Are Seventh-day Adventists Evangelical?

Are Seventh-day Adventists Evangelical? April 5, 2024

This is a click-bait question, but over the last few weeks it is one that has been on my own mind as I’ve been helping my students contextualize the Adventist denomination within the larger story of Christianity in the United States. What groups we think we are part of matters, and Seventh-day Adventists have managed to spend most of their history talking about evangelicals without really feeling part of that community. Asking “are Seventh-day Adventists evangelicals?” allows us to consider the various forms of group identity and the overlapping communities, values, and identities that we are layered into.

Over the last few weeks on my campus, we have hosted speakers and writers like Jay Green and Karen Swallow Prior who are currently writing about evangelicalism and this has provoked some conversation on my Seventh-day Adventist campus. What follows is more of an analysis from within the Adventist tradition–I’m sure a more global discussion from outside the denomination would look different.

Forgive me a little over-simplification which is old hat to scholars, but which most of my students and Christian friends have not heard. At the heart of the history of the evangelical movement, which for most historians of Christianity begins in the Anglo-Protestant world of the 18th century, is the idea of conversion. Christianity, even devout Protestantism, flourished for centuries without focusing on cultivating a particular moment of choice or transformation for change or commitment. But with the Great Awakening and the music, revivals, and personal experiences that these movements encouraged a new focus developed with many Protestants on the emotional connection to God.

Historians call this movement evangelicalism, and while denominations such as Methodism grew out of it, it was more of a temperament and language across churches than a collection of denominations or a new organization itself. Many Protestant Christians did not emphasize emotions or conversion or activist transformation of oneself and the world around them, and one could be a traditional or conservative Christian without being “evangelical.”

The idea of conversion required that a Christian see a difference in their lives and while many evangelicals took that to mean strict behaviors around entertainment or dress or devotional practices, others focused on reform of the sins of the world around them. They led out in the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, urban reform, and  the missionary and church-building emphases of the 19th century.

The technologies, politics, and responses to modernity in the 20th century United States added newer para-church elements. Publications like Christianity Today, book stores and radio/tv programs, new seminaries to train ministers (across a range of denominations), conferences, music, and events/experiences that appealed to the hearts of conservative Christians created a new sense of connection beyond one’s local church and across denominations. Many evangelical leaders and church-planters embraced the idea of “non-denominational” which untethered them from organizational leadership.

This post-WW2 phenomenon is when the “culture,” especially the commercial/capitalist element, of evangelicalism becomes clear. Those who used the language of “Christ-centered” or “relationship with Jesus” and other ways of communicating the themes within evangelicalism found commonalities with each other outside the organizations we called denominations.By the 1970s journalists took the term evangelical and began using it widely so that it took on political activism that had always been part of the movement.

Seventh-day Adventists emerged from the Second Great Awakening as one of the several new churches that were particular to the United States. Revivals, conversion, and activist reforms were all part of the early Adventist movement and people who study the theology of evangelicalism would see those 19th century Adventists as embodying the evangelical ideas: centering the Bible, focusing on missions/conversion, putting the cross at the center of the story of Christianity, and activism.

I’m going to be a little dogmatic and say that by most scholarly definitions of evangelicalism in the 18th and 19th century, most Seventh-day Adventists before World War 1 were evangelical. With the formation of Fundamentalism within US Christianity, and its formation on the folks who might otherwise have been labeled evangelical, Seventh-day Adventists became more self-conscious about their place in conservative Christian culture. And it became controversial to talk about whether Adventists were evangelical, both within the church and within evangelicals outside the church.

With the formation of the list of core beliefs known as “The Fundamentals,” it became clear to many Adventists where they differed from other conservative Christians who were evangelical. They had much in common, but the differences (as is so often true) were instructive and perhaps core to their identity. For instance, the inerrancy of the Bible that was communicated in the Fundamentals contracted the understanding of inspiration articulated by Adventists. Because one of our founders, Ellen White, is viewed by Adventists as having a prophetic ministry, we may have some nuance in how inspiration works. And there were real divisions about the Second Coming and how the events predicted in Revelation would play out.

