Seventh-day Adventists formed their doctrines and organizational structure before developing their lifestyle. An American-born sect, Adventism nevertheless had roots in the Radical Reformation and Methodism. Its blend of Apocalypticism, Primitivism, and Holiness strains created four distinct streams of Adventism that influenced its adherents’ lifestyles in the Burned-Over District when numerous reforms swept Antebellum America. While two of its founders — Joseph Bates and James White — shaped its doctrines and organizational structure, Ellen White played a formative role in creating an ideal Adventist lifestyle. Following the Millerite Great Disappointment, these three founders inculcated a reformist ideology into the Adventist lifestyle. If at times this mindset engendered fanaticism, infighting, and legalism, at other times it brought positive change as this essay will show.
In many respects Adventists resembled three other religious groups in upstate New York: Shakers, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. After the Great Disappointment, some 200 Adventists joined the Shakers. One of them was Elizabeth Temple, who shared her famous “Renovating Remedy” with the Whites. Ellen’s second cousin, Agnes Coolbrith, married Mormon Don Carlos Smith and later his brother, church founder Joseph Smith. Throughout their history Adventists have often been mistaken for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses whose conservative lifestyles they share.
In lifestyle formation, this religious background has made it easier for Adventists to focus on ad hoc standards based on tradition and precedents rather than on principles. In an effort to avoid “ghetto formation” (Amish isolation) and assimilation (like the Methodists), Adventists established “bounded sets” of rules rather than “centered sets” based on relationships. Over time, they also created a shared descriptive vocabulary (“Adventese”) that distinguished insiders from outsiders.
Their decision to worship on Saturday separated them from contemporary Christians, but made them beneficiaries of a Sabbath-keeping tradition stretching back to the Abyssinians in Ethiopia; the Celts in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland; the Insabbatati in Spain and Bohemia; and some among the Waldensians, Anabaptists, and Lollards in the middle ages. They likewise saw themselves as heirs of Radical Reformation Sabbath-keeping groups scattered across sixteenth-century Europe; they were especially grateful to the Seventh Day Baptists in seventeenth century England and eighteenth-century America for preserving the seventh-day Sabbath.
In fact, their study of the biblical and historical roots of the Sabbath constituted the first thorough investigation of any doctrine or lifestyle practice by Adventists. Not until the topic had been exhaustively examined and debated by Adventist preachers, writers, and laity, including T. M. Preble, J. B. Cook, Rachel Oakes Preston, Frederick Wheeler, and Joseph Bates, was agreement reached that the seventh day was the true Sabbath. Yet disagreements arose over the proper time to keep the Sabbath. Bates argued for 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday; some favored midnight Friday to midnight Saturday; others adopted a sunrise to sunrise schedule. Further Bible study by John Andrews in 1855 convinced everyone to adopt the sunset schedule.
This legalistic mindset helped Adventist evangelists attract huge crowds for debates with Sunday-keeping ministers throughout the nineteenth century. It also inspired the Whites to remind believers that the Sabbath was a time for worship and not for work or play; therefore, they should “guard the edges of the Sabbath.”
If they agreed on the time to keep the Sabbath, Adventists differed concerning the manner of observing it. Many Millerites had favored holy prostrations, leaping, weeping, shouting, hell-fire sermons, and visionary experiences in their meetings; after the Great Disappointment, some Adventists practiced holy hugs and kisses, noisy singing, crawling on the floor, and foot washing. Ellen White, who came from the “Shouting Methodist” tradition, favored a charismatic worship style that included vigorous singing, shouting, weeping, public visions, confessions, and testimonies. By contrast, James White, who came from a Christian Connexion background, preferred reasonable discourses and harmonious singing. Both, however, accepted glossolalia as a divine manifestation and during Pentecostal-like services, Adventists in Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Indiana spoke in unknown tongues.
Millerite camp meetings, featuring tearful testimonies, fervent preaching, vigorous singing, and shouted exclamations, also set the pattern for Sabbatarian Adventist gatherings. However, camp superintendents and two-hour discourses soon made Adventist camp meetings more orderly. Likewise, Ellen White’s admonition to preachers not to pound the pulpit, shout, or contort their bodies added respectability to late-nineteenth century worship services. Yet Adventist camp meetings did not at first catch on in Australia, England, and Europe due to their American roots, wet climates, local poverty, class prejudices, and circus associations. After 1900 they largely ceased to be evangelistic and became in-house revivals, a development General Conference President A. G. Daniells regretted. Nonetheless, camp meetings are an enduring legacy of the Millerite movement among Adventists today.
Another institution that provided corporate identity to the “scattered flock” of Sabbath-keeping Adventists was the Sabbath School. Utilizing James White’s lessons for children in the Youth’s Instructor, families began holding Sabbath Schools in private homes in Rochester (1853) and Bucks Bridge (1854), New York and Battle Creek, Michigan (1855). Following a Sunday school format, Sabbath Schools featured Bible study, prayer, memorizing Scripture, mission offerings, recitation, and Gospel singing. Over the next century, special songbooks, magazines, and lesson quarterlies evolved for the Cradle Roll, Kindergarten, Primary, Junior, Earliteen, Youth, and Adult Sabbath School groups. In addition, the Sabbath Schools and Rivulet Society sponsored projects to build the mission ship Pitcairn and to translate the Bible into foreign languages. Today regular offerings collected in these Sabbath School classes and church services benefit global mission institutions and the summer Vacation Bible Schools for neighborhood children. Like their Methodist forebears Adventists gather for midweek prayer meetings, singing, and Bible study and for quarterly Communion services that include foot-washing and consuming whole wheat wafers and grape juice.
