I grew up in a suburb of Detroit. My father was raised Adventist, my mother was Methodist, just barely. Until I was about five we attended a Methodist church, memorable to me now for our Sunday School teacher's handing each kid a stick of candy at the end of class. After that we started attending a fairly large Adventist church, fifteen minutes' drive up the freeway, and continued there throughout my childhood and adolescence. I never got around, as an adult, to asking my parents what prompted the change. I wish I had. My mother resisted being baptized until I was late in my teens but, as she moved into old age, she became much more Adventist-centric and doctrinally-convinced than I remember her being as I grew up.
By the time I was in the Junior Room I had become well-acclimated to basic Adventist church culture, although quite far from what might be viewed as “inner” Adventism, i.e. people who breathed Ellen White, practiced strict vegetarianism, were exclusively church schooled, etc. We ate meat at home, watched TV on Sabbath, and I attended public school until college, when I went to Andrews University.
That lopsided ratio of five days in public school versus two-plus hours of Adventist culture through church attendance produced a subliminal adolescent pushback to any gung-ho embracing of heavy-duty Adventism. No doubt, mine was the sort of story that could “justify” the Conference Education Secretary coming around with his annual sermon about the value of Adventist education, citing statistics of how Adventist-educated youth remained committed members in higher numbers than my sadly-expected trajectory. Now, it wasn’t that I was disturbed by doctrinal ideology that many contemporary Adventists have problems with. For me it was the obvious drawback of not being able to do things on Sabbath, like Friday night dances, football games, and parties at friends’ homes. That’s where my parents had, a bit arbitrarily, drawn the line. I mostly got around this by lying. In high school I played in the band but, obviously, could not be part of the marching band’s Friday night halftime programs. So, while my music teacher knew the truth, I told my bandmates I had a job on Friday night that I couldn’t get out of. This lie was much easier and normal than telling them the strange and humiliating truth, although keeping the lie consistent was a nagging problem. See, it’s the cultural weirdness that hits the kid and makes him squirm, not the theological novelties that, in those days, earned Adventism the label of one of the Four Major Cults. My classmates were only a bit more illiterate on such vagaries than I was, but they could understand a Friday night job.
Anyway, back to me, a sub-cultural straddler, in the Junior Room. I was an introvert, and with half the kids schooling together at our local Junior Academy, they were familiar with each other. I actually did ok socially, but it takes more than a few hours a week to develop significant friendship bonds. And junior high kids are hardly noted for their interpersonal independence. So I preferred to be the proverbial “bump on a log” during Sabbath School. Occasionally an adult leader asked me to participate in something up front, like scripture, prayer, or reading from the mission story booklet. Agony! I remember once faking the flu on Sabbath to be allowed to stay home. I had foolishly agreed the previous week to offer opening prayer in the preliminaries, and suffered seven subsequent days of misery dreading it.
I had several memorable Sabbath School class teachers during those years. One of my Junior Room teachers was a middle-aged man and church elder I’ll call Mr. Martin. I liked him. He related well to kids and managed to get even the quiet types like me to engage on occasion without us melting into our chairs. But in hindsight I realize that Mr. Martin was also someone fully committed to the sort of “remnant church” Adventist eschatology of the period that has subsequently waned considerably throughout my adulthood—although still strongly embraced by many more traditional SDAs.
Mr. Martin used to occasionally take part of our lesson time to wax eloquently on end-time speculation. The most memorable vignette from those little sermonic flourishes was when he told us—so we might be aware and prepared—that Jesus could quite possibly return in 1964! This was only two or three years away at the time. (Yeah, do the math. I’m old.) Of course, he noted, this was not certain, as we should never set dates. But he found it significant that Noah had preached for 120 years before the flood. (By the way, where in the Bible does it actually say that? Or was it Ellen White? Anyway, we all knew it was true.) And, you see, we were coming up on 120 years since 1844. So, the numbers worked! I imagine this might have generated some additional sobriety among fellow classmates who were more fully immersed in inner Adventism than I was. But my recollection is that I reacted skeptically. Probably because I saw nothing happening around me out of the ordinary that would precipitate such a cataclysmic shift in so short a time. I had been sufficiently acculturated to Adventist eschatology that I knew there were supposed to be multiple escalating times of trouble, followed by a fleeing to the wilderness, etc. So “the end” involved sequential and necessary milestones before Jesus could possibly come. Now, I wish I could legitimately claim I had some semi-mature prescience in this initial skepticism, but I was thoroughly “just a kid” and my doubt was hardly well thought out. Still, I did doubt that Mr. Martin was right.
Only later, certainly post-1964 and as I evolved through adulthood, has such growing-up-Adventist experiences produced what I hope is a healthy—not snarky and superior—skepticism. When well-intentioned fellow church members make categorical pronouncements on doctrinal subjects, but underpinned by questionable assumptions and logic, I need to recognize that I also have had past certainties that I’ve held near and dear, which subsequently and quietly diffused into failed “truth.” It is tempting for those of us who transitioned out of childhood from within a confident, even triumphalist, subculture, to swing the belief pendulum into rejection of everything we received from that (corny?) worldview. It can be a way of back-patting and giving ourselves the high moral ground. Jesus coming back in 1964? What a crock! But that, too, seems very foolish to me now, after more years under my belt. A better reaction would be to appreciate how little we know, which should then include openness toward correcting our personal thought mistakes—but not feeling all superior to good and well-intentioned influencers like Mr. Martin. He was a fine person, just a bad prognosticator. Adventism has much to offer the world, though less than some adherents believe—and in areas more relational and less eschatological. Skepticism is too often associated with rejection and debunking stupidity. But I think it can be better employed as a cautionary tool, not to reject carelessly, but to “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21 NKJV). Ironically, and only after many years, Mr. Martin helped me find what I hope is a balanced skepticism.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.
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