Maybe it's time to look again at the lamb-like beast of Revelation 13 in the context of today's world, instead of the 1840s.
The Maginot Line has come to symbolize everything wrong with the Allied strategy in the years leading up to the Second World War. It represented a line of defense constructed along France’s border with Germany during the 1930s and named after Minister of War, André Maginot. Following the Armistice, France was obsessed with being ready for future wars and as the Weimar Republic began to rearm Germany in the late 1920s, the French government set to work constructing an enormous defensive barrier along its eastern border to deter invasion. It was to be called the Maginot Line, a 280-mile long network of concrete bunkers, pill boxes and underground casemates that certainly appeared formidable upon completion. But it would turn out that France’s gamble on fixed fortifications, menacing as they were, would prove disastrous. Despite its strength and elaborate design, the line was unable to prevent an invasion by German troops who entered France via Belgium in May 1940.
An Adventist Maginot Line
Understandably, coming out of an embarrassing disappointment in 1844, early Adventists searched for an explanation for their disappointment, to unlock a system of truth to give them a renewed sense of mission and purpose. This was buttressed by an interpretation of Bible prophecy that identified the United States of America as the lamblike beast in Revelation 13, which would enact a Sunday law to suppress religion freedom and usher a return to papal supremacy. Thus, Revelation 13 became definitive to Adventist prophetic understanding.
Just as the French were so sure about the Maginot Line, our traditional position on the United States in prophecy and Sunday laws has turned into our own Maginot line. As a people who strongly believe in the seconding coming of Christ, we have gone further to extrapolate from the book of Revelation and the book The Great Controversy by Ellen White a seemingly “watertight” non-negotiable chronology of events leading up to the second coming.
In Adventism, there is a feeling of certainty over end-time events that tends to breed theological complacency and arrogance. This is dangerous. Not only does it make God predictable but it inculcates a stubborn certainty in us about how Satan will work in our day. We have come to regard our interpretation of Revelation 13 as the confirmed roadmap of how end-time events will play out. With our history clearly demonstrating the danger of hinging our faith on a single event or interpretation of a prophecy, we still seem to be on the verge of repeating the same mistake.
America in Prophecy
For many in Adventism, we often appeal to the thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth chapters of The Great Controversy to help us explain why and how we identify the United States and Sunday laws in Revelation 13. Often forgotten is the fact that our identification of the United States as the lamblike beast in Revelation 13 was initially championed by John Andrews in 1851 (Review & Herald, May 19, 1851) and further developed by the likes of Uriah Smith. The Great Controversy vision of 1858 happened in Lovett’s Grove, Ohio which gave birth to the 1858 Great Controversy edition better known as Spiritual Gifts, volume 1 — a little book of only 219 small pages, which touched on the entrance of sin, the fall of man, the plan of salvation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the work of the apostles, the apostasy in the Christian church, the Reformation, the Advent Movement, events up to the second coming and the new earth. (It should be noted that the 1858 edition contained no details on the United States in prophecy or Sunday law persecution.)
It was not until The Great Controversy 1884 edition — commonly known as Spirit of Prophecy Volume 4 —that Ellen White echoed the prevailing arguments among Seventh-day Adventists identifying the second beast of Revelation 13 as the United States of America.
In summary, our identification of the United States as part of the Revelation 13 prophecy was based on:
- — timing: coming around the time papal supremacy was waning (after 1798),
- — location: rising out of the earth, which was believed to be an uninhabited place (outside Europe),
- — manner: quietly without violence in contrast to the nations in Europe; and
- — character: initially through its acceptance of slavery, America was speaking like a dragon as our pioneers linked the practice of slavery in America to its dragon-like quality (later speaking like a dragon was associated with restricting religious liberty).
Looked at closely, while our identification of the first beast in Revelation 13 builds on the book of Daniel, our identification of America as the “lamb-like” beast — though plausible — is a deduction largely based on analogy and analysis of conditions in the 1800s.
