Updated: Sep 14
C. Mervyn Maxwell explores a way out of Seventh-day Adventism
C. Mervyn Maxwell (1925-1999) was a British-born church history professor at Andrews University for many years and a member of the influential Maxwell clan.
This article is taken from Maxwell's paper called "Lew Walton's Omega" (January 20, 1982) which itself was adapted from a talk Maxwell gave at the Andrews University chapter of the Association of Adventism Forums. The following article isn't going to focus on Lewis Walton or the controversy he stirred up in the early '80s, but on Maxwell's view of Adventism's "options" at that particular time.
Note: This isn't necessarily a reflection of my own beliefs nor have I "fact-checked" Maxwell's historical statements. I'm only reporting what he said in order to highlight the past and bring Adventists into conversation with their history. His spelling and grammar wasn't perfect (nor is mine) but I'm not going to bother fixing his writing. It is enough work to fix my own mistakes.
DOES 1844 MATTER?
The real question confronting Seventh-day Adventists today is this: 'Did anything special happen in 1844?'
Maxwell calls this question "central to Seventh-day Adventism" but admits that he didn't realize this until the late 1960s, when he began teaching the development of Adventist theology. Maxwell's central assertion is that "if nothing happened in heaven in 1844" then "Seventh-day Adventists do not have any special relationship to the three angels messages" and "we have no special Christian message to proclaim to the world" and "we ought to consider seriously desisting from our very expensive attempt to take the three angel's messages as we understand them to every person on the earth." Of course, this also means that Ellen White "was either a fraud or a dupe." (Somewhere, Steve Daily is happy.) Finally, "If nothing special happened in heaven in 1844, we have no real prophetic basis for believing that we are located in the ultimate end time. We should no longer distinguish ourselves as 'Adventists.'"
While Maxwell's claim that Adventism hinges on 1844 is well-worn, the part that struck out to me was his claim that "many Adventists don't realize this." When studying Adventist history, it's difficult to know what the majority of people believed about something. We know that there were always Adventists who doubted Ellen White's prophetic role in the church, but the records we have are largely from the church leaders who did believe (or who knew better than to challenge her position openly). Maxwell hints at what I feel to be a most tantalizing question: What did did rank-and-file Adventists believe about 1844 through the decades? Yes, Ellen White, Uriah Smith, and others preached and printed it. But did it get through? Did a woman in a country church in Iowa believe? Alas, we may never know, but we should never assume uniformity. All we have, at this point, is Maxwell's word.
Rhetorically, Maxwell is breaking down Adventism, searching for its constituent parts. This would surely make his audience nervous, but he doesn't leave them wondering if it could—or should—be put back together.
Maxwell, of course, firmly believes that 1844 matters. Thus, Adventism matters. But he does make a curious comment about Ellen White:
Whether Mrs. White wrote her work entirely on her own or whether she copied from 500 other authors or from 1,000 others, her message is still God's message and she is God's messenger
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the questions about Ellen White and plagiarism which had been raised during her lifetime and had grown increasingly uncomfortable after her death, have finally exploded into the open. This, we can say, is Maxwell's word on the matter.
Maxwell argues, via Froom, that Adventists weren't the first to interpret Daniel 8:14 as a prediction of 2,300 years which commenced "in the 450s B.C." This work was accomplished by the Jewish rabbi, Nahawendi, the Reformed pastor Johannes Petri, and others. Maxwell's point is that Adventists are part of this line of interpretation.
As for the pre-advent judgment, Maxwell says that this was first proposed by Josiah Litch and Apollos Hale, not Ellen White. He writes: "The historic Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the investigative judgment is not based on peculiar Seventh-day Adventist hermeneutics."
Maxwell then cites a slew of young Adventist scholars he believed were buttressing the church's interpretation of Daniel 7 and 8 with their scholarship: Arthur Ferch, Jacques Doukhan, Bill Shea, etc.
THE SEVENTH DAY BAPTIST ALTERNATIVE
Maxwell has deconstructed Adventism and built it again, but he isn't finished:
Let's face it. There is another way to go. It is possible to preach the Sabbath without preaching the sanctuary, the three angel's messages, the near Advent of Christ, and without worrying about unity of doctrine within one's denomination. The Seventh Day Baptists have been doing it for 350 years.
To Maxwell, the Seventh Day Baptists (no hyphen, as with Seventh-day Adventists) represent an alternative to Adventism—a glimpse at what Seventh-day Adventists could be if they dropped the "adventist" and kept the sabbath. The SDBs, Maxwell tells us, drop all of that nonsense about calling other churches "Babylon" or insisting that you need to keep the Sabbath...or else. "They believe the Sabbath is good for them, but that it is not required of all men."
Of course, the Seventh Day Baptists "have no special place for Ellen White" due to the "assumed error in regard to the shut door and her alleged plagiarism."
Maxwell cites three famous Seventh-day Adventists as exemplifying the "Seventh Day Baptist Alternative": L.R. Conradi, E.S. Ballenger, and Alexander McLearn. Conradi was "one of the outstanding leaders" who "honestly felt that the Seventh Day Baptist alternative was more sound, more reasonable, more Biblical than that of Seventh-day Adventists." McLearn was the second president of Battle Creek College.
There is thus a respectable and solid tradition within sabbatarianism, for intelligent and energetic Seventh-day Adventists to move into the Seventh Day Baptist camp when their intellectual convictions no longer comply with historic Seventh-day Adventism.
The Seventh Day Baptist Alternative thus represents, to Maxwell, an adventist-free version of the Seventh-day Adventist faith—and one that several Seventh-day Adventists have adopted.
EVALUATING THE ALTERNATIVE
Not surprisingly, Maxwell critiques this Baptist option with a quote from Ellen White (1 Testimonies, 337. The parenthetical statement is Maxwell's):
Elder K. knows not of what spirit he is. He is uniting his influence with the dragon to oppose those who keep the commandments of God and who have the testimony of Jesus. He has a hard warfare before him. As far as the Sabbath is concerned, he occupies the same position as the Seventh Day Baptists. Separate the Sabbath from the messages [from the three angels' messages] and it loses its power: but when connected with the message of the third angel, a power attends it which convicts unbelievers and infidels, and brings them out with strength to stand, to live, grow, and flourish in the Lord.
Ellen White saw the convicting "power" of the sabbath as coming from its connection with the three angels' messages. As evidence of this convicting power, Maxwell (like George Knight later on) cites the declining membership of Seventh Day Baptists. (Comparing membership numbers was a time-honored, Adventist tradition to demonstrate doctrinal correctness.)
Is this really the denomination the Seventh-day Adventists should emulate?
Maxwell agrees with Ellen White that preaching the sabbath-without-adventism is tantamount to uniting with the dragon. Thus, he concludes: "I was never more convinced than I am right now of the intellectual respectability of the historic Seventh-day Adventist message."