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Is Seventh-day Adventism a Cult?

Larry Kirkpatrick

Why the Different Opinions about What Is Truth?

The many religious bodies constituting Christendom have never agreed which teachings define heaven's authentic system of belief. The ideas that reflect a group's distinctive doctrinal perspective are many. Even the authorities that stand at the foundation of each group's beliefs differ in substantial ways. For some groups, the final basis is tradition. For some, it is the Bible. For another, modern "prophetic" teachings may provide the foundation. Some groups use the Bible or part of it. Many combinations are possible.

A number of groups base their teachings upon the same source -- the Bible -- and yet approach its interpretation from different starting points or pre-suppositional sets. Is the Bible to be taken absolutely literally? Should the passages containing miracles be discounted as myths? Would God wish that we use a "sanctified imagination" to make our understanding of the Bible fit better with more "informed," up-to-date notions? Or shall we read the Bible and seek the plain meaning of its text as it's been given? How we answer these questions will have a large impact on what we understand God to be saying.

The point is, that the varying sources of spiritual authority and the presuppositions which we bring to them make evaluating which groups are heretical (false) and which groups are orthodox (true) a meaningful task. Significant thought and evaluation are required in order to be fair. And who draws the baseline against which the other groups are to be measured? Shall it be the majority? How often, historically, has the majority been correct in religious matters? Wouldn't it be much fairer to consider how consistent a group's teachings are in relation to their declared principles? This is what we must do if we would be both serious and fair.

Ultimate truth is not itself relative. An objective, bottom-line truth does indeed exist. Even this is a presupposition. Yes, it runs against presently accepted wisdom. But that wisdom is merely the presently popular foam riding the crest of this moment's philosophical wave.

Some persons measure other groups against their own favorite list of doctrines. Some, against what is supposed to have been the most common belief-set in historical terms. Yet this is usually quite subjective, and of little use except in providing self-justification for the evaluator's own position.

We've begun our thinking about cults with these considerations before us. But now we must turn to the criteria by which we will make our evaluation. Various criteria have been reviewed by which the teachings of religious bodies have been defined as being cultic or not. Some suggest that we use primarily sociological criteria, others historical, others biblical. Much writing concerning "cults" in the past has consisted of measuring groups up against doctrinal criteria. While this may seem the rigid approach of less-enlightened times, it has the advantage of being at least somewhat less subjective than most of the other means. it has been the practice of Seventh-day Adventists to identify themselves in biblical and doctrinal terms. They thus most readily lend themselves to evaluation on a doctrinal basis.

To simplify the matter, doctrinal definitions of cults tend to define them according to these primary points:

  1. The group is founded by a single, exceptional and highly charismatic individual.
  2. The group either unduly elevates man, or lowers God.
  3. The group adds other sources of authority equal to or of greater weighting than the Bible.
  4. The group teaches some form of salvation by works.

These will suffice as for the purposes of this paper we seek to determine whether Seventh-day Adventism is a cult.

Adventism Considered

Consider Seventh-day Adventism according to these four criteria:

Who "founded" Seventh-day Adventism? Several individuals were prominent in the early days of Adventism, including William Miller, Josiah Litch, J.V. Himes, and Charles Fitch. The initial Advent preachers came out of several denominations. They preached the soon return of Christ, which they thought to be immediately imminent. When their expectations failed to be fulfilled in the way that they had expected, there were a variety of reactions. Some groups just went back to what they had been doing before the movement and resumed business as usual. Some people gave up on God entirely. But from one of the groups that came out of the initial era, soon another arose.

This group in 1863 formally became the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Among its most prominent early individuals were James White, Joseph Bates, Hiram Edson, Ellen White, and others. The biblical foundations of the church were etched-out by this core group. Because one of the features of Adventism is the contemporary prophetic gift expressed through Ellen G. White, it has been suggested maliciously that she founded the church. But she was a mere 17 year old youth when in December 1844 she experienced her first vision. She was never a church president, or took formal position o denominational leadership. Certainly, those even casually acquainted with the history of the movement know that Ellen G. White did not found it, but was one of several significant founding individuals.

Another criteria that we mentioned was the undue elevation of man or the lowering of God. Adventist belief has never been suggested to wrongly elevate man, to turn him into a God. And as far as lowering God goes, again, no such charges have ever been seriously leveled. Seventh-day Adventism has not been seriously questioned on this point.

The third criterion we mentioned is the adding of sources of authority considered equal to or greater than the Bible. Returning to Ellen G. White, the contemporary prophet, this question is legitimate and will now be addressed. A prolific writer, her fertile pen produced numerous pages through the years of her long life. Her writings are considered by Seventh-day Adventists to be divinely inspired.

