Seventh-day Adventists


Seventh-day Adventism, one among several uniquely American-born Christian traditions, resulted from the religious fervor and innovations of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1795-1830), which generated schisms in established churches and plantings of new religious associations across the United States, including Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region.

Ellen G. White was a main founder of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, and many of her prophetic visions and books have become pillars of the faith. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Adventist movement began as an offshoot of the Millerite movement that spread over much of the United States in the early 1840s. An apocalyptic, millenarian community, Millerites adhered to New York farmer William Miller’s (1782-1849) scriptural calculations for the Second Coming of Christ, which was to occur in 1843-44. When Christ did not return, the inaccuracy of Miller’s predictions became known as the “Great Disappointment” and led to a splintering of the movement. A faction of remaining Adventists—those who continued to believe in an imminent return of Christ—formed a new community under the direction of spiritual visionary Ellen Gould Harmon White (1827-1915), her husband James White (1821-81), fellow revivalist Joseph Bates (1792-1872), and Hiram Edson (1806-82), whose views of the Second Coming became foundational in Adventist theology. Using Ellen White’s prophetic visions for salvation and seventh day (Saturday) worship as their guide, Adventists established a formal church in 1863 with the creation of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

With roots in the Methodist and Baptist camp meeting culture of the “burned over” district in western and central New York, the new Adventist movement preached and practiced active evangelism. Missionary efforts by the Whites and their followers led to small communities of like-minded Adventists in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and over the course of the next century, in the Midwest, western United States, and abroad as a global church. As membership increased, congregations were established, with local conferences or missions overseeing matters of Church polity, and union conferences or missions serving as regional authorities and grouped under large divisions.

Seventh-day Adventist representatives pose in this 1919 photograph at one of the most controversial and ideologically turbulent conferences ever held within the faith. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since its establishment in 1907, the Columbia Union Conference has overseen the Mid-Atlantic region, encompassing Adventist communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the Chesapeake region, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. By some estimations, the Pennsylvania conference and missions within the Columbia Union organized as early as 1851 under the direction of Hiram Edson and early Adventist missionary and former Millerite J.N. Andrews (1829-83). After more than two decades of evangelizing efforts, the Pennsylvania conference grew to more than one thousand members in over three dozen churches. In the century and a half since its inception, it expanded to include nearly one hundred churches, and more than ten thousand members.

Chesapeake and New Jersey Heritage

Companion conferences in the Chesapeake region and New Jersey likewise claimed ties to early Adventist missionaries like Joseph Bates, who visited the Chesapeake area in the 1850s. The Chesapeake Conference officially organized in 1899 and included Delaware, much of Maryland, and the District of Columbia. It subsequently expanded to a conference of more than seventy churches and fifteen thousand members. The New Jersey Conference quickly followed suit, organizing in 1901, and since that time developing into a region exceeding seventy-five churches and ten thousand members. In the late nineteenth century, Adventist missionaries in the Columbia Union Conference competed in particular with Catholics and Methodists for converts in the religious marketplace.

The Seventh-day Adventist faith has a strong connection with the Philadelphia area and has established many churches in the area, such as the First Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church at City Line and Edwards Roads, featured in this 1962 photograph. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The Adventist movement has had a unique connection with “Philadelphia,” as the Pennsylvania city shares that name with one of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation (3:7). After the Millerite Great Disappointment of 1844, a contingent of Adventists believed themselves to be the fulfillment of that church—a chosen 144,000, who were marked by God for salvation. In this early period some inhabitants of Philadelphia and Baltimore hoped to be among these chosen few, attending revivalist camp meetings in the surrounding area as early as 1844. As the tradition grew, Ellen White’s visions often mentioned Philadelphia by name, along with New York, Boston, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and San Francisco—all viewed as urban centers of sin and corruption. Missionary efforts were concentrated in these areas, preaching temperance and health reform for spiritual purification, with a tent meeting in New Market, Virginia, in 1876. Though initially small, missions in Philadelphia gained strength with the establishment of the Columbia Union Conference, which convened there for the first time in 1907.

Service and missions have been at the core of Adventist practice and identity, with special attention to health and wellness, education, and civil rights. In its outreach, the church has used Adventist media outlets like the Adventist Review (established as The Present Truth in 1849) and Hope television channel (started in 2003). Adventist health missions have remained grounded in White’s 1863 vision for health reform, in which the prophetess called for vegetarianism, the avoidance of tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol, and regular exercise and hydration.

Battle Creek Sanitarium

John Harvey Kellogg was a staunch Seventh-day Adventist and directed one of the first health resorts that promoted Adventist health philosophies. (Wikimedia Commons)

In preparation for Christ’s return, “God’s diet” and wellness reforms were made available to Adventists and non-Adventists alike when the Whites and fellow Adventist John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) opened the Western Health Reform Institute (later the Battle Creek Sanitarium) in Michigan in 1866. The popularity of the “San” led to the construction of several more sanitariums in the U.S. and abroad, paving the way for a robust global Adventist hospital system. In Pennsylvania, the Adventist Whole Health Network continued this mission of the early church, offering community wellness programs mirroring White’s early visions for holistic health care.

