What is the meaning and purpose of history? What is an Adventist philosophy of history and how might it differ from the prevailing approaches taken in the field today? And why should people, particularly people of faith, study history at all?
For the Seventh-day Adventist, the answers to these questions are built into our very DNA. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, our mission of proclaiming the truth to the world, our strong emphasis on holiness and character building, our prophetic identity and end-time message, and our grand metanarrative (i.e., the Great Controversy theme) all testify to the far-reaching benefits of knowing history—both sacred and “secular.”
In this article, we will explore the above questions and seek to outline a uniquely Adventist philosophy of history by examining the writings of the church’s cofounder and prophetess, Ellen G. White.
History as a Source of Truth
In speaking of those who have received the gospel and “put on Christ,” White says that the love that fills their hearts will seek a way of expression. This expression of gospel truth will be mixed with the tracing of one’s own personal history with Christ “step by step.” As followers of Christ do this, they will yearn for greater holiness and a desire to impart to others “more and more of the treasures of truth.”
In a somewhat surprising way, White defines these “treasures of truth” in a broader sense than one might suppose. In her own words, she states: “The great storehouse of truth is the word of God—the written word, the book of nature, and the book of experience in God’s dealing with human life. Here are the treasures from which Christ’s workers are to draw.” If Christ’s workers are to draw from these sources, the role of the Christian historian is critical in order to better present the fullness of God’s truth to the world.
From this we glean insight that in addition to special revelation (the Bible), which is the “norming norm” and clearest expression of truth, White affirmed the importance of general revelation. This includes the books of nature and of human history, which is here spoken of as the “book of experience.” In another place, White spoke of the limitations of “science and history” apart from God. But when accompanied with “the aid of the Holy Spirit,” prayer, and the “written, inspired word,” she asserted that these sources of knowledge could indeed serve as a “clear, definite light” to help “guide into all truth.”
White went on to clarify how history could prove useful and elaborated on its value in connection with the work of God in nature and among the nations:
There are lessons to be learned from the history of the past; and attention is called to these, that all may understand that God works on the same lines now that He ever has done. His hand is seen in His work and among the nations now, just the same as it has been ever since the gospel was first proclaimed to Adam in Eden.
Here we discover that just as God worked throughout the sacred history of Scripture, He is also doing the same through the political entities of our time. And while sacred history was recorded by prophets under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, post-Biblical histories can and should be written by those who have yielded themselves to God and have allowed their minds to be illuminated by the promptings of that same Spirit. In this way, modern history can yield lessons of warning and admonition to the larger human family, much as sacred history has revealed such principles to the body of believers.
The Study of History as a Means of Character Building
In her classic work, Education, White spoke a great deal about character building and identified it as “the most important work ever entrusted to human beings.” More than simply stressing its importance, White addressed the way that character is developed—namely by “dwelling in the atmosphere of the pure, the noble, and the true.” According to White, one way that this may occur is through careful and thoughtful study, particularly through the study of history: “As with language, so with every other study; it may be so conducted that it will tend to the strengthening and upbuilding of character. Of no study is this true to a greater degree than of history.”
A Truly Christian Approach
The key is in the way we approach the study of history. If done correctly, then our understanding of history, regardless of the actual period covered, will ultimately be “considered from the divine point of view.” This is in contrast to the typical secular humanistic approach that is all too common among modern and postmodern historians. When history is taught chiefly as the story of crime, ambition, greed, deception, cruelty, and bloodshed, it becomes “detrimental” rather than helpful, because it plants seeds that will inevitably result in a “harvest of evil.”
But, on the other hand, if we approach history in a manner that is consistent with God’s perspective as revealed in His Word, we will benefit greatly by understanding things like the causes “that govern the rise and fall of kingdoms,” and by seeing “how the true prosperity of nations has been bound up with an acceptance of the divine principles.” It is this kind of approach that will “give broad, comprehensive views of life,” help people understand “its relations and dependencies,” show how we are all “bound together in the great brotherhood of society and nations,” and reveal how “the oppression or degradation of one member means loss to all.”
When understood from this perspective, it easy to understand why White and our early Adventist pioneers affirmed that “the Bible reveals the true philosophy of history.” It is precisely because of this unique Biblical perspective that Adventist historians, in particular, can utilize history to:
- demonstrate how the principles of God’s law have underlain genuine prosperity “both of nations and of individuals”;
- provide a greater framework for understanding that “the power exercised by every ruler on the earth is Heaven-imparted”; and
- show that their ultimate success or failure is dependent upon the way that they use this God-given power.
In the words of White:
To understand these things,—to understand that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation;’ that ‘the throne is established by righteousness’ and ‘upholden by mercy’ (Proverbs 14:34; 16:12; Proverbs 20:28); to recognize the outworking of these principles in the manifestation of His power who ‘removeth kings, and setteth up kings’ (Daniel 2:21),—this is to understand the philosophy of history.
From this we see that history can be used as a means of bettering who we are not only as individuals or even as a church, but as a whole—as citizens in the brotherhood of nations and society. To accomplish this requires a collective effort of remembering history and of being open and humble enough to learn from it and be challenged by it. In this way, history can reveal who we are as a society, show us where we are headed, enable us to learn from the mistakes of the past, and uncover the old paths of correction, righteousness, and redemption.