While Fundamentalism became a major expression of evangelicalism in the United States, Adventists were getting more sectarian and insular. Their denomination took on its form and institutions became more stable and influential. So while they held much in common with conservative Protestants who could be called evangelical or fundamentalist in the early 20th century, they were increasingly pivoting to converting U.S. Christians to their own denomination and to building structures that supported missions (especially in healthcare) and educating their youth.

So sectarian were they that when a few Adventist scholars tried to reach out to the expanding evangelical movement in the Billy Graham era after WW2, they found that many conservative Christians in the US weren’t sure that they were orthodox in their theology or fellow travelers in the evangelical space. The efforts to have conversation with other like-minded Protestants caused a conflict within US Adventism as it seemed to violate the sense of isolated purity that over the 20th century had become a strong culture for North American Adventists. Evangelicals seemed to eventually make space for Adventists, but it became very controversial within my church to say that Adventists were evangelicals.

Part of this was the very strong and overwhelming ethic Adventists have regarding the separation of church and state. Mid-twentieth century evangelicalism was moving beyond the confines of The Fundamentals (though many if not most evangelicals might have still embraced them). It was more energetic and focused on changing society through the means of political influence and voting in what they saw as Christian policies. This concerned my denomination and made many sure that Adventists could not be evangelical. They were also not imbibing in any significant way the larger “culture” of evangelicalism within the Cold War USA.

All this began changing in the 1990s with the expansion of technology and the loss of insularity within Seventh-day Adventism. Many Adventists threw off the sectarianism of the previous century and embraced their commonalities with evangelicals, including the consumer culture around publication, music, radio, events, and eventually social media algorithms. New Adventist churches sometimes took on the look and feel of evangelical mega-churches, and as an Adventist elder and lay preacher in the early 2000s I often attended the training conferences “non-denominational” evangelical leaders utilized to build their networks.

As Adventists in the United States began reading, following, and attending events featuring evangelical leaders, they lost some of the traits caused by isolation and sectarianism. The storehouse of evangelicalism was rich, and sometimes a breath of fresh air. When I “discovered” evangelicals in graduate school, I was thrilled with how deep the spiritual resources were and how much I benefitted from the traditions and practices of my new evangelical friends and organizations. I learned about the history of evangelicalism and realized this was the stream of Christianity out of which my denomination had sprung and so often found myself saying: “Yes, Seventh-day Adventists are evangelical.”

But Adventists were late to the “culture” of evangelical game. We still tend to attend and support our own denominational schools and events, and a startling amount of us work for our church. By the early 2000s we were consuming evangelical products and culture in wider and wider ways. Yet it took a long time for trends like purity culture to catch up with us, and many local Adventist churches are still unable to find praise music (ubiquitous in most evangelical worship spaces) palatable.

And yet, there were a couple of distinct differences that continue to make the Adventist and evangelical fit difficult. The commitment to separation of church and state is deep and real for Seventh-day Adventists. We have an entire church department whose job it is to remind us of our commitment both to religious liberty and a secular state who we want to protect a range of religious (and non-religious) communities. And because our North American church is not majority white and is in fact deeply reflective of what immigration in the United States looks like, the dominance of whiteness within evangelicalism is less attractive, or feels less “natural” to many within our church. Worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday and keeping Sabbath also make for strong alternative cultures.

So here’s how I’m landing on the question of whether Adventists are evangelical. In the 19th century, based on the theology and activism definitions—Adventists are a hard yes. In the 20th century Adventist activism declined and we avoided the politics of evangelicalism. Our differences from the Fundamentals made us leery of evangelicals (and they remained worried about us). We didn’t participate in the “culture” that made up evangelicalism in the Cold War. So that’s a no. But over the last 30 years, in the United States, while our theology hasn’t changed, our participation in the consumption of evangelicalism and our lessening sectarianism has meant many white Adventists have definitely seen themselves as fellow travelers with the wider evangelical movement. Many evangelicals may feel the same, depending on how open they are to what Chris Gehrz has called “The Irenic Spirit of Evangelicalism.”

The problem with coming up with a good answer to whether Adventists are evangelical demonstrates in a teacup the overarching challenge with that term in the world we live in. When we talk theology, we might land one way, but when we focus on culture and emphasis and relationships, we might land another way.

That’s a tortured analysis but you didn’t think there would be an easy answer, did you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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