Understandably, our pioneers coming from a Protestant background shared the same anti-Catholic sentiments prevalent during that period. Among these was Uriah Smith, who having identified the first beast as a great system of false religion, went further to suggest that the second beast — also a great system of religion — was Protestantism. Smith and others described Protestantism as a vanguard of liberty, enlightenment, progress, and power, making America as a special place, providential for this new-found religion.
The use of the phrase “Protestant America” interchangeably with the “United States of America” exposes a people who saw a nation that symbolized their religion. That the United States was symbolized by the second beast was further established by conveniently suggesting that the two horns not only represented youth and innocence, civil and religious power, but also Republicanism and Protestantism. Therefore, the conclusion was clear: Protestant America or the United States of America was symbolized by the “lamb-like” beast (Daniel and the Revelation by Uriah Smith, 1944.) While this interpretation — based on analogy and deduction — is conceivable, it does not mean it cannot be contested.
Contesting the identification of the United States as the “lamb-like” beast of Revelation 13, Blessing Mbele interestingly argues that early Adventist pioneers like Uriah Smith were not immune from interpreting historical facts within a western ideological framework. And that framework held condescending views about native populations. Inevitably, these early Adventists found it plausible to suggest that America as a nation rose quietly in an uninhabited land, a point which deliberately ignored the millions of native communities that were violently displaced. That America rose quietly and peacefully would fit well in the classical western thinking that saw areas outside Europe as uninhabited and the indigenous communities as politically insignificant. Coincidentally this interpretation took root at a time when settlers in what became part of the United States believed that God himself blessed the growth of the American nation. As they expanded westward around the 1840s, they saw it as a divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of their noble republic from sea to sea.
The concept of Manifest Destiny, a pervasive belief in American cultural and racial superiority coincided with the birth of Adventism in the late 1800s. The ideology behind Manifest Destiny included a conviction that white Americans were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, and justified extreme measures to clear the native population from the land, including forced removal and violent extermination. Those in favor of Manifest Destiny often cited biblical-style language such as America being “a promised land,” a “chosen nation,” and “a city on a hill.” The concept of Manifest Destiny also stated that the United States of America, set apart by God as a global leader, had a responsibility to grow its borders and share its ideals. It is evident that the philosophy that gave birth to the American nation was never as peaceful or innocent as some portrayed it.
A Eurocentric Reading
Embedded in Adventism is a Eurocentric reading of prophecy, where regions outside America and Europe are reduced to mere spectators in the prophetic narrative. An example of a Eurocentric reading is seen in our traditional reading of Daniel 2, that interprets the ten toes of the image as representing the ten nations of Europe that emerged out of pagan Rome. Interestingly, Daniel chapter 2 does not mention “ten toes” or draw attention to it but rather places emphasis on the iron and clay mix. However, as Adventists, we have seen it convenient to create a prophetic symbol out of the ten toes and smuggle in an interpretation from Daniel 7. On the surface, this might appear inconsequential but it exposes Eurocentric biases in some parts of our prophetic interpretation that exaggerates Europe and North America while reducing other regions to hapless subjects.
Because we have made the United States of America the cornerstone of our prophetic edifice, we now have self-proclaimed experts on American politics who know much more about the United States than their own context in another part of the world. Many are made to anxiously watch out for the fulfillment of prophecy in the United States while possibly missing the fulfillment of prophecy around them.
Historical events such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), the Dark Day in New England and Canada (1780) as well as the falling of the stars in 1833 — which all occurred over a century ago and in the northern hemisphere — continue to be regurgitated as timeless evidences of Christ’s imminent return. While for the generation of Millerites these signs had meaning, we should not be surprised if these “signs” are not as convincing for today’s generation. As such, Adventism may need to move away from the obsession with America in Prophecy to Prophecy in America. In this way we don’t rigidly tie ourselves to a specific narrative but become open to the fulfillment of prophecy outside America. In this thinking, we recognize that the fulfillment of Revelation 13 could be more complex than what we have mapped in our traditional discourse.