Yet great diversity characterizes Adventists’ public worship. Some congregations prefer a liturgical service; others choose a celebration format; a few adapt Jewish practices; and still others blend these styles. Several studies and surveys, however, have raised concerns about declining church attendance and a rising dropout rate among Adventist youth. Many who have deplored the church’s emphasis on doctrines and standards as guilt-inducing have sought a worship experience based on warmth, acceptance, and relationships. Recent critics have suggested that the church needs to place more emphasis on spiritual renewal; adopt the methods of the Willow Creek Church; reach out to the community; and grant members greater flexibility in choosing doctrines and lifestyles that fit their needs.
One’s choice of worship styles also reflects one’s aesthetic values, and in the realm of art, architecture, and sculpture, Adventists have been utilitarian. Like Luther, who used black-and-white woodcuts as “graphical sermons” to teach apocalyptic lessons, and their Millerite progenitors, who printed woodcuts and engravings of the images of Daniel and Revelation on cloth charts, Adventists in the 1850s used lithographs in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald to illustrate their views of God’s Law, the beasts of Daniel and Revelation, and the plan of salvation. Editor Uriah Smith also created woodcuts for the Youth’s Instructor to illustrate stories. By the 1880s and ’90s, Adventist periodicals featured black-and-white cartoons depicting temperance and anti-Catholic themes, and with Ellen White’s encouragement, evangelists created papier-mâché beasts that gripped audiences’ attention. Such didactic uses of art did not foster art programs in Adventist colleges until Pacific Union College in California offered art courses in the 1880s; other colleges did so after 1900; but art departments did not exist until the 1950s.
Likewise, early church architecture was utilitarian. Reflecting their Puritan roots, Adventists erected wooden, rectangular meeting houses with a tower or belfry, Federal style door moldings, and tall windows for natural light; their “plain beauty” emphasized order, function, and neatness. Later congregations built Victorian chapels with side towers and Gothic windows. In 1879 Adventists in Battle Creek, Michigan erected a brick edifice seating 3,000 members with a belfry, balconies, and clock. Not until the 1920s, however, did other congregations build Classical, Federal, or Greek revival chapels of brick and, despite Ellen White’s earlier objections, Gothic churches with towers, steeples, arched windows, and spires. Once again this emphasis on economy, simplicity, and utility forestalled the training of professional architects until Andrews University established a degree program in 2003.
Furthermore, some Adventist artists had to contend with church leaders who associated painters with loose morals. But several developments in the twentieth century helped change Adventists’ negative view of the creative arts. Beginning in the 1950s Betty Lukens’ 600 full-color felts illustrating 182 Bible lessons sold over 1,000 sets internationally each year, shaping children’s views of Bible characters. These Sabbath School felts were in turn based on the colorful biblical art of Adventist painters Clyde Provonsha, Jim Arribito, and Harry Anderson that illustrated Arthur Maxwell’s popular ten-volume The Bible Story set (1951-58) widely distributed by Adventist Book and Bible Houses and colporteurs. Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, artists Ken Mead, Greg Constantine, and Nathan Greene painted canvasses and produced art books depicting Christ in contemporary settings. Sculpture found little expression until the 1960s and ’70s when English Alan Collins began depicting abstract and biblical themes with sculptures of Creation and the J.N. Andrews family at Andrews University and the Good Samaritan on the campus of Loma Linda University.
Recent Adventist critics have advocated greater church support for painting, drama, film, dance, literature, and music that “restore God’s image in humanity,” bear witness to God’s creativity, reflect the diversity of biblical literature, emphasize feelings and not just intellectual beliefs, and enrich people’s lives. Recent accomplishments in this vein include The Comic Book Bible, The Manga Bible, The Brick Testament, and the half-century display of art in ten different media by fifty artists from seven nations showcased in the journal Spectrum.
Having determined the proper day, time, and place for Sabbath worship, church leaders next discussed the proper way to observe the day. Attending Sabbath School, church, prayer and testimony meetings topped the list of public activities, but the Whites also recommended Bible reading, nature walks, missionary visits, and hymn singing at home. Church, school, and family picnics and potlucks were also acceptable. A century later Fannie Houck’s manual for newly baptized members recommended attending Sabbath School and church, studying the Bible, taking nature walks, listening to spiritual music, visiting nursing homes, and distributing religious literature. Reading church periodicals; attending Missionary Volunteer and Pathfinder meetings; joining Sunshine Bands; and going on campouts were also approved.
To protect its sacredness, church leaders forbade certain activities on Sabbath. Since the 1860s Adventist conscientious objectors in the military have been forbidden to work on Sabbath. Members were urged not to read secular literature, attend school, or work on that day. Yet Blue Laws in America and Europe penalized Adventists who worked on Sunday. Some Sabbath restrictions were culturally based. Jamaicans did not perform baptisms on Sabbath. Brazilian men always wore ties but no beards; women wore long-sleeved dresses; and no one played electric organs in church on Sabbath. Yugoslavian youth could not swim, ski, boat, shave, shower, window shop, or listen to secular music on Sabbath. American boarding academy teens were forbidden to bicycle, swim, play ball, chew gum, or shower on Sabbath. In the 1980s Houck’s manual for new converts forbade shopping, house cleaning, secular reading, radio and TV viewing, and doing homework on Sabbath. As attacks on American churches, mosques, and synagogues increased, some congregations debated the pros and cons of arming deacons; others created hospitality statements to make everyone feel welcome.
The rise of Adventism in the nineteenth century coincided with the growth of team sports, bare-knuckle boxing, and the bicycle craze in America. But Ellen White called boxing and football “schools of brutality” and condemned bicycles as an extravagant expense. Having given up checkers, chess, and backgammon as a girl, White condemned games and sports for fostering rivalry and idolatry; she called them unholy amusements, foolish pleasures, a waste of time, and even Satanic in origin. GC President John Byington and Review editor Uriah Smith wrote articles opposing baseball, football, and croquet. Yet White gave toy trains to children; Byington went fishing with his grandkids; Smith bought his son Parker a baseball; and Signs editor Ellet Waggoner played tiddledywinks and parlor games with his daughters. Despite official disapproval, organized sports proliferated in the late nineteenth century. In Battle Creek, the Review and Herald baseball team played the Advanced Shops and Foundry team in 1887; in the 1890s Battle Creek College in Michigan, Union College in Nebraska, Healdsburg College in California, and Keene Institute in Texas fielded football and baseball teams, while Avondale College in Australia sponsored cricket and tennis teams. Despite their parents’ disapproval, Edson White and Parker Smith played on Adventist baseball teams.
