This excerpt from All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer appears in the upcoming issue of the Spectrum journal (Volume 51, issue 2), which will be arriving in the mailboxes of supporters soon. Subscribe to receive the premier journal in Adventism, published since 1969.
Night after night, at the beginning of 2020, my father—sleeping in the same bed where my mother had died—woke up to use the bathroom: to be specific, he took a Mason jar from the side of the bed and peed into it. Why not? He now lived alone, and it was a lot easier than stumbling through the dark to reach the bathroom. Afterwards, he’d peer out his window. Sometimes he’d see something flash. Sometimes he wouldn’t. But most nights? The lights were there. Blinking intermittently. Announcing their presence. Causing my dad’s brow to furrow. And, because I wanted to see them myself, I made the five-hour trip from Virginia to North Carolina, to the cove deep in the mountains where he lived.
As a child, I knew that my church was made up of what my fellow congregants often referred to as “a peculiar people”—a group of believers that the world didn’t seem to know much about. Seventh-day Adventists were rarely named or alluded to in media or popular culture. Adventist characters didn’t make appearances on Gilligan’s Island or Good Times or The Cosby Show or Family Ties or A Different World or The Andy Griffith Show or The Walton’s or Happy Days. No athlete I followed counted himself as a member of the denomination. No famous singer sang about us. No comedian poked fun at our idiosyncrasies. No famous author listed our denomination in the bio on the back of his or her book. Aside from the 1984 story about Baby Fae—the infant into which Dr. Leonard Bailey, an Adventist doctor, had transplanted a baboon heart—we didn’t show up in the news. I’d never watched a single movie that made so much as a fleeting reference to Seventh-day Adventists. (Though Adventists in theory welcome any-and-everyone in the world to join the church, the kind of person who ends up converting is much more particular; for instance, according to [Malcolm] Bull and [Keith] Lockhart’s theory of the “revolving door,” articulated in their sociological study of the Seventh-day Adventist church in their book Seeking a Sanctuary, the majority of converts to Adventism worldwide exist on a lower socioeconomic scale, while those who leave tend to inhabit a higher one.) I’d heard rumors that certain celebrities—namely Prince and Little Richard and Magic Johnson and Clifton Davis, the latter of whom played the pastor on the role of the TV show Amen, which also featured Sherman Helmsley from The Jeffersons—had been raised in the church, but I’d never been able to prove whether those rumors were true, and even if they had been, it wouldn’t have mattered, because nobody—except gossipy SDA kids like me—gave a hoot. I knew that many of the cereals I enjoyed bore John Harvey Kellogg’s surname, and that before he’d been “disfellowshipped” for espousing so-called “pantheistic” views, he’d been a member of the Adventist church; my great-grandfather’s medical diploma from a school in Battle Creek, Michigan bore Kellogg’s signature. I knew that Little Debbie snack cakes, of which I’d consumed an astounding number during my childhood, were made by the McKee family, and that the McKees were Adventists, and that, years ago, Mr. McKee had proposed to my grandmother, who—thankfully for all of us who wouldn’t have existed had she said yes—turned him down. But that was it. It wasn’t just that very few people knew much about Seventh-day Adventists. It was that nobody seemed to care. We weren’t a mystery to be solved. We were a little strange, maybe, but not that strange. We didn’t have giant polygamous families or wear magical underwear or refuse to celebrate birthdays. We didn’t go out of our way to knock on people’s doors. We didn’t avoid doctors or medicine or blood transfusions. In fact, if you met one of us, it may very well have been at a hospital or physician’s office. We may have taken a moment to pray with you. We may have given you a strange little book you never read because you found the diction archaic or the narrative kind of boring. You wouldn’t have said we were pushy, though. You probably would’ve thought we were nice and described us as friendly. But you probably wouldn’t have seen us again. And thus, we would’ve been almost immediately forgotten.
On only one occasion in over two decades of teaching at non-Adventist universities has a student ever admitted to having been raised in the church, and only one time out of twenty will a student have known someone who’d claimed to have been a Seventh-day Adventist, that person inevitably and tentatively raising his or her hand, while delivering an uncertain wince, saying something like “the name sounds familiar,” and so then I explain, in as factual and as brief a way as possible, that the Seventh-day Adventist church was a denomination that emerged in the nineteenth century, during the Second Great Awakening, from what has been known as the Millerite Movement, when a preacher named William Miller, reading closely the books of Daniel and Revelation, and applying a sort of prophetic arithmetic to the numbers within these books, arrived at a conclusion: Jesus Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844, a day that, for true believers, would afterwards be known as the Great Disappointment. It is here that my students—not all but definitely more than a few—often laugh.
