History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
The Seventh-day Adventist Church began as a grassroots movement in the 1800s, following the Second Great Awakening. More people began to study Scripture for themselves, and the movement spread quickly from this spark of revival.
Today the Adventist Church is a worldwide Protestant, Christian denomination with over 21 million baptized members. It has churches of all sizes, as well as schools, hospitals, and various service ministries around the world.
But how did we get to this point?
Seventh-day Adventism has a rich history of sincere Bible study and a collective ambition to share the hope found in Jesus Christ.
To give you an overview, we’ll highlight the major milestones:
- Paving the way for the Advent Movement
- Ellen White and the formal organization of Seventh-day Adventism
- Mission work and global expansion
- 1888 General Conference Session
- Steps to Christ and other widely-distributed Adventist writings
- Ellen White’s legacy in the Church
- Moving forward against the odds
- First official statement of beliefs
Adventism’s early history does focus on some specific biblical beliefs that made it stand out from other churches at the time. But it’s important to remember that the foundation of all our beliefs rests on Jesus Christ as our savior, and the wealth of truth found in the Bible.
Our ultimate goal is to share Jesus love throughout the world so we can all joyfully anticipate the Second Advent.
Paving the way for the Adventist Movement
Seventh-day Adventists’ origins can be traced all the way back to the 1830s when a farmer, military veteran, and preacher named William Miller aspired to deepen his understanding of the Bible. His return from war was a reminder of just how precious but short this life really is.
With this in mind, he turned his attention to studying the prophecies found in Daniel and Revelation. It didn’t take long for Miller to conclude that Jesus’ second coming was a literal event—and it might be happening much sooner than many thought.
Not wanting to lead anyone astray, Miller didn’t speak up right away. He studied for nine more years until he felt he could no longer stifle conviction. It was time to tell the world.
The Millerite Movement
Miller’s study of the 2300-day prophecy in Daniel 8 and 9 convinced him that the Second Advent (the second coming of Christ) was right around the corner—in 1843 or 1844. Eventually, his followers set a more specific date: October 22, 1844.
Miller’s followers’ prediction gained traction and the movement grew in both size and enthusiasm. They called themselves the Millerites, and they excitedly anticipated the predicted date.
As the morning of October 22 approached, each believer had been preparing themselves for Jesus’ return. They spent time in prayer, they sold their properties, and some even left their farms’ harvests sitting in the field. They eagerly awaited the first sight of Jesus and a host of angels, probably staying up late on October 21, waiting for the clock to strike midnight.
The “Great Disappointment”
Midnight passed. And as the hours slowly ticked by, Jesus was nowhere to be seen.
The Millerites soon became discouraged. And October 22, 1844, became historically known as the “Great Disappointment.”
It’s true—the Bible gives us incredible insight about the future of humanity. But when we’re tempted to go overboard in trying to figure everything out, right down to the last detail, Scripture includes some warnings. Even specifically about predicting the exact date and time of Jesus’ second coming.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36, NKJV).
“Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 NKJV).
Carrying on in faith
Many Millerites gave up their newfound hope and went back to their normal lives. Others dove back into their Bibles, wondering where they went wrong.
There’s a lesson here. While there is so much information to learn by studying Bible prophecy, it’s meant as a guide—not a literal, ultra-specific listing of future events. (That would compromise our God-given freedom of choice.)
And it can be dangerous when beliefs in dates, times, and prophecy become such a high priority that they become what we worship instead of God Himself. Then, when certain things don’t come to pass as expected, many can unnecessarily lose their faith—all because of human error.
But studying prophecy helps us avoid being taken by surprise when certain events come to pass. And it helps us prepare our hearts to be ready for anything, with Jesus as our “refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1).
Fortunately for us, those that chose to look back to Scripture indeed found out where they were wrong. They learned to look at Bible prophecy in a different light.