But by 1901 Ellen White’s disapproval of organized games spurred college presidents to turn sports fields into vegetable gardens. In place of games, she recommended manual labor, picnics, and outdoor pursuits. By the 1920s, however, Battle Creek Adventists’ social lives included picnics, swimming, boating, and plays as well as pitching quarts, badminton, croquet, and Halloween parties.
Consequently, twentieth century Adventism reflected a schizophrenic attitude toward sports. The church officially “discouraged” commercial sports, card games, checkers, chess, dominoes, and Monopoly for wasting time and “frowned upon” billiards and bowling for their immoral associations. Yet Bible, nature, and word card games were “instructive” and pickup ball games were “recreational” if not “carried to excess.” But if some leaders opposed intercollegiate games, others favored them, and 78 percent of Adventist youth disagreed with bans on inter-school sports. Despite this contention, by the 1980s, 80 percent of Adventist colleges belonged to the National Intercollegiate Athletics Association or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and fielded teams in soccer, basketball, football, volleyball, softball, or track; 25 American Adventist academies also participated in interschool sports. Also, church leaders (some of whom played Rook at constituency meetings) forbade the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department to defend players who protested that Saturday games violated their religious freedom. Yet church leaders who frowned on interschool sports competition applauded when Pathfinder groups competed in marching drills, knot tying contests, and pinewood derby races.
Nonetheless, a few Adventists have made notable contributions to sports and gaming. Adventist physician Frank Jobe, who served for 40 years as the team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pioneered the “Tommy John” surgical procedure; in 2014 the Dodgers named their training facility for him. Isabel and Mario Lucero created an online company called Heaven Sent Gaming that features comics, games, and novels with an ethical focus that attracts 15,000 monthly viewers globally.
If sports harmed the body, gambling, often associated with dance halls, saloons, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and houses of prostitution, endangered the soul. Ellen White condemned gambling as “Satan’s invention.” She rebuked Adventists who prayed before tossing coins to make major decisions. Likewise evangelist John Loughborough was bewildered by Adventists in Reno, Nevada who in the 1870s replaced gambling on checkers and chess with a topical Bible game they played for four consecutive meetings. He concluded that Nevadans were by nature addicted to gaming. Today the church opposes gambling as a violation of Christian stewardship, antisocial, uneconomic, and addictive; a habit that promotes selfishness, covetousness, and greed; and a practice that makes chance the basis of conduct. Nonetheless, this author has known a few Adventists who engaged in recreational gambling and a handful who assist in the running of Native American casinos.
Likewise dime novels, which harmed the mind, were condemned by Baptists and Methodists for their sentimentality, emotionally stimulating nature, anti-Christian themes, and focus on crime, sex, and violence. Ellen White forbade reading sentimental, sensational, erotic, profane, and trashy literature because doing so was addictive, wasted time, and unfit the mind for serious study. Yet she encouraged the youth to read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Sabbath Readings for the Home Circle, an 1863 compilation of uplifting stories. Review Editor Uriah Smith, who opposed novels that “poison the mind” and “destroy a taste for all that is useful, wholesome and true,” warned members that they must answer in the Day of Judgment for time wasted on such trash.
Paradoxically, however, Smith had been classically trained at Philipps Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and in the 1890s taught classes at Battle Creek College whose seven-year Classics B.A. degree was steeped in Greek and Roman mythology. He also printed in the Review evangelist Dudley Canright’s recommendation that children should read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Robinson Crusoe, and nine other fictional works. Ellen White’s son Edson also read fictional storybooks and surreptitiously practiced target shooting with an air gun at Battle Creek’s amusement arcade. Nor did Mrs. White remove the imported tiles depicting King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table around her fireplace at Elmshaven in California. But it greatly upset her in the 1890s when the Review and Herald press published dime novels, Wild West stories, romances, and books promoting Catholic teachings, hypnosis, and witchcraft. She warned Smith to get rid of such “trash of satanic origin.” When the publishing board ignored her, she urged the Review workers to go on strike — and predicted a divine cleansing by fire, which came in December 1902 when the press burned to the ground.
Consequently, when the golden age of children’s literature dawned in the 1920s, Adventists compromised by producing inspirational fiction such as Arthur S. Maxwell’s mystery story The Secret of the Cave (1920), his 20-volume Bedtime Stories (1924-1944), The Children’s Hour (1945-1949), and his ten-volume Bible Stories (1951-1958) set which by 1983 had sold over 63,000,000 books. Jerry Thomas’ Detective Zack series proved wildly popular in the 1990s, as did apocalyptic adult fiction such as Merikay McLeod’s Now!, June Strong’s Project Sunlight, Ken Wade’s Orion Conspiracy, and Edward Eggleston’s End of the World.
If novels per se were no longer prohibited at boarding academies after the 1950s, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were banned in all Adventist elementary and secondary schools for their emphasis on violence, ghosts, poltergeists, witches, wizards, spells, and curses. But many boards approved C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings set because their violence highlighted the great controversy between good and evil. Finally, Adventist novelist David Duncan has argued that fiction opens to us truths that would be inaccessible otherwise and thus fills our lives with meaning.
