Skip to content

Should Adventism Dangle on Cliff’s American Edge?

On February 3, 2023, Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide, wrote an article in the Adventist Review titled “America in Prophecy? More Than Ever, Thank You.” It was an attempt to critique an essay I wrote for Spectrum titled “An Even Greater Controversy,” in which I questioned some Adventist prophetic speculation about the future of America. I am grateful that Goldstein has taken the time to engage my views, so in the spirit of conversation, I have decided to respond to his critique.

As a starting point, my essay was meant to provoke a conversation by critiquing a reading of Revelation 13 regarding the role of America. Clearly, the intention was not to present a fully developed alternative but to note historical and contemporary realities that such a reading ignores. In addition to his lack of engagement with those facts, I found Goldstein’s use of demeaning labels borrowed from American political discourse inappropriate. Let’s play the ball and not the man, Mr. Editor!

A Different World

As a starting point, an understanding of Revelation 13 focused on America in prophecy is clearly a product of our pioneers having conversations about their context. Using a religious lens, they tried to make sense of conditions in 19th-century America. This why Uriah Smith, in his seminal book Daniel and the Revelation, confessed that they looked for a nation that fit their religion and found it in America:

Analogy would seem to require that the remaining symbol, the two-horned beast, have a similar application, and find its fulfillment in some nation which is representative of still another great system of religion. The only remaining system which is exercising a controlling influence in the world today is Protestantism. . . . If, then, Protestantism is the religion to which we are to look, to what nation as the representative of that religion does the prophecy have application? . . . A careful investigation has led to the conclusion that it does apply to Protestant America, or the United States of America.[1]

This statement alone is telling. Having picked out Protestantism as a religion gaining influence second to Catholicism, Smith uses analogy to identify the United States as a nation representing that religion. But interestingly, while Goldstein seems to acknowledge that the world of early Adventism in the 1840s to 1880s was different from our world today—many Adventist historians and Ellen White experts have noted that the church pioneers were not free from bias and mistakes—he maintains that a reading of the United States as the second beast of Revelation 13 is a transcendent truth. “If the lamblike beast of Revelation 13 is really America, and God has known all through time that it is America—who cares about whatever prejudices or limits or weaknesses impacted how our pioneers came to that truth?” he writes.

This is a big claim, which is, of course, contestable. How our pioneers (coming from a Protestant heritage) came to identify America in Revelation 13 was largely a deduction from the political and socio-economic developments of their day. However one feels about it now, identifying the first beast as the papacy draws on several hundred years of Protestant belief.  In contrast, our interpretation of America as a beast is framed around a very limited set of current events during the pioneers’ period. The creative reading of a time-bound context into an ancient text makes a universal or timeless application questionable.

Do You Have to Believe in “Manifest Destiny” to Be an Adventist?

Goldstein goes on to dismiss the influence of Manifest Destiny on our pioneers by defending it. By arguing that the continent “was relatively uninhabited,” he renders the displacement of Indigenous people inconsequential, which is what Manifest Destiny (and the Doctrine of Discovery) is all about. Manifest Destiny regards the displacement and plunder of “relatively” few Indigenous communities as immaterial because the expansion of the United States was divinely ordained, justifiable, and inevitable. But history records that an estimated 5 to 15 million Indigenous people were living in North America when Christopher Columbus reached the continent in 1492. By 1900, there were fewer than 300,000. In trying to dismiss the influence of Manifest Destiny, Goldstein forgets how Uriah Smith argued that the land had been vacant:

The four beasts of Daniel 7 and the leopard beast of Revelation 13 all arose out of the sea. New nations generally rise by overthrowing other nations, and taking their place. But no other nation was overturned in order to make room for the United States, and the attainment of its independence was already fifteen years in the past when it came into the field of prophecy. The prophet saw only peace.[2]

Interestingly, Ellen White uses a similar phrase in The Great Controversy: “The nation must arise in territory previously unoccupied.” [3] One may ask, “Unoccupied by whom?” You cannot come into my house and immediately take occupation by claiming that it is relatively empty compared to your house. This is racist and colonial rhetoric that justified the use of disease, displacement, violence, and starvation to wipe out native populations across the world. Regardless of the exact numbers, Goldstein’s attempt to use the phrase “relatively uninhabited” is imprecise, irresponsible, and demeaning. He ignores that while the pioneers predicted America’s speaking as a dragon, they did not in any way dismiss the idea that its existence was an act of providence.

In any case, America’s exceptionalism is even suggested by Ellen White:

When the land which the Lord provided as an asylum for His people, that they might worship Him according to the dictates of their own consciences, the land over which for long years the shield of Omnipotence has been spread, the land which God has favored by making it the depository of the pure religion of Christ—when that land shall, through its legislators, abjure the principles of Protestantism, and give countenance to Romish apostasy in tampering with God’s law—it is then that the final work of the man of sin will be revealed.[4]

Clearly, an allegorical interpretation of the earth in Revelation 13:11 is problematic. Maybe Adventism is better off removing that this contentious interpretation represents uninhabited land. In any case, if it is really consequential to create a symbol out of the “earth” in Revelation 13:11, why don’t we do the same with the other earth mentioned in the same text?

The End of American Hegemony

In arguing for the relevancy of America enforcing Sunday laws today, Goldstein says that no power comes close to the United States, referring to its military spending as incontrovertible evidence. But the same reading of global geopolitics reveals that American hegemony is contested at various levels. For example, in response to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, writes in The Economist that “the world has been reverting to a more normal state of multipolarity . . . with China, Russia, India, Europe and other centres gaining power relative to America.”

For me, it becomes increasingly difficult to see America fulfilling the prophetic role assigned to it. In contrast, Goldstein argues the opposite. “It’s easier to see America fulfilling its prophetic role today than it was in the time of early Adventism, or at the writing of Great Controversy,” he says.

It is increasingly admitted that the distribution of global power has been shifting away from the United States as other countries amass power, whether economically or militarily. The waning of American hegemony does not take away the country’s influence in global affairs. But there is growing evidence that a sentiment of America as a singular shining city on a hill, one to which all other peoples should aspire, warrants contemporary critique.

The questioning of America’s waning hegemony is a discussion happening on many economic and political platforms. There’s an increasing recognition of how our world and its geopolitical interests are more complicated than ever. Some of the trends include the economic rise of countries such as China and India, the acceptance of other religions and interfaith platforms, and the increasing resistance to American exceptionalism in the Global South. The rise of social movements, non-state actors, ultra-wealthy individuals, and corporations is also causing power to shift away from nation-states.

Why are we not allowed to be as contextual as our pioneers? Why can’t we employ the same tools and frameworks to read our context into the biblical text? Views of American exceptionalism are stubborn, and the Adventist Church still has a theological framework that is more American than global. Inevitably, our eschatology makes us see the fulfillment of prophecy only when something happens in America or Europe. Tragedy befalling many in the Global South is normalized as having little prophetic significance, while anything in the Global North is more ominous. This warped apocalypticism is not only demeaning but continues to reduce the Global South, where Christianity is a majority, to hapless agents.

America in Prophecy?

In much of our reading of prophecy, we often focus excessively on religiocentric concerns without social consciousness. Because we have made our identity override the main message of apocalyptic texts, we have inevitably diluted the protest inherent in the visions. The reason I teased out the issue around the equivalent of a Sunday law was an admission that the Bible does not have any explicit references to the Sunday law; it is something we developed and made urgent in the late 1800s. Understandably, conditions for a Sunday law were more tangible in the United States. Today, we continue to cling to the same views, frantically trying to read into our world the attitudes and conditions prevalent in the 19th century. More worrying is how we have become obsessed with a detailed delineation of events on our prophetic calendar.

However America fits into providential plans, in our sin-sick world, our prophetic message should provide the impetus for us to challenge racism, xenophobia, greed, and corruption—among other evils. We have for years used apocalyptic themes to desensitize ourselves to the conditions around us. Our challenge to Babylon should extend to all systems, institutions, religions, nations, and social constructs that undergird the ecological, capital, and commercial crimes that have disenfranchised innocent communities for too long. At the present moment, we have been breeding escapists and conspiracy theorists whose eyes are on America more than their neighbors. This is why we end up throwing news headlines at each other to validate ourselves or discredit each other.

More than Ever, Yes!

Clearly, an interpretation of Revelation 13 highlighting America as the stage for a Sabbatarian remnant hunted by Americans who want to kill everyone who doesn’t keep Sunday holy sounded plausible to some in the past. But it does not today. Our pioneers read prophecy as an extension of their time, and so did Ellen White in her predictions. Our danger is in binding God to our calendar without being open to contesting views and critiques about America. Ignoring shifts in geographic relevance dangles Adventism’s witness on an irrelevant edge.

The worry is that if we dump interpretations of Sunday laws focused on America in prophecy, what do we have as an alternative? This is a valid fear, and I am willing to be part of that conversation. But for now, there’s no greater scam than suggesting someone outside America must forget everything else and watch out for the fulfillment of a national Sunday law in the United States under conditions that no longer exist. More than ever, we need to open up a conversation on this topic. Doing so is not a threat to Adventism but rather a challenge to our obsession with a national identity that borders on idolatry.

Notes & References:

[1] Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation, 228

[2] Smith, 230.

[3] Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 1888 ed., 441.

[4] Signs of the Times, June 12, 1893.

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

Title illustration by Spectrum.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.