On History and Prophecy: A Discussion About the Eurocentric Basis of Adventist Prophetic Interpretations

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April 14, 2020

Rabbi A. J. Heschel, in his now classic text The Prophets, upon lucidly analyzing the consciousness of Israel’s ancient prophets, observes that a “prophet’s task is to convey a divine point of view, yet as a person he is a point of view. He speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation. We must seek to understand not only the views he expounded but also the attitudes he embodied: his own position, feeling, response — not only what he said but also what he lived… the subjective side of the message.”1 The Rabbi’s project is also that of this essay. The intention of this essay is to understand the views and attitudes embodied in the Adventist interpretation of prophecy as well as to understand the subjective side of the Adventist prophetic narrative.

I shall begin with expounding on the connection between prophecy and history. Prophecy, theologically, is understood in two senses. The first is that prophecy is God’s message to the world through the agency of a prophet who carries a divine message for God’s people. In this sense, prophecy is then God’s voice through the prophet’s words. The second is the common understanding of prophecy among Adventists, which is that prophecy is an exposition and prediction of future events by a divinely inspired source. That is, prophecy is an unveiling of the future. The focus of this essay will be on the latter sense.

Prophecy, in this latter sense, is impossible without history. While prophecy is an exposition of the future, history functions as the foundation upon which prophecy builds its understanding of the predicted future. History validates the predictive power of prophecy by exposing how prophecy was fulfilled in past historical events. Thus, prophecy and history are theoretically inseparable. What most Adventists tend to miss is that prophecy not only predicts the future but also interprets the past in a specific “prophecy-determined” way — prophecy is both predictive and interpretative. The reason for this is because prophecy is not just an exposition of future events, but it also functions as a worldview of interpreting and understanding past historical events. Therefore, prophecy is more than history; it is a worldview, an instrument of understanding and interpreting history.

Historical Facts

Now that we have clarified prophecy and its relation to history, it is the question of what history is that still remains. What is history? Is it the mere accumulation of facts about the past, or is it more than this? In an article analyzing the writing of history in South Africa, Dladla notes that “some of the theoretical and practical underpinnings of history are of a philosophical nature.”2 It is these philosophical underpinnings of history which, upon delving into, might shed further light on the relation of prophecy to history.

The 1961 George M. Trevelyan lecture delivered by E. H. Carr, historian and philosopher, at Cambridge University, is quite illuminating about the philosophy of history. Carr begins the lecture by asking the question, “What is history?” There is a commonsense view of history which deems history as the mere accumulation of facts. “History,” from the commonsense view, “consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”3 From this commonsense view, interpretation comes after the accumulation of facts and the role of the historian is then to collect, organize, and interpret these accumulated facts. The commonsense view of history, in assuming that history is only about accumulation and accurate exposition of facts about the past, takes for granted the subjective aspect of history.

Carr contends that this commonsense view of history runs into a difficulty: not all facts about the past are necessarily historical facts. This is because for Carr, there is a distinction between facts about the past and historical facts. Firstly, while it is a fact, for example, that Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, “it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned.”3 While these facts are historically accurate, accuracy as a necessary function of the historian is not an essential function because these accurate facts about the past function merely as the “raw material of the historian rather than of history itself.”3 These basic facts about history are merely facts about the past, not historical facts. Secondly, Carr observes that the “necessity to establish these basic facts, rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian”; the historian selects the facts he considers significant and attaches historical value to them. Contrary to the notion that facts speak for themselves, Carr objects that “facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order and context.”3 The only reason, for example, we are interested in the release of Mandela on February 11, 1990 is because the historian regards this as a major historical event. It is the historian who decides that the release of Mandela is a historical fact worth emphasis, whereas the release of other comrades he was incarcerated with interests nobody at all. The fact that other prisoners were also released on that day is as much a fact about the past as is the fact of the release of Mandela, but it will be ignored by historians, because the “historian is necessarily selective.”3

Facts about the past become historical facts as a result of the historian’s selection and interpretation of these facts. Thus, for Carr, the “belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independent of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy.”3 Making an example of how our current picture of 5th century B.C. Greece is a picture formed by a tiny elite group of people in the city of Athens (philosophers, historians, and politicians), he observes that “our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving,”3 thus, creating historical facts.      