Christians condemned theaters which portrayed fictional dramas on stage and featured prostitution, alcoholism, and pickpockets. Likewise, vaudeville combined Shakespearean scenes, burlesque, blackface minstrelsy, dances, acrobatics, and pantomimes with reenactments of stabbings, shootings, hangings, poisoning, suicides, and train wrecks. Even upper class operas highlighted violence, passion, and lust. Ellen White, who condemned the theater as “the very hotbed of immorality,” warned members not to subject themselves to its temptations, which included low songs, lewd gestures, immoral settings, indecent content, and scenes of drinking, gambling, dancing, and card playing that debased morals, depraved the imagination, destroyed religious impressions, and blunted a relish for real life. From its founding in 1874, Battle Creek College had forbidden students to attend local billiard halls, saloons, skating rinks, and gambling dens; in 1890 the faculty added theaters to the list.
Yet many Battle Creek Adventists in the 1880s and ’90s attended theatrical plays. And while Uriah Smith condemned circuses and theaters in the Review, his wife Harriet took their boys to the county fair for horse races and sideshows and to Chicago for panoramas on the Civil War and the siege of Paris. George Amadon, head copyeditor at the Review, took his daughters to circuses and magic lantern shows and to see the Cardiff Giant Hoax. Ellen White’s granddaughters Ella and Mabel also attended magic lantern shows and followed the circus parades and calliopes (although they were forbidden to see the circus acts). In the early twentieth century, Adventist evangelists used colorful glass stereopticon slides to illustrate their sermons, and by the 1940s they rented public theaters for their “crusades.”
But with the advent of moving pictures in the 1890s, members were conditioned to see theaters as bad places, threats to family unity, full of violence and vulgarity where evil was glamorized and spiritual values compromised. Adventist youth were warned that since the devil was inside the theater, the Holy Spirit and their guardian angel could not enter. So boarding academy bulletins from the 1920s to the present have forbidden students to go to cinemas or watch theater movies on VCRs, DVD players, and laptops in the dorms. No films rated higher than PG-13 can be shown on most campuses today. At some Adventist colleges in the 1950s, students who went to the cinema were blacklisted and given a final warning before being expelled; instead, the faculty invited Stan Midgley, Sam Campbell, and Don Cooper to show nature and skiing films on Saturday nights.
But thousands of Adventists flocked to academy and college campuses in the 1960s to see The Sound of Music, a movie Scott Moncrieff asserts lies at the heart of Adventist cultural literacy. Moncrieff encouraged Adventists to see more foreign and independent films; analyze the movies they saw; talk with friends about them; and read books about films. In 2007 Winona Wendth listed the top ten movies all Adventists should see. Recent Adventist film critics have applauded movies for teaching truth, respect, love, beauty, and Christian beliefs in fresh ways; they have suggested that good films can be evangelistic, create culturally connected Christian communities, express our common experiences and shared memories, keep our hopes alive, and articulate our deepest concerns. Consequently, although the 1990 Church Manual warned against the “sinister influence” of the theater, in a 1992 survey, 64 percent of Adventist youth felt it was OK to go to the theater and 96 percent had no problem watching movies on TV, VCR, or DVDs at home.
In 2003 Southern Adventist University, the first church college to establish a School of Visual Art and Design, produced Angel in Chains, the first Adventist-made film to achieve commercial viability; the following year Adventist movie producer Terry Benedict’s film biography of Desmond Doss, The Conscientious Objector, appeared. Movie moguls Martin Doblmeier and Mel Gibson have also produced films about Seventh-day Adventists.
When television appeared, pastors, teachers, and parents feared it would bring the theater into the home. Articles in the Review and Youth’s Instructor criticized TV for wasting time; showcasing sex, violence, and the occult; causing a decrease in viewers’ vocabularies, family communication, church attendance, Bible study, family worship, restful sleep, and homework completion; contributing to a rise in obesity, tooth decay, cardiovascular disease, eye problems, noisy behavior, cynicism, and juvenile delinquency. Many predicted that TV would cause addicted viewers emotional and psychological harm; foster greed and materialism; create alcoholics and lawbreakers; and lead to a rise in divorce and illegitimate births. Some Adventists in Germany and Puerto Rico even considered it a sin to own a radio or a TV.
Yet just as Adventists had found evangelistic applications for radio in the 1930s and rented theaters in the ’40s, so they quickly adapted their message to the medium of television in the ’50s. In 1950 William and Virginia Fagal pioneered Faith for Today, a live 30-minute broadcast featuring stories, religious drama, short talks, quartet music, and a Bible correspondence course from a studio in NYC. In the 1970s a dramatic full-color format replaced the preaching focus on Westbrook Hospital, then located at Thousand Oaks, California. In the 1980s Dan Matthews hosted a TV talk-show format called Christian Lifestyle Magazine that reached over 1,500,000 viewers in 56 countries each week.
George Vandeman’s It Is Written (1958) broadcasts targeted urban audiences with a weekly mix of Adventist doctrines, health, and felt needs programs that won seventeen Angel Awards; Mark Finley directed it after 1992 from Thousand Oaks, California. Beginning in 1973, C. D. Brooks hosted Breath of Life, a weekly TV program based in Fort Washington, Maryland, targeting black audiences with fervent preaching and singing by the Breath of Life Quartet; Walter Pearson replaced Brooks in 1997. Adventist Hispanic TV programs included Al Dia (1972-77), Ayer, Hoy, Manana (1975-93), La Voz (1984 to present), and KSBN’s Safe Television for All Ages (1993 to present). In 1986 Danny Shelton created a self-supporting TV network, Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN) based in Thompsonville, Illinois, that showcased recorded church services, evangelistic series, children’s shows, health discussions, and family-focused programs. Adventists also utilized satellite TV to target global audiences for the NET’95–NET’99 evangelistic series. In 1972 the Adventist Media Center was established at Thousand Oaks, California, to house the above radio and TV ministries; in 1995 they all moved to Simi Valley, California.
Reversing a century of negative attitudes toward film, in 2002 the North American Division sponsored the first Sonscreen Film Festival to encourage Adventist college youth to produce uplifting films. To date, students from Andrews University (Michigan), Southern Adventist University (Tennessee), and Pacific Union College (California) have garnered the most awards for their movies. In addition, more than a dozen TV celebrities today have Adventist connections. Although Oprah Winfrey has no Adventist ties, her show has inspired some within the church to emulate her techniques on Adventist TV.
