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Adventism at the Rubicon: Dismantling the Americanization of Adventist Eschatology

Julius Caesar Crossing the Rubicon

The expression “cross the Rubicon” comes from a story about Julius Caesar, a successful general of the army of the Roman Republic in the north of today’s Italy. Rubicon was the name of the tiny river he crossed with his army which marked the beginning of a civil war in Rome in 49 BCE. As he took the first step, he is quoted as saying, “anerriphtho kybos! (“let the die be cast” in Greek). At the end of the war, Julius Caesar was declared dictator for life signaling the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire in 31 B.C.E. 

Prior to this, Julius Caesar successfully led troops in the north, becoming governor of Gaul, part of modern-day France. His popularity, however, led to tensions with other powerful Roman leaders. But his ambitions were not satisfied as he wanted to enter Rome itself with the army, an act forbidden by law. And so he stood at the Rubicon debating whether or not to cross. While making his decision, Caesar contemplated committing the crime of violating his role as a provincial authority and essentially declaring himself an enemy of the state and the Senate, fomenting civil war. So to cross the Rubicon means to take a potentially life-altering step that once taken cannot be undone.

Adventism, despite its global reach, notoriously retains strong North American sensibilities in liturgy, eschatology, and polity. Given the church’s history—how and where it started—this may be understandable. Considering denominational leaders’ emphasis on homogeneity coupled with respect for church pioneers bordering on deification, Adventism’s bent toward Americanness makes sense. It is often joked that Adventists in Africa have the double burden of trying to fit into another culture first before being Christlike. 

Concerning Adventist eschatology, there is controversy brewing over Ellen White’s The Great Controversy and its use in cementing Adventism’s rigid apocalyptic framework. Despite Adventist efforts to distribute up to a billion copies of the book worldwide, many Adventists share (an often unconfessed) disillusionment over many of White’s eschatological convictions. 

Unsurprisingly, church leaders stubbornly refuse to entertain questions about the United States-centric, Sunday Law-dependent end-times vision Ellen White casts in The Great Controversy. Statements from White such as this one buttress their position:

The Great Controversy should be very widely circulated. It contains the story of the past, the present, and the future. In its outline of the closing scenes of this earth’s history, it bears a powerful testimony in behalf of the truth. I am more anxious to see a wide circulation for this book than for any others I have written, for in The Great Controversy, the last message of warning to the world is given more distinctly than in any of my other books” —Letter 281, 1905 (quoted in Colporteur Ministry, p. 127).

The official Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 stands beyond critique; church leadership has made it non-negotiable. That attempts to question White’s views are treated as attacks on Ellen White’s prophetic ministry serves to fuel a harmful relationship with her book that is more shackling than sanctifying, more handcuffing than helpful.

For many Adventists, when Ellen White makes a “clear” statement about either the meaning of the Bible or about the unfulfilled future, the issue is settled beyond discussion. Every one of her predictions must be fulfilled at some future point without condition. While some see this deference to White as the hallmark of Adventist faithfulness, when examined it is nothing but an intriguing mix of arrogance and ignorance, certainty and simple-mindedness, conviction and credulity. 

Chapter 35 of The Great Controversy titled, “Liberty of Conscience Threatened” brings 19th century American religio-political affairs to the fore. Building on the work of other Adventist pioneers like Uriah Smith and John Andrews, Ellen White reiterates that the United States is the second beast of Revelation 13 and again warns that, in concert with the papal power of Rome, the U. S. government represents an impending existential threat to liberty of conscience everywhere. In many parts of this chapter, she speaks in the present tense, primarily to an audience fully aware of what is happening in America. Clearly, it is her world that she is describing, using language that is understood in that setting and culture. Unsurprisingly with the passage of time, even for many in North America, the world of Ellen White feels increasingly distant. The cultural differences between contemporary Adventists and Ellen White if ignored can result in a frustrating attempt to read ourselves into her world or trying to read her world into ours.

