Sometimes Adventists have been so keen on identifying and describing the sequence of empires in Daniel and Revelation as a fulfillment of prophecy that they fail to consider what an “empire” is all about.
For early Adventists, the beginning of the imperial system was described in Genesis (10:10; 11:9) as Babel and that system formed the central concern of the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation. Adventists taught that the sequence of metals in Daniel 2 and the sequence of beasts in Daniel 7, 8, and in Revelation describe the continuity of the imperial system from Babylon through Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome to the final remaining absolute monarchy in existence — the Papacy. I would argue that there are four constitutive elements that run like a thread through all these empires:
1) A centralized authority, often seen as divine, semi-divine or at least divinely ordained.
2) A hierarchical bureaucracy that ensures continuity even when the individual with the centralized authority changes. The Roman expression of this governmental system was the most successful imperial rule ever, lasting at least 1500 years (49 BC to 1453 AD).
3) A demand for conformity though not uniformity. For example, Rome gloried in the great diversity of its empire, but it did seek unity in devotion to the cult of the emperor. Up until the time of Diocletian, the intent of the imperial persecution of Christianity was not to destroy it but to bring it into conformity to what the entire empire was doing. Everyone had to wave incense to the emperor. Roman authorities could take an imprisoned Christian bishop and, using brute force, put the incense in his hands and make those hands wave it before the alter. They didn’t care that the bishop was resisting the charade the whole time. They didn’t care where his internal commitments were. They simply wanted conformity.
4) Coercion as the only way to achieve conformity. You did what the king or emperor or pope wanted, or you faced severe consequences.
Early Sabbath-keeping Adventists were alarmed at any attempt to develop in the church a centralized authority, supported by a hierarchy that demanded conformity with the threat of punishment.
In 1846 Charles Beecher, in a series of sermons preached in Fort Wayne, Indiana, suggested that there were elements of the imperial system that threatened the Christian church from within. He sought to caution the church from taking even one step toward the apostasy that would occur if it were to adopt that system. Early Adventists read Beecher’s anti-creedal work and spread many of its ideas.
Charles Beecher, the son of Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher, was 29 when he experienced conversion while living with his more famous brother Henry, in Indianapolis. Henry proposed that Charles take up the ministry in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
At the dedication of his new church building on February 22, 1846, Charles Beecher preached two sermons on the theme “The Bible a Sufficient Creed,” both of which were later published together in Boston. It was Beecher’s second sermon that captured early Adventists’ attention. In the first 15 years of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Beecher’s second sermon was quoted or referred to 11 times, sometimes extensively. Some of this material was used by Ellen White in The Great Controversy.
In his sermon Beecher propounded the thesis that “The substitution of any other creed for any of these purposes [doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction] is one step in APOSTACY.” Surprisingly, he began by defending the efforts to systematize doctrines and publish them in book form. That was not the substitution that he referred to. Nor was it the claim that one of these systems is the only system taught in the Bible. He found that claim presumptuous, but not his chief concern. Rather, he argued that when a church goes beyond claiming to have in its book the system of truth taught in the Bible and that church “requires the acceptance of that book by every candidate for licensure or ordination, as a test of his qualification,” then that church is taking one step in APOSTACY (21-23).
Beecher argued that the requirement that ministers accept a creed is a direct contradiction to the teachings of the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17. According to him the church of his day virtually declared that the man of God who adopts the Bible is not perfect unless he also adopts a creed. According to Beecher this was analogous to what the Roman apostasy did. Rome did not deny Christ nor did it deny that he was the Mediator. What she did was to add other mediators: the virgin and the saints. According to Protestants, this was the very essence of Rome’s apostasy on this point. So Protestants on the road to apostasy did not deny the Bible, nor did they deny that it was perfect for some specified purposes. What Protestants taught is that only the person who receives and adopts the Bible “and this creed” is perfect (25).
Beecher next drew another analogy to Roman teaching. He argued that the worship of the saints arose not by the encouragement of bold, bad men but by the backing of pious and decent men seeking to respect the memory of the martyrs. This initial impulse to honor martyrs received the endorsement of good men with good motives, but it passed beyond its initial stage to the “horrid consummation” of saint worship. Beecher asserted that the same thing happened with fasting from meats, forbidding to marry, and all the other features of the “Romish Apostacy.” He contended that in precisely the same manner Protestant apostasy was “creeping stealthily through its first innocent stages, among good men, from good motives,” and would pass beyond his day into a similar consummation. Beecher and his Adventist followers would probably have agreed with the sentiment that the road to apostasy is always paved with good intentions.
Beecher argued that the practice of adding a creed to the Bible was a feature of Romanism “revived under a Protestant form” (28). According to Beecher, the voice of history tells how the Roman claim to have the sole right of interpreting the Bible arose first by creed-making. Beginning in the second century, “the creed-making power… crept slowly and stealthily forward” until it was first exercised in a general council in the fourth century and afterward found itself centered in the Vatican. Beecher said that the first step was “The making of an authoritative creed, to which the clergy were compelled to subscribe;” the last step was “the absolute prohibition of the Bible to the people” (29). He implies that there is a slippery slope from one to the other.
Beecher called on the facts of history to document that the early church had no creed. Even the apostle’s creed, which he correctly stated was not made by the apostles, was never used as a test. Beecher uses this moment to clarify an especially crucial point: “In this argument, ‘Creed,’ means not articles of belief, but articles made authoritative tests” (30). In this he is in line with other anti-creedalists who did not object to creating a list to describe beliefs but strenuously objected to using those lists to prescribe beliefs.
