Evangelical Adventists

By Denis Fortin

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Denis Fortin is professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Since joining the seminary faculty in 1994, he has served in several administrative roles, including dean (2006-2013). Among the most recent of his many publications on Adventist history and theology are One in Christ: Biblical Concepts for a Doctrine of Church Unity (Pacific Press, 2018) and the annotated 125th anniversary edition of the Ellen G. White classic, Steps to Christ (Andrews University Press, 2017).

First Published: February 6, 2023

Evangelical Adventists were a group of former Millerite believers associated with the Advent Herald in Boston, Massachusetts, who organized themselves as the American Evangelical Advent Conference in 1858.1

Post-Disappointment Developments

Following the Albany Conference at the beginning of May 1845, former Millerite leaders struggled against public opinion and ridicule to rebuild confidence in their premillennialist understanding of Bible prophecies. Most of the Millerites who remained faithful after the last disappointment of October 1844 concluded that they had made a mistake in their calculations of the prophecies of Daniel. Although Jesus had not returned as anticipated, they still expected his return in the very near future.

As recommended by the Albany conference, these leaders held meetings and conferences to encourage Millerite Adventist believers. As they did this, three factors in the late 1840s and 1850s ultimately led to the organization of Adventist denominations: trusted leaders who encouraged the organization of local congregations, the formation of associations of pastors and churches, and the influence of Adventist periodicals. But, of these three factors, the Adventist periodicals played the most important role in shaping the future of Adventism and in the institutionalization process of these denominations. Four Adventist denominations formed during that period: Evangelical Adventists (1858), Advent Christians (1860), Life and Advent Union (1863), and Seventh-day Adventists (1863).

The Formative Role of Adventist Periodicals

Visits from known and respected leaders greatly helped strengthen the faith of former Millerite believers and establish Adventist congregations in the years following the October 22, 1844 disappointment. Perhaps the greatest and most consistent influence came from the foremost Adventist journal published in Boston, the Advent Herald.2 Already during the Millerite movement, such publications had provided dependable support for believers scattered all over the northeastern part of the continent. Since no organizational structures of any Adventist denomination had been established, the Advent Herald became an essential instrument to consolidate the faith of thousands of Adventist believers and propagate their beliefs to new followers.

Numerous letters written from believers all over the United States and Canada were addressed to Joshua V. Himes3, the editor of the Advent Herald, to thank him for the content of the journal and the encouragement it brought to their faith. For these people who often lived in scattered and sparsely populated areas, the journal became a messenger of hope and was often the only reliable means of communication. The paper nourished their spiritual life, placed them in contact with other Adventists who encountered the same experiences and warned them against erroneous teachings. Thus, Himes became Adventists' most prominent spiritual leader in the post-disappointment years. Typical of these letters is one from John Orrock (who in 1867 would become editor of the Advent Herald) residing in Canada East, “I feel that the ‘Herald’ is needed at the present time, while darkness is covering the land, and gross darkness the people. I hope it will still continue on Scriptural principles, and stand as a beacon in the surrounding darkness.”4 A similar pattern of support, encouragement and gratitude was also seen among the Sabbatarian Adventist followers of James White and the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (the Review and Herald) in the 1850s, just before the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Further Organization and Schisms

For many years, former Millerite Adventists followed the counsels of their leaders, established congregations and continued to proclaim the soon return of Christ. But not everything went smoothly among them. Doctrinal differences and personality conflicts continually plagued them. Clyde Hewitt commented that, “as the decade of the [eighteen] fifties opened perhaps only the shrewdest of Adventists could have foreseen the separate organizational outcome of these doctrinal and personal differences.”5 By the late 1850s, the main body of Sunday-keeping Adventists in North America split into two distinct denominations after years of polemics over the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Out of this division came the Evangelical Adventists, who continued to publish the Advent Herald in Boston. These Adventists formed the American Evangelical Advent Conference in 1858 and strongly affirmed the immortality of the soul after death and the eternal punishment of the wicked. They also argued to be the most faithful followers of William Miller’s original message. The second group was officially formed in 1860 and took the name of Advent Christians. It also had published its own journal since 1854, The World’s Crisis and Second Advent Messenger. These Advent Christians believed in the conditional immortality of human beings, holding that immortality is granted at the resurrection only to those who are saved in Christ and that sleep is the intermediate state between death and the resurrection.

