A lot of drama has been stirred up about Carson’s faith as to whether it’s legit or cultic. Here’s what this evangelical site has deduced from their research. We report. You decide.
The Seventh-Day Adventists are an anomaly. Evangelical Christians have never been comfortable with them, but they have been unable to decide whether the SDA is a legitimate expression of Christianity or whether it is a cult, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The majority view among contemporary cult-watchers is that it is a cult. But the most authoritative cult expert in modern Christian history, Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989), decided in 1965 that “it is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-Day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ, despite heterodox concepts.”1 This conclusion caused a storm of controversy because Dr. Martin had earlier labeled the SDA a cult in his book published in 1955 called The Rise of the Cults.2
Yet, shortly before he died, Dr. Martin expressed conflicted second thoughts in a television interview:
“I fear that if they continue to progress at this rate, then the classification of a cult can’t possibly miss being reapplied to Seventh-Day Adventists because once you have an interpreter of Scripture, a final court of appeal that tells you what Scripture means — as soon as you judge Scripture by that, as soon as you have someone who has made doctrinal errors in the past, even on the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the atonement and on other things, and that person is raised to that position of authority, you have polarization around that person.”3
If Christendom’s foremost cult expert could not make up his mind about the status of the SDA, you can certainly understand why others have experienced equal difficulty. So, what about it? Does the SDA deserve the designation of a cult?
A Brief History
Let’s begin our consideration of this question by taking a brief look at the origin of the Seventh-Day Adventists.
The SDA Church is rooted in the Millerite Movement that swept the United States in the 1840’s. William Miller (1782-1849) was a New England Baptist preacher who developed a unique interpretation of Daniel 8:14.4
In the King James Version that passage reads: “And he [a saint] said unto me, ‘Unto 2,300 days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.’” This is a prophecy about the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. But Miller applied it to the end times by converting the days into years. Assuming the prophecy was given in 457 BC, he calculated that Jesus would return 2,300 years later, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. Incredibly, he interpreted the “cleansing of the sanctuary” to refer to the purging of the earth by fire at the Second Coming of Jesus!
When March 21, 1844 came and passed, Miller recalculated the date for October 22, 1844. When nothing happened on that day, Miller’s followers became totally disillusioned. The whole experience was dubbed “The Great Disappointment.” Miller died in disgrace four years later.
But a small hard-core group of Millerites called “the little flock” continued to insist that the date had been correct. One of the group’s members, a man named Hiram Edson, claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus standing at the altar in Heaven, and he concluded that Miller had been right about the time, but wrong about the place. In other words, Jesus’ return was not to earth but to the Heavenly sanctuary as described in Hebrews 8:1-2. This strange idea was promoted by a retired sea captain and Millerite convert named Joseph Bates.5 One of his pamphlets greatly impressed a teenage Millerite girl named Ellen G. Harmon (1827-1915).
The Life of Ellen G. White
Ellen Harmon was the daughter of a family in Portland, Maine. In 1840, at age 12, she accepted Jesus as her Savior. She was baptized and received into the membership of the Methodist Church. Shortly thereafter, her parents began to attend Millerite meetings and became avid followers, confidently expecting the Lord to return in 1844.
In December of 1844, one month after “The Great Disappointment,” this 17 year old girl experienced a vision in which she saw Adventist believers being ushered into Heaven. Her vision was accepted by the Adventist group in Portland as “light from God.”16
In 1846, at age 19, Ellen married a young Adventist preacher named James White. Shortly after their marriage, they were introduced to a tract by Joseph Bates, a Seventh-Day Baptist. It convinced them of the sacredness of the Sabbath, and they began to observe Saturday as the Sabbath. Six months later, in April 1847, Ellen had a vision in which she was shown the Heavenly sanctuary with a halo light around the fourth commandment, establishing it in her mind as the most important of the Ten Commandments.7
In 1850 James and Ellen began publishing a magazine called The Review & Herald. Its purpose was to disseminate Adventist and Sabbatarian doctrines. Their publication was instrumental in helping the handful of remaining Millerites to coalesce into a distinctive group. In 1860 they adopted the name, Seventh-Day Adventist Church. They formally incorporated in 1863 with approximately 3,500 members located in 125 churches.8
Ellen White never held any official title as head of the church, but she was always acknowledged as its spiritual leader. She claimed to have the spirit of prophecy, and she claimed that her messages were directly from God.9 Here’s how she put it in her own words:
“I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision — the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”11
James White died in 1881, and in 1888 Ellen published her most famous book, The Great Controversy. Ellen White died in July 1915 at the age of 87. She and her husband are buried in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Church Today
Today, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church claims to baptize 2,000 people a day. Church membership reached one million between 1955 and 1961, and it hit 5 million in 1986. At the turn of this century, the church claimed 10.7 million members worldwide. Approximately one million of those reside in the United States.12
Much of the phenomenal growth of the church in recent years has been due to the fact that the SDA has been on the cutting edge of media evangelism ever since 1929 when they launched a radio program called “Voice of Prophecy.” In 1956 they began broadcasting the first religious television program to air in color, called “It is Written.” The most effective media thrust began in 1965 as a radio program called “Amazing Facts.” In 1987 this program was converted into a television ministry, and in 1993 it was taken over by Doug Batchelor who has since become the most recognizable face among Adventists.13
Doug Batchelor is a very gifted communicator who heads up a team of 12 evangelists who conduct media-spectacular prophecy conferences all across America. Doug’s television program, “Amazing Facts,” is broadcast on several national cable and satellite networks, including the Fox Family Channel, the Black Entertainment Network, the Inspirational Network, the National Network, super station KSBN (SafeTV), and the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. The estimated number of homes the program can now reach within the U.S. exceeds 100 million.14
The Three Angels Network, known as 3ABN, was founded in 1984. It provides a 24-hour satellite service that broadcasts the programs of all major Adventist ministries around the world. There is also a Three Angels Radio Network. Both of these networks are privately run as non-profits, and neither is an official arm of the SDA Church.15
Despite its phenomenal growth in recent years, the SDA has suffered some major internal disputes. One occurred in the 1970’s when Adventist pastors began to question some of the Church’s most cherished doctrines.16 The SDA hierarchy responded by becoming more entrenched in its unorthodox positions. This caused a number of pastors, and even entire congregations, to leave the SDA. Others were asked to leave.
An even greater shaking occurred in the 1980’s when one of the SDA’s leading theologians, Dr. Desmond Ford, prepared a 900 page doctrinal analysis in which he questioned the biblical validity of some of the Church’s most sacred dogmas. The SDA responded by removing Dr. Ford’s ministerial credentials.17 Two years later a book by Walter Rea was published which revealed that a great number of the writings of Ellen G. White were flagrantly plagiarized.18 This revelation undermined the faith of many who had accepted Ellen White as a prophet of God.
The reverberations continue to this day. In August 2005 Doug Batchelor sent out an email message in which he made an amazing admission:
“Literally thousands of Seventh-Day Adventists have fallen away from the church in recent years. According to the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, in the past ten years alone, over 1.6 million people have requested that their SDA membership be dropped. The annual growth rate within the church has gone from approximately 6%, ten years ago, to a record low of 3.98%.”19
Read more: Christian Prophecy