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Wake-Up Call for Adventism?


Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

This book is superb. And it is yet another reason for soul-searching in Adventist life, especially in the corridors of church power. 

But this is a story of religious liberty before there ever was a Seventh-day Adventist. In this perceptive, meticulous and very readable account, Nicholas Miller, Associate Professor of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, tells a story of how religious liberty became a touchstone of American democracy. Some early American communities, notably New England Puritans, bestowed a clear advantage on persons of the dominant religious outlook in their region. Erring conscience, as Miller writes, “had no right to indulgence or protection.” Eventually, however, the nation’s founders enshrined freedom of conscience in the U. S. Constitution’s first amendment.

How did this happen? 

Miller’s point in the book is to reject the conventional assumption that freedom of speech and religion predominantly came to us by way of the secular Enlightenment. This assumption overlooks the Radical, or “dissenting” Protestants, who themselves made an effective case, based on Scripture and the thinking of the early Martin Luther, that individual conscience must not be subject to the oversight of power elites. Miller, a law graduate of Columbia University as well as a Notre Dame-trained historian of American religious history, tells his story over nearly 200 pages (not counting notes, bibliography and index). He describes the thinking of these dissenting Protestants and shows how they affected writers such as the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke as well as key American founders and the wider American public. Not only Enlightenment influence but also its point of view regarding freedom of conscience owes much, it turns out, to radical Christian witness. Religion, Miller contends, was at the heart of religious liberty.

A key episode was the 1529 Diet of Speyer, a meeting of German princes which the Emperor hoped would build strength against the threatening Turks by restoring spiritual as well as civil unity and by healing the Empire’s relationship with the papacy. One target, of course, was Luther and Luther’s movement. But the Diet stopped short of crushing the movement entirely, and gave permission for its religious services to take place in a few territories. Still, it disallowed the further spread of Lutheranism. 

Earlier at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther, accused of heresy, had famously refused to “recant,” saying that his “conscience” was “captive to the Word of God.” Now the minority Lutheran princes refused to accept limited toleration offered by the Diet. “In matters of conscience,” they declared, “the majority has no power.” They explained that in obedience to God, each had to render an “account for himself, without caring the least in the world about majority or minority.” They said further that it is not the authority of the “holy Christian church” that determines what the Bible means, but the process of comparing scripture with scripture.     

The Lutheran princes objected (“…we PROTEST,” they wrote) to an outcome hazardous to “our right conscience,” and in his recounting of the episode, Miller points out that this was the origin of the term “Protestant.” He then quotes a historian who says that the protest of these princes constitutes “‘the very essence of Protestantism,’” a movement which “‘sets the power of conscience above the magistrate and the authority of the word of God above the visible church.’”

In a profound Reformation anomaly, these same Lutheran princes agreed to the Diet’s condemnation of Anabaptists and call for their punishment by death. But the protest they expressed, such as it was, did echo Luther’s claim that there are no superior classes within the body of Christ. In remarks addressed to German nobles in 1520, Luther had said that “there is no difference among” believers, and that baptism “consecrates us all without exception and makes us all priests.” As Miller puts it, the Lutheran princes at Speyer knew well that the priesthood of all believers topples “the papacy’s claim to ultimate scriptural authority.”

Luther himself would later support the use of force against certain heretics, but his early convictions—the ones that shaped the protest at Speyer—would nevertheless inspire Anabaptist and other dissenting Protestant opinion regarding freedom of conscience and the evil of enforced religious belief. 

This story appears in chapter 1 of the book. From these early Lutheran ideas, Miller argues, the Anabaptists developed a deeper account of church and state than that of Luther himself. Due to Anabaptism’s profound influence in the Netherlands, and to the fact that many persecuted British Protestants found refuge in the Netherlands for a time, the tradition of dissent on church and state found an avenue to the New World. Some British Protestants became Baptists. English Baptists influenced—some migrated to—colonial America.

Another conduit to America for these ideas was William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania who also spent time in the Netherlands and while there interacted with the philosopher John Locke, a former Oxford tutor of his who was himself exiled in that country for a time. Penn’s ideas on church and state were clearly in the “dissenting” mold, and as for Locke himself, he interacted not only with Penn but with the best church-state thought in the English Baptist tradition.

The rest of the book, more than half of it, concentrates on dissenting Protestants who wrote and advocated on New World soil, with key figures including Elisha Williams, Isaac Backus, William Livingston and John Witherspoon and James Madison. In the spirit of the early Luther and the Radical Reformers, these Americans made a relentless case for liberty of conscience based on the right they believed people have to judge for themselves. The stories undergird, it seems to me successfully, the author’s point that dissenting Protestant opinion was crucial for turning liberty of conscience into “a truly national principle of church and state.” 

Miller ends with an essay on the “future of church and state” that addresses contemporary problems, including the ones that have surfaced since September 11, 2001. He does not, of course, ask how his story might cast light on inside-the-church issues facing contemporary Adventism. But any aware and thoughtful Adventist reader of his book must ask: If all that Miller describes is the gift of dissenting Protestantism, can we still say that our church belongs to that tradition?

Today scholars, if not pastors and administrators, regularly associate the story of Adventism with the Anabaptist, or dissenting, heritage. Our pioneers, reflecting that heritage, bore witness, after all, on behalf of religious liberty; they also—classically, in the 1872 statement of Adventist beliefs—resisted top-down doctrinal control and forbade the use of doctrinal statements to secure uniformity of thought. 

Now there is widespread fear that our most powerful leaders are demanding uniformity of thought. In a manner reminiscent of the Papacy, current initiatives would make conscience captive to the religious hierarchy, at least for people who earn their living as church workers. In connection, for example, with the controversy over science instruction at La Sierra University, the General Conference president, in an e-mail sent on March 23, 2011, asked an associate to shape a motion for a meeting of the Adventist Accrediting Agency Board that would address this controversy. That motion, he said, should stipulate, that the university’s accreditation be “provisional” and say further that “La Sierra University faculty, with special attention to the Biology and Religion departments, who do not believe in and endorse the voted SDA belief in creation be released from service for La Sierra University.”

Judging from Miller’s book, that degree of administrative heavy-handedness clearly contradicts the doctrinal premises that energized dissenting Protestantism. The publication of the book is an opportune moment, then, not only to celebrate again our heritage of religious liberty, but also to ask why some Adventists seem determined, against the spirit of our own pioneers and even of the Reformation itself, to sabotage liberty of conscience.

My words may go too far. Insider scholars, such as those at the Biblical Research Institute, are at liberty to suggest how the questions I am raising may be misguided. (I myself think, by the way, that a church-member right to “private” interpretation of scripture needs to be re-thought in light of Matthew 18.) Perhaps both insider scholars and those with less influence have an obligation to engage the intra-church issues that Miller’s book brings to mind. We would all agree, surely, that one mark of dysfunction in a Christian community is refusal even to respond to brothers and sisters who, on at least plausible grounds, take deep offense at something that is going on.

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