August 2012

"The Great Controversy" and the Coming of Global Christianity

John N. Andrews’ seminal exposition of place of the United States in apocalyptic prophecy, set forth in 1851, built on a widely-shared notion about the direction of history, put into verse by in the 18th century by Bishop George Berkeley in “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America.”  History centered on a westward progression of empires, beginning with Babylon and Persia in the ancient Near East, then proceeding to Greece, then to Rome.[1]  Expectation of continued westward progression bolstered Andrews’ argument that biblical prophecy itself, in Revelation 13 and 14, foretold the decisive role of the United States at the end of the age.  He cited the rapid westward territorial expansion of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century as evidence supporting a geographical, as well as chronological, sequence of the apocalyptic beasts.  Now “the great circuit of empire will be accomplished, for the boundary of the vast Pacific has been reached.”[2]

The “present truth” that Seventh-day Adventists offered America in the second half of the 19th century assumed the structure of this reigning West-centered conception of history – while undercutting its triumphalism: rather than embody the zenith of nobility, time’s last imperial offspring, Protestant America, was betraying its promising guise and would join hands with the papacy for a terrifying and climactic re-incarnation of the old evils of empire.  While all forms of Christianity make basic claims about history, Seventh-day Adventists staked the entire meaning of their movement on amplifying such claims and specifying the key actors and time periods involved.  

The Adventist church has since grown, and become overwhelmingly non-western in membership despite the Western focus of its “great controversy” storyline.  However, that international make-up itself, along with a growing body of scholarship, are prominent among the factors that press upon us, as Adventist historians, the urgency of recasting the church’s western-centered theology of history.

Authors such as Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and Andrew Walls[3] have called attention to the implications of the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia during the 20th century accompanied by relative malaise among the white populations of North America and Western Europe.  Coming to terms with the recent southward and eastward trajectories has also prompted new emphasis on the historical importance of centers of Christianity outside the West – in the Middle East, further east in Asia, and in Africa – established centuries prior to Western-based missions.

What are the implications of all of this for the historical vocation in the Adventist community?  The work of these scholars convincingly depicts a global panorama of Christianity’s past, present, and future that takes us far beyond that depicted in the pages of The Great Controversy.  How useful for the 21st century can a charting of history be that has nothing to say about the vast millions of Eastern Orthodoxy or the resurgence and tenacity of Islam, and little about the distinctive features of African Christianity which is rapidly becoming the most representative form of world Christianity?

I should make clear some assumptions behind my raising of these issues and my attempt to address them.  In my conception historical scholarship is a vocation within the community of faith.  For that vocation to be fulfilled, critical investigation of history must be pursued in a free and open manner, with hard questions asked and conclusions open to revision according to the evidence.  A faith that stakes itself on history must be open to this process.

The choice to participate in the Adventist community also involves doing business with a heritage of belief about the meaning of history.  Certain convictions and values orient the task of what to look for and highlight in constructing a meaningful narrative out of the mass of possible evidence.  Gary Land, adapting a term from Patrick Gardiner, writes that Christian historians may use “pointers” to guide us “in determining what is important in the historical record and how to understand the human dimension of that record.”[4]

The new awareness of the global dimensions of Christian history has implications relevant to both of these assumptions.  It challenges us – in varying ways appropriate to our particular roles and specialties – to advance a more satisfactory understanding of the history of Christianity than is conveyed through traditional church sources alone.  At the same time, on the level of convictions about the meaning of history, those sources – Ellen White’s writings in particular – encourage, I believe even mandate, vigorous development of a broader global picture than they themselves present.  To meet both challenges, we need to re-invigorate and renew historical study of Christianity by bringing to it a global perspective.

