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Washington Post Ponders Adventist Decline in Takoma Park

The Washington Post spends 1400 words making the argument that the absence of opposition to allowing carry out alcohol sales in Takoma Park, Maryland, signals a decline of Seventh-day Adventist influence in the area.

By the end of this month, the Takoma Park City Council is expected to decide on a proposal from local business leaders to scrap the ban on carry-out alcohol sales. The measure would have to be approved by the state legislature. Whatever the council decides, longtime Adventists say the lack of controversy over the idea shows how low their influence has declined in a town that church members around the world once looked to as a kind of Adventist Vatican City.

‘I feel like the church has just run out of gas on this thing,’ said Ron Wylie, a retired lawyer who runs Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, a charity in Silver Spring. ‘It would have been different in an earlier, more Adventist age.’

Having read Daniel Okrent’s fantastic Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition 1920-1933 this summer, I’m not sure that the focus on the lack of “dry” political fervor necessarily supports the nostalgia-soaked decline narrative. After all, Adventists, like much of American political culture, have moved on from political cooperation with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League. But beyond the “loss of identity” complaints that a few of the Adventists make, one person notes that “basically. . .most of us don’t live here anymore anyway.” In part, the shifting demographics of Adventism is a contributing factor to the lack of political presence. Through a variety of factors – the need for cheaper suburban housing, discomfort with changing urban population – Adventists aren’t as concentrated in Takoma Park as they used to be. Quoted in the Post article, “Fading of Adventist influence in Takoma Park seen in liquor-sales proposal,” Monte Sahlin says, “One part of it, quite frankly, was that Adventists had been developing a kind of anti-urban bias.” And referencing some shifts out of town by denominational institutions in the 1980s, Sahlin adds, “at that point in time, you could buy a house in Hagerstown for half of what you could in Takoma Park.”

That Adventist era stretched across most of the town’s 127-year history, putting a church stamp on everything from cuisine to politics and demographics. For decades, church doctrine helped keep the town one of the few alcohol-free pockets of suburban Maryland. In the 1960s, the Adventists’ vegetarian tradition and attendant natural food stores helped attract the hippies who would shape Takoma’s liberal, activist character. Adventists, members of a church founded in 1863, observe a Saturday sabbath and dietary restrictions rooted in Jewish law but extended to include a recommendation of vegetarianism.

. . .

The church’s influence in Takoma has waned to the point that no one at the hearing spoke as an Adventist (and no one on the council is an Adventist). ‘I think fewer people identify themselves as Adventist now at hearings or talking to town staff,’ said Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, a 16-year city worker. ‘It’s a real shift.’

Adventists originally came to the Washington suburbs in 1903 to escape factional infighting in Battle Creek, Mich., the church’s birthplace. Seeking a site near the capital, they picked a settlement of Victorian houses and muddy streets on the D.C. border. For a denomination that put healthy living at the center of its spiritual doctrine, Takoma Park’s celebrated high elevation (relative to the swampy miasma of downtown Washington) and the clean waters of Sligo Creek were perfect. But the temperate reputation of town founder B.F. Gilbert was even better.

‘There is no saloon in the town,’ wrote Adventist co-founder Ellen G. White to a friend. ‘Not one of the members of the Town Council drinks liquor, smokes or chews tobacco, or uses profane language.’

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