One lesson which Carr draws from this exposition is that “facts of history never come to us as ‘pure’” as they are always “refracted through the mind of the recorder.” It then follows that in any study of history, our “first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.”3 Yusuf Bala Usman, a historian at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, in conversation with Mahmood Mamdani, expounds on a similar notion of history as expounded by Carr. Convinced that “establishing what happened at a particle place of time, no matter how much detail is known about it does not constitute the reconstruction of history,” he further notes, “historical reconstruction requires a framework of explanation within which a series of events can be perceived and understood.”4 Thus, this highlights the importance of studying not just the historical facts, but also the historian; because the historian’s “framework of explanation” influences the “historical facts” produced in the end.

This exposition of historical facts, being more than facts about the past but also about the framework or worldview the historian assumes in the creation of historical facts, raises a number of important questions about the relation of history to prophecy. If, as noted above, prophecy and history are inseparable, the historical frameworks upon which the interpreters of prophecy are dependent are worth asking about. It is my contention in this essay that the interpreters of the Adventist prophetic narrative — being mostly white males and from 19th century America — interpret prophecy from a historical Western Eurocentric perspective, thus casting suspicion on the Adventist interpretation of prophecy. But, more profoundly, it will be shown how the Adventist prophetic narrative is fundamentally embedded on Eurocentric interpretations of history and presupposes Eurocentric assumptions about historical events from which it builds its interpretation of prophecy. Thus, the Adventist historian’s Western framework influences his prophetic interpretation.

In what follows, I will analyze a section of a now classic text in Adventist circles, Daniel and the Revelation by Uriah Smith. This is notably an old text, written during the early years of the church. I do not claim this work (Daniel and the Revelation) to be the church’s current official position on the question to be addressed. I am, however, convinced that it gives an essential understanding of the Adventist historical framework as well as the interpretation of certain historical facts. Smith’s interpretation of Revelation 13 will be the focus of the discussion. However, before delving into his interpretation, it would do us well to have a brief overview of the text.

Revelation 13

Anyone well acquainted with the Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13, more specifically from verse 11 onwards, knows that Adventists interpret the beast rising from the earth to be the United States of America. The prophecy begins with a seven-headed beast with ten horns, rising out of the sea. This beast had power and authority, which it derived from another creature — a dragon. The beast and dragon are then worshiped for some time until the beast receives a deadly wound. Around this time, a second “lamb-like” beast, having two horns like a lamb, arises out of the earth, exercises authority over everyone, and leads everyone to worship the first beast.

This prophecy has had a number of varying interpretations over history from both Catholic and protestant interpreters, but the Adventist interpretation is of particular interest as it interprets the “lamb-like” beast to be the United States of America. The rationale behind this interpretation is best expressed by Uriah Smith in his Daniel and the Revelation. This is a lengthy discussion which deserves a full and clear exposition with lengthy quotes so as to make the conclusion clear.

“And I beheld another beast coming out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon.”  —Revelation 13:11

Smith begins his interpretation of this text by using an analogy, in which he argues that “the dragon, [representing] pagan Rome, and the… beast, [representing] papal Rome, presents before us great organizations standing as the representatives of two great systems of false religion.” He proposes that the “lamb-like” beast should also find “its fulfillment in some nation which is the representative of still another great system of religion” and this great system of religion is deemed to be Protestantism. However, Smith is not just searching for a religion but specifically for a nation that represents this religion; thus, “Protestantism is the religion of nations which constitute the vanguard of the world of liberty, enlightenment, progress, and power.” From this it follows that this prophecy of the “lamb-like” beast represents “Protestant America, or the United states of America.”5

To strengthen this point, he uses several peripheral arguments. Firstly, he observes that because America has “maintained important relations with the people of God,” and that “a nation enters prophecy when the work and destiny of God’s people are definitely linked with it,” it makes sense for the USA to be what the text is prophesying of. Secondly, he argues that because John, author of the book of Revelation, characterizes this two-horned beast as “lamb-like” it must “be for the purpose of denoting the character of this beast, showing that it is not only of an innocent and harmless demeanor, but also that it is a youthful power,” implying that it was a “new” great nation among the great nations of the Western world.

