Seventh-day Adventist Historiography

An Introduction

by Gabriel Masfa (Author)
©2021 Monographs 238 Pages


This book focuses on the historiography of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is a study of the various ways Adventist historians have approached history. The author concentrates on select historians whose publications cover important issues for Seventh-day Adventist history. Such historians are recognized for their contributions, both published and unpublished, that are foundational to Adventist history and historiography. The book analyzes basic historical facts as used in the writing of Seventh-day Adventist history. It is analytical in nature by using documentary sources including relevant books, articles, and other research materials. It departs from using a strict chronological approach and instead focuses on major themes from Adventist history that illustrate Adventist historiography.
Gabriel Masfa has described the various threads of Seventh-day Adventist approaches to history. His book is a masterful treatment of a wide variety of approaches. It is an indispensable introduction to a fascinating historical topic.
Edward Allen, President of the Association of Adventist Historians.
Professor of Religion, Union College, Nebraska, United States
Dr. Masfa’s monograph is to be welcomed as the first critical historiographical analysis of Adventist Studies and the first substantive history of Seventh-day Adventist historiography.
David Trim, Ph.D., F.R. Hist. S. Director of Archives, Statistics, and
Research General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
This work will remain the benchmark standard for Adventist historiography for some time to come, and for this, the author must be commended.
Michael W. Campbell, Ph. D, Professor of Religion at Southwestern
Adventist University, Texas, United States

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Recommendations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Historical Hermeneutic:: A Survey of Approaches to History
  • Classical and Secular Approaches to History
  • Classical Historiography
  • Modern Secular History
  • Postmodern History
  • Christian Approaches to History
  • Traditional Christian History
  • 20th Century Christian History
  • Summary and Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 History as Faith Commitment:: Theological Approach to Adventist Historical Hermeneutics
  • Earliest Attempts at Writing Theological History
  • Ellen G. White’s Approach to Theological History
  • The Bible as Sacred History
  • Prophecy and History
  • The Great Controversy Theme
  • The Crowning Piece of Theological History Writing
  • Summary and Conclusion
  • Chapter 3 Christian History as Apologetics:: A Survey of Adventist Approaches
  • Individual Historical Narratives
  • The Ellen G. White Estate
  • Early Denominational History Textbooks
  • Summary and Conclusion
  • Chapter 4 The Development of Critical Approaches to Adventist History and Various Responses to Them
  • Critical Historiography
  • Open Critical History
  • The Closed Secular Confessional History
  • Mediating Positions and New Explorations
  • Critical Conservative History
  • Critical Apologetic History
  • Revisionist Realistic History
  • Summary and Conclusion
  • Chapter 5 Summary and Conclusion
  • Summary
  • Conclusion
  • Table A
  • Table B
  • Bibliography
  • Index


History does not concern only the past, but the present and the future as well. Life is the sum of experiences drawn from the past, but also from the present, with possible consequences for the future. The concepts of the past and the future are both important, because they are the controlling images around which the identity of a group of people is built. History, in general, is at the heart of life experiences associated with activities leading to substantial changes, readjustments and continuity of events.

Religious history, specifically, provides a historical framework for understanding human beliefs about God.1 In this way, religious history “not only helps us understand both God and humanity; it also helps us better to understand the historical institution in which they most closely meet—the church.”2 Peter Lake provides a useful definition of religious history, taking as relevant for the religious historian “any set of actions or beliefs which either their author or other contemporaries subjected to a religious interpretation,” which he further defines as “any reading which involved either the honour and worship of God or the attainment of salvation by men.”3 Religious history accounts for the historical study of religious beliefs and provides an explanation for human values, cultural practices, and religious identity. Closely related to religious history is the discipline of church or ecclesiastical history. The latter refers to the various accounts ←17 | 18→of the development of the Christian church written from a Christian perspective. The fact that Christianity is a historical religion means that the Christian historian comprehends religious history through a faith approach. Edward Norman argues that ecclesiastical history “was intended to demonstrate religious truth by disclosing the divine guidance supposedly evident in the development of the institutions of Christianity.”4 By studying and understanding church history within the framework of the broader structure of religious history, it is possible to better appreciate the connection between religious beliefs and the identity of believers at large. A church historian also examines this connection.