As White and her Methodist forebears had opposed the theater, they also banned dancing. When asked to contribute funds for the dances at Dr. Jackson’s sanitarium in Dansville, New York where James White was a patient, Ellen refused, saying, “I am a follower of Jesus.” She called dancing “a school of depravity” that “opened the door to sensual indulgence.” Yet returning to the U.S. from Australia in 1901, she and other Adventists attended a festival at Honolulu featuring barefoot women in bright silk gowns festooned with leis dancing the hula.
Although church publications in the 1980s and ’90s condemned dancing for its unchristian associations and immoral temptations, many young people disagreed. A survey taken in 1992 revealed that while dancing was prohibited by 78 percent of Adventist congregations and 61 percent of schools, only 46 percent of families enforced the no-dancing rule for their children. Furthermore, 57 percent of Adventist youth disagreed with the church’s prohibition on dancing.
But a 2012 survey conducted by former European union President Reinder Bruinsma revealed that White’s warning about sensual indulgence appeared to have validity since 18 percent of Adventist couples cohabited prior to marriage. They did so for many reasons: financial hardships, fear of marriage, and a desire to insure the compatibility of their mate. Bruinsma urged officials and laity to manifest sensitivity, love, and acceptance for those who chose a lifestyle widely condoned in some cultures. Others worried that lack of commitment and some cultures’ subordination of women could engender abuse within such relationships.
Dress, too, had moral as well as health implications. In the 1850s when fashion dictated that women wear expensive, uncomfortable, fifteen-pound dresses with hoops, corsets, bustles, trailing skirts, and high heels, Elizabeth Miller, Elizabeth Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, and Harriet Austin wore the “American Costume” with pantaloons and a short skirt. But while Ellen White called hooped skirts ridiculous, disgusting, and unhealthful, she opposed the American Costume for its short skirt and its adoption by Spiritualists.
Instead, she created the “Adventist Reform Dress” in 1865. Made from black cloth, loose-fitting, with a waistcoat and tapered pants covered by a skirt whose hem reached the top of a woman’s boots, this garment modeled the principles of modesty, plainness, function, and comfort. The Battle Creek, Michigan congregation adopted it and mandated that members’ attire must be scrupulously plain: feathers, flowers, gold, silver, false hair, ribbons, and fancy buttons were verboten. Yet when many Adventist women refused to wear the reform dress in the 1870s, White dropped it, urging women to find their own modest dress styles. Nonetheless, GC President George Butler insisted that the girls working at the press wear the reform dress, and former GC President John Byington bemoaned its abandonment in 1875. However, as late as the 1890s, when Georgie Harper wanted to wear a green velvet wedding dress, church leaders in Britain forced her to don the reform dress that all female church workers in England wore for her marriage to future GC President William Spicer.
Obviously, setting dress standards lends itself to a “bounded set” mentality (see note 25), and this mindset has prevailed at Adventist schools for over a century. Especially at boarding academies, bulletins dictate male and female attire with great precision regarding what is appropriate to wear to church, class, PE, recreation, and in the dorms. For the girls, this often results in what this author has called “the Battle of the Kneecap” (dress length) as well as plunging necklines, dyed hair, and heavy makeup; for the boys, it usually means disapproval for tight, torn, tie-dyed, tank tops and jeans. Paradoxically, one can fairly accurately determine what fashions are in style by examining these annual lists of banned clothing. As late as the 1970s at Andrews University, for example, one president sent a letter to female students reminding them of the dress code and urging them not “to expose themselves” in miniskirts, while another president in the 1980s sent letters to the faculty telling them to send students inappropriately dressed to the dorms to change their attire.
Like the Anabaptists, Puritans, Quakers, and Methodists before them, American Adventists saw jewelry, including wedding rings, as an inappropriate accessory to one’s attire. At Millerite camp meetings, attendees dropped rings, breast pins, and earrings into the offering baskets. Declaring that “the outside appearance is an index to the heart,” Mrs. White opposed all forms of adornment (including bows, laces, and ribbons). Church leaders Daniel Bourdeau, J. N. Loughborough, and Uriah Smith found gold ornaments, brooches, and cufflinks unbiblical.
Yet photographic evidence reveals that Adventist women wore jewelry at Battle Creek College, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and even in the Battle Creek Tabernacle, where an 1893 revival resulted in 188 baptisms and the Great Jewelry Offering which netted $6,000 worth of gold watches, chains, rings, bracelets, cufflinks, diamond studs, and pins. Ellen White herself sometimes wore metallic chains, pins, and brooches. Returning to the U.S. from Australia in 1901, she wore a conch shell necklace given her by the South Pacific Islanders. Her son William and his second wife Ethel Lacey wore wedding rings in Australia in the 1890s and their daughter Ella Robinson later wore a necklace. As president of the California Conference in the 1870s, John Loughborough had sought to curb the wearing of gold necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings by Adventist women and gold cufflinks and tie pins by the men. Yet a decade later when the Loughboroughs were missionaries in England, John’s wife Annie wore brooches and pins on her dresses, despite Mrs. White’s reprimands. Photos show Letta Sterling, editor of the Adventist children’s journal Our Little Friend, wearing a heavy gold necklace in 1886. Other church workers in Battle Creek sported pendant necklaces and beaded chains as late as 1919.