Thirdly, upon arguing that the notion of the earth in the text suggests a “new and previously unoccupied territory,” he concludes by noting that “by looking to territory not previously known to civilization, we turn off necessity to the Western Hemisphere (USA).” The point he makes here is that the beast arising from the earth represents the rise of the USA from previously “unoccupied territory.” He then argues that all other prophetic nations arose by “overthrowing other nations, and taking their place”; whereas, for the USA, “no other nation was overturned in order to make room.” He continues to quote an oration by Edward Everett, “Did they look for a retired spot, inoffensive for its obscurity and safe in its remoteness, where the little church of Leyden might enjoy freedom of conscience? Behold the mighty regions over which, in peaceful conquestVictoria sine clade [victory without strife] — they have borne the banners of the cross.” Fourthly, moving from the premise that the “two horns like a lamb” signify the youthfulness, innocence, and gentleness of this nation, he argues that in this nation’s government the “ecclesiastical should be separated from the civil power, and civil and religious liberty would be characteristic.” He further argues that the two horns on the beast represent civil and religious liberty and asks a rhetorical question that in “what other country can be found a condition of things which would represent so completely this feature of this symbol?” Finally, he argues that the fact the horns have no crowns on them imply that a “nation with a republican form of Government”5 will form. Therefore, for Smith, because of the reasons noted above, the “lamb-like two horned” beast represents no other nation other than the United States of America.

Smith’s rationale, though seemingly logical, is misleading on a number of counts. In what follows, I critique Smith’s position by highlighting the things he takes for granted in his interpretation. These will then lead us into the main point of this essay, to show how Smith’s and the Adventist interpretation of both history and prophecy have Eurocentric undertones.

Problems with Smith’s Position

Smith’s rationale is problematic at both the historical and philosophical level. In this section I would like to raise these problems so as to show how Smith is influenced by a Western Eurocentric worldview, and how this is molded into his interpretation of the text.

I shall begin with the historical issues. One of the obvious problems about Smith’s rationale comes at his point about the “earth” representing “new and previously unoccupied territory.” If by this he means that the Americas were uninhabited or vacant when the USA was established, then Smith is obviously historically inaccurate. When Columbus’ Santa Maria anchored on an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean Sea, on October 1492, he found there the Arawak people.6 These Arawak had a long-shared history with the natives on the mainland. While historians disagree on the origin of these native Americans, some arguing they are of Asiatic origin7 and others arguing they are of African origin,8 what is clear is that there is a definite historical link between all native American pre-colonial societies, from the Aztecs of Mexico, the Inca of Peru, to the Powhatans and Pequots of the southern part of North America.7

Let us take for example the Aztec civilization of central Mexico with its capital, Tenochtitlan, as “one of the largest in the world, with a population of 200,000, a public water supply fed by stone aqueducts, and palaces and temples that dwarfed anything in Spain.”9 The Americas population at the time was more than a fifth of the world’s population. “Mexico, with 25 Million inhabitants, had the highest population density on earth at the time.”10 The southern part of North America is no exception; coastal Native American communities had occupied this area since a little more than 2000 BCE.11

So that I do not belabor the point which I think is clear by now, Smith’s claim that the USA arose out of previously “unoccupied territory” is historically implausible, since Native Americans have been occupants of the Americas since time immemorial. This raises a rather odd question to which I will address later: how is it that Smith, being the sort of encyclopedic historian that he was, possibly missed (to the point of establishing his prophetic interpretation) such an obvious historical fact? (Some modern interpreters will contend that “earth,” contrary to Smith’s position, means sparsely populated; this too will be addressed later).

