The Great Adventist Mythology

(system) #1

In the first church where I served as a pastoral intern, Carmen and I always chuckled when we heard in Sabbath School classes the assertion that before the time of the end Billy Graham would accept the Sabbath and join the Seventh-day Adventist church. I don’t know the origin of this story (I suspect Emilio Knechtle who was, I think, acquainted with Graham) but it was stated as a fact. It was mentioned frequently, and never questioned: people simply nodded as though it were something every Adventist knew.

We Seventh-day Adventists generate an active mythology. Generally these stories come into being in order to bring real world support to our beliefs. Billy Graham’s conversion is a fairly harmless example: if, indeed, a church that has less than 20 million members is to become the catalyst to polarize the entire 7-billion-and-growing world population, it’s tempting to believe we’ll be assisted by a respected Christian figure throwing his weight to our side.

Not all our myths are so benign. A story that haunted me for years was told by a General Conference official who spoke in my home church when I was a child. Someone who knew someone who knew someone the speaker knew had toured a newly-completed Roman Catholic edifice in a major city. While on the tour, he dropped away from the group to look for a rest room and accidentally opened a door behind which he was astonished to find a vast weapons cache and torture chamber. Someone caught him there—a priest who knew he was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, as I remember the story. “But why is all this in your church?” the pastor gasped. “This,” the priest said as he guided the man out of the forbidden area, “will eventually be used on you.” (My wife heard the same story half a continent away, except in that version the man was a Seventh-day Adventist furnace repairman who had to enter a sealed part of a convent.)

This anecdote (which has all the marks of myth, including an untraceable provenance) seemed to say that small as we are, we are threatening to the largest Christian body on earth, which makes us very consequential indeed, and therefore all our claims (and fears) must be true.

In order to bolster our faith, we’ve sometimes been not especially discerning about sources. The same church I mentioned above would gather after Sabbath lunch to listen to cassette tapes of John Todd, who was popular at the time for claiming that Satanic powers had taken over most Christian denominations, that he had been John F. Kennedy’s personal warlock, that the Illuminati (of which he’d been a member) was the driving force behind Satanic world domination, and similar nonsense. (I’ve heard that Todd was even invited to speak to Adventist church groups, though I’ve not been able to confirm it.) “Father” Alberto Rivera is another storyteller who was pressed into service for Adventist eschatology. Rivera has been thoroughly debunked as a fraud, but he’s still cited to prove the unfathomable wickedness and unimaginable power of the Roman Catholic church.

One of the Adventist myths of my lifetime was that Noah’s ark had been found. Ron Wyatt, an Adventist nurse anesthetist, raised up a popular ministry based on his supposed discovery of both Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant. At one point he claimed to have scraped a bit of Jesus’ dried blood from the ark of the covenant, which he’d been the first to discover in a secret cave under Golgotha. When the DNA was genetically analyzed it showed only half the genetic material of normal human DNA! (Why the Israeli authorities, who monitor every coin and pottery shard dug up anywhere in the country, would have let an amateur dig under a major tourist site has never been satisfactorily explained.)

Besides the question of what motivates people to make up such stories, the larger issue is why so many of us are willing to believe them, and why we’ll neglect central Biblical concerns like godly behavior, peaceful relationships, truthfulness, and eternal salvation in order to follow what can only be classified as “cunningly devised fables.”

Fables, because of course something always interferes with their confirmation. The authorities prevent a return to the mountain in Turkey. The pictures of the ark of the covenant are blurred, probably by Divine power. Of course the Roman Catholics, hard-core liars that they are, deny knowing Alberto Rivera. And would you actually expect them to confirm that they have thumbscrews, machine guns and torture racks in their church basements? They’re way too smart for that.

It is this lack of evidence that some find particularly convincing. In an online article in Adventist Today I challenged Colin Standish’s claim that there were Jesuit infiltrators in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and asked him to name them. Dr. Standish replied, “If I speculated who they are, I would probably be in error. They would be too clever for me to identify them.” The impossibility of proof is, it seems, proof. Of Alberto Rivera I’ve heard, “The Catholic church was behind discrediting him. That’s how we know he was telling the truth.” Though it was known that John Todd had been back and forth between Christianity and occultism, and had around the same time been in prison for sex crimes, the cassette-listeners in my church insisted that Satan was orchestrating a conspiracy against John Todd because he was bringing hidden things to light.