But the rise of the Fundamentalist Movement in the 1920s impacted Adventism in many ways, one of which was the banning of jewelry at Adventist schools. Over the next century, students at boarding academies were forbidden to wear necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, chokers, key chains, brooches, pins, ankle and friendship bracelets, body piercings, and tattoos. Although General Conference officials had condoned wedding rings in 1986, the Church Manual (1990), citing 1 Timothy 2:9, urged members “To dress plainly, abstaining from display of jewelry and ornaments of every kind.” Conservatives valued such concrete standards as entry level symbols separating converts from worldly society and thus demonstrating commitment to a set of values (modesty, simplicity, stewardship). Liberals, however, felt that wearing jewelry reflected customs, not morals; wearing it was a sociological act, not a sin. In a 1992 survey, 64 percent of Adventist youth felt it was OK to wear a wedding band and 42 percent disagreed with the church’s ban on jewelry.
Despite the Medieval Church’s ban on the tritone as demonic, Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin encouraged congregational singing of hymns and psalms, and the Moravians and Methodists sang exuberant Gospel songs. Like the “Shouting Methodists,” Millerite Adventists sang with fervent enthusiasm about the raptures of heaven.
Because James White’s father was a singing teacher and Ellen’s family was “Shouting Methodists,” they promoted congregational singing and hymn-writing contests. James included Baptist and Methodist hymns and “white spirituals” in his eight hymnals; his son Edson compiled six songbooks; and Ellen’s nephew Frank Belden produced seven hymnals. In 1864 White sent J. N. Loughborough lutes to help his congregations sing harmoniously; in the 1870s Loughborough introduced Adventists to children’s choirs, singing lessons, and organs.
Ellen White favored rollicking, soul-searching, emotional revival songs accompanied by the organ or guitar; she disliked duets, oratorios, frivolous ditties, and high church music. She sang for family worship; when suffering arthritic pain; to waken sleeping listeners; when facing temptation; while bathing; and occasionally in her sleep. She approved setting religious words to popular tunes to help members sing harmoniously. Outstanding Adventist musicians included Annie Smith, R. F. Cottrell, Kate Amadon, and Henry de Fluiter. In the 1890s black Adventist preacher Lewis Sheafe chose a Pentecostal hymnbook for his evangelistic meetings in Washington, D.C., while worshipers at Indiana camp meetings sang Salvation Army style music with tambourines, bass drum, horns, fiddles, and trumpets.
Adventist music thrived in the twentieth century once pipe and electric organs appeared in churches. Colleges and academies sponsored bands, orchestras, and choirs led by trained (male) conductors and Adventist Book Centers sold recordings of Christian and Classical music. Because these devices also played jazz and rock music, beginning in the 1920s, academies banned radios, phonographs, tape recorders, CD and DVD players, and Walkmans. In the 1960s, however, contemporary praise music, with electric guitars, drums, and keyboards, replaced organs and pianos; Gospel rock songs projected on huge screens and led by praise teams replaced choirs and hymnbooks; and many feared musical illiteracy would result. To combat such illiteracy the Adventist Musicians Guild and the General Conference sponsored the compilation of a greatly improved Adventist Hymnal in 1985.
Yet even in sacred music, Adventists’ tastes varied widely from Classical, liturgical, and spirituals performed by the Aeolians to the New England Youth Ensemble, the Ambassador Chorale Arts Society, Herbert Blomstedt, and Shi-Yeon Sungto to the country and pop songs performed by the Heritage Singers and the Gospel and folk tunes sung by the guitar-playing Wedgewood Trio. Despite attempts by a Music Committee in 2006 to establish an Adventist philosophy of music, strong disagreements exist between older members who would ban Christian pop, jazz, rock, electric guitars, and drums and surveys showing that 83 percent of Adventist youth regularly listen to rock music and 55 percent disagree with bans on rock.
During an Antebellum Era saturated with water cures, hydropathic sanitariums, and temperance books, journals, and lecturers, Adventists joined the American Temperance Society and later the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Church founder Joseph Bates formed the Fairhaven Temperance Society in 1827 and captained temperance ships. Adventists composed at least ten temperance songs against the use of alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee. Review articles against tobacco shifted from seeing it as an idol, a waste of God’s money, and an immoral habit to emphasizing its body and mind-destroying nature. However, in the 1860s there were still a few Adventist ministers smoking in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Ellen White, who urged members to vote for temperance candidates, called tobacco “a filthy weed” that must be given up by those who wanted to go to heaven; J. N. Andrews called it a sin; and J. N. Loughborough barred smokers from church membership. White and church leaders also condemned alcohol and drugs as “poisonous substances” that brought death to their users. In 1868 the Whites rebuked Adventists who raised tobacco and hops (for beer) even if they did not use those substances themselves. Instead, Adventists were urged to join the WCTU and Dr. Kellogg’s American Health and Temperance Association, enroll their children in temperance clubs, and sign the teetotal pledge. In 1879 the AHTA secured 133 signatures to that pledge; a decade later it had 20,000 members. But students at Battle Creek College who were caught using tobacco and alcohol were expelled.
Led by Ellen White and the Adventist WCTU evangelist S. M. I. Henry, Adventists enthusiastically supported all temperance and Prohibition candidates in the late-nineteenth century, and Adventist evangelists regularly invited WCTU speakers to use their tents for temperance rallies. In 1882 William Gage became Battle Creek’s first Adventist mayor while campaigning on a prohibition ticket. While in England during the 1880s, the enthusiastic pledge-signing J. N. Loughborough joined the Anti-Narcotic League, the United Kingdom Temperance Alliance, the Christian Temperance Missionary Society, the Band of Hope, the Vegetarian Society, and for good measure, the Anti-Vaccination Society.
But not all Adventists lived that “healthy and balanced lifestyle with attention to the laws of health” (as White defined temperance). Some California Adventists were still using wine (instead of grape juice) at Communion services in the late-1870s. In Switzerland J. N. Andrews encountered wine-drinking church members and beer-guzzling, smoking attendees at his evangelistic meetings in the 1880s. Review and Herald foreman George Amadon was forced to fire smoking and drinking press workers; in the 1890s a dozen non-Adventist employees were jailed over night for public drunkenness. After 1895, those Adventists struggling with coffee and tea addictions could drink C. W. Post’s non-caffeinated beverage Postum; for the next century, this became a popular hot drink among Adventists and Mormons in 71 countries.