History, Prophecy, and Providence
Because we are a people with a strong prophetic identity, a Seventh-day Adventist approach to history would be sorely insufficient without a robust prophetic awareness. In relation to this is the notion of divine providence—we seek to see the hand of God in His dealings with His people in the past. This is important, because it allows us to better discern God’s leading in the present and to anticipate it in the prophetic future. Thus the task of the Adventist historian must also include showing the connection between history, prophecy, and God’s providential leading.
The Schools of the Prophets
In the ancient schools of the prophets, the study of history, particularly sacred history, was viewed as essential. In studying the sacred record, great attention was given to tracing “the footsteps of Jehovah.” In our day, we should do the same with humility and relative certainty. And in doing so, we should see “in history the fulfillment of prophecy” and “the workings of Providence,” especially in “the great reformatory movements.” We should also seek to understand the events of the past and present as they reveal “the progress of events in the marshalling of the nations for the final conflict of the great controversy.” This can provide nourishment for mind and soul and reveal our present duty.
A Mosaic Example
In the Old Testament, Moses served as one of the first historians by faithfully recording the account of God and His people. In addition to recording God’s laws and judgments, the history of the unfaithfulness and rebellion of Israel was also written down. This was done in order to help prevent the people from forgetting the lessons learned from their past experience. For Moses, it was important to gather the people together and read to them the events of the past alongside the promises and admonitions of God.
Under the direction of the Lord, waymarks and memorials were established. Songs were created and sung to help keep these precious stories alive “lest they should forget the history of the past.” This preservation began in early childhood and continued throughout their entire lives. And thus, through these efforts, “the providential dealing, and the marked goodness and mercy of God in His care and deliverance of His people” was kept “a live subject.”
In our context, there is no less of a need to preserve this kind of history in our contemporary consciousness. Not only will it help confirm faith and add to spiritual growth “in a knowledge of God and His ways,” but it will also enable us to see the big picture of our prophetic message and better understand our purpose.
History and the Great Controversy Theme
In connection with prophecy, the uniqueness of Adventism cannot be fully appreciated or understood apart from the great controversy theme, which serves as the overarching metanarrative of White’s writings and of the Adventist message itself. In order to understand this theme aright and to know how this continued struggle between Christ and Satan is still being played out, one must have a thorough knowledge of history. In one of her most widely distributed books and classic works of church history, titled The Great Controversy, White writes:
As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed—to trace the history of the controversy in past ages, and especially so to present it as to shed a light on the fast-approaching struggle of the future. In pursuance of this purpose, I have endeavored to select and group together events in the history of the church in such a manner as to trace the unfolding of the great testing truths that at different periods have been given to the world…. In these records we may see a foreshadowing of the conflict before us.”
In this way, history can tell the story of the practical outworking of the cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan. Regardless of the particular age, context, place, and characters involved, the essence of the story does not change. So it useful to know the history of the past not only to grasp the basic contours of how this controversy is to be played out in the future, but also to see in a real way the principles at stake being “more fully revealed.” And perhaps most importantly, this approach to history allows us to gain insight into the character of God, which includes His justice and mercy, as well as His unchangeable law and government in contrast to the character of the great adversary.
The Goal of the Adventist Historian
As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a special responsibility to thoroughly acquaint ourselves with human history and to make its lessons known to those inside and outside of the church. As this article has demonstrated, several key elements of Adventist identity are built upon an understanding of history. For the formally trained and lay Adventist historian alike, the task of teaching history aright involves more than merely reciting the account of human affairs. Rather it involves portraying history in its right light, revealing its interconnectedness with prophecy, humbly discerning the hand of God in the past and present, and highlighting the issues at stake in the continued unfolding of the great controversy. And it is only as we seek to understand the history and experience of humanity from God’s perspective that we will be able to experience its ultimate purpose, which is to grow in wisdom, compassion, and grace personally and collectively as citizens of the larger human family.
 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1941), 125.
 Ibid. (emphasis supplied).
 Statements like the following illustrate the unique role of Scripture as the ultimate standard of truth in both the thinking of White and Adventism in general: “But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority—not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain ‘Thus saith the Lord’ in its support.” Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan: The Conflict of the Ages in the Christian Dispensation (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), 595.
 Bible Echo, August 26, 1895.
 Ibid. (emphasis supplied).
 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association), 225.
 Ibid., 237.
 Ibid., 238 (emphasis supplied).
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 175 (emphasis supplied).
 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, 207.
 Though the task of how to detect providence as historians is outside the scope of this particular article, this is a vital question that must be wrestled with.
 8T 307, (emphasis supplied).
 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, 53.
 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, 134.
 Ibid., 135.
 Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1998), 19-20.
 GC x-xi, (emphasis supplied).
 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 761.
 “Satan’s enmity against Christ has been manifested against His followers. The same hatred of the principles of God’s law, the same policy of deception, by which error is made to appear as truth, by which human laws are substituted for the law of God, and men are led to worship the creature rather than the Creator, may be traced in all the history of the past. Satan’s efforts to misrepresent the character of God, to cause men to cherish a false conception of the Creator, and thus to regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love; his endeavors to set aside the divine law, leading the people to think themselves free from its requirements; and his persecution of those who dare to resist his deceptions, have been steadfastly pursued in all ages. They may be traced in the history of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, of martyrs and reformers” (GC x-xi).