Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
On the evening of Oct. 21, 1844, hundreds of people, inspired by the prophetic teachings of William Miller, gathered to await the Second Coming of Jesus, which they believed would take place the following day.
When the trumpet of Christ’s return failed to sound, many of Miller’s disappointed followers left the movement and rejoined their mainstream denominations. Others joined the Shakers.
A significant group, however, clung to the belief that the basic elements of Miller’s eschatological vision were correct, simply wrong about the timing.
One such group eventually coalesced around the charismatic leadership of Ellen G. White. White’s visions and biblical teachings—published in some 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books and eventually translated into 140 languages—became the foundation for the modern-day group known as the Seventh-day Adventists (SDA).
During the past 10 years they have added more than a million new converts every year, with the overwhelming majority today living in Africa and Central or South America.
Most North American Mennonites are skeptical about SDA theology, especially its teachings on Sabbath worship, the imminent return of Christ, strict dietary restrictions and the high regard they give the writings of Ellen White.
Some early Anabaptist groups, for example— particularly those in Moravia inspired by the leadership of Hans Hut—were caught up with the expectation of the imminent return of Christ (Pentecost of 1528 was one predicted date). Several of these same groups promoted the idea of Sabbath worship, thinking it more faithfully reflects the practice of the earliest church in Jerusalem.
Both traditions earnestly seek to follow Jesus in daily life, with a strong emphasis on the church as a community. Both groups have been willing to take unpopular positions that go against the grain of the culture around them, including conscientious objection to military service. And members of the SDA church in North America today, like many contemporary Mennonite groups, find themselves in a vigorous discussion about whether the future of their church should be oriented more to the evangelical mainstream or to a separatist identity—to a missional outreach that focuses on commonalities with the larger Christian tradition or a renewed embrace of distinctive practices.
In the spring of 2014, representatives of Mennonite World Conference and Seventh-day Adventists concluded two years of ecumenical dialogues by publishing the results of their conversations in the book Living the Christian Life in Today’s World (available from the MWC Faith and Life Commission website).
In contrast to recent MWC dialogues with the Catholic and Lutheran churches, conversations with the SDAs did not receive much publicity. After all, our relations with Catholics and Lutherans stretch back nearly 500 years; we seem to have far fewer connections with SDAs.
But at a recent meeting of the MWC Faith and Life Commission, it became clear from brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Taiwan and parts of South America that the lives of ordinary Mennonites in these countries intersect with SDAs much more frequently than they do with Lutherans or Catholics.
These relationships are sometimes collaborative—particularly in areas of relief and service work—but in other settings can also be competitive, since SDA evangelists preach a gospel that sounds similar to Mennonites but with a strong theology of hope rooted in the expectation of Christ’s imminent return.
In 2017, the Christian church will begin a series of commemorations focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the division that separated Lutherans and Anabaptists from each other and from the Catholic Church. Clearly, MWC should take an active role in those commemorations.
But at the same time, the weight of history should not blind us to the fact that from the perspective of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church, ecumenical engagements with groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Assembly of God may be even more urgent.
Although it is flattering to be invited to the main table of ecumenical dialogue, we have much to learn as well from those groups at the edges of mainstream Christianity. In this venture, it may be our churches in the Global South who need to take the lead.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review. This Global Anabaptism column appeared in the March issue.
The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled. Comments that were previously approved will still appear. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review in accordance with the policy below. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments and comments don’t appear until approved. Anonymous comments are not accepted. Writers must sign posts or log into Disqus with their first and last name. Read our full Comments Policy.