The extent to which historical research connects to identity is also proportionate to the need to study and understand historiography. The term “historiography” is defined as the “history of history” or “knowledge about knowledge.”5 Central to the study of historiography is the need to recognize how historians shape the past. A wide variety of factors can influence the writing of history whether it concerns sources, methodology, or the manner in which such history is written. Historiography serves a useful purpose by examining how historians study and write history. A central concern of such historiography is how the historian describes the past. Closely connected to this idea is the notion that a philosophy of history guides how historians write history. While historiography and a philosophy of history partly overlap, they are not the same thing. Historiography is more descriptive and less abstract than a philosophy of history.6 This book concentrates on historiography with implications for the philosophy of history.←18 | 19→

Students of historiography usually ask questions such as: how have historians written and interpreted historical facts? How have their methods differed and changed over time? What theoretical approaches have been adopted? How have these approaches affected their understanding of the past? These and related questions help shape historical writing. Such questions are at the heart of any study aiming at understanding how Christian denominations approach their past.

This book focuses on the historiography of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A helpful starting point for examining Seventh-day Adventist historiography is to study the various ways Adventist historians have approached history.7 This reveals much about their presuppositions, biases, and sometimes, even their longings. In this way, the writing of history reveals basic philosophical assumptions about life, beliefs, and culture.8

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a deep sense of history. This historical consciousness developed from the earliest beginnings of the Millerite revival during the 1830s and 1840s, which included an emphasis on the fulfillment of Bible prophecy in relationship to historical events.9 After the Great Disappointment (an expression that refers to the grief experienced by the Milerites when Jesus did ←19 | 20→come on October 22, 1844), as various groups of Adventists evolved, Sabbatarian Adventists argued that they were the true heirs of the Millerite revival. They republished original documents by key Millerite leaders about their faith in the Second Advent. This publication, The Advent Review, was soon combined with the Present Truth into a single journal. Together, they show how, at a conceptual level, the (re)interpretation of historical events (i.e., the Millerite revival and the Great Disappointment) was at the very genesis of the formation of the group that eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In this way, history has always been central to Adventist identity within a broad stream of the historicist interpretation, in particular, for Seventh-day Adventism. This includes a very specific way of reading the Bible, including historical events from Bible times up to the present, linking the past with the present. Seventh-day Adventists used the Scottish Common Sense approach to the Bible and history, which took simple historical facts in order to interpret Bible prophecy.10 They used this as a framework both to interpret and apply the Bible as part of their worldview.

Seventh-day Adventists saw themselves as literally fulfilling Bible prophecy.11 In the aftermath of the Great Disappointment in 1844, they interpreted the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25) as a description of their Christian experience.12 ←20 | 21→Later on, Sabbatarian Adventists saw their religious experience described in Rev 10.13 In this passage, an angel gave a book to the seer, which they believed was the book of Daniel. John, the Revelator, ate the book. At the end of the prophecy, there is an admonition to go and share a message once again. Seventh-day Adventists saw this passage as a description of their own religious experience. The message of the second Advent movement was at first sweet as honey, then it became bitter. In this way, Seventh-day Adventists not only viewed Bible prophecy in a historicist manner, they also saw the Great Disappointment as a fulfillment of prophecy. This reinforced their belief that they were literally fulfilling Bible prophecy. Their very existence was foretold. The Seventh-day Adventist Church was not simply another denomination. It was specifically called by God into existence.

This study highlights major historical works related to Adventist history. The book focuses on select historians, who produced works in English language, and whose publications cover important issues for Seventh-day Adventist history. Such historians are recognized for their contributions, both published and unpublished, that were foundational to Adventist history and historiography. While it is not possible to describe every historian who has written about every facet of Adventist history (such as a history of a local church or specific region), this book tries to focus on broad descriptive histories of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Historians who have followed in the wake of Knight have not been included because such work is difficult to do since the distance in time has not clearly illuminated all of the most recent historiographical issues.

This book analyzes basic historical facts as used in the writing of Seventh-day Adventist history. It is analytical in nature by using documentary sources including relevant books, articles, and other research materials. The book utilizes both primary published and unpublished sources and relevant secondary sources. It does not claim to be exhaustive. It departs from using a strict chronological approach. Instead, it focuses on major themes from Adventist history that illustrate Adventist historiography. This study uses seven major overlapping categories: theology as history, history as apologetics, open critical history, closed secular history, critical conservative history, critical apologetic approach, and revisionist realist school.14 The open critical and closed secular approaches ←21 | 22→are categorized as anti-apologetic history. The critical conservative, critical apologetic, and revisionist approaches are classified as mediating approaches. These seven categories are classified under three major divisions: history as faith commitment (theological-fideist approach), history as apologetics, and history as a search for objective historical analysis (critical conservative history, closed secular history, and revisionist realist history). These categories indicate the complexity of Adventist historiography.

