Adventism and the Second Great Awakening

Beginning around 1800 the United States experienced a religious revival that has come to be known as the Second Great Awakening. With its origins marked by the 1801 Cane Ridge camp meeting in Kentucky (attended by more than 10,000 people) and a religious awakening at Yale College in 1802 that students spread up and down the East Coast, the revival moved in waves throughout the Northeastern and Western (as it was called at the time) United States for nearly half a century. Upstate New York experienced such a succession of revivals that it became known as the “burned-over district.” Emerging as the leading preacher of the awakening, Charles G. Finney helped fashion a style of revivalism, involving such “new measures” as direct preaching and prayer, protracted meetings, and the anxious bench, that has shaped American evangelism down to the present time.

Along with many other preachers of the awakening, Finney emphasized personal conversion and a form of perfectionism. As the popular revival hymn, “Rock of Ages,” stated: “Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.”

The desire for personal perfection was also, for many revivalists and their converts, linked with a post-millennial expectation that the awakening was preparing the way for the establishment of God’s kingdom. To help that kingdom along they formed voluntary societies to promote religion, including the American Bible Society (1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the American Tract Society (1825). They also sought to attack society’s ills through such organizations as the Society for the Promotion of Temperance (1826) and, most importantly, the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833).

While the Methodist and Baptist churches grew rapidly during the Second Great Awakening, more radical groups sought to restore primitive New Testament Christianity. The most prominent of these restorationists were Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, who strongly objected to creeds and opposed the organization of denominations. Nonetheless, they established a new denomination, the Disciples of Christ. While Campbell and Stone preached restorationism in the West, a less prominent group, the Christian Connection (originally spelled Connexion), promoted similar ideas in New England.

And in upstate New York, Joseph Smith took the restoration idea one step further when, with the Book of Mormon, he claimed to have received a new revelation, a third testament, as it were.

William Miller, a farmer living in Low Hampton, New York, contributed to this Second Great Awakening mix of revivalism, millennialism, and restorationism with his startling prediction, first publicly presented in 1831, that Jesus would return about the year 1843. Miller, a former Deist turned Baptist, reflected the democratic Christianity developing in America with his belief that any individual could properly interpret the Bible without dependence on scholarly authorities. Although he used other biblical evidence as well, Miller focused on Daniel 8:14, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Understanding that a day in prophetic time referred to a year of actual time and that the term sanctuary meant the earth, Miller believed that this text foretold the time of Christ’s second advent. While his premillennialist understanding of the Second Advent differed from the reigning postmillennialism of the Awakening, Miller’s “lectures,” as he called them, produced revivals, and ministers in his region called on him to speak to their churches. Miller had only regional impact in the 1830s, but his meeting with Boston’s Christian Connection pastor Joshua V. Himes in 1839 brought him to national prominence.

Using the promotional tools forged by the various reform groups to which he belonged, Himes made Millerism a movement. As conferences and camp meetings were organized, papers published, and preachers sent throughout the Northeast and Old Northwest, the Adventist thrust moved far beyond Miller’s control. Indeed, pressure from the movement forced Miller to more precisely state that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844; and in 1843 Charles Fitch, in contrast with Miller’s opposition to formation of a new sect, called on the Millerites to leave their home churches, for those denominations had become Babylon.

Finally, in the summer of 1844, when Jesus had not come as expected, Samuel S. Snow, a minor Millerite preacher, predicted that Jesus would come that year on the Day of Atonement, October 22, an idea that spread like wildfire through the movement. While the masses of Millerites rallied around this new expectation, Miller and the other leaders did not accept it until late September and early October. When Jesus did not return, however, it was left to Himes, Miller, and other leaders to help their followers recover from the “Great Disappointment,” an effort that they started almost immediately.

Despite the fact that the Millerite movement ended in disappointment, it should be recognized as a major religious development of the 1840s. While estimates of the number of adherents have run from 50,000 to 250,000, the movement had an impact far beyond its true believers. In the first serious historical study of the Millerites, for instance, Everett N. Dick found that local Baptist and Methodist churches experienced their greatest growth when Millerite preachers came into their territory.

Rather than being a strange movement outside the norms of 19th-century American society, several scholars have argued that the Millerites were very much a part of their culture. And, as Richard Carwardine points out, the Millerite movement constituted the final thrust of the Second Great Awakening.