The following argument is based on Smith’s belief that the rise of the USA was peaceful, “overthrowing no other nation” before it. This is an interesting argument taking into consideration how Western colonial powers used violence to dispose Native Americans of their land and to dismantle their nations. Contrary to the common notion that Columbus had sailed the blue seas to prove that the earth was round, his expedition was from the beginning a money-driven, imperialistic one.11 With the Spanish monarchs, Isabela and Ferdinand, having depleted Spain’s financial resources over internal wars, local merchants had developed and grown wealthy, even wealthier than the crown, and this challenged the power of the crown. Thus, the Spanish crown sent Columbus to the west as a gun man and a “representative of power… [and] an agent of violence.”11 His project there was to establish a Spanish colony and to search for gold, and Columbus would go to great lengths to accomplish this project. In 1495, for example, he went for a great slave raid in Haiti, rounded up “fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children… then [he] picked five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route.6 The rest arrived in Spain and were sold. While the Arawak did organize resistance, their weapons stood no chance against the swords and horses of the Spanish. In two years, Zinn notes, “through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”6

Zinn observes that “what Columbus did to the Arawak of the Bahamas, Cortés did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Inca of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and Pequots.”6 With the coming of the English in the late 1500s, colonial powers had shifted from “exploitive colonization (small enclaves of people sent far from their homeland in order to extract resources to be sent back to Europe) to exploitive settlement (permanent communities established to extract and improve upon resources of profit).”11

During this time, colonization did not just mean the extraction of resources but also the dispossession of land for the purpose of settlement and production. Thus, in 1585, Richard Grenville landed in Virginia, met hospitable and generous natives there and “when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village,”6 and later settled there. The Powhatan were violently disposed of their land, now Jamestown, by the settlers; the settlers would burn fields and raid native communities just before they harvested their corn. The Puritans themselves had tensions with the Pequot Indians, who occupied southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. “They wanted them out of the way, they wanted their land… the murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnapper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.”6 Interestingly, the Puritans appealed to biblical texts like Psalm 2:8 to justify their cause: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”

So, far from arising peacefully without overthrowing any other nations before it, as Smith proposes, the American state is filled with instances of violence, genocide, and annihilation of peoples and nations. Smith seems to be overlooking all of this history engrained in the story of the rise of the USA. This history also challenges Smith’s notion of an “innocent, harmless” America represented by the two-horned lamb, for the USA was in no way harmless and innocent to these native peoples.

I think the point is clear by now. By overlooking the colonial and imperialistic history of the Americas, Smith constructs his prophetic interpretation on a problematic historical narrative. It seems to me that Smith is not ignorant of this colonial history, for he makes comments about how Western empires, in colonizing Native Americans, were bringing civilization to them. I am of the conviction that Smith’s overlooking of this colonial history is neither a mistake nor is it intentional, but rather it is ideological. Smith, I will argue, moves from a Eurocentric ideological position about natives, common in his time and culture, which causes him to overlook this colonial dimension of America’s history. To be clear, it is not Smith’s historical inaccuracy that interests me in this text, but rather the ideological framework from which he moves which has caused this historical overlooking. I am interested, not in the fact that he got it wrong, but rather in why and how he landed on these misleading conclusions. This is because, in asking the why and how question, we are shifting our inquiry from the interpretation to the interpreter; we are in search of the ideological framework of the interpreter — the subjective side of the interpretation.

Central to the classical Western understanding of native peoples is the characterization that they are subpersons. Subpersonhood, as Mills notes, is a peculiar status “in which, because of phenotype, [the native] seems (from, of course, the perspective of the categorizer) human in some respects but not in others. It is a human… who, though adult, is not fully human.”12 Charles W. Mills, in his book The Racial Contract, argues that as a consequence of this characterization of natives as subpersons, the spaces they occupied were usually represented by Westerners as “literally empty and unoccupied, void, wasteland, ‘virgin’ territory… even if it is conceded that humanoid entities are present, it is denied that any real appropriation, any human shaping of the world, is taking place.”13 Thus, the claim of emptiness of the land.

The terms “virgin land” and “savage people” are theoretically connected in classical Western thought. “Land is seen as ‘unpeopled’ land, inhabited at most by ‘varmints,’ ‘critters,’ ‘human beasts,’ who are an obstacle to development… and whose extermination or at least clearing away [both literally and epistemically] is a prerequisite for civilization.”13 By characterizing native peoples as subpersons, the Western ideological framework also characterized the space occupied by them as vacant and unoccupied. An example of this is seen when the Pilgrims came to New England in search of land for settlement. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, created an excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a “vacuum”; insisting that natives “only had a natural right… but not a civil right” to the land because they had neither “subdued” the land,6 nor were they civil subjects of the colonial state, as they were deemed subpersons excluded from civil society, therefore possessing no “civil rights” to property ownership and protection.14

