just rest.
Little did I know, that quiet weekend would change my life forever. As I stated earlier, I had been questioning Adventist doctrine and EGW for some time by then, and I took that occasion to do a bit of reading and research into the Adventist doctrine of “soul sleep”. For various reasons it just didn’t make sense to me.
In the course of my research and study, I decided to research Ellen G. White. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of information that was figuratively dumped in my lap as I searched the internet! There were literally dozens of websites devoted to her, some pro, some con…mostly con! With a skeptical mind, I waded into the deep end of the “con” pool. The most vocal critic was a chap by the name of “Brother A”. (I later learned his name was Dirk Anderson.) Brother A seemed to be highly knowledgeable and connected concerning Ellen White.
While I found all the sites interesting, my skeptical mind had predetermined that anyone could be critical, and for all I knew this “former Adventism” might be just another fanatical offshoot sect of Adventism like The Shepherd’s Rod or the Branch Davidians. However, the topics on Dirk Anderson’s sites were well researched and built upon Biblical study and quotes from EGW which were sourced directly from the General Conference, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, and the White Estate. Additionally, there were historical accounts of early Adventist church history that I had never heard in my formal Adventist “training”. Before I knew it, the whole afternoon had raced by, and Mary was asking, “Are you STILL on the computer?” My reply was, “You won’t believe what I have stumbled onto; this is amazing!”
I was hopelessly hooked. I spent most of Sunday doing the same thing, uncovering more and more documented information regarding EGW and the Adventist church. I couldn’t believe it; there were actually others out there with the same questions and concerns I had—others who had done the research and taken the time to publish their findings. This was exciting! While following what seemed endless links, I stumbled across Former Adventist Fellowship, Dale Ratzlaff, and Proclamation! magazine to which I quickly subscribed. I obtained Sabbath In Christ, Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventists, The White Lie, and Canright’s Adventism Renounced, all of which I eagerly consumed. It was official: I was on my way out of Adventism.
But there was something else. Granted, I had found credible sources and evidence to renounce Adventism; I was “on my way out”, but there was one inescapable fact: nature and the soul abhors a vacuum. Now that I had pretty much rejected Adventism, what would become of me? Something would take Adventism’s place, but what? Atheism? I quickly put that option out of my mind. I could not conceive of a life without God. Unfortunately, I have since learned many Adventists do just that: they give up on God and faith. Because EGW’s teachings breed failure after failure, these Adventists just give up and become Anti-theists. This reality is a tragic byproduct of cult programming and works-based theology.
Fortunately, by the goodness of God, I found an explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in clear, basic terms. It is what I needed and what I believe every Adventist needs: baby steps and basic knowledge of the gospel. As an Adventist I had NEVER heard the gospel, at least not the real one—the one Jesus and the Apostles taught. All through my years of Adventism, I had never heard anything like the gospel in my Bible classes, in Sabbath School, or from the pulpit. In fact, because of my Adventist indoctrination, I didn’t understand it—not at first.
Nevertheless, I knew something was there that I needed; this was different, simple, and exciting! So, I read through that gospel explanation five times! Each time I understood a little more, and finally a light went on in my head: all I needed was Jesus Plus Nothing!
As the realization of what Jesus had done struck home, I sat in my library in stunned silence. I finally understood what a lifetime of cultic doctrine had hidden from me. I finally realized and understood how simple and elegant the gospel is. It is amazing!
Someone asked me once, “Have you been born again, and do you remember when it was?” My answer was a not-so-simple, “YES!—and No.”
Don’t ask me what day it was, and don’t ask me for a definitive time. What I do remember is a gradual realization culminating in that moment that I sat in my library feeling relief, feeling rest, and finally having an understanding of what Jesus really meant when He said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28, 29). There IS genuine rest and freedom in Christ!
Even reading my Bible was different after that moment. The words jumped off of the page with new clarity and meaning. It seemed as if I had been reading the Bible in a dimly lit room all of my life, straining to see and understand the words, and suddenly someone reached over and turned on the reading lamp—a lamp that had always been there—so I could see clearly. Nothing has ever been the same since.
At the beginning of this testimony I stated that, compared to some, I have been blessed. I have not experienced family disputes or persecution for leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church. No one was overtly mean to me, and I was not persecuted out of the church. In fact, despite my letter of resignation, I have managed to maintain a cordial relationship with church members, and even the current Adventist pastor near me is a friend of mine. What few family members that remain in Adventism aren’t really concerned with what I do, even though I have become one of those misguided “Sunday-keepers”.
Since resigning my membership, my daughter and her husband, my best friend Tim, and a few other close friends have all left the local Adventist church. We started a weekly Bible study which became our weekly fellowship until we found a church to attend. We rejoice daily in the new-found freedom we have in Christ. I am still studying and have made it a personal ministry to expose Ellen G. White as the false prophet she was. I have also founded a private Facebook group called “Ellen G. White—False Prophet” that provides information, a safe place for current Adventists to ask questions and share common experiences, and discussion for those who have a loved one who is involved with the Adventist church. Currently, there are just under 1000 members studying and sharing the truth about Adventism, and new members are joining every day.
My longsuffering wife still asks me, from time to time, “Are you still on that computer?” To which I reply, “Yup; a seeking Adventist asked a question. Praise God, another Adventist has had the veil removed and is seeking truth and real freedom in Christ!”
“But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14).
Finally, this is the end of my testimony, but praise God, it is not the end of my faith story. †
Originally from Maine, Stephen Baxter lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with “the lovely and gracious Mary”, his wife of 18 years. Together they have four children and 13 grandchildren. They currently attend The Village Church in (where else) Churchville, Virginia.