Adventist children’s ministries have followed a comprehensive approach to education, stressing spiritual, physical, and academic growth. The church opened primary schools as early as the 1870s, with secondary schools, junior colleges, boarding schools, four-year colleges/universities, and medical schools following soon after. In the greater Philadelphia area, this has included primary and secondary schools in the Lehigh Valley and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as well as in Wilmington, Delaware, and Trenton, New Jersey.

In the decades following Ellen White’s death in 1915, the structure of the church shifted through publications like the Working Policy (1926) and the Church Manual (1932). Outlining matters of governance and organization, these policies led to an evolution in the tradition, with increased growth in churches through the 1930s and 1940s. This resulted in the formation of churches inside and outside of urban areas and the organization in 1945 of predominantly Black Adventist churches in the Allegheny Conference East, which by the twenty-first century included several principally Hispanic congregations as well. The conference developed in size to nearly one hundred churches with more than thirty thousand members, including the Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist Church in Philadelphia (established in 1931). This diversity in the church extended to Adventist converts in the Philadelphia area from Korea, Indonesia, Ghana, Brazil, Hungary, and Haiti.

From the beginning, the Adventist movement strongly advocated for service, both for followers and non-Adventists. Urban charities and missions in the Philadelphia region have provided vegetarian meals to those in need after Sunday services; offered community Bible studies, ESL courses, and health screenings at low or no cost; participated in disaster relief; actively supported new congregations in the process of “church planting”; and, through the volunteer-based Arise and Build program, erected new church structures for budding congregations in need. From a small denominational sect of roughly 3,500 in 1863, the Adventist tradition grew by 2019 into a global church of nearly twenty-five million.

Emily Bailey is Assistant Professor of Christian Traditions and Religions in the Americas at Towson University, Towson, Maryland. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Miller’s Predictions about the Second Coming of Christ, 1843

Wikimedia Commons

William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Millertie movement that led to the Seventh-day Adventist faith, had deep Baptist roots. Raised in an intensely religious Baptist home, Miller rejected his faith and became a deist in the early nineteenth century after being exposed to philosophers such as Voltaire (1694-1778) and David Hume (1711-1776). Yet after serving in the War of 1812 and experiencing wartime horrors, he began to ponder the idea of an afterlife and converted back to the Baptist faith. Miller began to obsessively focus on the Second Coming of Christ and spent hours reviewing scripture, making calculations to pinpoint the exact time of the Savior’s arrival.

Miller based much of many of his calculations on the scripture “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” -Daniel 8:14. He believed that “the sanctuary” represented the earth and the apocalypse was inevitable. After over a decade of studying, Miller espoused his predictions that the world would end in 1843 or 1844, featured in this 1843 diagram, and began to preach his teachings in 1831. Miller’s predictions were frequently published in Pastor Joshua Vaughan Himes’s (1805-95) paper Sign of the Times and Miller gained a national attention and attracted between 50,000-500,000 followers. After two failed predictions, Miller made a final calculation that the Second Coming of Christ would take place on October 22, 1844. This became known as “the Great Disappointment” when Christ did not appear and many Millerites gave up their faith. Although the Millerite movement ended, previous followers formed the Seventh-day Adventist faith that grew to over twenty-five million members.

Ellen G. White, 1864

Wikimedia Commons

After the “Great Disappointment” of 1844, several leading Millerites broke from the movement and created the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Two of the most influential founders were Ellen Gould Harmon White (1827–1915) and her husband, James White (1821–81). Ellen, pictured in this 1864 photograph, became a key figure in the new faith as a prophet and author. Ellen had started attending William Miller’s (1782–1849) sermons with her family at the age of twelve. There, she became overwhelmed with guilt about her sins, converted, and started experiencing visions that her family believed were sent from God. The Millerite meetings were also where she met her future husband, James, who adamantly believed in her visions.

Ellen White claimed to have had over 200 visions during her lifetime, many of which helped guide the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist faith. Indeed, following the “Great Disappointment,” White’s visions held a message of hope for disillusioned believers, encouraging them to follow the new faith born out of the Millerite movement. White published a plethora of theological books, such as her famous Steps to Christ (1892), as well as many works on the importance of education and health reform—two issues that became centerpieces of the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Since her death in 1915 and her husband’s death in 1881, the White’s houses and estates have become historic sites, and the Ellen G. White Estate Inc. was established to help spread and interpret White’s works and promote Adventist history.

