BY COLLEEN TINKER
This coming Sunday, October 22, marks the 173rd anniversary of the day Jesus failed to return as William Miller had predicted. After months of the Baptist preacher’s explaining his dates and calculations for the second coming at camp meetings and churches throughout New England, the hundreds of people who comprised “the Millerite movement” were ready. Finally. They had already survived Miller’s first failed date in 1843, but finally Miller agreed with the opinions of a few other Millerites and announced they finally had the right day: Jesus would return on October 22, 1844!
After months of calculating, preaching, hoping, and praying, the Millerite movement culminated in—absolutely nothing. The sun rose as always, set as always, but the Millerites were left devastated. That night they lost their crops, their belongings, and their pride.
Many of them returned to their churches and repented of their error of date-setting. A small group that became the Seventh-day Adventists, however, insisted that Miller’s date was not wrong. After Hiram Edson had an opportune vision in a cornfield in which he purportedly saw Jesus not returning to earth but entering the Most Holy place in the heavenly sanctuary, these persistent people developed their explanation: October 22, 1844, was the starting date of what became Seventh-day Adventism’s central, only unique doctrine: the investigative judgment.
They had believed Jesus would return to cleanse the earth, they now said, but instead, He changed heavenly compartments. They had figured the date correctly, they insisted; they had simply miscalculated the nature of the event and the place it would occur.
According to this doctrine which was developed and ultimately explained by the prophetic voice of Ellen White, a co-founder of the organization who received her understanding in a vision, Jesus began on that day to examine the records of all those who had ever professed faith in Christ. All who had confessed each of their sins and had been faithful to keep the law would be saved. Those who had failed or forgotten to confess each sin, or those who had refused to honor the law—especially the Sabbath of the fourth commandment—would be lost in spite of their profession of faith.
According to the doctrine of the investigative judgment, when Jesus finishes perusing the heavenly records of each act of each person expressing faith, He will place the sins of those who have been found worthy of salvation onto the head of Satan the scapegoat. Satan will carry the sins of the saved out of the heavenly sanctuary and into the lake of fire where he will be punished for them. Thus, the heavenly sanctuary will finally be cleansed by Satan’s purging it of the sins of the saved.
For Seventh-day Adventists, the Great Disappointment continues to remind members that they are on probation and that they must obey the law and be faithful to keep the Sabbath until Jesus finally comes.
Furthermore, Adventism teaches that keeping the seventh-day Sabbath is what will distinguish the saved from the lost, and worshiping on Sunday is (or will be) the mark of the beast. Finally, Adventism teaches that Satan, not Jesus, is the scapegoat prefigured in Leviticus 16 who bears away the sins of the saved into the lake of fire and is punished for them. This belief makes Satan, not Jesus, the final sin-bearer.
How does an organization that started in the ashes of a failed prediction continue for one hundred seventh-three years and gain momentum?
The answer, it could be argued, is in the term “belief perseverance”. According to the online Psychology Dictionary, belief perseverance is “a psychological phenomenon in which there is a tendency to persist with one’s held beliefs despite the fact that the information is inaccurate or that evidence shows otherwise. This contrary nature show an unwillingness to admit that the initial premise may not be true.”
In other words, “Belief perseverance prompts a person to cling to previously-held beliefs even when there is new evidence pointing to the contrary.”
The founders of the Seventh-day Adventist organization did not want to admit they had been wrong. After the energy, time, and money they had spent perpetrating the message that Jesus was coming on October 22, they could not bear the shame and guilt of facing their own errors. Instead, they used the momentum they had already built to develop a new theology founded on a reinterpretation of Miller’s second-coming prediction.
They clung to the idea that Jesus’ coming was around the corner; in fact, with prophetess Ellen White’s visions confirming them, they set several more dates for His return and even preached that the Christian pastors who had spoken against Miller and his dates were instruments of Satan to deceive people.
The “shut door” theory that has become an embarrassing blotch on Adventist history began with the investigative judgment theory. The early Adventists taught that the door of mercy had permanently shut on all those who rejected their reinterpretation of the 1844 event.
Sometime before December of that year, however, Ellen and James White gave up believing the door of mercy was shut and swung it open to allow all to be able to be saved. Nevertheless, that door of mercy swung shut again sometimes during December, 1844. Dale Ratzlaff states in his book Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventism, p. 122–23:
James and Ellen White in particular, held to a shut-door theology from December 1844 to about October 22, 1851….Ellen White’s first two visions [about the shut door] taught that the door of mercy was closed for everyone outside the little band of Adventists. While they had given up the shut door teaching for a short time, her visions corrected this “error” and the door was shut—again.
In fact, as she reported on her now-infamous Camden Vision, Ellen White told the followers that God had shown her they were NOT to pray for people outside their little Adventist band. Furthermore, she stated that prayers for anyone who had rejected her “sanctuary message” of 1844 and the investigative judgment were useless.
