Seventh-day Adventism

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

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One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

 One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump easily swept the four states with the heaviest majorities of Protestants who consider themselves “evangelicals” -- Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.  

So the campaign’s major religious puzzle -- likely to be pondered come 2020 and 2024 -- continues to be how to explain Trump’s appeal to Bible Belters.

Yes, Trump brags that he’s either a “strong Christian,” “good Christian” or “great Christian.” Many GOP voters don’t buy it. And they don’t care. Pew Research Center polling in January showed only 44 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaners” see Trump as either “very” or “somewhat” religious, while 24 percent said “not too” religious and 23 percent “not at all.”

That’s far below the “very” or “somewhat religious” image of Marco Rubio (at 70 percent) who’d be the party’s first Catholic nominee, Baptist Ted Cruz (76 percent) and Seventh-day Adventist Dr. Ben Carson (80 percent). Anglican John Kasich was not listed.

An anti-Trump evangelical who worked in the Bush 43 White House, Peter Wehner, posed the question in a harsh New York Times piece: “Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader.” Their backing for “a moral degenerate” is “inexplicable” and will do “incalculable damage to their witness.” Many such words are being tossed about in religious, journalistic, and political circles.

Observers who hate Christians, or evangelicals, or social conservatives, or political conservatives, or Republicans, have a ready answer: The GOP and especially its religious ranks are chock full of creeps, fools, and racists.

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Some background for Godbeat pros: What is Seventh-day Adventism?

Some background for Godbeat pros: What is Seventh-day Adventism?


Since Donald Trump brought Ben Carson’s religion to the forefront, can you tell us more about the Seventh-day Adventist Church?


Presidential candidate Trump contrasted his own “middle of the road” Presbyterian Church (USA) with Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist Church as a religion “I don’t know about.” That suggested the SDA denomination is not just lesser-known but on the cultural margins and possibly suspect.

This born-in-America faith is indeed distinctive. It’s also a notable success story (while Trump’s “mainline” church declines). SDA global membership reached a million in 1955, 92 years after the founding.

Today the Maryland-based church boasts 18.7 million followers, 94 percent of them outside North America. It gains a million adherents a year through immersion baptisms of youths and adults. It operates 7,579 schools and colleges with 1.8 million students, and 627 healthcare institutions, among the largest such global networks. Members’ tithing is a major emphasis -- and strength. The notably diverse U.S. contingent is 37 percent white.

Carson is, yes, loyally Adventist, though he says that he regrets that his church doesn’t ordain women. Trump’s taunt provoked an article by Utah newsman and adult convert Mark "former GetReligionista" Kellner. Carson is a famed brain surgeon, Kellner noted, but SDA ranks have also included the first surgeon to implant a baboon heart in an infant, the originator of “Tommy John surgery,” and the inventors of proton therapy for breast cancer.

The faith’s 19th Century founders were disciples of self-taught Bible teacher William Miller who believed Jesus Christ’s Second coming would occur on Oct. 22, 1844, a non-event called the “Great Disappointment.” The Adventist faction said Miller was correct that God restored his “sanctuary” in 1844, calculated from biblical Daniel 8:14 with “days” meaning “years.” But they decided Miller was mistaken that Daniel predicted an earthly event.

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Wait! Donald Trump isn't the anointed leader of the Religious Right after all?

Wait! Donald Trump isn't the anointed leader of the Religious Right after all?

OK, is everyone ready for tonight's next big contest linked to good and evil and the religion beat?

No, I am not talking about game two in the World Series, although as a new semi-New Yorker (living in the city two months out of the year, including some prime baseball weeks) I will be cheering for a comeback by the team that I totally prefer to the Yankees. And when it comes to baseball and God, as opposed to the baseball gods, you still need to check out Bobby's post on that missionary named Ben Zobrist.

No, I am talking about the latest gathering of GOP candidates for the White House, which is always good for a religion ghost or two or maybe a dozen.

Right now, the mainstream media has its magnifying glasses out to dissect the theological and cultural views of the still mysterious Dr. Ben Carson, which was the subject of my GetReligion post this morning ("A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White").

This is a very interesting development, in part because -- when it comes to press coverage of moral conservatives -- it represents such a snap-the-neck turnaround from the gospel according to the pundits that was in fashion just a few weeks ago.