As a result of the dedication of our early pioneers, the following biblical truths are now established as part of our fundamental beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists:
- Christ’s second coming is a literal event
- The seventh day, Saturday, is God’s Sabbath
- The dead are asleep until the Second Coming and judgment
- Christ is ministering in the heavenly sanctuary in our behalf (Hebrews 8)
- In the last days Christians will be called back to divine truth and a small group of believers will answer the call (Revelation 14)
- Many people in the last days will display the prophetic gift and proclaim the good news to the world (Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17)
The Millerites had sometimes been referred to as the “Advent Movement,” but in 1860 they started using the term “Seventh-day Adventism.” And just three years later, in 1863, they officially established the denomination currently led by the General Conference (World Church) of Seventh-day Adventists.
Ellen White and the formal organization of Seventh-day Adventism
While all of this was happening, a young woman named Ellen G. White was inspired by the Advent Movement and deeply involved in Bible study. She was led by the Holy Spirit, and her knowledge of the truths found in the Bible continue to amaze Bible scholars even today.
Ellen White is recognized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church as one who exhibited the prophetic gift (Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 14), although she did not claim the title of “prophet” for herself.
Early on in Ellen White’s ministry, the Advent Movement still consisted of small groups scattered around the country. (They wouldn’t call themselves Seventh-day Adventists until the early 1860s.)
Ellen White’s husband, James, was also influential in establishing early Adventism. He was the first one to refer to these groups of believers as the “Great Second Advent Movement,” while others referred to them as “Sabbatarian Adventists.”
James White established the first Adventist periodical called The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, now known (and still regularly published) as The Adventist Review. This allowed members to stay connected with one another, keep up to date with the progress made for the church, and have access to Bible study material on key topics.
All this was still only the beginning. As the denomination grew, much emphasis was placed on publishing materials to help spread the gospel message.
Inspired by the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20, the Sabbatarian Adventists concluded that they needed to organize themselves so they could spread the Gospel message as effectively as possible. Their new focus was on becoming a worldwide movement, making sure no place or people group was left out.
They held a gathering on October 1, 1860, with representatives from across the northern United States. Here it was officially agreed that the denomination be referred to as “Seventh-day Adventist.”
In May 1863, a larger and more official meeting formed what is now referred to as the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The Adventists were now united under a common purpose: to share the gospel message around the world, letting people know that Jesus was coming soon.
Mission work helps the church grow
Global expansion became a reality as the early church leaders began to consider mission work. James and Ellen White, with the help of Joseph Bates, an Adventist preacher, began the planning. They made it an early priority that much of the mission work should include medical work, since that was such a great need around the world.
It wasn’t long before our very first Adventist missionary, J. N. Andrews, was selected to go to England and Switzerland in 1874. There he assisted church leaders and established the first Adventist printing press in Switzerland.
Ellen White also traveled to Switzerland, South Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and Australia to help in spreading the gospel message.
As the Adventist movement spread like wildfire, the missionaries worked closely with publishing houses and gathered teams across the world to distribute literature. The movement was so popular that many of these areas wrote to the General Conference asking for more missionaries.
In the late 1870s, membership into the Adventist Church had tripled, with over 16,000 members. By 1901, there were 75,000 members worldwide. By this time the Church had established two colleges, a medical school, 12 secondary schools, 27 hospitals, and 13 publishing houses.
1888 General Conference Session—a turning point
In 1888, the official General Conference session met in Minneapolis. The primary discussion was of the meaning of righteousness by faith and the law in Romans and Galatians.
Noteworthy attendees were General Conference president G. I. Butler; editor of the review, Uriah Smith; Ellen G. White; and a group led by E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones.
This General Conference session was controversial for several reasons.
First, A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner believed emphasis should be on Christ and faith, while G. I. Butler and Uriah Smith were opposed to this idea.
What started out as a friendly conversation quickly turned into a heated debate. Waggoner and Jones preached with an authority well beyond their years, but their counterparts resisted their message.
One of the concerns from the opposing side was that the importance of obedience to God’s law would be lost if they chose to emphasize the doctrine of righteousness by faith.
Waggoner and Jones’s response to this was to simply open the Bible and read 16 passages that outlined the importance of justification by faith.
The opposition also argued that there was no need to discuss this topic as Adventists were already preaching righteousness by faith through their belief that salvation comes through faith in Jesus.
However, at the time there was more emphasis on works and the idea of “sanctification.” Waggoner and Jones simply sought to correct this over-emphasis by placing righteousness by faith on the foundation of Christ and His righteousness. This would bring appropriate priority and perspective to a belief already in practice.
Where was Ellen White in this debate? Initially she presented a neutral front. But as the debate wore on, she came to the assistance of Waggoner and Jones, recognizing the importance of this message.
The discussion escalated even further. It became so heated that Ellen White concluded the opposition was under a delusion.
E. J. Waggoner’s sermons were unique in that he took no pleasure in arguing or out-debating others. Concentrating completely on Christ’s humanity and holy righteousness, he offered a message that was music to the ears of the crowd.
Many attendees commented on how the General Conference session was a turning point for them in their faith.
Writings inspired by the 1888 General Conference
After the events of the General Conference, E. J. Waggoner went on to write a book about Christ and His righteousness, based on the notes taken at the 1888 conference.
A. T. Jones also went on to be the principal speaker at the next few years of General Conference sessions and wrote an exposition on the work of Christ as our high priest.
Despite the continuing opposition, Ellen White, Jones, and Waggoner spent three years conducting meetings at camps and in larger churches, leading many people to Christ.
It was the events of the 1888 General Conference that led Ellen White to write some of her most well-known books: Steps to Christ, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, The Desire of Ages, and Christ’s Object Lessons. This provided material with a much-needed focus on Christ’s ministry on this Earth, His teachings, and His character.
Ellen White’s legacy in the Church
Ellen White’s volumes of written work continue to impact the Adventist Church today. While the Seventh-day Adventist Church is founded on the Bible, her insight and guidance on biblical themes and lifestyle counsels are a large part of Adventist culture.
Her books have also continued to be a source of financial support for the Church and its institutions, allowing Seventh-day Adventists today to continue spreading the gospel.
For example, the distribution of her books served as a fundraising effort to help support the establishment of Adventist elementary and secondary schools across the nation.
Ellen G. White passed away in 1915, leaving her legacy of books and resources to the church. The insight given to her from God remains relevant today, and people still look to her writings as a beacon of hope toward the Bible. Her work is referenced across the world as a trustworthy source on Bible study and Adventist doctrine.
Following Ellen White’s death, church leaders gathered together for the 1919 Bible Conference to discuss, among other things, how the church would put her writings to good use.
In particular, church leaders discussed the manner in which her writings be used and regarded. She never claimed to be a prophet, but her inspired counsel brought many people to Christ and further Bible study. They wanted to make sure her wisdom was appropriately made accessible to those needing counsel, but they didn’t want to inadvertently exalt her writings to a status close to biblical canon.
The ultimate conclusion was that Ellen White’s writings were useful for those seeking counsel about specific subjects, or for when people wanted some assistance with their Bible study and spiritual growth. But it’s important that her inspired writings are understood in their proper context and applied appropriately to each situation.
All in all, it was re-emphasized that the Bible always comes first, and her writings, particularly those involving prophecy such as The Great Controversy, are always meant to accompany diligent Bible study. After all, the goal of all of her messages, both written and spoken, were to direct people to the ultimate authority (Scripture) and toward the only One who could ever save us (Jesus).
Ellen White’s writings are still referenced in the Adventist church today. Whether her Bible commentary or her health and lifestyle counsel, many people throughout the years have testified that her writings have had a positive impact on their lives.
Adventism spreads internationally
From its inception, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has prioritized sharing the gospel to all parts of the world.
Early missionaries like J. N. Andrews spread the gospel in Europe in the 1870s, and the number of international Adventists was gradually increasing.
Mission work helped the global expansion of the Adventist Church by establishing schools and churches all over the world, both spreading the gospel and supporting local communities with religious and educational infrastructure.
Not only has the Adventist Church supported secondary education around the world, but it also has several international Adventist universities. Today, the Adventist educational system is the second largest Christian school system in the world, with 7,800 institutions worldwide1.