A number of scholars provided significant materials that helped me write this book. The study of Adventist historiography took on special significance during the 1960s. Up until that time, there was not a significant concern about how history was written by denominational historians. The report of the “Quadrennial College History Teachers’ Council” at Pacific Union College held on August 6–10, 1962, brought an awareness about the need for more historical consciousness, particularly with regard to the study of Adventist history. This was particularly evident in the presentation of Gary Land (1944–2014) “From Apologetics to History: The Professionalization of Adventist Historians.”15 The published version of this article provides the earliest critical reflection about Adventist historiography. Land traced the development of Adventist historiography from 1892 to 1980. He described major developmental shifts as a move from chronicles and apologetic books to real professional history.16 Land further noted that “in the traditional [apologetic providential] approach, several significant works of apologetics came from denominational presses.”17←22 | 23→

Land provided an Adventist response to Christian and secular historical hermeneutics. He was an intellectual historian who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973. With his training, he both thought critically and incorporated elements of philosophy of history into the way he described the past. He wrote a number of significant works on Adventist history.18 Benjamin McArthur later eulogized him as the one “who stood at the center of the Adventist historical community for over 40 years.”19 His studies highlighted “Anglo-American cultural and intellectual history, which examined the interrelationships of British and American cultural and intellectual life.”20 In 1970, he joined the faculty of Andrews University where he taught until 2010 when he retired.21 Throughout his lifetime, he became a dominant voice in Adventist history and significantly helped shape Adventist historiography. He was notable for being able “to question his own ideas.”22 Students remembered him as “the model of diffidence.”23 He explained “the history of ideas, styles, and sensibilities.”24←23 | 24→

Land described Adventist history as part of a broader social, cultural, and historical milieu. His use of critical historical methods helped him to rethink traditional narratives of Millerism and early Seventh-day Adventism to reveal many of the broader connections between the rise of Adventism and the world of the pioneers.25 He employed a new method that became common during the 1980s among Christian historians. Such claims lessened dependence upon divine inspiration and showed how many early Adventist pioneers, including E. G. White, were influenced by thoughts and ideas prevalent during their lifetime. For church leaders who merely saw the role of a historian to chronicle God’s providential leading, such methods could be disconcerting, which resulted in concerns by some people in the White Estate (an organization created by the testament of Ellen G. White to act as an agent in the custody of her writings) and General Conference (the coordinating hub of the Seventh-day Adventist Church) about his loyalty to the denomination and his impact upon his students.26 Land, apparently, was able to avoid being terminated, unlike others such as Jonathan M. Butler and Ronald L. Numbers, by showing that he remained personally committed to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He seemed to have argued that his employment of critical historical method was protected under academic freedom. As a widely published historian, he wrote on many other historical topics. In fact, it was proverbial as a result of the treatment by church leaders that it was much safer to write about anything besides Adventist history. This tension between church leaders and a new wave of young historians was exacerbated by others like Ronald D. Graybill and Numbers. As demonstrated later in this chapter, these historians used critical methods to raise new questions as well as fresh interpretations of the past that at times raised thorny issues or a less than idealistic version of Adventist history.

The way Land intellectually resolved this tension for himself between faith and scholarship was that he proposed a distinction between a theology of history and the broad study of history. For him, Adventists focused on the theology of history. He noted, “Interpretations of God’s presence and action in history are of a different nature and have a different source from historical interpretation.”27 ←24 | 25→Therefore, as a consequence, “the historian interprets the actions of man in terms of what the documentary evidence reveals through application of the critical method, but does not merely invalidate theological statements about man’s actions.”28 Land suggested instead that the interpretation of historical facts rests not on identifying God’s hand in history (which could at times seem presumptuous to always know the mind of God) but on how the beliefs of a historian inform and affect his interpretations. He affirmed, “One does not have to invoke the hand of God to understand how the movement of empires in the Mediterranean world created the conditions which surrounded the life of Christ.”29 He acknowledged that providence was in itself a biblical theme. He argued, “Once we move beyond New Testament times, the Bible gives little specific information regarding God’s intervention in history.”30 He noted that not all historical facts can be accounted for by divine providence. Land proposed that Adventist historians should instead incorporate into their history of theology a recognition of many broad factors that contributed to the development of Adventist ideas and, in particular, the way Adventist historians approached their own historiography. Such complexity left open both the possibility of divine agency while incorporating into its narrative human agency and broad social and cultural factors.