The Emergence of Seventh-day Adventism

Out of the confusion following the Great Disappointment, the Millerites went in several directions: some lost faith in Christianity, many returned to their original churches, and others eventually established such Adventist denominations as the Advent Christian Church and the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith. But on the fringes of the movement between 1845 and 1849 emerged a group, the Sabbatarian Adventists, who in time would become the largest of all the Adventist churches.

The Sabbatarians regarded themselves as the true descendants of the Millerite faith, for they continued believing that the sanctuary had been cleansed beginning on October 22, 1844. Rather than identifying the sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 as the earth, as Miller had done, through the influence of Hiram Edson, a New York farmer, and his associate O.R.L. Crosier, they concluded that the sanctuary to be cleansed was the heavenly sanctuary referred to in Hebrews 8 and 9. On the day of the Great Disappointment, therefore, Jesus had begun his ministry as High Priest in the sanctuary not made with hands; when that work—which they later identified as one of judgment—was finished, he would return for the saints.

Through this sanctuary doctrine, the Sabbatarian Adventists maintained their Millerite millennial heritage but they also linked this millennialism with the restorationism that was an important part of the Second Great Awakening. As a result of the witness of Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh Day Baptist, a congregation of Adventists observing Saturday as the Sabbath formed in Washington, New Hampshire, in 1844. About the same time, perhaps influenced by this group, Millerite preacher Thomas M. Preble also began observing the Sabbath and the following year published an article and tract arguing that the fourth commandment was still binding on Christians. Although Preble later abandoned his Sabbath belief, his tract fell into the hands of Joseph Bates, a former sea captain and Millerite preacher, who adopted the Sabbath doctrine in 1845 and later that year met with Frederick Wheeler, pastor of the Washington, New Hampshire, congregation. Not simply seeing the Sabbath as the restoration of a doctrine long hidden by tradition and after learning of Edson’s interpretation of October 22, 1844, Bates argued in a series of tracts that Christ’s entrance into the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary opened a new emphasis on the Sabbath, for the Ten Commandments were in the ark located in the second apartment and that doctrine was now the symbol of true faith in God.

As their thinking developed, the Sabbatarian Adventists came to see themselves as fulfilling what the Protestant Reformation had begun, bringing Christianity full-circle back to true biblical belief and practice. Drawing identity from the three angels’ message of Revelation 14:6-11, these Adventists saw their task as one of warning the world against worshipping the beast and his image, which they identified as Roman Catholicism’s and “apostate” Protestantism’s observance of Sunday. In these last days, they believed, true Christians must join those who “keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).

In addition to this millennialist and restorationist combination of the sanctuary and Sabbath doctrines, the visions of Ellen G. White formed a third strand that shaped the Sabbatarian Adventist movement. A 17-year-old Millerite, Ellen née Harmon experienced her first vision in December 1844 in Portland, Maine, and soon began speaking to small Millerite groups. Her travels brought her into contact with James White, a minor Millerite preacher, and in 1846 they married. In the autumn of that year they read one of Bates’s pamphlets and began observing the Sabbath. About this same time Ellen started experiencing visions that confirmed their new doctrinal positions, something that continued as they adopted the sanctuary interpretation in 1847, and with Bates led out in a series of “Sabbath Conferences” in 1848 that codified the beliefs of the Sabbatarian Adventist movement.

In their thinking, Adventists understood Ellen White’s visionary role as one that confirmed and clarified the results of their Bible study, rather than presenting new doctrinal revelations in the manner of Joseph Smith.

As their thought developed, the Sabbatarian Adventists continued the democratic theology of the Second Great Awakening. None of them was a trained biblical scholar or theologian. Rather they were farmers, school teachers, a sea captain, and even—in Ellen White’s case—a minimally educated young woman; yet they confidently believed that they could accurately interpret the Bible and correct centuries of Christian tradition. In fact, the Adventists concluded that they had discovered long neglected or misunderstood doctrines, particularly Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the seventh-day Sabbath, that were “present truth” for their time. Called by God to awaken the world to these truths, they believed, the “great second Advent movement” would play the key role as earth’s history moved toward its climax.

