George Knight tells us the story how in 1863, right after the General Conference was organized, the Review reported that they were sending B.F. Snook as a missionary to Europe before the year was out. This did not happen perhaps because the General Conference really did not have enough staff to allow them to send Snook overseas. But there was a minister who was very interested to go. His name was Michael Czechowski (an ex-Roman Catholic priest from Poland). Apparently the General Conference refused to send Czechowski as a missionary because he was relatively new in the faith (he was converted in 1857) and was perceived to have “personal instabilities.”[i] Czechowski found a way around this hindrance by applying for missionary sponsorship to the Sunday-keeping Advent Christian denomination. The following year, in 1864, Czechowski arrived in Europe, began public evangelism, published a periodical, and circulated tracts in Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Romania and other countries of Europe. Even though he was supported by a Sunday-keeping denomination, he preached the Seventh-day Adventist message and was successful in planting Sabbath keeping congregations (except that they did not know they were Seventh-day Adventists!). However, his congregation in Switzerland eventually discovered the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in America. They wrote to the American Adventist leaders and as a result, were invited to send a representative to the 1869 General Conference session to the chagrin of Czechowski. The Swiss representative arrived too late for the GC session but stayed on for more than a year to be grounded in Adventist doctrines. By the time he returned to Europe in 1870, he already ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister. Thus, technically the first official Seventh-day Adventist minister to travel from America to Europe was this unnamed Swiss minister. Providentially, this contact with Czechowski’s Swiss congregation and that Swiss minister’s visit to the United States moved the Church to seriously consider sending a missionary to Europe. It still took four years before the General Conference was able to send J.N. Andrews and his family to Europe. Incidentally, the year 1874 was also the year the Battle Creek College (which became the Emmanuel Missionary College and eventually Andrews University) was established with the major purpose of training mission personnel for the home field as well as for and foreign fields.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has indeed blossomed into a missionary and mission-sending organization. Reversing the trend of Europeans coming over to the United States to preach, the Seventh-day Adventist Church began to send missionaries to the former missionary sending countries to Europe. Adventist missionaries successfully established congregations in countries with a majority of Christians in Europe, Australia and Africa. Between the year 1874 and 1887, Adventist missionaries have been able to establish churches in countries in Europe, Australia and South Africa. However, as Knight observes the prevailing Adventist “view of missions was shortsighted.”
At this stage Adventists believed that their purpose was to call other Christians (generally Protestants) out of their churches and into the third angel’s message. As yet, Adventism had little or no vision of mission to the ‘heathen’ or to the great Roman Catholic fields in the New World.[ii]
As the Church moved to South and Central America (and to the Philippines) in the early 1900s, this sense of mission expanded to include the Roman Catholic fields. But the mission view of Adventists remained a mission to the Christian world, not to the non-Christian. This is not to say that the Church did not touch the fields that are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. The fact that there are Adventist churches in majority of the world’s countries prove that Adventist mission was a widely cast net. Yet the predominant understanding and thrust of Adventist missionary endeavors have always been to reach other Christians with the Adventist message.
Development of Adventist Mission Understanding
The Adventist understanding of mission has undergone several modifications in the past 169 years. There are at least six major shifts in Adventist mission understanding. In the late 1840s, Adventists saw their mission as merely to other disappointed Millerites. Their mission was characterized by a shut-door, anti-mission orientation. This changed in 1850s. As Adventists saw many non-Millerites becoming converted to the gospel, they realized the door of probation could not have been closed on the world. They began to work among other people in the United States. At this point, the Adventists saw their mission as the various peoples of the United States. Some of them even suggested that by reaching all people in that country, they have reached the world “since America was composed of immigrants from everywhere.”[iii] But in 1860s, that mission understanding (that the message should limit itself to American soil only) was seriously challenged by Czechowski’s successes in Europe and by contact with his Swiss congregation. 1874 was a pivotal period in Adventist mission understanding. From that time till 1887, Adventists began sending missionaries to Protestant nations outside the United States. The mission and practice was to call out Protestants from their fallen churches. It was not until the 1890s that Adventists began to realize that the remnant message needed to go to all the world (and not just to Protestants). From 1890s to late 1950s, Adventists began to to include Roman Catholics and other Christian groups in their mission concerns. During this period, Adventists also began sending missionaries to non-Christian lands, but the standard procedure for work had always been to go to the Protestants or Catholics in these countries first. Consequently, Adventist work have been established largely among the Christian population even in non-Christian lands. However, in the 1960s, Adventists began to seriously consider the many non-Christian peoples of the world. Missionaries began to be sent to pioneer the Adventist message among Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist as well as animist tribal people. The Adventist Church began to hold conferences and set up study centers to find ways to more effectively reach these non-Christian people – a task Adventists have not been particularly good at because their orientation and evangelistic resources have always been geared towards a Protestant or Catholic audience. This most recent shift in Adventist mission understanding culminated in 1990 with the launching of the Global Mission program which aimed to send missionaries to the most unreached segments of the peoples of the world – majority, if not all, of whom are non-Christian. This last shift of mission understanding has largely benefited from Adventist reflection on the same issues tackled by Protestants in the continental, inland and frontier mission eras.
This shift from where Adventists were in their mission understanding at the beginning of the century to the present is rather remarkable. As Oosterwal points out:
- The relationship of Adventism to the living world religions has only recently become a major theological challenge. The pioneers of Adventist mission were unconcerned with the issues involved in this challenge …. They worked under the assumption that the world was, in essence, a Christian world, with the few pockets of “heathenism” to be taken care of by other Christian organizations.[iv]
The repeated broadening of Adventist understanding of the three angels’ messages and how such “ever-fuller comprehension” has provided the “motive power to push back its missiological frontiers” is nothing less than God-led.[v] The “Copernican revolution in Adventist missionary thinking” from one that focuses on Millerites, Protestants, and Catholics and finally on Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, non-Religious, etc., is seen today in the tension “felt in our concepts of mission and methods of evangelism, in our self-understanding, and in our relationships with people of other faiths – Christians and people of other religions alike”.[vi] This is ushered in by the “growing realization among Adventists that the living world religions are not just isolated pockets of heathenism” but is in fact “perhaps the most formidable challenge to Adventist mission in the twenty-first century.” [vii]
[i] Knight, A Brief History, 1999, p. 82.
[ii] Knight, A Brief History, p. 84 (emphasis supplied).
[iii] Knight, Remnant Theology, 1999, p. 93.
[iv] Oosterwal, 1999, p. 45.
[v] Knight, Remnant Theology, 1999, p. 94.
[vi] Oosterwal, 1999, p. 46.
[vii] Oosterwal, p. 46.