What has changed? Check out this material at the top of this New York Times pre-debate poll story!

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A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White

A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White

If you are looking for an authoritative figure who represents the views of mainstream Protestant evangelicalism in America, I would trust the Rev. Billy Graham way more than I would Donald Trump.

Take, for example, how evangelicals view the evolution (a dangerous word in this context) of some of the core doctrines in Seventh-day Adventism. While there are still evangelicals who like to use the word "cult" to describe this movement -- in a theological, not sociological sense of that word -- there are many more who, following in the footsteps of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, have come to view Adventists as small-o orthodox Christians.

There are complicated issues at stake here linked to the views of early Adventist leaders about the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the divinity of Jesus Christ, biblical authority and other doctrines, including the role of Ellen White as a prophet. Journalists who are covering the GOP primaries do not have to master all the fine details on these matters, but they do need to find some quality sources for background as long as Dr. Ben Carson is on the scene and his critics -- like Trump -- are using fighting words to describe the candidate's faith.

Consider, for example, this chunk of a USA Today story in the wake of Trump's sucker-punch comment about Seventh-day Adventism. The scene is Iowa, of course:

Carson's Seventh-day Adventist connection concerns Cedar Rapids retiree Barbara Nuechterlein.
"I just feel that -- how can I say it. All these religions are good, and none of us know which one is right, but I think Sunday is the day of the Sabbath created by the Lord, not Saturday," said Nuechterlein, who described herself as the first woman to work on a 17-man team at an Iowa electric company decades ago.
Nuechterlein also has qualms about Adventists who believe in the writings of evangelist Ellen White as much as they believe in biblical scripture.
"They're entitled to believe what they believe, and that's what makes America great," she said. 

Welcome to the debates about Ellen G. White and her recognized role as a prophet for Adventists.

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Increased press scrutiny of Ben Carson will involve his Seventh-day Adventism

Increased press scrutiny of Ben Carson will involve his Seventh-day Adventism

Four polls in Iowa give candidate Ben Carson a solid lead over his rival Donald Trump. “The Hill” observed October 26 that this now raises “the possibility of Ben Carson becoming the Republican presidential nominee,” although he “has not yet faced real scrutiny.”

Inevitably,  scrutiny will include Carson’s well-known and devout affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventist Church,  a topic the New York Times just examined. There will be more, of course, if his numbers stay high.

Of course, Trump pulled that part of Carson's into the spotlight, telling a Florida rally, “I’m Presbyterian. I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

Challenged about questioning a candidate’s religion, Trump said he had nothing to apologize for because “all I said was I don’t know about it.” But of course his words contrasted his “middle of the road” mainline Protestantism with   a faith people don’t know about, slyly suggesting there’s reason for wariness and relegating Carson’s creed to the cultural margins.

Note that SDAs number 1.1 million in the U.S. plus Canada, compared with 1.7 million in Trump’s Presbyterian Church (USA).

Actually it was Carson who started the religion warfare in September, saying his own devout faith is “probably is a big differentiator” with Trump, and that if Trump is sincere, “I haven’t heard it. I haven’t seen it.” Unlike Trump, Carson later apologized.

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Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?


What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?


This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is -- especially in news reporters -- called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

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Lessons from Waco: Some folks just don't get religion

Even after a small stack of best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell remains what he has long been — a master of magazine-form journalism. After scores of recent interviews in which he has talked about his return to Christian faith, there is evidence that he plans to focus his talents on topics linked to religion news, perhaps building toward a new book. Count me among those who hope this comes to pass.

On one level, Gladwell’s lengthy New Yorker piece entitled “Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers,” is simply an extended essay digging into “A Journey to Waco,” by Clive Doyle, a survivor of that infamous day when a small army of U.S. troops and law officials crashed into the Branch Davidian complex outside of Waco, resulting in the deaths of about 80 members of this Adventist sect, including two dozen children.

In the end, however, this is much more than a review. It’s more like a meditation of why it is so difficult for profoundly secular people to understand what is happening inside the minds and hearts of radically religious people. The bottom line is clear: Some people, including lots of FBI leaders, just don’t get religion. I think religion-beat professionals will find this article fascinating.

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