At my first Bible week in 1988, the pastor asked for the kids’ favorite subject in school.
Surprisingly, most other kids looked at me in seeming shock and disapproval when I blurted out, “History.” Back then, I did not realize that many people hate history because in school they were required to memorize names, dates, places, events, in other words “data,” without any obvious meaning. I could not relate because in my view, history was filled with stories. In history, I found many “friends,” people like me with whom I could relate and identify. In many ways, people are actually fascinated by the past, especially their own past and that of their families, when they discover meaning in it.
Besides talking about the successes of the heroes of faith, the Bible does not hide their failures and weaknesses. A few years ago, a student explained that Ellen G. White’s letters, diaries and manuscripts are especially attractive to Millennials because those documents give us a glimpse of her person and experience. By writing of her shortcomings and weaknesses, she made herself vulnerable and, thus, becomes authentic. Since we go through similar struggles and sense similar shortcomings, we can relate to her.
As a generation that yearns for authenticity, we are more willing to listen to those who are real and authentic in their brokenness than those who give the appearance of perfection and infallibility. The same applies to other early Adventists when we discover more about the complexity of their lives. Learning not just about the great acts of early Adventist leaders but also about the experiences of ordinary church members like you and I may, in fact, strengthen our identity and commitment, arouse our intellect, and touch our emotions. They are not removed from our daily experience because, in their brokenness, they all found comfort, hope and help in Jesus.
About 130 years ago, Ellen White penned the words, “In reviewing our past history, having travelled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, ‘Praise God!’ As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment and with confidence in Christ our Leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Lt 32, 1892). Interestingly, she made those remarks in the context of the thought that we should follow the example of those before us in trusting Jesus’ leadership and in sharing the message with people in need of salvation.
While in Adventist history, we encounter people like us, faulty, fragile and frail, we may be inspired by their sacrifice and commitment. Their experience may encourage us and comfort us because it is an astounding example of God’s amazing grace that is still available to us today.
Denis Kaiser is an associate professor of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and new editor of the Adventist Pioneer Series.