Ultimately, the early Adventists abandoned their shut-door theory gradually after 1851. Dale Ratzlaff says this on p. 151–52 of Cultic Doctrine:
During the years between 1849 and 1851, and perhaps even after this time, EGW and her associates used at least six main ways of trying to maintain credibility while changing their theology and her early erroneous visions:
A. They suppressed the early visions of EGW which taught the shut door.
B. They added the open door of Revelation 3:7, 8 to their “door theology.”
C. They made small, incremental changes over the years. The door of mercy opened for Adventist children…and for those who accepted the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary in 1844, but not for those who rejected it.
D. They actually omitted or changed the wording of early written documents including the early visions of EGW.
E. They redefined the meaning and the place of the shut door.
F. They changed the time of the shut door from 1844 to the close of Christ’s mediation in the second apartment of the heavenly sanctuary.
Today, Adventists publicly distance themselves from William Miller’s date-setting. While internally they revere William Miller as a foundational pillar of their faith, even honoring and celebrating the Great Disappointment anniversary when it arrives each year, publicly they disclaim Miller’s predicting Jesus’ return on October 22, 1844.
In fact, a story that came this week from Zimbabwe illustrates this dissonance between their private and their public claims. An infamous Zimbabwean pastor named Evan Mawarire, an outspoken, politically-motivated agitator who has done jail time, had apparently made public comments about Seventh-day Adventism. An October 18 report from the online ZimNews describes an Adventist’s response to Mawarire’s comments:
An audio of a Zimbabwean representative of the Seventh-day Adventist church criticizing #ThisFlag Pastor Evan Mawarire has surfaced online. The man claims to have heard an audio where Mawarire apparently said [the] SDA church is fake because it said Jesus was returning on 22 October, 1855.
However, the man on the audio refutes the claim stating that it was expelled Methodist (sic) Preacher William Miller who preached that Jesus was coming in 1844. This happened many years before the SDA church was formed [in 1863].
Mawarire is accused of recklessly misstating historical facts… [and the Adventist] further challenged Mawarire to bring any text or evidence from the church or its prolific author Ellen White to prove his claim that the Adventist church ever mentioned that Jesus would return in 1844.
Ironically, this argument is increasingly common. When “outsiders” talk about Adventism being founded in the Millerite movement that expected Jesus to return in 1844, many Adventists counter with the argument that the Adventist Church never set a date for Jesus’ return nor endorsed such a prediction. Further, they argue that William Miller was not an Adventist, and the Adventist Church has never date-set.
Their argument is based upon the fact that Adventism’s incorporation date is 1863. The problem with this argument, however, is that the founding Adventists were Millerites and both taught and expected that Jesus would return in 1844, even refusing to let go of the date after the Great Disappointment and giving it a new meaning.
The fact that Seventh-day Adventism was not an official organization before 1863 does not excuse Adventism from endorsing and teaching Miller’s predictions. Such defensiveness is untruthful.
173 years and counting
This weekend, as the Seventh-day Adventist Church commemorates the 173rd anniversary of the Great Disappointment that became the organization’s foundation, members and leadership face unresolved internal struggles, especially over the divisive subject of women’s ordination, while general conference president Ted Wilson insists that members must evangelize the cities.
In his sermon on October 7 at the Annual Council, Wilson called on Ellen White to endorse his case:
I make no apology for the Spirit of Prophecy. The messages from heaven through Ellen White are as profound and applicable today as when they were written. Yes, of course, we believe in the Bible as God’s Word and our only rule of faith. We do not in any way substitute the Spirit of Prophecy for the Bible. However, the Spirit of Prophecy was given to lead us to Christ and the Bible…So, let’s reread Medical Ministry, page 304… “There is no change in the messages that God has sent in the past. The work in the cities is the essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed”…
My fellow leaders, the time to work the cities is NOW! You have heard this appeal. You have understood the challenge. What is your decision? For years we have had heaven’s instructions from the Spirit of Prophecy regarding Mission to the Cities…
God is calling all of us to humble ourselves before Him and each other…to put away differences of opinion…to unite in God’s great effort to reach the large cities of this world, and rural areas, with the last message of warning and hope…the three angels’ messages culminating with the loud cry focusing on Christ and His righteousness!
While the clock ticks and the years put distance between the Seventh-day Adventist organization and the urgent date-setting that spawned it, Adventism is still preaching its age-old cry: “Jesus is coming! Get ready!” It still believes itself to be the remnant church of Bible prophecy, and it proselytizes the unsuspecting by offering free medical and humanitarian aid.
It may be 173 years since the Great Disappointment, but Adventism is not defeated by the passing of time. With Ellen White’s continuing authority and the visionary push of Ted Wilson at the helm, Seventh-day Adventism is relentless in its attempts to convert people to its beliefs.
For them, the Great Disappointment has become the banner of their self-proclaimed success.
Dale Ratzlaff, Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventism, second revision, 2009, LAM Publication, LLC.