Land was nothing short of a prolific historian. He was especially active in the Conference on Faith and History, an association for Christian historians. Most significant of all was a small book he published, the first and only book of its kind so far, in which he outlined a Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of history. The book, titled Teaching History: A Seventh-day Adventist Approach, argues that historical thinking is very much a part of the formation of knowledge (epistemology) for Seventh-day Adventists.31 He notes how the development of the concept of faith and learning should be used in the Adventist classroom. Historians, he argues, face a dilemma in the classroom when they study God’s divine intervention while also being informed about accuracy in how they tell the story of the church. The best way to educate Adventist young people, he proposed, was by helping them understand their worldview. Even the “conditions [of] the questions we ask, the relative importance we give to evidence and facts, and the judgments we make”32 help students to understand their worldview. ←25 | 26→Historians must write history by being self-conscious about their own perspective. They must acknowledge their limitations and that historical accounts are at best limited by historical evidence. “The Bible gives us the framework within which we work, but our interpretations are no better than the evidence—which in some subjects includes the Bible itself—upon which they rest and the skill and honesty with which we use that evidence.”33 Thus, Land attempted a critical synthesis of the past, particularly as applied to Adventist history, that utilized the best of critical methods of history and by also incorporating into such historiography a recognition of worldview and the development of ideas.

Land provided a new historical interpretative synthesis that he used to challenge traditional narratives of the past while at the same time not being so controversial that he was able to retain denominational employment. He was careful to note his commitment to a life of Christian scholarship, which meant that all of his intellectual abilities were subject to building up the church.34 George R. Knight Knight argued that he was loyal to his church till the day he died.35 His friend and student, McArthur, argued that Land labored “in the service of his driving vision: a church, a Christianity informed by historical reflection.”36 At the same time, he believed that Adventist history should be subject to careful scrutiny—a standard he was not afraid to employ upon his own viewpoints.37 Land showed the denomination that it was possible to be both a careful historian engaging in the best critical methods without seriously threatening or undermining the denomination.38 He did this in a way that both won the admiration of other historians while making a lifelong contribution in the history department at Andrews University. His voluminous writings would do more than any other Adventist historian from the 1970s up through the 1990s to help shape Adventist historiography.

Beyond the actual historians who interpreted the past, this book argues that Adventist history does have a deeper meaning connected to its identity. The ←26 | 27→search for meaning seems to require honest dialogue between critical scholarship and apologetic history. This is vital for Adventist evangelism in order to ensure credibility for its message. Even though such credibility is important, Adventism can be at other times resistant to such critical methods, particularly when it undermines established narratives of the past. Thus, history carries with it the danger of perpetually questioning historical narratives. By way of reflecting about the ultimate meaning of Adventist history, Adventist historians may both analyze historical facts by expressing clear engagement as a quest for the truth even though this might impinge upon cherished aspects of Adventist interpretation about the past. Adventist history, having gone through several complex developmental stages of historiography, must always be ready to face critical examination in the quest for historical truth.

A distinct way to viewing the past is thus found in Christian historiography. Christian historians have acknowledged the importance of God’s hand, although they have disagreed about what is the best methodology to describe historical facts. Christian approach to history has not excluded the probability of God’s hand in history.

Other thinkers reflected about the rise of professional historians. Such participants included Jerome L. Clark, a history teacher at Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University), and C. M. Maxwell who earned a PhD in history from the University of Chicago and who later taught denominational history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.39 Land noted how the rise of Spectrum facilitated the rise of professional historians. Additional scholars cited included William S. Peterson, Herold Weiss, Roy Branson, Jonathan M. Butler, Vern Carner, and Donald McAdams who together committed to critically investigate denominational history.40 Land opined that the denomination had pushed them away for their unloving historical criticism.41

Another young historian at this time who followed in Land’s footsteps was Benjamin McArthur. He wrote an important article in 1979 titled “Where Are Historians Taking the Church?”42 McArthur observed that the book Prophetess of Health by Numbers was extremely influential upon Adventist historiography by revolutionizing earlier historical methods on Adventist history.43 “Instead of ←27 | 28→being guardians of tradition, he viewed historians as social critics.”44 The rise, at that time, of a new generation of graduate school students in history meant that there was a “revolution in Adventist historiography.”45 Trained historians who used historical categories were vastly different from earlier historians who were trapped in an unabashed and uncritical providentialism. They investigated sources within their historical context.

Another Adventist scholar who reflected on historical hermeneutics, is Roland Blaich. Just like Land, Blaich examined the importance of historical writing and the role of the Christian historian in writing history. He noted that “the study of history is a form of vicarious experience. It offers us the chance to augment our own wisdom with the experience of past generations.”46 Blaich sees history as “the key to identity.” He understood the importance of history and historical knowledge as essential to identity. He suggested that students of history should develop historical mindedness which he defined as the “habit of seeing everything in historical perspective. Everything is tied to a historical context from which it derives its meaning and significance.”47

Pertaining to the role of historian, Blaich notes: “The first task of the historian is the quest for historical truth. This is accomplished through research, publication, and dialogue.” He subscribed to a presentation of facts that appeals to historical context as a way to “bringing history to life.” He therefore argued that “Good history is never abstract.”48 History plays a significant role to “help us to see ourselves as we really are. As individual Christians and also as a corporate body, we do well to pause periodically, look at ourselves in the mirror, and ask: How did we do?”49 The historian helps to preserve the truth without being a prisoner of tradition.

David Trim, Director of the General Conference Archives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, reflected on what one can term the “methodological atheism”—determinism, to understand historical facts. It is a theory which seeks to “stress on finding appropriate causes, rather than viewing all events as contingent,” which, he thinks, “is a helpful corrective to postmodernist extremes and one that can be reconciled with Christianity.” Furthers, he argues that this ←28 | 29→theory “helps also solve the problem of God’s intervention in history. I believe that He does, but as an historian, I find it difficult to identify when and where He has done so and precisely how His actions changed history.”50 Trim has used his understanding of religious truths to reflect upon secular historical theories. He has emphasized the writing of history which takes into account “a Christ-centered worldview.”51 Christian history stands in contrast to postmodern ideals of historical thinking.

At a recent conference held in 2014, Miller and Reynaud raised similar arguments raised earlier by Adventist historians from the 1970s. The conference, titled “Adventism and Adventist History: Sesquicentennial Reflections,” held in Silver Spring, Maryland, on January 6, 2014, reflected on the changing aspects of Adventist historiography. Afterward, Reynaud published his paper: “Understanding History: Seventh-day Adventists and Their Perspectives.”52 His article describes approaches by 19th century idealists (Smith, E. G. White, Andrews, and Alonzo T. Jones). He compared them with early mid-20th century professional historians (Benson, Albertsworth, Dick) followed by confessional historians (Olsen, Spalding, Froom, and Nichol). He examined the methodologies of 20th century historians (McAdams, McArthur, Land, Knight, and Arthur N. Patrick). Although a brief article, Reynaud noticed the complexity and relevance of Adventist historiography. It remains to this day one of the most cogent surveys about Adventist historiography. Another paper by N. P. Miller, “Naked in the Garden of the Past: Is There a Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of History?” questioned the different approaches to Adventist history.53 This article broadens the understanding of historiography. This book uses Miller’s helpful chart as a meaningful way to categorize Adventist historians (see Appendix A). He appeals for the need to contextualize Adventist history in light of broader philosophical influences.

Finally, one of the most provocative analyses of Adventist historiography appears by Jonathan M. Butler in the introduction to the third edition of Prophetess of Health. Butler provides a context for the events surrounding the publication of Prophetess of Health.54Spectrum provided the most important public forum within ←29 | 30→the church for evaluating the published book.”55 He argues that this book brought about a revolution in Adventist historiography. He believes it was a significant catalyst for change, thus marking a decisive turning point in Adventist historiography.

In March 2018, Butler published a significant essay on Adventist historiography titled “Seventh-day Adventist Historiography: A Work in Progress.”56 He reviews the progress in Adventist historical consciousness. He describes Seventh-day Adventism as one of “America’s original religions.”57 He argues that there was a change in Adventist historiography from the 1970s. He noticed that before this period, “Seventh-day Adventist ‘history’ belonged in quotation marks. For about a century, Adventists told their story to themselves without the constraints of mundane cause and effect; history to them meant magical thinking.”58 From the 1970s, there was a drastic shift in Adventist historiography with Numbers who adopted a naturalistic method to E. G. White’s writings. From his entrance in Adventist scholarship, Numbers, recently joined by Gilbert Valentine, Morgan Douglas, and others have been writing history to present the denomination to a non-Adventist audience. This book recognizes both the importance as well as problematic aspects that brought about significant changes in Adventist historiography as a result of the publication of Numbers’ book.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
Methods approaches
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 238 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Gabriel Masfa (Author)

Gabriel Masfa, BA in Law, MTS, PhD, is a church historian who teaches and researches in the areas of Adventist studies, church history, and Adventist historiography in the Department of Religious Studies, Babcock University (Nigeria). His research interests also include Christianity in Africa and studies in mission theology.


Title: Seventh-day Adventist Historiography
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