Sunday is Coming
By continuing to ignore how prevailing sentiments in the 1800s influenced the identification of the US and the preoccupation with the enactment of Sunday laws, we might be setting ourselves up for a great disappointment. Clearly, much of the conditions that prevailed in the late 1800s that made Sunday laws plausible are no longer evident in our time. These include strong anti-Catholic sentiment in American society and a visible Catholic-Protestant divide; agitation for Sunday laws in various states in the US; contentious statements by prominent Catholics such as Cardinal Gibbons who in 1895 said that “Sunday is our mark of authority,” (which excited Adventist students of prophecy); America’s increasing influence as a superpower; and a strong colonial drive such as the scramble for Africa in late 1800s that would make a universal Sunday law plausible in the colonies.
These conditions made the notion of America in prophecy compelling for Adventists, as conditions around them made Sunday laws plausible. No wonder there is so much earnestness in much of Ellen White’s writing, which suggest a reference to something immediate and imminent during her time. While the 1858 edition of The Great Controversy makes no mention of Sunday laws, it is during the 1880s that we begin to get clear statements on Sunday laws from Ellen White. During her time, Ellen White’s world was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. No wonder in a number of places she refers to “Protestant countries” (GC 556). This was a time when politicians in the US at the state level and the national level were doing all they could to enforce Sunday observance through the famous Blair Sunday Rest Bill pushed by the National Reform Association and contested by Alonzo T Jones in the late 1880s.
At a time when Adventists were being jailed for not “resting” on Sunday, one can sense an ominous sense of urgency in her statements, which include “soon-coming conflict” (GC 592), “movements now in progress” (GC 573), “In the events now taking place is seen a rapid advance toward the fulfillment of the prediction…” (GC 579), “The Sunday movement is now making its way in darkness. The leaders are concealing the true issue.” (5T 452), “Protestants are working in disguise to bring Sunday to the front.” (5T 449), “We have been looking many years for a Sunday law to be enacted in our land, and now that the movement is right upon us…” (LDE 125).
In fact, the phrase, “movements now in progress” first appears in the 1884 edition of The Great Controversy, which coincides with the agitation for Sunday rest laws in various states. So, it is highly probable that the scenario projected in books such as The Great Controversy is deeply embedded in the religio-political issues of the 1880s.
Jon Paulien argues that even if the Sunday law was not passed in the 1880s as predicted, this does not mean Ellen White was a false prophet, but rather confirms to us that her predictions were an extension of her time and plausible in her context, fitting in the realm of classic prophecy. Consequently, Adventism — instead of expecting the same fulfillment using the same arguments and conditions — needs to be open to the same prophecy being fulfilled in creative ways, or even America playing a different role beyond our traditional understanding. Is it not time for recontextualization and a review of the assumptions behind our understanding of Revelation 13? This is not apostasy but a very Protestant practice, which resonates with the following words of Ellen White:
“There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for years by our people, is not proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and the truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.” (Review & Herald, December 20, 1892.)
Universal Sunday Laws
For many like myself who live outside of the United States, our curiosity has been focused on how and when Sunday laws will be applied in our regions. Unlike the progression of Sunday laws in the US, Ellen White does not provide the same level of detail on how the rest of the world could be involved. The most we can get from her are statements where she suggests that in the Sunday law crisis, “the whole Christian world will be involved” (Last Day Events,137); “all Christendom will be divided into two great classes…” (Great Controversy, 450); and “The so-called Christian world is to be the theater of great decisive actions” (Maranatha, 188). Clearly, by saying that “Romanism in the Old World (Europe) and apostate Protestantism in the New World (United States) (Great Controversy, 616), she is clearly writing in the context of her own time and place when Christianity was dominant in Europe and America. Remember this was the time when European colonial powers such as England, France, Spain, Portugal and Germany wielded so much economic and political power globally in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This indeed made a universal Sunday law very conceivable.