After the 1920s Adventist boarding academies, which served no coffee or tea, expelled students for smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs; but as these practices increased in the 1980s, faculty required offenders to attend rehab programs such as the Five-Day Plan to Quit Smoking (later called Breathe-Free Plan) and the 4 DK Plan to overcome alcohol or drug addiction. Elementary children and secondary youth annually received temperance magazines (The Winner and Listen); composed temperance jingles, speeches, and bulletin board displays; and signed the teetotal pledge.
But a 1979-89 survey of 1,500 teenagers indicated that 22 to 24 percent of them disagreed with the church’s standard regarding alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. A 1984 survey of 106 Glendale Adventist Academy teens showed that 25 percent of them had gotten high on drugs and 31 percent felt that marijuana should be legalized. Yet two more surveys in the 1990s indicated that 20 percent of academy students had indulged in binge drinking and approved of serving wine on social occasions; 67 percent of them regularly drank caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, soft drinks). Another paradox was the fact that while Prof. James Nethery of Loma Linda University led the Coalition for a Healthy California to galvanize West Coast Adventists to secure the passage of the Tobacco Tax Initiative (1988) adding 25 cents to every pack of cigarettes, three Adventist members of the U.S. House of Representatives were taking between $500 and $14,000 from five tobacco companies.
Next in importance to temperance is diet, and a host of nineteenth-century health reformers sought to change Americans’ carnivorous habits to avoid dyspepsia. While church founder Joseph Bates had embraced health reform in the 1820s, James and Ellen White were still eating meat in the 1860s. But in response to an 1863 vision, Mrs. White, linking health with spirituality, urged Adventists to use natural remedies and eat a balanced vegetarian diet. She would elaborate on these recommendations in four books. While most Adventists adopted a balanced health regimen, some went to extremes, opposing the use of salt, sugar, milk, and butter and seeking to expel those who ate meat. For their peculiar dietary habits, Adventists in Battle Creek were nicknamed “Gizzardites” by local citizens.
Yet many, even among church leaders and ministers, found it difficult to abandon their carnivorous diets. Between 1863 and 1894, Ellen White occasionally ate duck, baked fish, fried chicken, turkey, and tinned tongue. After nearly starving on bread, cheese, and butter on his way to England aboard the Majestic, S. N. Haskell relented and ate corned beef. Review editor Uriah Smith and GC President John Byington and their families regularly consumed meat at home and while traveling. GC President O. A. Olsen admitted that most Adventist ministers in the 1890s neither practiced nor promoted health principles. Shellfish and oysters were also consumed by nineteenth-century Adventists who did not see them as unclean meats. Ellen White’s son, William, and his family enjoyed savory joints of meat in soups and meat hash. Battle Creek College served meat to students until 1900 when President Prescott became a vegetarian and banned meat from the tables. Many delegates to the General Conference sessions in Battle Creek ordered chicken and steaks in the Sanitarium cafeteria, and meat was also served at Adventist camp meetings as late as 1906.
Mrs. White in 1908 urged GC President A. G. Daniells to back an Anti-Meat Pledge, but he demurred, stating that this would create a hardship for Adventists in Scandinavia (where fruits and vegetables were not readily available) and in Brazil and Argentina (where beef and mutton were key products). Instead, he agreed to sponsor cooking schools to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. Daniells’ successor, William Spicer, was a vegetarian at home but ate meat while traveling until 1922 when he became GC president. Although Stephen Haskell drew the line between clean and unclean meats (based on Lev. 11) in 1903, not until this information was published in the 1931 Yearbook did it become official church policy. Not until 1951 were baptismal candidates asked to adopt vegetarian lifestyles; and only in 1981 was this incorporated in church doctrine.
Consequently, despite the fact that vegetarianism is a unique belief among Adventists not shared by other Protestant denominations, it is the least biblical of all church beliefs and one of the most controversial. Yet scientific studies involving Adventists over the past sixty years have clearly demonstrated that those following vegan or lacto-ovo-vegetarian lifestyles live longer (7-10 years) lives less troubled by diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, and a host of cancers. Nonetheless, a 1992 survey showed that 18 percent of Adventist youth regularly ate unclean meats and another 16 percent occasionally did so. Despite 150 years of preaching vegetarianism, in 2019 only 19 percent of Adventists adhere to vegan or vegetarian diets; another 11 percent are pescatarians (eat fish); 32 percent eat meat once a week; 24 percent eat it several times a week; and 14 percent eat meat every day. Despite this reality, Adventist Book Centers today do a brisk business selling vegan and vegetarian cookbooks.
Adventists also established institutions to promote healthful lifestyles. Their first sanitarium, the Western Health Reform Institute (WHRI) in Battle Creek, Michigan, was modeled after Dr. James Caleb Jackson’s Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York, where five famous Americans and thirteen sick Adventists had recovered their health thanks to a regimen that included hydrotherapy treatments, a vegetarian diet, fresh air, sunlight, rest, exercise, daily baths, and abstinence from tea, coffee, butter, meat, and white bread. Encouraged by Ellen White, John Loughborough raised funds for the WHRI; recruited Drs. Lay, Trall, and Byington to run it; started the Health Reformer magazine; and wrote a medical book, the Hand Book of Health (1868), to promote healthful living among Adventists. When Dr. Kellogg took charge of the renamed Battle Creek Medical and Surgical Sanitarium in 1867, he made it the largest medical institution in the world with 400 patients by 1902. By the turn of the century, Kellogg and his medical students had established sanitariums all over the world.