Thus, the notion of the Americas deemed as “unoccupied territory” to which Smith resorts in his interpretation of the “earth” in the prophecy of the “two-horned, lamb-like” beast moves from this Western ideological characterization of natives and the territory they occupied. Furthermore, Smith’s claim that the USA arose without “overthrowing other nations, and taking their place” seems to be implying that he does not consider these pre-colonial states as nations worth being mentioned in Bible prophecy. This is typical of classical Western thinkers since in their ideological framework natives are deemed to be subpersons. It then follows that native nations and states are not even considered as worth any political and historical value. In addition to this, Smith does not seem to consider the violent colonial wars against the native peoples as “proper.” In quoting Edward Everett, he refers to these wars as being “in peaceful conquestVictoria sine clade [victory without strife],” and yet still claims that the rise of the USA was peaceful and without strife. The point I am making is that Smith’s Eurocentric ideological framework blinds him to the colonial historical facts from which the rise of the United States of America cannot be divorced.

Eurocentrism and Prophecy

Smith, like any interpreter, has a subjective side; he speaks from a perspective. If, as argued by Usman above, one’s interpretation of historical facts is influenced by one’s ideological “framework,” my claim is that Smith’s misleading historical narrative is a consequence of his commitment to a classical Western ideological framework. Assuming this problematic historical narrative, Smith builds his interpretation of the prophecy of Revelation 13 on this Eurocentric ideologically informed historical narrative. This has serious implications for the Adventist prophetic narrative, since the current Adventist interpretation of this prophetic text is mostly still very similar to Smith’s exposition. Moreover, since Smith captures almost entirely what Adventists understand the text to mean, it opens a theological can of worms. The most immediate implication is that it casts suspicion on the whole prophetic narrative because it opens up the theoretical possibility that the prophetic interpretation is tinted with Eurocentric presuppositions.

It must be noted that in narrowing my observations to Smith’s interpretation of the text I do not intend to be understood as implying that there exist no alternative interpretations to the text. I focus on Smith’s interpretation with the intention of highlighting the main point that Smith, as interpreter of the Revelation prophecy, is not ideologically neutral in his interpretative project. This is the reason I do not address the idea of the “earth” meaning sparsely populated. The intention of the essay is not to address all existing interpretations, but rather to highlight the subjective side of interpretation, from which Adventist prophecy is not free.

Conclusion

The intention of this essay was to show that all interpretation has a subjective side. With Adventist prophecy dependent on history, and history dependent on the framework from which the historian interprets historical events, Uriah Smith’s interpretation of the prophecy of Revelation 13 displays at best — with his assumptions about the rise of the USA as a global power — his Western Eurocentric ideological framework. The implication of this is that it casts suspicion on the whole prophetic narrative as explained by Smith and later Seventh-day Adventists.

 

References:

1. Heschel, A. J. The Prophets. New York: Harper Perennial, 1962.

2. “The liberation of history and the end of South Africa: some notes towards an Azanian historiography in Africa, South.” Dladla, N. 2018, South African Journal on Human Rights, pp. 2-26.

3. Carr, E. H. What is History? England: Penguin Books, 1961.

4. Mamdani, M. Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. England: Harvard University Press, 2012.

5. Smith, U. Daniel and the Revelation. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1944.

6. Zinn, H. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.

7. Brogan, H. The Penguin History of the United States of America. New York: Penguin Group, 2001.

8. Sertima, I. Van. They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 1976.

9. Woodard, C. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures on North America. London: Penguin Group, 2011.

10. Taylor, A. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2001.

11. Treuer, D. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

12. Mills, C. W. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. London: Cornell University press, 1998.

13. Mills, C. W. The Racial Contract. London: Cornell University press, 1997.

14. Mamdani, M. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Johannesburg: Wits University press, 2017.

 

Blessing Mbele is currently studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at the University of South Africa, and is interested in decolonial thought and political philosophy. Blessing grew up in the SDA Church, and has held positions in the local conference, the Trans-Orange Conference Campus Ministries Department, as chairperson from 2017-2018.

Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash

 

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