Adventism, Organization, and Institutions

Through the 1850s, however, most Sabbatarian Adventists opposed organizing their movement as a denomination. The conflict that had developed between the Millerites and the established churches in the 1840s largely shaped the Adventists view that the temptations of power and control turned organized religion into Babylon. As leaders such as Joseph Bates and James and Ellen White visited the scattered groups of Adventists, however, they increasingly recognized the need for some form of organization. Whether the issue was certification of bona fide Adventist ministers, financial support of the ministry, or ownership of the Review and Herald printing facilities, they concluded that the movement must develop a formalized structure.

As early as 1851 James White began calling for “gospel order.” Although some rudimentary steps toward organization were taken during the next few years, the question of ownership of the Review office pushed the Adventists to adopt the name “Seventh-day Adventist” in 1860 and organize the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association the following year. In 1861 the churches in Michigan organized the first Adventist conference, which was followed by the organization of six more conferences during the next several months. From May 20-23, 1863, delegates from eight of these conferences formed the General Conference.

Becoming A World Religion

Born in the United States and having only some 3,000 members at the time it organized the General Conference in 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not at first consider sending missionaries abroad. After Michał B. Czechowski, a former Roman Catholic priest who converted to Adventism, failed in his effort to have the denomination send him as a missionary to Europe, he went anyway in 1864 under the auspices of the Advent Christian Church, although he preached Seventh-day Adventist doctrines. Czechowski’s converts in Switzerland learned of the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church through papers he had left in a room where he had stayed, and in 1869 they sent a representative to Battle Creek. As a result of this contact with believers in Switzerland, the General Conference sent John Nevins Andrews, its first official foreign missionary, to that country in 1874.

During the next two decades Adventists established mission work in several areas, most of them either English speaking or having significant immigrant populations in the United States. They first introduced missions in Denmark (1877), England (1884), Australia (1885), and Germany (1888). In the 1890s they expanded their efforts to include the South Pacific, South Africa, Latin America, India, and Japan. Although by the beginning of the 20th century Adventists had established a presence on every continent and in most of the larger nations, they were still an American church, with 80 percent of their 67,000 members living in the United States.


That situation would change dramatically during the next two decades. The establishment of the Solusi Mission in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1894, the first Adventist mission to black Africans, had symbolized a shift in the denomination that would soon produce significant results. In Latin America, Asia, India, and elsewhere in Africa, Adventists by the early 20th century were moving beyond the European populations they had first evangelized to the native peoples who, in many cases, proved far more accepting of their teaching. This shift, combined with a strong emphasis on missions by two General Conference presidents, Arthur G. Daniells and William A. Spicer, and the reorganization of the church occurring from 1901 to 1903, dramatically changed the geographical distribution of Adventist membership. By 1921 membership outside North America exceeded that within.

Although at that time Europe was second in membership to North America, by 1940 it was clear where the momentum of growth lay, for between 1920 and 1940, Africa had increased from 2,700 members to over 48,000; Asia from 7,000 to 60,000; and Latin America from 15,000 to 70,0000. North America, meanwhile, had increased from 96,000 to 185,000, and Europe from 46,000 to 102,000. Total denominational membership had moved from 184,000 to 504,000.

This membership growth impacted the organizational structure of the church, for out of the General Conference sessions of 1913 and 1918 a new entity emerged. The division, unlike conferences and union conferences, was an administrative unit of General Conference and attempted to provide direction and cohesion to the union conferences within particular geographical areas. By 2016 there were 13 divisions and one attached field: East-Central Africa (3,502,462 members), Euro-Asia (111,531), Inter-American (3,726,421), Inter-European (178,339), North American (1,237,004), Northern Asia-Pacific (719,766), South American (2,479,452), South Pacific (490,294), Southern Africa-Indian Ocean (3,747,573), Southern Asia (1,580,614), Southern Asia-Pacific (1,418,551), Trans-European (87,193), West-Central Africa (725,045), Middle East and North Africa Union Mission (3,782), and Israel Field (752). World membership at that time totaled 20,008,779.

Clearly, by the early 21st century, the small group of mid-19th century American Millerites formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church had become a global movement.

-Adapted from Gary Land, Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists (2014), pgs. 1-9.

African Adventist Heritage Museum

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