Though these stories are meant to reinforce our beliefs, they’re drawn from the same vat of bilge as UFO abductions, haunted mansions, and therapeutic magnetic bracelets. The latest contribution to the Adventist mythology, that the antediluvian world was peopled with advanced genetic scientists who were able to do with DNA what can’t yet be done today, is not original either: Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods? collected archaeological data (most, as it turned out, spurious) to show that early peoples possessed advanced scientific knowledge; just edit out von Däniken’s conclusion that it came from space aliens.

These tales have little to do with the Bible. They are introduced to bolster certain interpretations of the Bible, and make some details more believable. But in fact they are extra-biblical, with far less to recommend them as worthy of belief than the Bible as it stands. They come with no real evidence, their origins are suspect if known at all, and they are not worth even a smidgen of real faith.

I suspect this is what Paul was writing about when he said, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). The problem is not with the so-called progressive Adventists, those who get accused of lacking faith because they don’t insist on perfect consistency between a word-literal interpretation of inspired sources and the real world; instead our ever-evolving mythology betrays a crisis of faith among a certain set of conservative Seventh-day Adventists who appear willing to mix into the narrative almost anything that will allow them to interpret the Bible and Ellen White on their own terms. While all of us believe that the Bible speaks truth, these latch on to incredible stories in an effort to make it more acceptable to them, revealing thereby their own inability to believe the Bible’s truths unless they’re framed in make-believe.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Lars Justinen) #2

I suspect every culture and sub-culture has its myths, but often they are based on something substantive at the core. I don’t know if this qualifies. No one believed Ellen White stated Billy G. would accept the Sabbath. No one - fundamentalist or not - believed there was some inspired individual in the 20th century Adventist church who could make a pronouncement like this. There’s nothing to hang this assertion on, so I am not sure if it got much traction.

And as the average Adventist’s understanding of inspiration has evolved and matured, it gets even less serious consideration.

(Ron Simpson) #3

Read a book; “Why People Believe Weird Things” Shermer.
Christians enjoy watching Shermer rip into (UFOs, fortune tellers, etc)
Sorry he is hard on Christians too.
I can walk into church and tell any made up story and have it become true by ending in:
—and that proves Jesus.
----that proves scientists are wrong.
I was told ‘any story that proves Jesus is by default true’.
There are too many people, so desperate to prove God, that they will do/say anything.

(Brad(Luna)) #4

The problem I have with such conspiracy theories is not just their illogical assertions, it is how much power such conspiracies give to evil. It creates a sense that evil is all powerful, all knowing, and only we, the enlightened ones are free from its grasp, but even then we better be careful. We can’t let a single hint of the Illuminati in, or else we too shall fall.

(Loren Seibold) #5

Lars, this is precisely what mythology is. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a core reason for believing the gods lived on Olympus, but their stories expressed some of the psychology of that culture. Myths are myths not because they’re true in detail, but because they express truths that lie deeper within us and our group. A rejected people creates myths that show them, in the end, overcoming. My argument here is that we have enough in Scripture to hang our faith on, without making up stories that have no basis in reality.

(Loren Seibold) #6

Brad, you should read a historically important piece by Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It’s really about the psychology of paranoia in general. Thinking about what you say about the power of evil in these conspiracies, Hofstadter expresses it this way:

“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.…The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.”

(Elmer Cupino) #7

Another consideration is to acknowledge that at times the psychological need to believe without “the basis of reality” is greater than reality itself. This is commonly seen in children who cling to “security blankets” unreasonably until they can visualize a mother concept mentally. This is important, for a child must acquire this stage before being allowed to begin school. Otherwise the child would feel abandoned and end up crying all day. It could slow his psychological maturation too. The same situation applies to adults where they are attracted to “security blankets” to relieve perceived anxiety, real or not. The concept of “security blanket” remains the same, the purpose of which is to relieve anxiety. What changes between generation stages is the form of the “security blanket.” They come in different packages, cars, jewelry, status, UFOs, RCC, Ghosts, obsessions, compulsions, Satanic agents, including Type II, WO, Male Headship, etc. What is important here is the “belief” should be transient, non-psychotic in nature and should serve a purpose in reorganizing the individual’s maturing and developing goals of life.

(Loren Seibold) #8

Interesting, @elmer_cupino. Yes, I can see the function of myths to relieve anxiety, among other things. Some of these stories suggest that we can take control of a chaotic world, by recognizing the enemies. Some of the things you listed are aspirational, as well, which I think myths can help us with. (Look at all the great stories of people coming from nowhere to become famous, as though anyone can do it; or marrying well and becoming a “princess”.)

What do you mean when you say that the belief should be “transient”? And do you think some of these stories that we tell, such as the torture chambers in the RC church, are “psychotic in nature”?

(Brad(Luna)) #9

Thanks for the article Loren. I agree with the statement that conspiracy theories require an enemy who is separate from the flow of history. I believe it is that flow that makes us all capable of evil. The forces that started every atrocity in the world rest within us such as the tendency to demonize the “other.” Ive heard a few of those Catholic myths as well. I remember someone telling a story about a Jesuit spy being converted to become an SDA. It seems rather self centered to believe we are at the center of all world events. God is so much bigger than one denomination.

(Elmer Cupino) #10

The “security blanket” represents a transitional object so its duration should be short, meaning possibly between 6-12 months. Any extended period of time should require ruling out the possibility of a personality trait.

Those gory “torture chambers in the RC church” meant for SDAs I would consider “psychotic” in nature but “encapsulated,” meaning they are not pervasive that affects the individual’s social repertoire.

Have you considered that these “myths” we create are a function of our history to justify our origin? Similar to someone suffering from PTSD where the past is repeated until the trauma is fully understood? Also, why is it that the myths appear to be more prevalent among the conservative fundamentalist adventists than the progressive liberal adventists?

I always enjoy reading your articles which I find cognitively stimulating.

(George Tichy) #11

One particular myth that became significant among Adventists is that one about the walk in the cornfield early in the morning. Despite being reported only years later … apparently the story reduced the anxiety caused by the great disappointment.

But, on the other side, it created a true nightmare for the Church since it was used as foundation of a non-biblical so called doctrine, one that many people refer to as “the core Adventist doctrine.” Go figure…

(Brad(Luna)) #12

The Church of God seventh day simply acknowledged the great disappointment and moved on. I suppose this speaks to the power of myths. Although the IJ in my experience is dying a slow death in SDA circles. I haven’t heard it mentioned in years save in evangelistic series. It’s the same principle with the belief in an eternal hellfire in evangelical circles.

(George Tichy) #13

It would be interesting to have a survey in some churches, among the college age youth for instance, to check how many of them know about the IJ, how many understand it, how many have enough resources to teach it to a friend.

I bet the result would support your statement above.

(I am not counting those who are part of the GYC, since they may have more info, though only partial info. I doubt Kevin & minions are disclosing everything about the 1844/IJ fairy tale to them - which would certainly be disastrous to their cause.)

(jeremy) #14

i believe this myth has the following, albeit somewhat oblique, provenance:

“God’s word has given warning of the impending danger; let this be unheeded, and the Protestant world will learn what the purposes of Rome really are, only when it is too late to escape the snare. She is silently growing into power. Her doctrines are exerting their influence in legislative halls, in the churches, and in the hearts of men. She is piling up her lofty and massive structures in the secret recesses of which her former persecutions will be repeated.” Great Controversy:581.

(k_Lutz) #15

I guess it takes a myth to prove one.

(Brad(Luna)) #16

I’d theorize that even with the GYC crowd, they probably don’t internalize it to the degree that previous generations did. And it probably isn’t being retaught and reinforced in the churches they attend. Ultimately the belief itself doesn’t seem to be all that life altering. What does it matter if Jesus goes over the books now or later? The problem is when IJ is mixed with LGT and becomes a truly scary combo.

(Loren Seibold) #17

@Luna and @GeorgeTichy: I suspect the same thing. I’m going to test it in my next column, by explaining what the Three Angels’ Messages meant to our founders. I think it will be interesting to see how people see them now: whether they agree with the founders, or have sanded down the unacceptably rough edges, such as the belief that only Sabbath keepers can be saved.

(Loren Seibold) #18

There are many more direct statements than this one in EGW’s writings, and in The Great Controversy in particular, about Roman Catholicism, statements that are not oblique at all. Like a lot of Protestants of that era, they she demonized the Papacy. The difference with Seventh-day Adventists was our extending that condemnation to Protestants who accepted Sunday—what she called “apostate Protestantism”.

(Brad(Luna)) #19

I was not aware myself of that last belief you mentioned regarding only Sabbath keepers being saved. I am in my twenties and I never heard this from the pulpit. Perhaps this would be the result of a slow subconscious rejection of the worst ideas within SDAism.

(George Tichy) #20

:thumbsup: :thumbsup:
Great idea Loren. The results may be astonishing.

When I was a child (quite a while ago…) the idea passed to us in church (and school) was that non-Adventist couldn’t be saved. This was the common SDA teaching in those days. Then, bit by bit the idea became “more flexible,” but I bet there are still millions of SDAs around the world believing in that fairy tale.