The idea of such tests, Beecher contended, “was borrowed from the political world by the Greeks, who were versed in such features of civil administration. The idea of an authoritative creed is, therefore, exclusively political. It is not of Christian parentage” (30). Church councils consolidated the local churches into a political union and formed a hierarchy (31). This happened gradually until AD 325 when the first General Council was called and the first general creed was made. Beecher asked, Who called this Council? Was it by the authority of Christ or the Church? No, it was called by the “absolute political power” of the Roman Emperor, who was not even a member of the Christian Church! According to Beecher, Nicea fully settled the doctrines of the Bible, banished Arius, and compelled his followers to subscribe to the creed. After this, creeds multiplied in swarms, “creating and fomenting those very divisions they were designed to suppress.” Thus, Beecher argued, creeds [as authoritative tests] are a political idea introduced into the Christian church under a Roman Emperor’s mandate.
Beecher’s sermon suggested a broad view of historical developments. For him the Protestant opposition to Roman Catholicism was as much to its Roman-ness as to its Catholicism. Evidence for this is found in the fact that Beecher used the word Catholic only once (33) while he used the word Rome and its derivatives (such as Roman, Romish, and Romanism) 17 times. He never put the words Roman and Catholic together.
Beecher was not impressed with the claim to catholicity that argues for the truth of something on the basis that it has always been believed everywhere, by everyone (32-33). But his deeper concern was with the Roman origins of the creed-making power. The Roman Emperor used his authority to call a Council that finalized the last stages of the development of a church hierarchy, wrote a creed, and then demanded conformity by a threat of coercion. In its adoption of an imperial Roman system Beecher saw the Church’s original apostasy (30-32) and he warned that a similar imperial system in the Protestant churches would bring another apostasy in his day. Sabbath-keeping Adventists used Beecher’s ideas as evidence that American Protestantism had already imbibed the wine of the imperial system and was already apostate.
John Loughbourough explicitly cites Beecher as a source for his description of how the image to the beast (Rev. 13) would be formed. He argues that the process whereby the (Roman Catholic) beast developed out of the pagan Roman dragon was the same process the image to the beast would develop under the influence of the lamb-like beast which represented the United States. Loughborough describes five steps in the development of the first (Roman Catholic) beast. The first step in apostasy was making a creed. Second, that creed was made a rule of faith and a test of fellowship. Third, unruly members were tried on the basis of the creed rather than the Bible. Fourth, anyone who did not subscribe to the creed was branded a heretic. In the fifth step, the Church secured the power of civil law to enforce penalties on those who were branded heretics. Loughbourough states that the “nominal, creed-making Protestants” who constitute the “ecclesiastical power” of the American government have already taken four of those steps and are prepared to take the fifth by enforcing Sunday legislation, thus constituting the image to the beast.*
Beecher and the early Adventists were thoroughly Protestant when it came to the authority of the Bible. They believed that the Bible alone, without any human statement of beliefs, is capable of accomplishing all that needs to be done to make the man (or woman) of God perfect. When it came to interpreting the Bible, Protestants rejected priestly authority in favor of private judgment. Thus Beecher and the early Adventists’ understanding of history was undergirded by a deep commitment to freedom of conscience as opposed to bondage to the Church and to the statements of its Councils. They viewed history from the Protestant perspective of freedom from the oppressive Roman Church’s coercive demands.
Second, it is apparent that Charles Beecher and the early Sabbath-keeping Adventists also viewed history from an eschatological perspective. They believed that knowledge of the past enabled them to see and be warned of future dystopian developments. From the seeds of imperial creed-making evident from Nicea to his time, Beecher could see a worldwide conference enforcing a common creed even in Protestantism.
Adventists saw even more: from the rejection of the seventh-day Sabbath in the early church and its replacement in Christian creeds with Sunday they saw worldwide apostasy from God’s law, the enforcement of unbiblical Sunday observance in America, and, finally, the persecution of true Sabbath-keepers with all the ensuing events leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus.
Sabbath-keeping Adventists were also deeply concerned about their own body of believers as they contemplated organizing back in 1863. They did not want their movement to follow the imperial way of Babylon. Some opposed organization because they equated it with the adoption of Babylonianism. Only when it was clear that organization did not involve the making of a creed as a test of fellowship were they willing to take the first steps in adopting “Gospel Order.” As they organized their church they wanted to be sure they did not follow the imperial system of Babylon and take the first step in apostasy.
Today Adventists have a Statement of Fundamental Beliefs that is as long as a ten-page college term paper. Along with Beecher and many other anti-creedalists, I do not object to this statement. It provides an excellent description of Adventist beliefs. What we must be most careful about in our day is the tendency of good men, from good motives, to use that statement as a prescription of what must be believed. Perhaps the preamble should include not just a statement about the possibility that the statement can be revised, but also a statement about how it should and should not be used.
* See J. N. Loughborough, “IMAGE OF THE BEAST. (Concluded.),” Review and Herald, XVII, 10 (January 22, 1861), 76-77.
A more detailed and referenced version of this material can be found here.
Image: The Roman Emporer Constantine depicted in a statue in York, England.
Edward Allen has taught at Union College in Lincoln, NE for the past nine years. A graduate of La Sierra University, he has served as a pastor in Northern California, Hong Kong, and southern California. He received both a D. Min. and Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary. His research on Charles Beecher was prompted by a broader area of interest in the use of creeds throughout Christian history. He serves as the current President of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians.