Bull’s and Lockhart’s Challenge to Adventist Progressives

Authors of Seeking a Sanctuary argue that a theology with clear boundaries holds the Adventist Church together.

Seeking a Sanctuary, a highly detailed sociological study of American Adventism by Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, was the focus of the Adventist Forums Conference, held Sept. 28-30 in Santa Rosa, California.

Seeking a Sanctuary sustains a consistent thesis throughout 500 pages of impeccable research, arguing that Seventh-day Adventism, by withdrawing from American culture and opposing American values, paradoxically fulfills the American dream. Most controversially, its authors maintain that Adventism has not really made the transition from sect to denomination. While not Adventists themselves, Bull and Lockhart demonstrated a clear affection for the church they have chosen to study.

Lockhart started the conversation by describing what he sees as the “Golden Age” of Seventh-day Adventism, the fundamentalist era of the 1920s-1950s. He argues that the books published, institutions formed, and media outlets started in this era have shaped our identity to this day. In fact, it is to that time period, rather than 19th-century Adventism, that we refer when we think of “historic Adventism.” It was a very confident era in Adventist history, a time when we stabilized our theology so that we could be comfortable focusing all of our energy outwardly. After this, we became concerned with becoming a respected denomination in American Protestantism, and we are now more inward-looking, less confident.

Bull pointed out that the liberalism which began in the 1950s was a mixed blessing to the church. Distinctive doctrines and distance from American culture were what made us attractive to converts. Religions are usually held together by the endoskeleton of ethnicity, but Adventism holds a diverse ethnic body together through its exoskeleton of theology. “Fuzzy theology” depends on culture to hold people together, and Adventism can transcend ethnic culture by retaining a distinctive, even sectarian, theology. He thinks this is a good thing.

Liberal Adventists in the audience found this disquieting. But Bull and Lockhart gently reminded us that most of the individuals in the room didn’t actually represent American Adventism. Most Seventh-day Adventists in North America are first-generation members who don’t have college degrees and who experience their church through the Sabbath School Quarterly, Revelation Seminars, and the local church. By contrast, those with access to Adventist media, who help form the identity and theology of the church, are most often college-educated, multi-generational Adventists who went to Adventist schools and who have worked for the church or its institutions. We often imagine that we represent the “real” church. But immigrants, converts, and the world church are changing the realities on the ground. And these newer Adventists appear to value the unique doctrines of the Adventist church more than multi-generational, institutionalized Adventists.

So who is going to form the identity of the church in the future? The institutionalized Adventists or the new converts? The most fascinating part of the conversation came when Lockhart imagined what the Adventist church would be like in 2100. The future of the church, he playfully predicted, is non-white, non-institutionalized, still feminized, far less medicalized, retaining its present structure and theology, but with flexibility regarding culture.

For those of us who love our church and want to see it have a wider, more flexible identity regarding both culture and theology, there is a clear challenge. Bull and Lockhart reminded us that churches who are open about ideas retain their identity and unity only through a tightly shared culture. If we want to have a more diverse culture, continuing to pull converts from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, we’re going to have to accept that our core theology may remain somewhat narrow. Maintaining an identity while promoting inclusivity is a creative dynamic tension that Bull and Lockhart think propels Adventism forward, allowing it to “renew itsLisa Clark Dillar traditions” and to continually appeal to new constituencies.




Lisa Clark Diller

Lisa Clark Diller received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.