Because Ellen White’s writings enjoy universal if not eternal application, it becomes sacrilegious to question her writings. But that over-simplistic treatment of her work fails to erase our cultural distance from her world. Her perspective on the major issues and events of her time and place is increasing difficult to simply “copy paste” into a world whose conditions are glaringly different. 21st-century Adventists, unlike the church of 100 or more years ago, are asked to simply take Ellen White’s word for it, by faith. 

The problem is not Ellen White per se. Adventists rightly celebrate her role as a visionary who offered new paths and perspectives that propelled the church of her time. Her influence in making the church what it is today is incontestable. However, over 100 years after her death, we have, as Hanz Gutierrez suggests, taken a reductive, preservationist approach to her legacy, allowing her writings only to manage, guard and protect Adventist dogma rather than allowing her body of work to enrich Adventism. While her calling may have been prophetic, many treat Ellen White as a priest whose role is to protect a religious identity that must be guarded and kept pure. In a sense, we have reached a point where Ellen White’s role is reduced to pushing us backward, not forward; to hinder, not to encourage creativity or experimentation. And this is not an indictment on her ministry but on Adventists and our habit of manipulating her as an excuse to stay where we are. 

Could it be that we have become content in no longer dialoguing with our prophet—an approach that makes us suffer at her hand?

Could it be that our “suffering” stems from our failure to appreciate that whenever God reveals himself to a prophet, he does so within the prophet’s time, language, place and circumstances? 

The more The Great Controversy is used to address a non 19th-century, non Adventist-American public, the more its eschatological worldview falls flat. For the 19th century reader, the language, and arguments White employed sounded similar to those of her contemporaries. For example, Josiah Strong, a well-known Congregationalist contemporary of White, in his best-selling book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis, depicted a mid-19th century America in crisis when he remarked, 

“Many are not aware that we are living in extraordinary times. Few suppose that these years of peaceful prosperity, in which we are quietly developing a continent, are the pivot on which is tuning the nation’s future. And fewer still imagine that the destinies of mankind, for centuries to come, can be seriously affected, much less determined, by the men of this generation in the United States.”

Most of the perils that disturbed Strong in one way or another threatened the Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in America, the force, he argued, that represented not only America’s, but also the world’s hope. Strong raised concerns that immigration would cause the country to be overrun with Catholics. He worried that the influx of Catholics would bring about intemperance, lax Sabbath observance, urban decay and anarchy. Describing this crisis in eschatological terms led him to link America’s destiny and the future of the world. Strong remarked, “My plea is not, Save America for America’s sake, but, America for the world’s sake”. During the same time, Adventist pioneers including Ellen White referred to the United States as Protestant America, revealing how Protestantism was attached to the country’s way of life.

Jon Paulien notes that, in context, White’s most specific statements regarding the national Sunday law in the late 1880s reveal that Adventists, alongside many other Americans, saw three great threats in the public square. The first was the fear of Protestant apostasy—that Protestantism in America would lose focus on the principles of the Reformation, which also undergirded the founding principles of the American nation. 

The second major threat was the rise of Roman Catholicism in the United States. In 1840 Catholics made up about 5% of the U. S. population. By the mid-1880s, due to massive immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland, Catholics made up 17% of the U. S. population and Catholicism was flexing its political muscles in the U. S. for the first time. This alarmed both Protestants and Adventists. The love for bars and carnivals that Catholics brought with them from Europe caused many to feel that the social order was being undermined. 

The third major threat was the rise of spiritualism as a major influence in the political discourse of the time. Ellen White’s famous statement about “reaching hands across the gulf” names all three of these threats (Great Controversy, pg. 588). A union of these three forces was seen as the greatest threat to both Adventism and the American Republic. Protestants in America saw these developments as a call to be more aggressive in preserving America’s character as a Protestant nation. 

Measures aimed at curing societal ills also included attempts to ban the production and sale of alcohol, a movement later known as Prohibition. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union alongside other Protestant entities saw Sunday legislation as a way to prevent social decay. White’s outlining of that future was a natural extension of her time and place. 