Always Under Revision

Twenty-five years ago, Jonathan Butler demonstrated with costly clarity, that the Protestant America to which Ellen White prophesied in The Great Controversy had in fact come to an end though the world had not.[5]  From Ellen White’s standpoint, the Western progression of history had reached its endpoint in an America that represented the last, best hope of free government and religious liberty for the entire world.  Ecumenical leader Josiah Strong, as a leading voice of the Protestant establishment, hoped that America would indeed lead the world to a millennial liberty, and do so by invigorating the Anglo-Saxon race, as the representative of “the purest Christianity,” to “dispossess many weaker ones, assimilate others, and mold the remainder.”[6] Ellen White, however, saw the American millennial project turning repressive, particularly through Sabbath legislation – an issue reflecting decidedly Anglo-American obsessions.  Sunday observance was a prominent issue for the champions, like Strong, of Protestant empire in America.  At the same time Britain stood at the head of the European empires racing in full gear for global power.  In that setting, a somewhat parochial struggle between the heirs of the Puritans could plausibly have international implications.

By 1979 pluralist America had thoroughly displaced Protestant America, and though a new Christian Right was emerging, Sunday laws failed to surface in its endeavors to reverse the tide.  Furthermore, momentous changes on the international scene since then have in many ways led us further from Ellen White’s world.  Most obvious here is the resurgence of Islam as a potent geo-political force.  The massive southward shift in world Christianity’s center of gravity has brought about unforeseen developments that go well beyond demographics.  It has brought to center stage issues not found in The Great Controversy plot such as the equitable distribution of global resources and multi-faceted dilemmas involving gender and sexuality.  Moreover, the indigenous and Pentecostal-style movements that in no small degree powered the shift appear to be creating an entirely new type of Christianity outside the Protestant-Catholic categories familiar to Ellen White.[7]

The credibility of talk about beasts and images, about history in the light of prophecy and the time of trouble, diminishes if it does not take into account these developments.  Precisely because Adventism stands on a theology of history – “the great controversy” – as the structure in which all of the church’s central teachings find their full meaning, it opens itself to the ongoing pursuit of historical understanding.  Adventist historians have the responsibility and right to be resources for advancing that understanding, which entails correcting and showing the limitations of previous understandings.

The Great Controversy might be described as an extended sermon about the meaning and ultimate direction of history.  It spoke the prophetic word to its times, using the work of historians to develop and illustrate its basic theological claims.  As times change, as new knowledge comes, the illustrations change and the outline may be restructured.  The process can be seen the course of Ellen White’s own career, not least in the production and revision of The Great Controversy.  Adventist scholars functioned in varying ways as sources, filters, and advisors for Ellen White’s appropriation of historical material.[8]  Thus, one implication of the dramatic changes in the shape of world Christianity may simply be a reminder that we need to be for the church today what J.N. Andrews, W.W. Prescott and others were for Ellen White.

Always Orienting

My sense, however, is that the limitations of Ellen White’s writings about history is no longer a very controversial or engrossing theme for Adventist historians.  No longer tightly constricted by those writings, I wonder if we pay much attention to them at all in connection with how we do history.  So, my greater concern is to argue taking Ellen White’s perspective on history more seriously would stimulate open if critical engagement with the new global emphasis.   Such engagement would also re-vitalize study and teaching of the history of Christianity in ways that could, in turn, help the church toward wise and deeper faithfulness.

While my focus here is primarily on broad themes of meaning and purpose in history, there is at least one specific historical example that demands attention.  In The Great Controversy (575-78, 1888 ed.), Ellen White devotes to the indigenous Christianity of sub-Saharan Africa nearly half of a three-page section on historical examples of resistance to papal oppression over the Sabbath.  Though stimulated by visitors from the eastern Roman empire who were dissenters from Byzantine orthodoxy, the churches of Ethiopia and Nubia developed and sustained over a period of centuries distinctive African expressions of Christianity, independent of foreign control.[9]  Sabbath observance was a central point of contention in the Portuguese-led attempt in the 16th and 17th centuries to bring Ethiopia into the Roman communion.  In the end, the Ethiopians succeeded in expelling the Portuguese and preserving an identity that included seventh-day Sabbath observance among its markers.[10]  Lest readers hasten too quickly by the story of “Central Africa,” Ellen White pauses to underscore its claim on the reader’s attention: “The history of the churches of Ethiopia and Abyssinia is especially important.”