At this point, I might admit that, from the perspective of a twenty-first century citizen looking back upon the expectations of delusional, heaven-sick folk living in the nineteenth century, that it might seem humorous at first, though I’d never thought it was that funny. Imagine, for instance, that you’d given away all your possessions, slaughtered your livestock and distributed the meat to the poor, all with the belief that you would be leaving this earth forever, to live in a paradise characterized by its lack of pain and suffering, and where you would spend eternity with God, solving all the mysteries of human existence. And then imagine that the day passes, and that the Son of God does not appear in the heavens. And that you have to go back to your regular life, the material wealth and comforts of which you had, for all practical purposes, completely abandoned.
Whatever I say about Adventism on these occasions, I do my best to provide a basic, bare-bones description: the Seventh-day Adventist church believes that Christians ought to be honoring the Jewish Sabbath, as outlined in Exodus 20:11, and that they believe their bodies are the temple of God, and that people are best advised and will live longer and godlier lives should they abstain from flesh foods, tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Adventists, I may also point out, do not believe in hell—that is, they don’t believe that hell exists, not yet, and that when it does it will function as a cleansing fire, wiping away sinners forever, each body burning according to the extent of his or her own evil.
I might then explain that the Seventh-day Adventists were co-founded by a young prophetess named Ellen G. White, who, at the age of nine, had been walking home from school with her twin sister. A classmate shouted her name. As Young Ellen turned around, this classmate hurled—apparently for no other reason than meanness—a rock, which struck the prophetess-to-be squarely in the nose. Ellen spent the next three weeks unconscious. Though she would recover, she would remain ill for years and battle various health problems for the remainder of her life. At seventeen, however, she experienced the first of what would henceforth be many visions, which included a tour of heaven where she witnessed saints receiving their crowns, each of whom were pleased with whatever amount of jewels had been set within.
There are some things, however, that I tend not to mention, things that the average Adventist would probably also keep under wraps, at least while delivering an initial introduction to the church, because these facts—taken out of their historical context, or situated outside the timetable of biblical prophecy, as it is understood by Adventists—might lead outsiders to dismiss fundamental beliefs before they’ve had time to digest how church founders arrived at their conclusions. For instance, I’ve never told my students that Ellen G. White’s first book, called An Appeal to Mothers, catalogues the myriad evils and diseases—including “disobedience,” “looks of depravity,” “manifestations of ingratitude,” “impatience under restraint,” “morose tempers excited to jealousy,” “blindness,” “epilepsy,” “deformity,” “ill-health,” “diabetes,” and even “death”—that would likely result from the practice of “solitary vice,” a phrase that, were I to use it in class, I would no doubt need to explain was better known in our modern era as “masturbation.” I would probably not explain how many Adventists believe that, in the End of Time, the Mark of the Beast would be given to those who worship on Sunday, or that those who worship on Sunday—even now—were inadvertently bringing honor to Satan. I have never—not once, in all my years of explaining Adventism to students via these minilectures—included the Adventist notion that each person has a recording angel in heaven, and that a person’s every deed has been committed to heavenly parchment, and that someday Jesus Christ will read this book and blot out only the sins that you have specifically asked Him to forgive, and that Adventists believe He is—even as I type this—ministering in the Most Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary.