The Bible appears clearly to teach that the various gifts God has given to His church for its up-building would remain in it until the second coming of Christ. In some places, the Bible likens these gifts to the parts of the body, without which it is more or less crippled. ( Click here for Scripture-based look at the prophetic gift in the Bible). In any case, given the conclusion that contemporary prophecy is foretold and supported by the Bible, one must consider the question of inspiration: are some prophets more inspired than others? Was Amos less inspired than Paul, or was Moses more inspired than Isaiah? What about Philip's daughters who prophesied, mentioned in the book of Acts? Since no Bible book records their prophetic utterances, is their prophecy less inspired than was John's? Obviously we cannot distinguish between degrees of inspiration. Either a prophet is true, or false; either inspired or uninspired. There can be no middle ground.

Ellen White's role, if anything, was least prominent in terms of setting up the Biblical foundations of the movement. She experienced and shared with the group the visions which she believed came to her from God. Unlike Mormonism or other religious groups that arose, the whole basis for Adventist belief was built upon Bible foundations. Whereas some other groups must go outside of the Bible and to added "inspired" writings to support their teachings, the foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist movement was, from its very beginnings, the Bible.

Mrs. White consistently pointed to the Bible as the acid test for the Christian's beliefs. The majority of her work, as that of most Bible prophets, was exhortation, guidance, and encouragement; only a small percentage of her writings contain directly predictive content. The many supposed prophets of other religious groups, with their own writings interpreting or superseding the Bible for their followers, make it tempting superficially to class Ellen G. White in the same category. But this would be a mistake. Her writings should be as carefully evaluated. if for no other reason than that she is the most prolific woman writer of all time, her work demands respect.

After an extensive study of both, the Bible and her writings, I have not discovered any point where she contradicts it, or where her writings must be used to supersede it. Seventh-day Adventist teachings to this day, are biblically-based and biblically-supported. Adventists have not added to the Bible. Ellen White's writings are considered to be inspired, but not to be Scripture. They have not been added to the Bible; nor will they be. To better understand this point, a significant look at the phenomenon of prophecy as recorded in the Bible will bring clarification. And we believe that a fair-minded look at the Ellen G. White writings themselves will support that evidence shows that the ultimate authority for Adventism is, as it always has been, the Bible, and that the writings of Ellen G. White have not been placed on a level authoritatively with the Bible.

Finally, let us consider the question of whether Adventism teaches salvation by works. Critics of Adventism have noted our emphasis upon the law of God. Because we have emphasized the Ten Commandments, and the Sabbath Commandment in particular, some have viewed this as evidence that we teach a form of salvation by works. But is a superficial glance enough to bring such a determination? To uphold the law does not necessarily point to the idea of salvation through works. In the Bible the law is presented in a positive light, from end to end. Positive references to the law abound in the New Testament. The law is a crucial instrument that the Holy Spirit uses in convicting us of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. It forms the basis for evaluating man. It forms the basis for condemning all men who have not become connected with Christ. Clearly, without the law, God would have no basis for condemning Satan, sin, and evil, or saving the repentant sinner who trusts in Christ.


In conclusion, our brief survey suggests that Seventh-day Adventism be carefully evaluated before firmly affixing any charge of cultism. Recall the four criterion mentioned above. It was not founded by one or even two highly charismatic individuals, but by several earnest students of Scripture. Charges have never really been leveled against Adventism on the second point. The third point is more involved than might be imagined, but the strong emphasis upon the Bible and its use by the group as final doctrinal authority reveals that here, Adventists are on orthodox, if uncommon ground. Finally, a careful look beyond knee-jerk suspicions and pre-judgments about how salvation is taught, reveals that Seventh-day Adventists do not easily fit the cult label at that measure either.

Having suggested that Seventh-day Adventism is clear at all four key points, I must say that I care little whether we really are clear of the "cult" label or not. Sticks and stones do not change truth. Those who throw sticks and stones will throw their sticks and stones. Its not the throwing of sticks that matters, but whether charges stick. What matters is what the evidence shows, not what the prejudiced purport to show. What matters is simply what the Bible itself teaches when we accept it as our ultimate spiritual authority and interpret it according to its own innate presuppositions.

Often those who come to make these evaluations are obeying God's will as delineated in the Bible but selectively anyway, calling into question their own spiritual validity. They need to check their own gospel before they come and declare the gospel of Adventism faulty. Why don't we turn to the Bible together, and go on from there? Is Seventh-day Adventism a cult? No. But what of it? Neither having the label or not having it really matters in the end, but faith working through love. It is what the faith objectively produces that finally determines its verity. Only the faith that comes from God will lead to God. Let each serious seeker for truth seek-out that very faith, and make it his own through the One who died on the cross to give him life.

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Last Modified 27 August 2002

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