In 1630, Puritans left England with a charter for a new colony in Massachusetts, their new home in a new world where they could structure society in accordance to their view of God’s revealed plan for social conduct and religious worship. Before they left their ship, the Arbella, future governor John Winthrop articulated to the assembled passengers a vision for their project in the “New World.” Borrowing Christ’s phrase from the parable of Salt and Light in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14), Winthrop declared, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” affirming their commitment to model righteous living. Their colony would be a beacon of light, “a Modell of Christian Charity,” guiding the rest of Europe into progress towards true religion as outlined by reformer John Calvin.
When Winthrop asserted that the Divine Hand of Providence had predestined a unique role for their enterprise, one that eventually would be projected onto the American endeavor as a whole, he laid the foundations for what has been called American exceptionalism. In this view, America is different and even morally superior to other nations. America’s Christian (Protestant) beginnings, reflected in its national rhetoric and values, its God-given mandate to transform the world, and the establishment of a republic as the system of government, all helped colonists to perceive their polity as superior to that of the corrupt European countries and the barbaric heathen nations of the world. As time passed, the American Revolution and the Constitution were often added as evidence as to its uniqueness and moral superiority over other nations, as they inaugurated a system designed to protect liberty, egalitarianism, democracy, and capitalism (or free-enterprise). Further, Americans prided themselves on religious freedom, instituted during a period when other nations were characterized by state religions that forced individuals to acknowledge, attend, and support the official church regardless of personal consciences and convictions. Further, certain groups of Christians believed that these characteristics opened the door for American Christians to facilitate the return of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, this belief in the special role of America in God’s plan for the world, and God’s support and endorsement for her activities (evidenced by her victories and increasing size and power), evolved into an expectation that Americans would have an unquestioned allegiance to the theory of America’s manifest destiny to rule the continent and intervene in (regulate) the affairs of the world. Ministers' sermons promoted patriotism and used biblical imagery to inspire their parishioners to participate in military campaigns against peoples or nations that they depicted as evil or pagan, needing to be brought under the control of God and the virtuous government of the United States. Nationalism acquired the cloak of religious sanction, as God’s will and national power were perceived as two sides of a single coin. National political and economic interests shaped Christian corporate ethics instead of the teachings of Christ being the standard by which the nation’s activities were judged. The belief that God had placed leaders in the positions they occupied and guided their actions, as well as the supposition that He championed American supremacy, created a Christian duty to support the state, uphold its laws, and participate in its wars. In short, the belief in America’s special place in history, its moral virtue and superiority, its destiny to be the world leader and arbiter, and the generalized notion that America was the new Israel (the center of God’s interest and blessing) led many Christians to support the economic and political endeavors of the nation without question.
It was within this cradle of Christian Republicanism, with its view of American moral superiority and godliness, that the pioneers of the Adventist Church gave the loud cry announcing the nearness of Christ’s return, lived through the Great Disappointment of the failed prophecy, and then returned to the Bible to search for understanding of their experiences. Christ’s parables provided an identification of their temporal location as “the tarrying time,” while the book of Revelation served as a guide for interpreting their social experiences. What they saw in its central chapters simultaneously explained the treatment they had received in their churches and permanently separated their interpretations of Revelation from those of the majority of churches.
By 1851, Adventist leaders were identifying the beast of Revelation 13:11 as America. At that time, neither the size nor the influence of the young nation created an obvious link between the United States and that beast, characterized by tremendous power, might, and oppression. America was a nation under God, distinctive in its gentle and restrained form of government and God’s special election. Few could see that the United States was the beast with “two horns like a lamb” who “spoke like a dragon,” and eventually would cause the inhabitants of the earth to “worship the first beast,” long identified by Protestant Reformers as the Roman Catholic Church. For most Christians, as the United States was a Protestant nation with provisions for religious freedom and restrictions prohibiting the creation of a national church, America’s national history, religious sympathies, and Constitution excluded it from consideration as the beast of Revelation 13:11.
Perhaps it was Adventists’ early experiences with the religious intolerance within their churches (manifested in the excommunication, ridicule, and even persecution of “Millerites”) that gave them a different perspective on the nature of America’s vaunted system of freedom of religion. When they had tried to explore ideas that challenged set beliefs, they had met rigid resistance based on established doctrines, creeds, traditions, and practices. Continued church affiliation was shown to be contingent on relinquishing the Christian obligation to continue to study Scripture, looking and ready to embrace new light as it was given through the Holy Spirit, and conform all social and religious practices to the teachings of Christ.
Having endured intolerance themselves, this made them more sensitive and sympathetic to past cases of religious persecution in America’s past. They noted the experience of the Quakers whom the Puritans condemned to death. The sanctions applied by the churches revealed that, at its core, American Protestantism manifested the worst aspects of Roman Catholicism: they demanded that believers accept the creeds established by their denomination rather than to decide for themselves what the Bible teaches, adhere to “man-made traditions,” deny the role of the Holy Spirit and submit individual conscience to church doctrine and praxis. Most damning was Protestantism’s application of “deadly” sanctions to those who would not comply.
The abolitionist roots of many of these early leaders (including Josiah Litch, Joseph Bates, John Byington, George Storrs, John P. Kellogg, and others) had given them another glimpse into the gulf between the Christian churches and Christ’s message of inclusive love. They had witnessed the struggle to try to secure the support of the various denominations to the abolitionist cause, and the refusal of denominational leaders to commit their churches to an anti-slavery stance. Various ministers and bishops had closed their church doors to anti-slavery presentations, and occasionally disciplined members who participated in the movement. Adventists could not recognize the protection of slavery as an institution or the personal possession of enslaved human beings as compatible with true Christianity.
Joseph Bates, the third great force behind the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, expressed strong sentiments in his analysis of America: its future was being sealed by its acts of aggression against other nations in its determination to retain and expand slavery and in pursuit of its “manifest destiny” to govern the continent from sea to sea. After the Mexican-America War, Bates published a book that, in response to the widespread celebration of the U.S. victory, asked pointed questions and answered them sharply:
What means these illuminated cities, roaring of canons, pealing of bells and exalting throughout the land? … It is the nations Te Deum in honor of the mighty victory obtained by our gallant murderers, for they would be considered such, in every case, until they were licensed by the rulers and chosen by the people. What have they done? Why they have killed and murdered thousands more of their neighbors… and by last accounts they were ravaging, pillaging, and devastating all that is pleasant to the eye before them…. What caused this mighty uproar? Why, out of about 7,000,000 slaves in the Christian world, we of this continent can boast having about 6,000,000 of them.
In 1848, he declared that, “A third woe has come upon this nation, this boasted land of liberty; this heaven-daring, soul-destroying, slave-holding, neighbor-murdering country.”
As Adventists carefully pondered the description of the “beast that rose out of the earth,” they were increasingly convinced that the passage could only point the United States. The beast with “two horns” (biblical symbols for power) was depicted as appearing like a lamb, the very symbol of innocence. In reality, its lamb-like self-descriptions as Christian and Republican were contradicted by its actions. As J.N. Andrews noted in his 1851 Review article, “Thoughts on Revelation XIII and XIV:”
No civil power could ever compare with Republicanism in its lamb-like character. The grand principle recognized by this form of power, is thus expressed: “All men are born free and equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Hence, all have a right to participate in making the laws, and in designating who will execute them. Was there ever a development of civil power so lamb-like before? And what, in religious life, can be compared with Protestantism? Its leading sentiment is the distinct recognition of the right of private judgment in matters of conscience. “The Bible is the only religion of Protestants.” Was there ever in the religious world any thing equal to this in its lamb-like professions? Thus we consider the meaning of the “two horns like a lamb.”
Andrews’ article continued on to consider the phrase “And he spoke like a dragon,” noting that one’s speech proceeds from one’s heart, and reveals the underlying spirit. Information that the new beast would “exhibit all the tyranny of the first beast” further supported his point. He provided two strong proofs for his argument that the United States was the prophesied beast:
Let us examine If “all men are born free and equal,” how do we then hold three millions of slaves in bondage? Why is it that the Negro race are reduced to the rank of chattel personal and bought and sold like brute beasts? If the right of private judgment be allowed, why them are men expelled from these religious bodies for no greater crime than that of attempting to obey God in some thing wherein the word of God may not be in accordance with their creed? … Why are men for no other crime than that of looking for the coming of Jesus Christ, expelled from the churches of those who profess to love his appearing?
