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Alonzo and Mao: Inspiring Visionaries or Misguided Zealots?

Significant moments in Adventist history happened at the same time as important events in the wider world. Adventism never exists in a vacuum. The church exists in context. It forgets that at its peril.

The week after Christmas, 1893 was a time of high activity in Battle Creek, the epicenter of the Adventist enterprise at the time. There were no mid-winter doldrums here. On December 30 during the climax of Week of Prayer, several thousand worshippers gathered in the Dime Tabernacle. Revival was in the air. In the absence of Ellen G. White, the strongest voice in the church belonged to Alonzo T. Jones. Even though he had a few critics, his powerful advocacy of righteousness by faith at the 1888 General Conference Session in Minneapolis invested him with considerable authority. 

The Sabbath prayer meeting was no ordinary assembly. Jones wanted to emphasise a complete rejection of the world, pride, and outward adornment. He dwelt on plain dress, especially a “tearing off” of gold. During an altar call to which nearly 300 responded, a woman gave Jones her late husband’s gold watch. She wanted it sold to support the work in the “harvest field.” Another gold watch followed. Golden rings, bracelets, chains, diamond studs, and even house titles soon followed. Within hours, the total amounted to $21,347, in today’s terms, over half a million dollars. In an era of economic hardship, this was nothing short of extraordinary, only possible through sacrificial fervour. 

The young church began to realise their task to evangelise “every kindred, tribe, tongue, and people” beyond North America. J.N. Andrews had established a bridgehead in Europe. Now Ellen White was working in Australia. German Adventists were active and India was soon to follow. The possibilities were endless! The everlasting gospel would be everywhere. The project was universal, and the cost would be phenomenal. The spirit of that weekend in Battle Creek was to be a model for the future of Adventism—sacrifice for mission.

Yet, as Jones stood in the Tabernacle pulpit that Sabbath, he was ignorant of an important event that would threaten the dream. He had opponents inside the church, to be sure, but this threat was to come from an unsuspected direction.

A Boy Bent on Changing the World

That Tuesday after Christmas, as Jones prepared for that Sabbath afternoon, a child was born. This four-day-old baby slept 7,000 miles away while Jones stood before the assembled believers. The Zedongs lived in Shaoshan, a Hunan province in south-central China. The family had seven children, three of them died young and another three were later executed for their political activity. The surviving son was named Mao. This Zedong boy, like Jones, changed the world.

A Star Fades

Jones was driven by the prospect of Adventist mission sweeping all before it. Perhaps he would be the one leading the crusade? For that to happen Jones believed that the church structure needed reorganising and strategies needed changing. Personnel would need replacing. His plans were radical and his methods were not subtle. Ultimately, in the face of determined opposition, his dream faded. A disillusioned Jones went to work for the rival Adventist empire headed by John Harvey Kellogg. His star faded and eventually he ceased fellowship with the church.

Radical Change in China

Mao Zedong took political activity in with his mother’s milk and devoted much of his youth to radical politics. He was not reluctant to use all means possible to secure his ends. He was ruthless. Nobody will ever know how many died during his “Cultural Revolution” and its aftermath. Even some of his own allies thought him a monster, but he believed it wasn’t the sort of project which could be achieved by gentle consensus. It would only come at immense human cost. All this began with a baby who slept while Jones stirred the Tabernacle crowd.

The Life of a Church and a Nation

There is little evidence to link Jones and Zedong in any way. It is true that Jones engaged in political activity himself, but it was in defence of freedom of religion. Both may have been zealots, but of a different order from each other. Long after their deaths, their legacies have intertwined. Today, the heirs of Jones live amid those of Mao in the Hunan province in the People’s Republic of China. There may be as many as half a million Adventists in China today among its 1.5 billion inhabitants. Their activities, like that of all Christian groups, are strictly regulated by the sort of highly centralised regime which Chairman Mao founded. They cannot convert others and the state narrative must dominate minds. More recently under President Xi, regulations have tightened and some Adventist pastors have been imprisoned. It’s easy to see how Adventism, with its American flavor, might be seen as an agent of western imperialism.

Mao’s heirs have infiltrated many of the world’s nations, mostly via “soft power.” Massive investment in infrastructure, ownership of property, banks, spectacles like the Olympic games. China has certainly found a place on the world stage. And Alonzo’s Adventist heirs have also spread over the face of the earth. They show up most where Mao’s people have ventured. 

All behemoths, political or religious, must find ways to structure chaos. Dissent must be nipped in the bud and only stories supporting the ideological narrative can be published. Structure piles upon itself, committee upon committee. The president or chairman must rule with a rod of iron. Corruption multiplies, individuals are sacrificed for the common good, the ruling elite lose touch with those they lead, and people become no more than pawns. The more this happens, the greater the danger that true ideals of the founding fathers will be obscured—their legacy lost. 

Few people in the West would disagree that this is true of Mao’s project. But has the pervading spirit of Jesus saved Alonzo’s church from a similar fate? Most human inclinations to power are present in the Adventist church. The larger the church becomes, the more prone it is to the ills of the state. And as the church aims to grow exponentially, the danger is clear.

A comparison like this between the life of a church and that of a nation is a little absurd. China’s reach is vast. The Adventist church is small, even among Christian circles. But the Adventist church could look to China to learn what happens when a project overreaches itself. Ideals fade, ordinary people suffer, crowns slip, empires crumble. 

*An interesting account of the prayer meeting is given in George R Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy, Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1987, pp 104-07.

About the author

Michael Pearson, PhD, studied philosophy and ethics at the University of London and the University of Oxford. He worked at Newbold College of Higher Education for 42 years where he is named Principal Lecturer Emeritus. He and his wife, Helen, live in the UK and run the website, Pearsons’ Perspectives. More from Michael Pearson.
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