As the years progressed, the Adventist Church continued to emphasize the importance of mission work by providing healthcare to people who have limited access to it. Medical mission work is an extension of the ministry of Jesus and provides care for the physical body with spiritual care and education.
Starting with just a few international healthcare institutions founded in South America in the early 20th century, the Adventist Church now has 168 hospitals all over the world to provide quality whole-person care and share the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
Adventism’s official statements of beliefs
In 1980 the General Conference produced the church’s first official statement of beliefs, voted by members from across the world. It became known as the 27 fundamental beliefs.
These statements of belief were not established as a “creed,” which is an established teaching or interpretation by an authoritative church body. Instead, their purpose was to summarize how Adventists interpret the key themes of Scripture and to leave room for God to reveal more truth through Bible study.
These fundamental beliefs are reviewed at each General Conference session. And in 2005, a new belief (#11) was added to the list.
- Holy Scriptures
- The Trinity
- God the Father
- God the Son (Jesus Christ)
- God the Holy Spirit
- Nature of Humanity
- The Great Controversy
- The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ
- The Experience of Salvation
- Growing in Christ
- The Church
- The Remnant and its Mission
- Unity in the Body of Christ
- The Lord’s Supper (Communion)
- Spiritual Gifts and Ministries
- The Gift of Prophecy
- The Law of God
- The Sabbath
- Christian Behavior
- Marriage and the Family
- Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary
- The Second Coming of Christ
- Death and Resurrection
- The Millennium and the End of Sin
- The New Earth
History still in the making
What a journey we have been on together. Starting out in 1830 with a humble farmer that found renewed hope in Scripture, we can track our progress to the present day. Who would have thought that the Adventist Church would have come so far in such a short period of time?
We can bet that our pioneers would never have imagined just how much of an impact their discoveries made to people’s lives. From the beginning, the Adventist faith has been rooted in the continued study of the Word of God. Every foundation laid has been studied thoroughly and prayerfully by the founders of our church.
As a group of human believers, we have had our fair share of human conflicts, but God has been with us every step of the way. And as we continue to move forward, we pray that our church leaders will continue to seek wisdom from Jesus and the Bible, just as our founders did.
Our work hasn’t finished yet. There are still so many people across the world that are longing for God’s love, and to learn that He is coming back for us. So our history has not and will not end until the moment we’re all waiting for—when Jesus returns to earth, sin and Satan are destroyed, and we can live with Him for eternity.
Questions about Adventists? Ask here!
Find answers to your questions about Seventh-day Adventists
What Does “Adventist” Mean? Seventh-day Adventists are a Protestant Christian denomination who hold to the biblical seventh-day Sabbath. From this belief, they get the first part of their name. But how about the second part—”Adventist”? “Adventist” refers to a group...
William Miller: Reviving the Hope of the Second ComingWilliam Miller was a farmer in the early 1800s who gave his life to God and began studying his Bible deeply. This study led him to some unexpected conclusions, namely that Jesus would come back to earth in his...
Who Was James Springer White? James Springer White (1821–1881) was a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the husband of Ellen White. He played an active part in the Millerite Movement, waiting for Jesus to return in 1844. When this didn’t happen, he...
Seventh-day Adventist Founders Seventh-day Adventist Founders Early history of the Adventist Movement While the core beliefs of the Christian religion are straightforward enough, there are numerous denominations within Protestant Christianity. What makes the...
Joseph Bates Joseph Bates was a sailor-turned-preacher who joined the Millerite Movement and waited for Jesus to come in 1844. Despite being disappointed when this didn’t occur, Bates held onto his faith and played an enthusiastic and integral part in starting the...
The Great Disappointment and Lessons It Teaches UsOn October 22, 1844, thousands of Christians in the Northeastern United States gathered outside to witness what they believed would be the second coming of Jesus. The day came and went, and those same...
The Millerite Movement was a religious revival that followed the Second Great Awakening in North America. It started with William Miller, an earnest student of the Bible.
Didn’t find your answer? Ask us!
We understand your concern of having questions but not knowing who to ask—we’ve felt it ourselves. When you’re ready to learn more about Adventists, send us a question! We know a thing or two about Adventists.