Clearly, the United States was lamb-like only in its pretensions and surface appearance. Andrews’ article made it plain that he expected the nature of the beast to become more apparent as time wore on and the United States increased in power. Faithful believers who committed themselves to following God’s laws could expect trouble, persecution, and even death for those who resisted religious laws as well as civil statutes, as there could be no doubt as to the churches’ coercive tendencies:
[The churches] are all upheld by the laws of the land. That they are oppressive when possessed of civil power, let the case be of the Puritans, themselves fugitives from oppression, bear testimony. Witness their persecution of the Quakers, even unto death. Witness also the martyrdom of Michael Servetus under the sanction of John Calvin.
His analysis of the nation’s character was seconded by Uriah Smith, who advised readers of the Review to see the true nature of their supposedly gentle nation as it persisted in demonstrating its dragon-like core: “Look at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and then look at slavery, look at the religious intolerance, the corruption and oppression existing throughout this land.”
In 1857, John Loughborough repeated much of Andrews’ evaluation of the nation in a series of articles on the two-horned beast. Loughborough’s critique added the example of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act to the list of proofs of the nation’s innately dragon-like character. He pointed out that the law violated his Christian conscience and provided hardship penalties (a $1,000.00 fine) if he remained true to his convictions and aided slaves who were reclaiming their liberty. His article made a very compelling point when he directed his readers’ attention to the Christian role in maintaining slavery: “Protestants and Republicans, both unitedly and separately, speak as a dragon. Who are Republicans? To a greater or lesser extent, they are Protestants. Protestants aid in making and carrying out laws that hold men in bondage.” Further, his article provided statistics documenting the number of slaves held by clergymen, the numbers of slaves held by Christians in each of the major church bodies, and castigated the churches in the North where slavery was outlawed for continued fellowship with slave-holding brethren in the South.
While James White claimed in his 1857 article, The Nation, that the Review had taught that the United States was the beast of Revelation 13 for ten years, and added “and that slavery is pointed out in the prophetic word as the darkest and most condemning sin upon this nation,” by 1859 the paper had advanced to advocating civil disobedience when the government enacted laws that were contrary to God’s principles and precepts. An article titled, “What Laws we should Obey,” maintained the eternal and binding nature of God’s laws and that “no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” It concluded with the declaration that: “[M]en may legislate for Sunday-keeping, for the rendition of fugitive slaves, or anything else conflicting with the requirements of God; but we cannot mistake our duty.” In the years that followed, Adventists continued to develop the argument that American practices and policies, which were generally supported by Christian pulpits, revealed the growing power of the dragon that lurked in America’s soul. The near genocide of Native Americans, the exploitative treatment of the Chinese, and Protestant willingness to take up arms rather than follow the example of the Prince of Peace, and the organized efforts to pass a national Sunday Law, were cited as further evidence that America was in fact a lion in lamb’s clothing.
These early Adventists were clear that being called out from Babylon entailed leaving the safety and security of conforming to established traditions, creeds, social and cultural conventions, and even breaking human laws that did not reflect God’s law. They understood that they put themselves at risk when they did conform to or support the oppressive aspects of America’s policies and they recognized that prioritizing God’s laws could result in severe penalties. The alternative, however, was missing out on eternal life in God’s presence.
They did not expect to see an age of peace and prosperity appearing as America grew in power, prestige, and affluence. Nor did they anticipate that the election of individuals whom they labeled “nominal Christians” to leadership positions would bring forth a state that followed in the footsteps of Christ. They acknowledged that churches endorsed and participated in the sinful national practices, and reached for power to enforce on others their creeds and traditions in violation to God’s laws of love and freedom. They rejected popular arguments that the wars America waged would open the door to Protestant missionaries who could lead the various populaces to eternal salvation. Adventists countered with the argument that to participate in the violent conquests of others (even for evangelistic purposes) ran counter to the explicit instructions of Christ. Further, toward the end of the nineteenth century, Percy Megan challenged the “evangelism through conquest” proponents with the question of how heathens who presently were resistant to the Gospel would be more open to it after Christians had murdered their husbands, sons, and brothers.