It was Charles E. Bradford’s Sabbath Roots: The African Connection (1999) that for me rescued this passage from faded memory.  Why did I forget about this segment on Africa, when so much else in The Great Controversy stayed familiar? Was it just me – a failure of memory or discipline in re-reading The Conflict of the Ages series as often as I should?  Or could it have something to do with the fact that there were no exciting, serialized stories about this in the Junior Guide or alluring books on display at camp meeting, as there were about the Waldensians, Luther, Tyndale, and the Huguenots?  Or that I never heard it mentioned in a sermon or quoted in a Sabbath School lesson?  However that may be, this relatively neglected vignette from Ellen White herself reminds us that Africa plays a major part in “the great controversy,” and not just as an extension of Western mission but rather in some ways despite it.

Consider also the current scene: approximately 360 million Christians in Africa; over 600 million projected by 2025.  Add to that the millions in the African diaspora – from Rio de Janeiro, to Kingston, to New York, Toronto, London, and points between and beyond.  Thus, the modern surge and spread of African Christianity, along with its legacy from centuries past, make an overwhelming case for regarding Africa as a major historic center of Christianity.[11]  Not only that, but a center in its own right, not a satellite of some greater center.

While Ellen White’s reference to Africa helps my case, better adherence to the particulars of her historical outline is not my point.  Rather, I want to hold up a key principle in Ellen White’s “great controversy” theme, and propose that it challenges us to discover and make coherent a global narrative for Christian history that would look quite different in proportion and detail from the picture that she herself developed in The Great Controversy.

While another nineteenth-century interpreter of history saw “class struggle” as the central dynamic of history, for Ellen White it was “moral struggle” in the public arena.  The primary agents of creative change in history, the decisive actors in moving the drama forward, are not ruling elites, military conquerors, or accumulators of wealth, but nonconformists from the margins – the prophetic minorities that risks confronting the powers on the basis of principle rather than expedience or self-interest.  In her estimation the foremost champions in the “record of human progress” are not emperors, generals, or presidents but those who “have withstood the power of the whole world” armed only with the word of God.

The Vaudois and the Huguenots, Wycliffe and Huss, Jerome and Luther, Tyndale and Knox, Zinzendorf and Wesley, with multitudes of others, have witnessed to the power of God’s word against human power and policy in support of evil.  These are the world’s true nobility.  This is its royal line.[12]

Consequently, history “considered from the divine point of view” looks beyond the struggles for military conquest and political domination in order to emphasize “the history of the great reformatory movements.”  Such study would reveal a frequent pattern: though the principles of reform movements often are “despised and hated” and “their advocates brought to the dungeon and the scaffold,” they triumph “through these very sacrifices.”  Pursuit of history from this perspective would also highlight global interconnectedness, showing “how wonderfully we are bound together in the great brotherhood of society and nations, and to how great an extent the oppression or degradation of one member means loss to all.” [13]

It seems to me that two lines of thought intertwine here in giving impetus to a multicentered, global structuring of the history of Christianity.  First, being on the lookout for prophetic minorities will leads us to probe further beyond the centers of power both within and outside the geographical borders of ancient imperial Rome and the modern imperial West.  The prolific church historian Justo L. Gonzalez has recently described the “vision of the church from which today I write and interpret the history of the church” as “incarnate marginality.”  Without ignoring the value and importantce of what has happened at the centers of power, writes Gonzalez, “we must affirm that the proper place for those who follow Jesus Christ is the margin rather than the center; it is the valley rather than the hilltop; it is the cross rather than the throne.”[14]

Second, the values of inclusiveness and equal dignity embedded the concept of being “bound together in the great brotherhood of society and nations” demand that we tell the story in ways that reflect its truly global scope, and no longer allow elitism or parochialism narrow it.

Some Examples

Tracing the eastward, not just the westward, trajectory of the early Christian movement would lead us to the Persian empire where, during the fourth century, 16,000 Christians were put to death for their faith.  That’s probably more martyrs than all those executed by Roman emperors combined, certainly more than the number for which there is direct evidence.[15]  Among the Persian faithful was Martha, a “daughter of the covenant” – one who took a vow of celibacy on behalf of Christ.  She was apprehended in the midst of a worship service in 341 and ordered to submit to Emperor Shapur, “the shah of shahs.”  Her response was to pray for the shah’s well-being while declaring her trust to be “in Jesus Christ as the true king of kings who would soon return for her, one of his betrothed.”[16]

The Persian (or East Syrian) church, nurtured by its great theological school in Edessa (later Nsibis), would later dissent from the Council of Chalcedon’s definition of the nature of Christ that was embraced by imperial authority in Constantinople (as well as in the West).  Keeping the Persian Christian, or Nestorian, experience as part of the main story line, rather than quickly letting it drop from sight as an offshoot from orthodoxy, would reward us with a much fuller picture of Christian interaction with the cultures and empires of the East.  The two-day dialogue between Timothy, patriarch of Baghdad, and the Abbasid caliph Mahdi in the eighth century, for example, would be a constructive historical memory to nourish in today’s world.[17]

Another cohort of dissenters from Byzantine orthodoxy – the so-called monophysite churches – has also frequently been relegated to second or third-class status.  Making this family of churches, which came to include Armenian, West Syrian (Jacobite), Coptic, Ethiopian, and Nubian integral to Christian history would be enriching for several reasons.  For example, the impressive growth of the Jacobite church in the sixth century suggests the value of a less hierarchical church organization, and keeping an identity free from blurring with imperial authority.  The so-called Nine Saints, who fled Syria to escape persecution from the Christian emperor in Constantinople in the late fifth century, landed in Ethiopia where they had a crucial role in extending and deepening the influence of Christianity throughout the countryside.[18] 

Consideration of the Ethiopian church together with the Nubian (its existence recovered to history in recent decades through archaeology) and the Coptic in Egypt brings to light a major southward trajectory of Christianity during its first millennium.  Africa, and far more of it than Roman North Africa, thus early on became a major center of the faith.  It has a foundational and distinctive legacy for the history of Christianity that must not be minimized or subsumed under that of Europe.

We have already noted how Africa has re-emerged to central importance in the Christian saga within the past century.  Coming to terms with this reality requires more than “doing the math.”  It requires attention to the ways Christianity flourishes in modern Africa because of Africans who “witnessed to the power of God’s word against human power and policy in support of evil.”  That witness entailed disentangling the truths of the gospel from its packaging with European culture and imperial subjugation, and embodying the Christian message in the forms and flavors of African culture.  Forms of Christianity not mediated through Europe, it must be reiterated, were already part of that cultural heritage, along with pagan and Islamic influences.

Independent or African-initiated movements (AIC) – what Lamin Sanneh calls “the signature tune of African Christianity” – powered the explosive growth of African Christianity in the twentieth century to a critical extent. Led by prophetic figures such as William Wade Harris, Garrick Braide, Simon Kimbangu, and Isaiah Shembe, the AIC used “dreams, prayer, prophecy, and healing to institute reforms in music, regalia, liturgy, and pastoral counseling, and so to minister to their throngs of converts.”[19]

Andrew Walls characterizes the AIC as the “Anabaptists of Africa” for their “wild variety,” their “strong cohesion as ‘people of God,’”and their “radical biblicism.” That eclectic fusion of radical biblicalism with African tradition as sometime seen, for example, in the use of Levitical ritual and purity laws, of course raises serious questions.[20]  So did the fusion of Christianity with the Roman imperial cult, Neoplatonic philosophy, and the militaristic culture of the European tribes that created Western civilization.

Lamin Sanneh contends that the AIC carried out the necessary divesting the Christianity that had become “a sub-plot of European maritime expansion that fueled slavery and colonialism” from its excessive “Western cultural and political baggage,” thus preparing it to be “drilled by culturally charged forces into its Gentile African pivot.” 

The formation of a distinctly African Christian identity thus came about through the transition from a territorial, scholastic church of the medieval period to evangelical, disestablishmentarian forms of religion; from the concordat approach to mission to Independency and personal lay agency; and from metropolitan assimilados to vernacular translation and rural empowerment.[21]

Giving African agency its due centrality in the story of African Christianity rather than viewing it solely through the lens of the Western missionary enterprise is an instance of placing the history of Christianity, in Sanneh’s words, “squarely where it belongs: within the unfolding narrative of humanity’s struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.”[22]

My examples have tilted toward Africa.  The point, however, is not that Africa should now be regarded as the single, dominant center of Christian history.  To illustrate the multiple centers, we might, for example, look at the flourishing of Christianity in South Korea as part of an identity resistant both to Japanese and communism rule, as well as to Western missionary dominance; or to Latin America as the source of liberation theology.  While their vitality, influence, and relationships to other centers shift over time, each center draws on a historical legacy in which people have embraced and shaped Christianity on their own cultural terms, and each has ongoing importance for the overall story.[23]

Increasing awareness of the global, multi-centered character of the world Christian movement and its past gives us a substantially different view of history and its culmination than Ellen White and the other Adventist pioneers formulated over a century ago, filled with peoples and powers and even epochs unfamiliar to them.  More significant, though, “the great controversy,” as a theology of history centering on prophetic minorities and the full human dignity of all peoples, points toward the urgency of interpreting Christianity in the global framework. Such study would enrich the identity of a people wanting to see Christianity at its best lived out in a global fellowship in which the antagonisms that alienate social classes, nations, races, and ethnic groups healed by the gospel.  It should also empower such people to counter with prophetic witness the forces working for globalization on other terms, in which the many struggle for bare survival while the few grasp luxuries secured, after all, by the global military reach of an empire at the end of the westward progression.

-Douglas Morgan

[1] Ernest R. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968): 92-95.

[2] J.N. Andrews, “Thoughts on Revelation XIII and XIV,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 1851: 82-83.

[3] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Lamin Sanneh, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993); Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003); Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996);

[4] Gary Land, Teaching History: A Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Andrews University Press, 2000): 43, see also 39-52, 85.

[5] Jonathan Butler, “The World of E.G. White and the End of the World,” Spectrum 10 (August 1979): 2-13.

[6] Quoted in Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972), 849.

[7] Andrew F. Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again: The Task of Reconceiving and Re-visioning the Study of Christian History,” in Wilbert R. Shenk, ed., Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on Writing World Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002): 13.

[8] Gilbert Valentine, The Shaping of Adventism: The Case of W.W. Prescott (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, (1992): 223-25; Donald R. McAdams, “Shifting Views of Inspiration: Ellen G. White Studies in the 1970s,” Spectrum 10 (March 1980): 27-41.

[9] Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 215-19, 250-51, 471-75.

[10] Bekele Heye, The Sabbath in Ethiopia: An Exploration of Christian Roots (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry, 2003); Werner Vyhmeister, “The Sabbath in Egypt and Ethiopia,” in Kenneth A. Strand, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982):  169-89.

[11] Jenkins, 74-75.

[12]Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1903), 254-55.

[13]White, Education, 238.

[14] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Changing Shape of Church History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 153.

[15] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of Conflict From the Maccabees to Donatus (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967) [get page #]

[16] Irvin and Sunquist, 196; Walls, “Eusebius Tries Again,” 9-10.

[17] Irvin and Sunquist, 282-88; 305-22; 459-61.

[18] Irvin and Sunquist, 214-19; 248-50

[19] Lamin Sanneh, “World Christianity and the New Historiography: History and Global Interconnections,” in Wilbert R. Shenk, ed., Enlarging the Story, 109-10.

[20] Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 111-18.

[21] Sanneh, “World Christianity,”110.

[22] Sanneh, “World Christianity,” 112.

[23] Wilbert R. Shenk, Introduction to Enlarging the Story, xi-xvii.