I’m willing to bet if you’re an Adventist, and you’re reading this now, assuming you’ve gotten this far, you’re thinking, He’s getting it wrong. And to a certain extent I probably am. Because I know how difficult—if not impossible—it is to say “all Adventists believe,” or “all Adventists do x, y, or z.” Adventists are people, and as such, they are, as individuals, defined by their differences as much as by their similarities, no different from the members of any other religion. I have known Adventists who drink coffee and those who do not; Adventists who eat meat and those who do not; Adventists who abide by the dietary restrictions in Leviticus and those who welcome a lobster dinner or pepperoni on their pizza; Adventists who drink wine and Adventists who wouldn’t take so much as a sip; Adventists who go to the movies and those who have never once stepped foot in a theater (for Sister White had warned that no Christian would want to be caught there during the Second Coming); Adventists who watch television on Sabbath, who will eat at restaurants on Sabbath, and those who, like the husband of the sister of an ex-girlfriend of mine, filled up their gas tanks in secret on Saturday, for fear that their parents would find out they’d purchased fuel on the seventh day. I have known Adventists who profess a deep and abiding love for the works of Ellen White and those who couldn’t care less, as well as at least one Adventist who does not believe in God at all, but who simply loves Adventist culture and its traditions. I know lapsed Adventists—like the man who was a former president of his Adventist college’s senior class, and then spent decades driving a Greyhound bus from L.A. to Las Vegas, where he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars—who believe Adventism is the truth but that living the Adventist life is simply too difficult, that the spirit might be willing but the flesh is weak, and therefore they know, even as they tip back shots of whiskey and light cigarettes, that they are doomed. I know Adventists who throw balls on Sabbath, who won’t swim (though wading is okay), who won’t indulge in the playing of any games whatsoever, except those that reveal the extent of their players’ knowledge of biblical trivia. I know Adventists who curse and blaspheme and those who frown upon the use of “gosh” or “gee.” I know Adventists who won’t put up Christmas trees or celebrate Halloween or Easter because, they say, these holidays have pagan origins, and that those who participate in their celebration are honoring, albeit inadvertently, the devil. I know Adventists who support gay marriage and women’s ordination, and those who vehemently oppose both, Adventists with tattoos and piercings and those who won’t wear so much as a wedding ring, or even a friendship bracelet, for fear that said adornment would draw undue attention to their physical bodies, or make them look “worldly,” or that they were concerned with the fleeting and superficial realm of contemporary fashion. I knew those who dressed themselves in brand name clothes and those who—though not shabby— dressed plainly and conservatively; Adventists who blended in and those who embodied the teaching of 1 Peter 2:9, wherein the author, believed to be writing to the persecuted churches of Asia Minor, declared that his audience was “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” and that they should “shew forth the praises of him” who hath called them “out of darkness” and “into his marvelous light.”
As fun as it sometimes is to observe the dumbfounded reactions I get whenever I catalog the peculiarities of Adventism, I also can’t help but feel a little sheepish. It’s partly because Adventism isn’t all weird. And it’s partly because there’s no efficient way of summing it up. I know when I’m giving this little intro that I’m just scraping the surface. I’m not telling the whole story. Then again, no description I provide ends up feeling accurate enough to be true. What is absolutely, positively true, though? I loved growing up Adventist. I loved singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “This Little Light of Mine” and “Only a Boy Named David.” I loved clapping my hands together to mime “shoot the artillery” and shielding my candle finger so Satan couldn’t blow it out and swinging my imaginary slingshot ’round and ’round before the stone hit Goliath in the forehead and “the giant came tumbling down.” I loved eating Worthington meat substitutes like Big Franks and Fri Chik. More than anything else, I loved my Adventist family—grandparents, great grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts. And most of all, I loved my Adventist parents.
I might’ve sometimes wished my parents would “lighten up”—that they would let me stay up later, eat more dessert, watch more TV—but I never once thought that any other parents were better than my own. I never once in all my years of living with them saw them fight. Never heard them argue. Never eavesdropped on a “heated conversation.” Never witnessed them raise their voices in anger or frustration at the other. Whatever conflicts or arguments my parents had, if any, they kept between themselves. I never knew why, but I assume now that it’s because they feared that somehow their children would be hurt or damaged by witnessing their parents do anything but treat one another with love and respect.
And this bothered me.
I knew other kids who had Adventist parents who could seem “cooler” than mine, but the shortcomings of these parents were obvious and, in the end, overshadowed whatever permissive tendencies I wished my own parents would emulate. One of my friend’s dads sang along to Ray Stevens songs and listened to Michael Jackson and took my friend to see Ghostbusters at the local Twin Cinema, but he also left his wife not long after she’d been diagnosed with MS and took up with another woman, who I remember as being charmingly foul-mouthed but strangely and obviously less-attractive. Another friend’s dad kept a stack of Playboy magazines in the closet of his guest bedroom; I know because my sister found them during a game of hide and seek. It seemed like a good number of my friends’ parents were divorced, or were getting divorced, and even if the couple was still together, they were still far less appealing to me than my own parents, maybe because they were less funny, or were a little too pushy, or were unafraid of reprimanding kids who weren’t their own. How come everybody else had parents who were obviously flawed, who had hang-ups, who acted selfishly, who occasionally said and did ugly things? Why couldn’t I have parents like these, parents who said and did ugly things? Was it too much to ask, even, that they do just one ugly thing? I didn’t want them to be monsters; I just wanted them to be more human, because then I’d have less to live up to. Because when I measured myself against my parents, the distance between who I was and the kinds of people they were seemed insurmountable.