Instead of being caught up in nationalistic enthusiasm, Adventists remained cautious toward the future of the nation and the world as the United States gained international authority, increased its control over the economic functions of the nations, and acquired the might to enforce its will at home and abroad. Aware of the underlying spirit that had found its home in America, they were not subject to the hubris of the nation, not deceived concerning the gap between its claims to be Christian and the reality of its oppressive practices. They adopted a sectarian stance, committed to conformity to the biblical instructions to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
A lot has changed in the years of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, but the warnings found in Revelation still remain pertinent. It is still vital to live out an unwavering allegiance to God, realizing that this may bring disfavor and even negative sanctions as one follows Scriptural injunctions to be inclusive in our love. Faithfulness to the call to be a true “son” of God (one who reflects His image by modeling his inclusive love) sometimes means breaking with social conventions and even national laws. It still means not being caught up in the nationalistic impulse which would encourage us to put the welfare of America above the well-being of the rest of the world. It means denying America’s claims to be pure, innocent, and “Christian,” while telling the truth about the underside of America’s practices: its willingness to oppress religious groups and races that it sees as a threat to its goals, to deny equal rights and respect to minority groups, to pursue wealth at the expense of the poor and vulnerable both at home and abroad, deport undocumented immigrants back to certain death in their countries of origin, as well as many other sins. We must still recognize that the nation’s vaunted Christianity and Republicanism will not restrain its punitive response to defiance of its policies.
Finally, the vast majority of American churches at the denominational level, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, are still joining hands in an effort to force their systems of belief on the nation through the changing of laws. They preach that the financial setbacks, natural disasters, and various tragic events America has recently suffered are God sent as punishments for departing from Bible law. They teach that the heavy hand of God’s discipline will not be removed until the laws of the nation are consistent with God’s laws, as they perceive them to be, and enforced.
Increasingly well-organized, many Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists (sometimes referred to as maximalists or Christian Reconstructionists to express their goal to create a nation whose laws and practices completely reflect those of Scripture), fund and support politicians whom they believe will introduce their theology into civil law and enforce it. They embrace American military endeavors as part of God’s program to bring Christian order to the world, celebrating individuals such as Sergeant Alvin York, who devoted his trigger finger to God and became a noted sniper.
According to Jeff Sharlet in a 2006 article in Harper’s Magazine, who attended a sermon and interviewed the pastors at the Danbury Baptist Church, the preaching pastor emphatically pronounced the warning that America is going to experience a shift from a mothering church (characterized by maternal nurturing and comforting) to a church that acts from the model of fatherhood, the principle of correction and disciplinary actions. According to pastor Rusty, “America is too far gone to be redeemed by mercy alone. It is the father church’s time.” Pastor Rusty outlined the fatherhood model as an Old Testament vision of God the judge and enforcer of his law, visiting individuals and nations with suffering to bring repentance. For him, court decisions like Brown v Board of Education and Roe v Wade were examples of America defying sacred instructions for how to live.
In a private conversation with Sharlet, the pastor confided that, “We may need another 9/11 to bring about a full spiritual revival.” Maximalist Christians endeavor to elect Christians who share that vision to political offices where they can restructure national laws. What he envisions happening when the right Christian politicians are placed in key governmental positions was implied in his sermon earlier when he announced, “The symbol of the state is a sword. Not a spoon feeding the poor, not a teaching instrument to educate our young. And the sword is an instrument of death.” He imagines a time when well-placed individuals will make laws that forbid actions that are outside of Old Testament injunctions and assign costly penalties to anyone who transgresses them. His projects coincide nicely with the early Adventists’ understanding of the eventual action of “the beast that arose out of the earth.
The recent contributions of evangelicals and conservative Christians to the election of Donald Trump illustrates their well-organized campaign to place politicians that they believe will be responsive to the “Christian agenda” in governmental positions. Whether or not one supports his vision for making America great again and the policies he promotes, his election testifies to the political power of this bloc of Christians. It serves as a good reason to review what the Adventist pioneers discovered in their investigations of Revelation 13 and 14 and their perspective on American realities. Perhaps we need to follow in their footsteps and make a commitment to living out our calling as messengers of God’s love, recognizing that our first, and final, allegiance is to God, not the nation.
Written by Ginger Hanks Harwood, Ph.D. from La Sierra University (retired).
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.
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