The two organizations adopted a congregationalist system of church government, similar to Baptists and Christian Connexionists, which respected the autonomy and independence of local churches.6

Hewitt believed that the split between these early Adventists was precipitated by their respective periodicals. Repeated efforts at reconciliation and cooperation were made almost up to the time when Evangelical Adventists formed their organization in 1858. Hewitt commented that these Adventist “publications allowed strong individuals to express themselves to thousands of readers.” They readily emphasized doctrinal differences in “intemperate editorials” which “exacerbated personal and group rivalries.” It was “around these periodicals that the emerging denominations coalesced.” This phenomenon was replicated in all early Adventist denominations, including Seventh-day Adventists.7

In 1869, Evangelical Adventists adopted a statement of beliefs with which they formalized their doctrinal platform. Beyond some clear statements about the premillennial second coming of Christ, the statement highlighted what they claimed made them evangelical in contrast to other Adventists who were un-evangelical. The key evangelical beliefs were said to be the immortality of the soul, the eternal punishment of the wicked, and a belief in the Trinity.8

Doctrinally and ecclesiastically, the Evangelical Adventists resembled many other evangelical denominations. By the end of the nineteenth century, many churches had accepted the doctrine of the premillennial second coming of Christ, and, consequently, Evangelical Adventists did not retain any major doctrinal differences to set them apart from most other evangelical denominations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Evangelical Adventism, as a denomination, had practically disappeared as local congregations merged with other Christian groups. By 1920, the denomination had practically died.

The Advent Herald was published in Boston until 1873. In 1874, it changed its name to The Messiah’s Herald and continued until 1891. These publications and others of the American Evangelical Advent Conference and the American Millennial Association are archived at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Sources

Fortin, Denis. “Nineteenth-century Evangelicalism and Early Adventist Statements of Beliefs.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 36, 1 (1998): 51-67.

Hewitt, Clyde E. Midnight and Morning. Charlotte, NC: Venture Books, 1983.

Wellcome, Isaac C. History of the Second Advent Message and Mission, Doctrine and People. Yarmouth, ME: I. C. Wellcome, 1874.

Notes

  1. Seventh-day Adventists have traditionally called these former Millerite Adventists, First-day Adventists. Although they worshipped on Sunday, this is an inaccurate denominational name.

  2. In February 1844, the Millerite journal The Signs of the Times changed its name to The Advent Herald.

  3. For a biography of Joshua Himes, see, for example, Douglas Morgan, “Himes, Joshua Vaughan (1805-1895), Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, September 13, 2020, accessed February 6, 2023, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=49HD&highlight=Himes.

  4. John M. Orrock to J. V. Himes, Advent Herald, March 17, 1847, 46.

  5. Clyde E. Hewitt, Midnight and Morning: An account of the Adventist Awakening and the Founding of the Advent Christian Denomination, 1831-1860 (Charlotte, NC: Venture Books, 1983), 230-31.

  6. Another smaller group of Adventists, the Life and Advent Union, also arose among these two groups in 1863. This group also had its doctrinal differences. With Advent Christians, it believed in conditional immortality, but in contrast argued that sinners would never be resurrected at the end of time to face the final judgment. Among the dead, only those who believed in Christ would ever be resurrected, no one else. This group, led by George Storrs, was strongly opposed to any form of organization. It also published its own paper, the Herald of Life and of the Coming Kingdom. This group merged with the Advent Christian Church in 1964.

  7. Hewitt, Midnight and Morning, 231.

  8. J. N. Andrews, “The Creed of the Evangelical Adventists,” ARH, July 6, 1869, 12; Denis Fortin, “Nineteenth-century Evangelicalism and Early Adventist Statements of Beliefs,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 36, 1 (1998): 51-67; Isaac C. Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message and Mission, Doctrine and People (Yarmouth, ME: I. C. Wellcome, 1874), 604-05.

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Fortin, Denis. "Evangelical Adventists." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. February 06, 2023. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=D99M.

Fortin, Denis. "Evangelical Adventists." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. February 06, 2023. Date of access February 29, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=D99M.

Fortin, Denis (2023, February 06). Evangelical Adventists. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved February 29, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=D99M.