That’s not to say I couldn’t find little ways to resent them, like when my dad wanted me to help him retrieve sticks of kindling from the lumberyard, or drive out to the Land to cut wood with a motorized splitter whose hydraulic arm lowered its blade and crunched through the heart of a log like a guillotine in slow-mo. Or when my mother forced my sister and me to turn off the TV and sweep the porch or clean our rooms or go outside to play with our golden retrievers, which our mother always referred to as “those dogs,” reminding us that we were the ones who had wanted them, we had promised to love them and take care of them, and of course we had every intention of doing so, but that was before they grew up, before their fur—because they were outside dogs—got matted, and before my dog, the fat, dumb one, gave up retrieving altogether because his sister always beat him to thrown balls and so during fetch time simply let her do the retrieving while he turned over to receive a belly rub from the bottom of my tennis shoe because I couldn’t bear to touch his dirty underside with a bare hand.
The question of how I “got out of” or “left” the denomination seems to be one that I am most often called upon to answer, and I don’t know that I have ever told the truth to anybody who’s ever asked it, and that includes myself. When searching for an answer to this question, my brain, which has been conditioned to prefer the concrete and think of time as a linear progression, automatically attempts to scroll backwards, so as to assign significance to a particular moment in time, perhaps one in which I came to some realization or experienced an epiphany. Like most humans, I imagine, I have had my share of those, and I can think now of my second semester of college, when, living in my first time in an apartment, a place where neither parent nor teacher nor resident assistant nor dean could record my comings and goings, and so for the first time in my life, I could choose whether or not I wanted to go to church and would face no immediate consequence—no parental punishment, no mark against an attendance record— and so for the first time in my life I chose not to go. Perhaps it could be said that this was the kind of moment that I consider when attempting to find an answer to the question: “When did you stop being an Adventist?” Even so, such a question seems to fail to consider the notion that a person like me—a person who was raised in the middle of nowhere, in the melancholic hollows of the mountains of Western North Carolina, in a loving and nurturing family co-captained by two parents who had also grown up in the church, attended church schools, read church books, sang church songs, listened to church music, and church story and ate Seventh-day Adventist food—could ever really leave the Seventh-day Adventist church, or that the idea of “leaving” was any more possible than changing who my parents were, that Seventh-day Adventism was as much part of who I was as any other essential element that made me who I was, and would forever influence who I would become.
On January 19, 2020, I decided to go see the lights. The air in the cove at my father’s house was crisp and bracing. Streams roared. The sky had cleared itself of clouds. After the sun had gone down and the stars had come out, my father turned out all the lights in the house. We stood in his bedroom. Stared out the windows. I can’t remember how much time passed. For a long time, we didn’t see anything.
“There’s one,” my dad finally said.
“Over there,” he replied, pointing. “Down toward the left.”
I didn’t see anything.
“There’s another one,” he said.
Missed that one too. And the next. And the next. I thought maybe he was making them up. Or maybe his eyes—thanks to his glasses—were better than mine. Eventually, I thought I’d spotted something in my peripheral vision, which, according to my father, was where they often appeared. I was skeptical. After all, when I closed my eyes and stared into the dark, it was never dark for long: shapes would eventually begin to form and images would fade in and out, emerging and merging and submerging again; was a similar phenomenon happening now?
“They’re not very active tonight,” my father said. We said goodnight and I retired to my room, where I watched the slow fade of hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars I’d stickered to the walls and ceilings two decades before. At 3 a.m., my phone rang and woke me. The screen said, Dad. I answered.
“They’re going again,” he said. I made my way downstairs. I stood at the window. Again, I thought I’d seen something, but wasn’t sure, and said so, wondering aloud whether or not I had convinced myself that I’d somehow made up what I thought I’d seen, simply because I’d wanted to see something. “Think about how long we stood here tonight,” Dad said. “And how for the longest time we never saw anything. So, if you think you saw something, you probably did.” I couldn’t argue with that. Or maybe I just didn’t know how. I kind of didn’t care. It was enough to stand there, next to my father, staring through those windows, into the night. It was the first time I could ever remember being in his presence for such a sustained period, experiencing something that neither of us understood, and for which we had no words to explain.
Reprinted from All of Us Together in the End. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Vollmer. Used with permission of the publisher, Hub City Press (Spartanburg, South Carolina). All rights reserved.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two short-story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as three collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones, Permanent Exhibit, and This World Is Not Your Home: Essays, Stories, & Reports. He was the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over 60 acclaimed and emerging authors, and served as co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. His work has appeared in venues such as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Tin House, Oxford American, The Sun, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and Best American Essays. A winner of an NEA and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he directs the MFA program at Virginia Tech, where he is a professor of English. His latest book, All of Us Together in the End, was published by Hub City Press in 2023.
Title image: Spectrum / Hub City Press.
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