By Paul E. McGraw, a Professor of History at Pacific Union College.
From its inception, Christianity has struggled with the definition of what is or is not an authentic form of the faith. The question of legitimacy has faced every emerging religious group. From its inception in the nineteenth century, Seventh-day Adventism struggled with the question of whether acknowledgment by other Christian groups was desirable or simply a sign that it had compromised its calling. In the years immediately following Ellen G. White's death in 1915, the Seventh-day Adventist church faced a new reality, living not only in a rapidly changing world, but for the first time having to find their way without the aid and guidance of their prophet.
While many within Adventism were satisfied to continue to present themselves as outside the mainstream of Protestant Christianity, one man in particular believed it was important that Adventism articulate a coherent definition of what it was historically, but also what it would become in a post Ellen White world. That man was LeRoy E. Froom. Beginning in the late 1920s until his death in 1974, Froom sought to create a definition of Adventism, which not only maintained its claim to a unique status among Christian denominations, but also allowed it to be recognized as authentically Christian.
Froom's "progressive" definition of Adventism differed markedly from the mainstream of the church in his day, but today he would be deemed by many as "conservative" or even "traditionalist" which leads us to ponder the following questions:
1. Is possible to definitively define Adventism?
2. Froom offered fresh perspectives on issues ranging from the Shut Door movement, Adventism's historic aversion to the doctrine of the Trinity and the "Versions Controversy." On each of these issues his critique, if not totally new, moved Adventism forward in its understanding of its history. Today, even in the progressive circles of Adventism, do we really broach new and unique issues about Adventism's past?
3. What in Adventism's past is worth holding on to?
4. In Froom's quest to legitimize Adventism most of the resistance he met stemmed from opposition to the "unique" elements of Adventist belief. Did the Evangelicals of the 1950s succeed in scrubbing Adventism of its uniqueness? If so, is that for the better?
Paul E. McGraw is a Professor of History at Pacific Union College where he has taught for thirteen years. For fourteen years before coming to PUC, he pastored in the Potomac Conference. He received his Ph.D. from The George Washington University in 2004. His dissertation "Born in Zion?: The Margins of Fundamentalism and the Definition of Seventh-day Adventism" traces the interaction between Adventists and Evangelicals Fundamentalists over the question of whether Adventism deserves the designation "cult." More recent publications include: "The Memory of the Huguenots in North America: Protestant History and Polemic" in The Huguenots: History and Memory in Transnational Context, Essays in Honour and Memory of Walter C. Utt and "Legacy" in the forthcoming book by the Ellen White Project. He is also working on a biography of LeRoy Froom for the Adventist Pioneer series.