Clearly, we see in Ellen White’s work reflected documented history, prevailing conditions, and breaking news of the day. No wonder she frequently used terms like “Romanism” which her contemporaries also employed. Comparing Strong’s book with The Great Controversy, one can identify similar language and arguments.

As Adventists continue to promote White’s book as a non-negotiable delineation of end-time events, they should keep in mind that because they did not live in her world, they must invariably take her at her word. An Adventist’s first act of faith is to accept White as a prophet; the second is treat her writings with unquestioning devotion. But being faithful to her witness should not be reduced to an impossibly frustrating attempt to recreate her world. The church already faces the herculean task of trying to persuade a non-Adventist public to overlay 19th century fears onto a 21st century reality! 

Adventism cannot gloss over the American exceptionalism embedded in its eschatology, and the church needs to appreciate efforts by its pioneers to contextualize apocalyptic texts. Identifying the United States as a unique embodiment of liberty in a world overrun by oppression exposes how Americanism poisons Adventist eschatology. 

Thomas Paine, in his clarion call for independence, named America an “asylum for mankind,” a place where people fleeing Old World tyranny could find freedom. These are the same sentiments expressed by Adventist pioneers in the 19th century. 

Abraham Lincoln, who also embraced the idea of a unique American democratic mission, called the United States “the last best hope of earth”. To a considerable degree, the essence of American exceptionalism—a nation state with a special mission to bring freedom to all humankind—depends on othering the outside world. 

Adventists in a multipolar world need to ensure that their unique reading of Revelation 13 and the Sunday law schema they see there will not be used to confirm American exceptionalism but to challenge it.

How can Adventists continue to peddle outdated 19th century American religious liberty concerns as a contemporary global problem? 

Given how drastically conditions today differ from Ellen White’s world, the sense of urgency she attached to the scenarios in her writings no longer resonates. America is no longer thought of as “Protestant,” and the “Christendom” she referred to now exists outside North America and Europe, predominantly in the Global South. The world Ellen White depicted in The Great Controversy no longer exists. It has ended. 

By shackling ourselves to a bygone era, we risk becoming irrelevant. If Ellen White was a student of current affairs in her day, and used that knowledge to warn the world of imminent threats, then why should we not do the same? Our faithfulness to her legacy should no longer lie in regurgitating the scenarios she predicted but in contextualizing present truth the way she did. 

Clearly, so much has changed in the last 100 years that any eschatological scenarios will necessarily unfold differently than Adventists have long predicted. 

Adventism has reached its Rubicon, an eschatological crossing that demands de-Americanizing its end-times vision. This also requires willingness to throw away the fear of being wrong or making mistakes. To claim that the remnant—itself a byproduct of exegetical errors—cannot make mistakes is a dangerous proposition. Adventist can no longer operate under outdated assumptions and allow obsolete religio-political concerns continue to haunt the church. Adventism should find nobility in its readiness to learns from mistakes, not naively assume it will never make them. Imagine a church open to starting again and to correcting mistakes through dialogue with diverse sources of thought. The Great Controversy confirms that understanding the end requires going beyond mere Bible reading, even with the best intentions, convictions, and fidelity. Ellen White had to consult multiple sources—including secular—to build her outline of the end. 

The Adventist Church desperately needs intellectual openness rather than biblical barricading; relevance, not hiding in the worn pages of The Great Controversy. The church’s struggles lie in its one-sidedness, radicalization, superficiality, overbearingness, and lack of common sense. 

Seventh-day Adventists can no longer ignore the pervasive Americanness of their eschatology as church membership continues shifting away from North America. Nothing is more suicidal to Adventist mission than eschatology that valorizes tragedies in some parts of the world but not in others, and that sees prophecy fulfillment only through the framework of the North American story. 

To cross the Rubicon is to call for a church that in its exegetical vision, historical narrative, and theological thinking will re-cast Ellen White’s writings in ways that unshackle Adventism from its notoriously Americanized eschatology. 

About the author

Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional. More from Admiral Ncube.
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