But now Christianity is declining in the West, while in places like Africa and Latin America, it is growing. Confirming that the future of Christianity is in Africa or the Global South, The Pew Center notes that, “If demography was destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa.” High fertility rates in Africa mean a relatively young Christian population and by 2060, it is expected that four in 10 Christians will be living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Going by this projection, how do we apply Ellen White’s statements on which countries constitute Christendom or are defined by Protestantism in our day? Added to this is the exponential growth of Pentecostal movements, which are neither Protestant or Catholic — and inter religious collaboration further complicates the landscape.
The obvious question here is which places constitute Christendom or the Protestant world where Sunday laws will be enacted? Is it Africa and South America where Christianity is growing, or is it still Europe and North America where it is dying? As we see Europe and America are increasingly secular, former colonial powers are no longer powerful enough to dictate to increasingly assertive governments in the South that prioritize sovereignty; China and Russia have emerged as alternative power brokers and superpowers challenging American hegemony; and religious exclusivism is no longer tolerated, making the prospects of religious legislation improbable in today’s world.
Going Beyond the Mark
For years in our preaching of the Sunday law crisis we have been taking conditions in the late 1880s and applying them to our day, where conditions for Sunday laws are questionable. We should always remember that — just like writers of the New Testament — Ellen White did not foresee the long period of time that would come after her. Informed by prevailing conditions during her time, Ellen White’s predictions on how the Sunday law will be enacted speak more to what was probable in her day rather than things that didn’t exist. Understandably, this made Adventists in her day more emphatic about Christ’s coming and the end of the world. Obviously, she did not foresee how the two World Wars, the war on terror, the internet, and climate change would reconfigure global politics, governance and disrupt our lives.
This means that without tying ourselves to a specific fulfillment, perhaps we should now be open to exploring the equivalent of a Sunday law in our age. This might not take the form of a legislation over a day of worship but a principle issue also rooted in a false picture of God. There’s a danger on focusing on the literal crisis where — just like the Jews who missed the manifestation of the Messiah —we fail to see the same prophecy being fulfilled in ways outside our thinking. It should not surprise us if the coming crisis goes beyond a mere religious legislation on a day of worship to a bigger principle entrenched in coercion, exploitation and self-exaltation rooted in a false picture of God.
More importantly, we should not miss the point that what we often condemn in the beasts of Revelation 13 is simply a corporate manifestation of the universal human inclination to exalt self in the place of God, and to control our fellow human beings rather than grant liberty of conscience. This means that wherever there is a spirit of coercion, or the expectation that we can win God’s favor in exchange for anything we might do, the spirit of the papacy reigns. Thus, the basis of our challenge to Babylon should be the false picture of God more than doctrinal corruption in it. While correct doctrine is encouraged, the great controversy is not about us, our beliefs, or efforts to be holy but the character of God and His love which have been misrepresented. As such, we should accept that God can have the same prophecy fulfilled in different ways, maintaining the same principle issue in the great controversy.
Clearly, our traditional understanding of Revelation 13 needs a candid reflection. Uncomfortable as it maybe, it is a Protestant thing to do. Our danger lies in making the devil too predictable, treating our reading of prophecy the same way the French treated the Maginot Line. We risk repeating the same history when we shackle ourselves to a certain narrative without using it to grow in understanding. Just like Peter — who seemed prepared to die for Christ but failed when the test came — in another way, we find ourselves “hit” in the least likely of places. Our stubborn resistance to consider alternative views sparks an even greater controversy, a denial of our Protestant heritage and resistance to undertake what even Ellen White instructed us to do when she said:
"The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.” (Ellen G. White, 5T 706-707)
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
Image Credit: "Revelation 13 Second Beast" by Phil McKay. Image is used with the special permission of the artist. Phil McKay paints and illustrates from his hometown of Port Macquarie, Australia. See more of Phil McKay's art, especially his other prophetic depictions at www.philmckay.com.
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