On May 4, the day that retired and renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson — a lifelong member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church — declared himself a Republican candidate for the White House, the North American Division of Carson's church released a statement:
"The Adventist Church has a longstanding position of not supporting or opposing any candidate for elected office," it said. "The church has worked diligently to protect the religious rights of all people of faith, no matter what their denominational affiliation. ... We should therefore work to establish robust religious liberty for all and should not use our influence with political and civil leaders to either advance our faith or inhibit the faith of others."
Carson, it seems, decided to go a different direction. First, he said that he would not vote for or support the idea of a Muslim becoming president. Then, at the start of this week, Carson cited Sharia law and said that no practicing Muslim invested in the tenets of that faith could lead in a manner compatible with the Constitution — and that Americans understand and agree with him on this. A staffer then cut one such interview short.
A friend with a fondness for all things contrary and counter-intuitive might pronounce this moment as a sign of progress. This is now a country where a black, Seventh-day Adventist and political novice has become a leading Republican presidential candidate.
But given the religious focus of Carson's recent comments, we think the question of Carson's own faith and its journey from a suspect denomination — once maligned as a cult — to part of the evangelical mainstream is also worthy of a little time. To be clear, none of what follows is an endorsement of religious views or criticisms. This is an overview of one denomination's long march toward broad acceptance with lots of links leading to more information. It's an effort to explore how Carson's faith has faced many of the same questions as Muslims, Mormons and, going back a little further, Catholics.
And in fact, these questions about Adventists persisted in some evangelical spaces as late as the 2000s. And Carson's own campaign has been shunned by some because of his faith.
To help us, we checked in with two leading Adventist scholars.
- Kenneth R. Samples is a philosopher, theologian and public lecturer with Reasons to Believe, a California-based research organization that tries to integrate science and faith. Samples has written numerous articles on Seventh-day Adventism and frequently lectures at the denomination's universities. Samples also served as a research assistant to a prominent and controversial Baptist minister and religious scholar, Walter Martin.
- Paul McGraw is a historian at Pacific Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist university in California's Napa Valley region. McGraw, a practicing Adventist, is an American religion historian who specializes in studying what he calls outsider groups. Miller is also working on a biography of Le Roy Froom, an Adventist leader who met with Martin and other evangelical chiefs in the 1950s, and also helped to rid encyclopedias of references to Adventists as cult members.
What follows are close paraphrases of what each man told us, edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How and where did the Seventh-day Adventists begin?
SAMPLES: The origins of the Seventh-day Adventist Church trace to the 1820s and 1830s, when William Miller, a lay theologian, farmer and veteran of the War of 1812, began to share publicly that according to Daniel 8:14-16, Jesus Christ would return during a specific stretch of time between 1843 and 1844 — and eventually, a specific date in 1844. This event was known as "The Advent."
The movement that grew around Miller's prediction grew to include thousands of believers, known as Millerites, including the escaped slave, famed American abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth. But as people said at the time, "when the day came but the Lord did not," many Millerites, including Truth, walked away and began referring to failed prophecy as the "Great Disappointment." Slowly, pieces of the Millerite community became convinced that Miller's ideas were accurate and only his read on the date was wrong and eventually formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
An important side note from The Fix here: Adventists remain very diverse today. Check out this chart from a 2014 Pew Research Center report comparing Adventist demographics to those of other Protestant, evangelical churches. And, there's even more data on the denomination here.
MCGRAW: From the very beginning, the connection to Miller, the end-times prediction and what followed it, the Saturday worship (Sabbath begins sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday) and Adventism's origins in North America put Adventists in a kind of socially suspect category with a few other faiths — Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses. They are all American originals, doctrines that began here in the United States. And at points, all four groups were called cults and their members subject to derision, exclusion and even legal persecution.
Q: Persecution? Please explain.
MCGRAW: Most Americans are aware that Mormons were driven out of certain states. Adventists have similar stories in their history. Between 1830 and 1890, a series of states passed laws known as the "Sunday laws," or "blue codes," legally barring most work and all kinds of forms of leisure, shopping and other activities.
Those who supported the laws regarded Sunday as the real Sabbath. For Adventists, the Sabbath begins at sundown Friday and ends at sunset the following day. Saturdays are their traditional day of rest and reconnection, the day for church services. During the Civil War, a different NRA (the National Reform Association) began to argue that the Union was, at the time, losing the war because its people were not faithful enough. The group worked to spread Sunday laws to other parts of the country.
And before this period was over, a number of Adventists — particularly those living in the upper South — faced actual criminal prosecution for daring to work or engage in other activities on Sundays.
In 1888, New Hampshire congressman Henry Blair even attempted to pass a national Sunday law, but the measure failed due in large part to the organized objections of Adventists. The following year, a second attempt to pass a national Sunday law with express exemptions for Jews and Adventists failed again. But at the state level, some of those Adventists' prosecutions and the social and cultural stigma attached to Adventists' Saturday Sabbath contributed to many Americans believing that Adventists were not Christians or were members of a cult.
Some people believed and claimed in various public forums that Adventists were trying to destroy the Sunday Sabbath — and with it, America. (Sound at all familiar?) But the Sunday law movement and those prosecutions led Adventists to develop a long history of advocating for the separation of church and state and religious liberty.
Q: How did Adventists come to be regarded as Protestant evangelicals, not cult members?
SAMPLES: It would not be correct to describe it as a straight and contiguous process — or a short one. Ellen G. White, who Adventists regard as a prophet, certainly played a major role. White was raised in a Millerite family and, along with her husband, helped to establish and grow the Adventist church in the 1860s. She also wrote a series of books on everything from management to diet, health and fitness that have been widely translated. White and other Adventists advocated vegetarianism, abstention from alcohol, adherence to other eating guidelines similar to a kosher diet, ample exercise, sunshine, fresh air and clean water, as well as a connection between care for the body and one's spiritual life.
White is said to have received some of the content of her books and teachings during visions or revelations from God. White's writings and her advocacy for ideas widely accepted in other Christian denominations, such as a belief in the Holy Trinity, helped to remove some of the social stigma that surrounded the religion. (White is a central figure in Adventism, but in July, the denomination voted against ordaining women.)
Q: Is there anyone or anything else worth noting in the transition from suspect to mainstream?
MCGRAW: Between the 1930s and the 1960s, a man named Le Roy Froom tried to integrate Adventism into the mainstream. He started by doing something interesting: He went to all the encyclopedia companies and said, "Hey, your entry on Adventism is either wrong or non-existent, let me help you." Then he wrote a number of virtually unreadable books.
In a lot of his work, he pushed hard for the elimination of the term "cult" from descriptions of Adventism. He thought this was essential to the efforts to change other people's views. But he also got a lot of pushback from other Adventists. You have to understand that the sense of persecution coming from the outside, that sense of exclusion is part of what binds groups together. So there were Adventists who didn't like what Froom was doing.
MCGRAW AND SAMPLES: In the 1950s, a now-defunct Protestant evangelical magazine published an article that basically said 'Adventists are unusual, but they are Christians, too.' The article received a lot of attention in religious families around the country and eventually led to a series of meetings between some of the most prominent evangelical and Adventist leaders of the time. After those meetings, Adventists even published a book filled with answers to questions about their faith (you can read the text of that book here).
Think of that initial article and then the follow-up book like a series of long blog entries and YouTube videos that went viral and really influenced the way that a lot of people thought about Adventists. Not everyone was convinced that Adventists comprised one of the nation's many evangelical churches. But some were.
SAMPLES: There have been some more recent rough patches for Adventists, too. In the 1960s and '70s when people began to write dissertations about White, her work and the denomination, more than one person went public with a shocking and now-well-proven revelation. White plagiarized passages in her many, many books. That's right — plagiarized what she wrote. Some Adventists rejected these claims because it made no sense to them that a prophet would need to borrow the language of other human beings. Some left the church. Others still integrated these facts into their understanding of White. And some Adventists insist that the plagiarism charges are false to this very day. Plagiarism is pretty much the opposite of prophetic. So all of this was a very big deal.
Q: Public opinion about Adventists seems to have shifted. Or is this one of those yes-and-no situations?
SAMPLES: Well, most people regard it as an evangelical church where conservative Americans worship. And many people have no knowledge or memory of the way that Adventists were viewed before the 1970s. But Dr. Carson is probably the first Adventist to run for the White House.
Also, today, Adventists often boast that the denomination's prescription for health and the sizable share of members who are doctors or health-care professionals help to make Southern California — a place home to many of the estimated 1.2 million Adventists in the United States — a so-called "Blue Zone." Blue Zone is a term sometimes used to refer to places where people live the longest and healthiest lives.
MCGRAW: Sure. There are Americans who have no knowledge at all or don't subscribe to the cult allegation, but also some people who are still suspicious and question Adventist loyalties. I'll put it this way: When I lived in Woodbridge, Va., like all Adventists, we were members of a church that held services on Saturdays. So that meant that our sanctuary was free on Sundays, and we often rented it out to other congregations from other denominations. For a time, we even held all kinds of joint programs, including vacation bible school with one congregation that rented from us.
But then when that congregation got their own building, and we leased the space to a Baptist Church, we could never get them to join us at any events. One day, I asked one of their pastors about it, and he explained that some of the members considered Adventists part of a cult. And this was a conversation I had in the 1990s. I was pretty shocked. They were sharing our building. Did they think they were going to be infected or something?
So what does all of this mean politically?
Well, while there's little reason to doubt that some level of suspicion about Adventists persists in some corners of America, The Fix found no evidence that politicians and public figures of relatively recent vintage who are also practicing Adventists have faced allegations that they are not suitable for public office.
In fact, when Seventh-day Adventist former congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) lost his seat in 2012, he exited as one of the longest-serving members of Congress. Seventh-day Adventist John Street (D) served as mayor of Philadelphia, a heavily Catholic city, between 2000 and 2008. (Street's documented political challenges had nothing at all to do with his religion.) Similarly, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) is also a member of the church. And, when Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) won a hotly contested 2012 race, Ruiz's faith does not appear to have been a campaign issue.
Of course, it likely helps that, like Carson, Ruiz has one of those incredible, American stories. He is the child of migrant farm workers born in California who went on to earn three degrees from Harvard and practice medicine in the area where he grew up before winning a seat in Congress. Now, there's chatter about a Ruiz Senate run.
And, at this very moment, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Mat Staver, is defending the legal interests of a certain Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who has refused to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling.