Years ago, at North Dakota camp meeting near the village of Harvey, a visiting speaker invited himself to my grandparents’ cabin. My grandmother received this as a tremendous compliment: pastors were always held in high esteem in my family, and this was one of her favorite speakers. As I remember the story, after Grandma served him homemade date bars, he offered to be the broker to sell them a building lot in an isolated housing development somewhere in the mountains of the American southeast. The kicker: properties were only being offered to qualifying Seventh-day Adventists, who would together remain safe there when the persecution of Sabbath-keepers began.
They politely said no, and I remember Grandpa afterward muttering about pastors getting involved in business deals when they should be preaching. They assumed rural North Dakota was remote enough to survive in. And it was: they lived there wholly safe from persecution until they died old and full of years.
I’d love to know what happened to that Time of Trouble housing development, though. Whether it still exists, and if it is still inhabited by faithful Seventh-day Adventists hiding from persecution. I rather doubt it. There’s always been an incipient paranoia in our message, but the way it’s expressed has changed since I was a child. Back then we said we would be the best Americans we could be, but that we refused to feel entirely at home anywhere on this earth—even in the United States of America—because Jesus was returning to take us home to heaven.
All credit for this goes to the lamblike beast.
Should anyone here be unfamiliar with this prophetic figure, it comes from Revelation 13, a beast that “had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon” (vs. 11), a description that got shortened to “the two-horned beast” or, more often, “the lamblike beast.” It’s significant feature was that “It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast”—that first beast being the one in 13:1-10 who had already been identified by the pioneers as a persecuting Papacy. In summary, and skipping a lot of identifying details: the lamblike beast was the United States of America, and Revelation 13 was trying to tell us that eventually the Papacy would order the United States to kill Sabbath keepers, and it would do it. The clincher was when an enterprising evangelist put a picture of an American Bison on his prophetic flip-chart—short, wide face, upturned horns, and a strong (though hardly dragonish) voice.
There are sound criticisms to be advanced against this interpretation. Personally, I’ve always wondered whether our prophecies were meant to be quite as precise as we thought they were: that we can know exactly where and when and by whom these end-time events would be initiated. Prophetic interpretations are generally more durable the less exact they are, when we draw on principles rather than details. And durability is important as we approach the 200th anniversary of our prediction of Christ’s immediate return. The principle here is a thoroughly Biblical one: that we keep our loyalty to our country overtensioned by our loyalty to God, because God’s law and God’s government are better and more enduring than man’s. We don’t let our full weight down here. In the words of one of the Adventist pioneers’ favorite hymns:
I’m a pilgrim, and I’m a stranger,
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night;
Do not detain me, for I am going
To where the fountains are ever flowing.
The lamblike beast kept us a little suspicious of the United States government for over a century. Our relationship with it was one of loyal watchfulness: our leaders frequently reminded us that the reason our headquarters are located in the exorbitantly expensive area near the District of Columbia, when they could serve the church about as well at significantly lower cost from Oklahoma City or Toledo, is so they can be forever hovering in the antechambers of legislators’ offices forestalling threats to religious freedom.
Yet while they’re having tea with congressmen, alas, the principle taught us by the lamblike beast is fading from the collective consciousness of American Seventh-day Adventists. What seems to be emerging is a different kind of narrative, one that is unashamedly pro-American. What follows isn’t courtroom evidence, but some trends that contribute to my current concern:
• I escaped conscription into the Vietnam war by just a few months. In those years placing the law of God (here the sixth commandment) over those of men was demonstrated by non-combatancy, and I was fully prepared, had I been drafted, to claim it. I can’t remember the last time a young person entering military service asked me about non-combatancy, and I wonder whether the denomination is still equipped to resource the Seventh-day Adventist military member who would claim it. Today you’re far, far likelier to have a celebration of the full United States military experience on Veterans Day for the worship hour, complete with military dress and flags, than a discussion of pacifism or non-combatancy. I’m quite certain, in fact, that a sermon on those latter topics would be met with hostility in many congregations. Desmond Doss is a quaint hero, if he is remembered at all.
• I’ve been fascinated by the enthusiasm of Seventh-day Adventists I know for Dr. Ben Carson’s quasi-candidacy for president. As I’ve written here before, we Adventists get excited when one of us gets famous, and that seems to be true even if that one of us has a flawed understanding of who we are. If you’ve not read it, I recommend to you Doug Morgan’s review on this site of Carson’s book. Dr. Morgan shows how different from historical Adventism’s is Carson’s sense of America. Far from suspicion of American exceptionalism, Carson’s is an all-in, über-Americanism. Carson tugs on a few strands of the old Seventh-day Adventist paranoia when he anticipates the United States government becoming “rogue”. But his solution is a sort of Third World civil war scenario where we stockpile home weaponry to fight against it, like rebels in Syria or Darfur. Given his wild accusations against a government that’s generally centrist and obliging, it’s terrifying that some think he should be president.
• We smart Adventists laughed when some narrow-minded folks objected to our colleges taking government money, and in the case of CUC/WAU, pursuing it in court. Our pioneers wouldn’t have laughed. Yet nestled even deeper in the featherbed with government money is our hospital system, which has used the church’s reputation for sacrificial service and our non-profit tax status, but behaves not particularly Adventisty in other ways, from anything-but-sacrificial salaries for administrators to hosting elective abortions. It’s an illustration of how churches, whether they intend it or not, risk compromising their message when they run large businesses.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about the declining state of the lamblike beast. At its weirdest, the lamblike beast inspired Time of Trouble housing developments. On the other hand, it led us to be leaders in defending religious liberty, a part of my Adventist birthright of which I am especially proud. Psychologically, it’s fascinating that our pioneers crafted such a paranoid scenario around a country as respectful of religion as any that has existed on earth. But the paranoia sublimated into a thoughtful effort to keep people free, and still gives us reason to resist the ill-considered nationalism that characterizes today’s political right. At its best, the lamblike beast made us realize that we’re citizens of heaven, spiritual siblings with all the inhabitants of earth, “From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand; Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand.” Perhaps that sense of tentative citizenship contributed to our pioneers’ willingness to send missionaries all over the world? One thing is for sure: they didn’t think that the United States was God’s Last and Best Chosen Nation, worthy of uncritical loyalty.
I fear that we may eventually cede the whole idea of faith-above-nationalism to others more thoughtful than ourselves, and religious liberty will be merely an abstraction, backed up by an office in Silver Spring and a magazine. I’d be sad to see it go.
 John 18:36, Acts 5:29, Philippians 3:20
 The end of conscription is the proximate reason why church leaders seldom need to defend a non-combatant: no one is placed in a position where they’re forced to serve in combat. That doesn’t explain why non-combatancy and pacifism are no longer addressed, and why the majority of Seventh-day Adventists in the United States don’t lift a pious eyebrow when young people volunteer for service where they will take life or contribute to it.
 “But more importantly, [the Second Amendment is] there because if we ever have a rogue government that wants to dominate the people, the people will have the ability to defend themselves. We must always protect that right.” Ben Carson at the National Press Club, May 14, 2014
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6125