The 1830s were a tempestuous time for American Protestantism, from the fires of the Second Great Awakening to the ongoing march of Unitarianism. Adding to the general excitement, a self-described biblical prophet, William Miller, came up with two dates for Doomsday in that fraught decade. When neither eventuated, Miller declared himself a failure, and retired from the prophecy business. His followers were much dismayed by this “Great Disappointment”. Many returned to the denominations from which they had come. Many more joined the Shakers.
But a remnant retained the faith in Miller that Miller himself lacked. At the head of many of these emerged Ellen G White (1827-1915), a native of Maine. Shortly after Miller’s second debacle in 1844, she received the first of more than 2,000 visitations she claimed to have from Christ. She was able to inspire many of the remaining “Adventists” (as Miller’s remaining followers called themselves) with a new vision.
Her ongoing revelations formed the basis of the doctrine upon which she and her husband, James, founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church (so-called because White claimed that Christ wanted to be worshipped on the Jewish Sabbath). These doctrines included the revival of Jewish dietary customs (although most Adventists are vegetarian today); identification of the pope as Antichrist; three separate Divine Persons rather than the orthodox doctrine of Trinity; and several other unique teachings.
For the most part, Adventists are conscientious objectors, but they have specialised in medical roles during wartime. Similarly, the denomination has a generous commitment to hospitals and schools – and were great practitioners of racial equality. Their technological savvy must be balanced against the proof asserted of the papacy’s diabolical nature – that the (non-existent) inscription on the papal tiara adds up to 666 in Hebrew letters.