Review of Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream


(system) #1

When published in 1989, the first edition of Seeking a Sanctuary established itself as the best available study of American Seventh-day Adventism. Now updated and enlarged, the volume remains the foremost work on this denomination. Combining historical, sociological, and cultural studies methodologies, Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, respectively a teacher at Oxford University and a London-based journalist, offer a readable and penetrating analysis that is indispensable to both scholars and general readers wanting to understand Adventism. For Adventists themselves, it offers a sympathetic outsider's perspective that increases self-awareness.

The authors argue two intertwined theses. First, as indicated by their title and subtitle, they believe that Adventism provides an alternative means of achieving the American dream of spiritual fulfillment and material progress. Second, they dispute the interpretation put forward by scholars both within and outside the denomination that Adventism is in the process of transforming from a sect into a denomination; in contrast, they believe that it remains a sect. In presenting these arguments, the authors divide their book into three parts. The first, "Adventist Theology," addresses authority, identity, eschatology, and the sanctuary doctrine. Although they do not use the term, the authors see several dialectics at work in Adventist theology: the Bible as the source of Adventist belief over against Ellen White as the final interpreter of the Bible, the hope for versus the delay in Christ's second coming, identity tied to specific beliefs in contrast with identity expressed through loyalty to denominational structure, and the Arian tendencies embedded in the Sanctuary Doctrine in conflict with the church's twentieth century Trinitarianism.

Viewing these issues historically, Seeking a Sanctuary incorporates them into an almost Hegelian pattern: the thesis of Adventist radicalism produced the antithesis of fundamentalism out of which came the synthesis of evangelicalism. Interestingly, however, and in keeping with the argument that Adventism is not progressing to denominational status, as this synthesis became the new thesis, the antithesis that it produced was a return to fundamentalism rather than a step to a higher stage of development.

Part 2 examines "The Adventist Experience and the American Dream." Here again we see some dialectics at work, beginning with the concept that in opposition to a flawed Republic, Adventism has developed an "alternative social system" (114). Although the church originated in America, most of its growth is now taking place in other parts of the world; in its homeland the church is disproportionately female, old, black, and immigrant. As health and family life (i.e. sexuality) lost their eschatological meaning and became ends in themselves, they became optional behaviors. The church's orientation toward time as embodied in the Sabbath and the eschaton placed it in opposition to American society but also produced internal schisms and shapes artistic expression. Contrasting Adventism with Mormonism, another indigenous American religion, the authors state, "In Adventism the American dream is reinterpreted, in Mormonism, Christianity is reinterpreted. Adventists have become un-American in an effort to become more truly Christian. MoSeeking a Sanctuaryrmons have become un-Christian in order to become more American" (254). In Part 3, the authors examine the "Adventist Subculture," including gender, race, ministry, medicine, education, and the self-supporting movement. This portion of the book might be understood as a subset of Part 2, exploring in more detail important elements of this "alternative social system." Again, a number of dialectics (I hope that I am not pushing this concept too far, but it is something that struck me when reading my notes before writing this review.) Adventism, according to Bull and Lockhart, is a women's movement that goes against traditional male values; as a result men find entering into the church bureaucracy the only acceptable way to express their masculinity. Although Adventism represents the ethnic variety of American culture to a degree not found in other churches, it still practices segregation, most fully illustrated by regional conferences. Ministers, who personify the Adventist response to the American nation, are often misunderstood and underappreciated by the laity and receive inadequate support, especially during personal crises, from their conferences. The Adventist health system constitutes an alternative administrative and economic structure¬ł for doctors and hospital administrators are the only church employees with the financial resources to successfully challenge clerical control. Adventist education did not develop a distinctive philosophy until a couple of decades after the founding of Battle Creek College; today that philosophy may inform long-term goals as expressed in mission statements but has little influence on short-term operations, which are very similar to those of other schools. The ultimate dialectic, however, is that the most distinctive or pure expression of Adventist values appears in the self-supporting movement that exists outside the control of the institutional church. But even this movement, the authors write, "which represents the ideal of egalitarian cooperation, has been promoted by the power of individual capital concentration, while mainstream Adventism, which espouses a set of values a little closer to the American ethos, is founded on centrally managed schemes of funding" (346). The authors' arguments are grounded in prodigious research, documented in nearly a hundred pages of notes. Sources include nearly every imaginable type of work published by the denomination and independent publishers related to Adventism as well as those published by commercial and academic presses. The bibliographical essay that closes the book helpfully sorts out and comments on the most helpful of these sources.

Compared to the first edition, there are some significant changes in the second. In addition to updated statistical information and accounts of recent events such as the Branch Davidian tragedy and General Conference votes on the ordination of women, the authors have added a chapter on "The Ethics of Schism." They have also revised their original chapter titles "Women" and "Blacks" to "Gender" and "Race," the latter change opening space for discussion of Hispanics and Asians as well as Blacks. The visual appeal of the new edition is enhanced by the inclusion of several illustrations.

There does not seem to be any major revision of the book's arguments, however. Any book of this scope is bound to raise questions. Because the authors' discussion of the "revolving door" is primarily sociological, it does not address the role that theological disagreement has played since the 1980s in departures from the church. Is there a connection between the grace orientation of those former Adventists for whom the magazine Proclamation! is published and rising social status? Or is the issue truly theological? Also, what is meant by the church? Is it the official bureaucratic structure or the membership? Although Bull and Lockhart are sensitive to this distinction, I have often wondered how many lay members really understand or deem important the inner workings of the sanctuary doctrine or the details of eschatology that appear in Adventist publications. Finally, while I appreciate the reasons why the authors challenge the sect-to-denomination interpretation of Adventism, I am not fully convinced. The very Adventist theologians, for example, who represent a return to fundamentalism appear to be aligned with the Evangelical Theological Society. There is also evidence that Adventist scholars, in biblical studies as well as other fields, are increasingly writing for non-denominational publishers. None of this belies Seeking a Sanctuary's thesis, but it does suggest that Adventism's trajectory may be moving in several directions at once. These questions are minor at best and in no way lessen Bull and Lockhart's monumental achievement. Hopefully, the appearance of this new edition will draw the attention of a new generation of readers and push scholars to more fully incorporate its interpretations into their studies of Seventh-day Adventism.

Dr. Gary Land writes from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI where he is a professor of history and the chair of the Department of History and Political Science. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of the Seventh-day Adventists and the editor of Growing up with Baseball. He is currently working on a biography of Uriah Smith.

Note: This review was previously published on the original Spectrum blog. To read past comments, click here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/92