John Harvey Kellogg, circa 1910

Wikimedia Commons

John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), pictured in this photograph, was born into the Seventh-day Adventist faith, and his father John Preston Kellogg (1806-81) was one of the few members of the faith that pledged a large sum of money to help move Ellen (1827-1915) and James (1821-81) White’s publishing business to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1855. This location served as the central site for Adventist businesses and institutions during the early years of the faith. Kellogg did not receive a formal education since his family adhered to the belief that Christ’s second coming was imminent and therefore schooling was unnecessary. Instead, Kellogg worked for the Whites' publishing company and it was during this time that he came into contact with Adventist material on health reform. Kellogg helped publish articles in Adventist publications such as The Health Reformer, and became enthralled with the health philosophies described in them, particularly about vegetarianisms and holistic approaches to healing.

The Whites paid for Kellogg’s education and he went on to attend medical school and become the superintendent of the Western Health Reform Institute in 1876. Kellogg changed the name of the institution to Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium in 1877. During its heyday, the institution boasted 30 physicians, four buildings, and accommodations for over 400 guests. The buildings held wings devoted to hydrotherapy, physical training, and thermotherapy. Under Kellogg, many of the Adventist health reform teachings were carried out, such as the holistic approach to treatment. It was during this time that Kellogg developed the early formula of what is now known as corn flakes cereal. It was originally consumed by sanitarium visitors and was intended as an anaphrodisiac, since Kellogg was staunchly celibate and believed to be truly healthy and spiritually pure one had to abstain fully from intercourse.

In 1902 the sanitarium burned down, and in 1903 Kellogg published The Living Temple a book about his views on health that combined Adventist views with science. Although Kellogg used the proceeds from his publication to restore the institution, Ellen White disavowed the book and Kellogg was summarily disfellowshipped from the faith and removed as head of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Yet, during Kellogg’s tenure at the sanitarium he had helped underprivileged persons receive medical attention, developed one of the first cold breakfast cereals, and created such a well-known reputation for the institution as a wealthy getaway that both Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-82) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) visited it during their lifetimes.

Delegates at the 1919 Seventh-day Adventist Conference in Washington D.C.

Wikimedia Commons

The 1919 Seventh-day Adventist Conference was hosted by Arthur Grosvenor Daniells (1852-1935), the president of governing organization for the faith: the General Conference. The Seventh-day congregation had grown so large that conferences or unions were often established to oversee local or regional organization. However, in the early twentieth century, American Protestantism was torn between fundamentalist and modernist views, and the Adventist faith was no exception. Fundamentalists had a strict and unwavering devotion to everything recorded in the Bible, while modernists questioned the unverifiable and non-scientific aspects of the Bible.

During the conference, major figures discussed controversial topics and the importance of Ellen G. White’s contributions to the faith. Some delegates questioned whether or not White’s prophecies could be used since they contained inaccuracies, even though White herself acknowledged her errors. In the end it seemed as though the younger, more liberal minded members accepted much of the fundamentalist beliefs, such as a strict adherence in White’s writings. However, issues were hotly contested during the conference and it was the first academic conference that for the Seventh-day Adventist faith. The 1919 Conference was a milestone for the Adventist church and cemented what the faith’s core beliefs were.

First Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1962

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Philadelphia has been intertwined with the history of the Seventh-day Adventist faith from the beginning. The city held a particularly strong position in the visions of Ellen White (1827-1915) since she identified cities as centers for sin and corruption. Therefore, Adventists believed it was their duty to set down strong roots in these urban centers in order to cleanse them. After Ellen White’s death in 1915, the church created new missionary policies and reaffirmed their commitment to saving these urban centers by establishing new urban churches during the 1930s and 1940s. This photograph depicts the First Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, located at County Line and Edwards Road. Many new Adventist churches of color were also established, including the Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1931. Now the Adventist organization in Philadelphia helps the local communities by providing services such as low-cost or free healthcare, food, and bible studies.

Brazilian Seventh-day Adventist School, 2015

Wikimedia Commons

Seventh-day Adventists have focused on the education of young members since the foundation of the church. It has since become a cornerstone of the faith, and the church has established more than 8,000 educational enterprises around the world, such as the one pictured in this photograph. Seventh-day Adventists believe that in order to become a good person and spiritually prepared, people must be educated about both spiritual and academic subjects. As stated on the official Adventist educational website, “The aim of true education is to restore human beings into the image of God…” with their official objective being to “prepare learners to be good citizens in this world and for eternity.” The mission to bring Adventist educational philosophy to the world is evident in the schools found in the greater Philadelphia area, such as Lehigh Valley and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Related Reading

Aamodt, Terrie Dopp et al. Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Bull, Malcolm and Keith Lockhart. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Land, Gary, ed. Adventism in America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986.

London Jr., Samuel G. Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Morgan, Douglas. Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001.

Numbers, Ronald L. Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.

Reid, George W. A Sound of Trumpets: Americans, Adventists, and Health Reform. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982.

Wacker, Grant. Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Williams, Peter W. America’s Religions: Traditions and Cultures. New York: MacMillan, 1990.

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