Despite some resistance, after the 1940s Adventist community and acute care hospitals (offering short-term recovery through drugs) began replacing sanitariums (with their long-term care emphasis). By the end of the century, Adventists operated over 500 health care centers globally with more than 7,000,000 patients in addition to scores of nursing homes, retirement centers, and clinics. They became world famous for innovations in infant heart surgeries, proton treatment for cancer, finding a cure for the Brazilian skin disease “savage fire,” and taking medical care to remote jungle locations by river boats and airplanes. Today the Adventist Health System/U.S. (AHS), with more than 124,000 employees operating 80 hospitals, nursing homes, retirement centers, home health agencies, medical offices, and over 300 walk-in clinics, is the seventh largest health system in America. Yet mounting debts which by 1985 reached nearly $1 billion and raised the specter of bankruptcy forced AHS to partner with other faith-based organizations (including Catholic ones) in the 1990s, a collaborative business arrangement not without its challenges.
In addition to their health care system, Adventists operate health food factories around the world as a legacy of the Kellogg brothers’ early dietary innovations. In addition to La Loma Health Foods and Worthington Foods in the U.S., meat substitutes, cereals, and hot drinks are produced in Adventist factories in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany. As early as 1903, they also ran vegan and vegetarian restaurants in several urban areas.
However, some extreme reforms have at times brought controversial results. In the 1860s Dr. Lay at the WHRI advocated dispensing with salt, sugar, milk, and eggs, a position with which Ellen White disagreed. Given White’s belief in the interaction between mind and body, phrenology also appealed to many Adventists. James and Ellen White, their sons Edson and Willie, Review editor Uriah Smith, and GC President George Butler, among others, had their heads read; Willie White, Jenny Trembly, and the brothers John and Merritt Kellogg studied phrenology at Dr. Trall’s Hygeo-Therapeutic College in New York; and D. W. Reavis in Battle Creek sold the Phrenological Journal in the 1870s. Phrenology also strengthened Adventists’ belief in vitalism. Since many saw a connection among phrenology, vitalism, and hypnotism, however, White later rejected all three as Satanic. Nonetheless, a debate over the benefits and dangers of hypnotism continues in the church today.
Another controversial topic among Adventists has been faith healing. Given the medical quackery that existed in the 1840s and ’50s, Ellen White urged members not to go to physicians but to seek healing from God. Between 1844 and 1900, many Adventists experienced instant healing following prayer and anointing services. But Dr. John Harvey Kellogg remained skeptical, denouncing faith healing as “fanatical zeal” and a “foolish exercise of faith.” White herself warned against presumption and, as the number of Adventist sanitariums increased, urged believers to seek healing there. Some in the church today assert that faith healing, like all miracles, presents moral dilemmas.
A serious moral dilemma arose for Adventists with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Church papers emphasized similarities between Hitler and Adventists such as the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian, a non-smoker, and a teetotaler; thus “he is closer to our own view of health reform than anybody else [in Nazi leadership].” German church officials praised the Nazis for advocating a healthy, natural diet for a fitter nation; opposition to alcohol, drugs, and smoking; an emphasis on race hygiene and eugenics; and cooperation with the Adventist welfare and health care systems. Sales of cereal and bread at the De-Vau-Ge food factory doubled during the Nazi regime. But many Adventist periodicals went further, defending the Nazi State as God-given, biblically sound, and according to natural law; supporting sterilization of deviants; portraying the Jesuits and Jews as the cause of Germany’s ruin after WWI; and encouraging Adventist colporteurs to sell 10,000 copies of Neus Volk, the Nazi racial journal, every month. Finally, the General Conference worked with the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and the Foreign Office to sponsor Hulda Jost, leader of the German Adventist Nurses Association and the Adventist Welfare work, in giving lectures across the U.S. German Adventists would later express regret for praising the Nazi regime in their publications.
In a more positive vein, after WWII Adventists developed a new program for healthful living based on Ellen White’s 1905 book Ministry of Healing. Called “NEWSTART,” this acronym emphasized the advantages of nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, fresh air, rest, and trust in God. They also began preaching the health benefits of humor. Some have recently urged members to fight for affordable universal health care in the U.S. They argue that it is a grave injustice that one-third of Americans cannot access health services; that universal health care accords with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25); that it demonstrates compassion for others; and that Ellen White would approve since it is part of Adventists’ health ministry.
Similarly, about forty Adventist self-supporting institutions today seek to follow White’s admonition to live in a rural environment and follow the “Madison Idea” of an egalitarian, group-governed culture in an agricultural setting teaching practical skills. The founders of these schools and sanitariums, which model their lifestyle after Madison Sanitarium (established near Nashville by E. A. Sutherland and P. T. Magan in 1904), chose rustic locations free from the perceived wickedness of city life where simplicity, economy, self-sacrifice, and physical and mental health can be enhanced. Basing their curriculum on Sutherland’s compilation of Ellen White’s writings in Country Living, instead of pursuing academic degrees, students learn practical trades such as carpentry, painting, printing, cobbling, tent-making, broom-making, sewing, dress-making, and cooking. Although some church leaders a century ago felt that these self-supporting institutions “undermined” General Conference efforts to reorganize and systematize all church entities between 1901 and 1918, most officials today recognize their complementary contributions to the mission of the church.
In conclusion, this essay has shown that between 1844 and the present, there never has been only one “Adventist lifestyle.” While church leaders, pastors, teachers, and writers have upheld an ideal lifestyle based upon the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, over the past 175 years, members have adapted this ideal lifestyle to fit their conservative, moderate, or liberal inclinations. Thus, in the areas of Sabbath-keeping, worship styles, the arts, sports, gambling, reading material, theater, TV, dancing, dress, adornment, music, temperance, diet, and health institutions, Adventists have followed many different lifestyles. Recent surveys appear to indicate that this trend will continue into the twenty-first century.
To read the footnotes, please view the article on the Spectrum website by clicking here.
Brian E. Strayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Andrews University.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Editor's Note (Updated Feb. 3, 2020 at 8:30 a.m. EST): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Reinder Bruinsma as a division president (he was president of two unions), and Elizabeth Temple was incorrectly identified as Ellen White's sister. We apologize for the errors.
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