Friedensau Adventist University in the former East Germany is deeply rooted in the history of Adventism. Its Institute of Adventist Studies has chosen as the subject for its Third Symposium: “The Contours of European Adventism.” It’s a time of reflection on identity and mission for European Adventist scholars from East and West. Between forty and fifty people in two concentric circles – some presenters, others “guest auditors” participate in a round-table discussion. We are meeting in the Friedensau “Aula” – a light and airy room with twelve large windows looking out on the campus trees, blossoming now in the German spring.
After the first day, some contours of European Adventist faith are emerging. Born in a new country where freedom of religion was a founding principle, and received in “old” countries where established religion had deep roots in culture and in government, Adventism in Europe has matured in a variety of different ways. If we didn’t know it before, by the end of the first 24 hours of the symposium, it is clear to us all that nobody can talk about “European Adventism” as if it were a homogeneous group. It is a much more complicated animal than anyone, anywhere, can know. This report can focus on just a few of the contours presented.
In the keynote speech, we saw European Adventism from the viewpoint on the church often privileged within the church – the perspective from North America. Dr. Denis Fortin, Professor of Historical Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, focused on familiar themes for any discussion on European Adventism – the role and relationship of Ellen White to the European church and what some Europeans have made of her approach to ecumenism. He suggested that from the American side of the Atlantic, European Adventist ecumenism is sometimes seen as too reflective of the ethos and culture of the Lutheran reformed church. In contrast, he suggested that what American Adventists may fail to recognize is the extent of the American Adventist church’s involvement with Protestant Evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the United States.
Dr. Reinder Bruinsma focused on the relations of the Adventist church to the European Union. Given Adventist apocalyptic interpretation, one might have expected this to be a fruitful perspective from which to understand the European Adventist. Instead, he discovered a scarcity of mainline Adventist attempts to tie contemporary events to particular prophetic interpretations. He suggested that Adventists have become increasingly wary about “the risk of having to modify its views as times goes on.”
Dr. Michael Pearson’s autobiographically-based paper followed. He narrated his sense of alienation as a child in London given Adventist publications like “Our Little Friend” about children who were different from him in their families and their locations. He summed up the effects of the disjuncture between what is sometimes dominant American Adventist culture and other cultures in a question about mission, “Why would people in my place recognize the importance of my church, when my church does not recognize the importance of my place?”
The second half of the morning offered two presentations on Violence against Adventists. In the words of Dr. Daniel Heinz, Archivist of the Historical Archives of Europe in Friedensau, “The Suffering Church in Europe has other priorities than the post-modern concerns of Western Adventism.” His presentation focused on the Adventist martyrs in Germany, Russia and Armenia – the “red” martyrs who gave their blood for their faith and the “white” martyrs who, though not killed, paid the price for being seen by their compatriots as religious fanatics from America in fines, physical abuse, harassment, and imprisonment.
An equally sobering paper followed from Yevgeniy Zaytsev from Zaoksky Adventist University. He traced the history of Seventh-day Adventists in the Soviet Union 1939-45 when the church experienced ideological pressure from the State first under the Bolsheviks and later under the occupying German authorities who sought to undermine the previous government by offering freedom of religion. Finally, he described how the Soviet government sent many Adventists to the Gulag for “assisting” the occupying German forces.
There was only one response to these two papers – the participants stood for a minute’s silence in respect for our brothers and sisters who faced, in different ways, the struggle to remain true to their consciences, true to their civic duties and true to their God.
The afternoon reflected the themes of the previous sessions as participants divided to discuss further examples of Adventist relations. In one small group, Adventist relations to other faiths were discussed. Sometimes those relations were lived out fruitfully with other “free” churches in work for the Bible Societies in various countries. In other places, particularly where a state church is dominant, the relations were much more fraught. In the second small group, the relationships to socialist Czechoslovakia and communist Romania were discussed and Adventist responses to state attempts to undermine the influence of all churches.
After a long day, any weariness among participants was dispelled in the evening by a sparkling presentation on “Being a Politician and an Adventist in Europe” from Dutch Adventist politician, Marianne Thieme – the founder and party leader in the Dutch House of Representatives of PvdD – the Party for the Animals. Marianne had clearly found in the teachings of the Adventist church great resonance with her own concerns for personal freedom and responsibility, stewardship, compassion and sustainability. When asked what lessons the European Adventist church could learn from her success as a politician, she left the participants with an optimistic thought at the end of the day. “Be a real Protestant – against the Establishment…” she said, “we can be the Reformation Movement of the 21st century.”
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Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. She and her husband, Michael, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives.
Photo courtesy of the author.
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