Ben Carson has surged into a lead in Iowa and is climbing nationally thanks to his appeal to evangelicals. But could his own beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist make him anathema to many of those same voters?
Donald Trump seemed to question the Republican neurosurgeon’s faith over the weekend.
“I’m Presbyterian,” Trump said at a Saturday rally in Florida. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
Trump later denied he was trying to send up a “dog whistle” questioning Carson’s faith, but he seemed to be trying to exploit the fact that the faith largely remains a mystery to many Americans.
Just look at the top Google trends for Seventh-day Adventists. Questions people are Googling: Are they a cult? Are they Mormon? Are they anti-Catholic? Are they Protestant? Are they vegetarian?
Here are some background and some answers to those questions and others. First, the background:
When did the Seventh-day Adventist Church begin?
The Adventist movement can trace its influences back to William Miller, a farmer turned Bible teacher who predicted that Jesus would return to Earth sometime between March 1843 and March 1844, based on his interpretation of Old Testament passages and other Scriptures. His followers began selling their possessions, anticipating the rapture. When that didn’t happen, Miller said it would happen on a new date: Oct. 22, 1844. That prediction didn’t come true either, of course.
The church still considers his original prophecy (though wrong on its dates) one of the central tenets of its faith — that Jesus will soon return. “He was wrong in his prediction, because he predicted the date of when Christ would come,” says G. Alexander Bryant, the executive secretary for Seventh-day Adventists of North America “What we learned from William Miller is that no man knows the date or the hour when Jesus will return.”
What happened next?
After Miller’s prophecy didn’t come true, there was a period the church refers to as the “great disappointment” that led to much soul-searching — but the ensuing reflection eventually led to the church’s official founding. Its name, the Adventists, reflects that its adherents are awaiting the Second Advent of Christ.
“Many were quite disappointed and disenchanted with the beliefs,” Bryant says. “Others began to think more diligently, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ and continued studying and searching.”
One of those people was Ellen G. White, who along with others officially founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1863. A prolific writer on faith and health, she is seen by the church as a prophetess who was instrumental in cementing many of the church’s early beliefs. Overall, she wrote more than 40 books and over 50,000 articles.
While the influence of White’s writings has drawn scrutiny, Bryant emphasizes that her writings are not seen as divine or meant to supersede the Bible.
“She was a complement to the Bible and a prophetic writer in her own right,” he says. “She is viewed as a co-founder of a mission.”
How many Seventh-day Adventists are there?
The Adventist Church boasts 1.2 million members in North America; with more than 18.7 million members worldwide it is among the fastest-growing denominations. The Pew Research Center found it to be the most racially diverse religious group in the U.S. earlier this year.
What makes Adventists unique?
Unlike most other Christian denominations, Seventh-day Adventists attend church on Saturdays, which they believe to be the Sabbath instead of Sunday, according to their interpretation of the Bible.
“It’s not just that we worship on the Sabbath; we honor that day as a day of rest,” Bryant says. “We don’t engage in secular activities, we don’t work during that time, and we look at that time to be rejuvenated.”
There is also an emphasis placed on health and wholeness, partly drawn from White’s writings. That includes abstention from alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs and even meat. The church has an approach it abbreviates as “NEWSTART” — nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest and trust in divine power.
So, are all Seventh-day Adventists forbidden to do anything on Saturdays and to eat any meat?
Not really. Bryant emphasizes that the church takes very seriously setting aside and respecting the Sabbath, but that it also recognizes that some work must take place, such as in the medical field. (The church also has a vast network of hospitals.)
Carson has said he tries to respect the Sabbath, but he has campaigned and made stops on his book tour on Saturdays. “Sabbath is still a precious day for us. We go to church as often as we can. Even if we’re on the road we treat it as a different day than all the others,” he told an Adventist news network in 2013.
“We do not believe that the only way you can be saved is to keep the Sabbath,” says Bryant, noting that the Bible is their only source for their doctrine and that Adventists don’t believe other churches to be heretical if they worship on Sundays instead of Saturdays.
As for some of the dietary guidelines, they’re just that — guidelines. Not eating meat also isn’t a requirement to be a Seventh-day Adventist, though it is encouraged.
“We don’t beat people up if they don’t choose it, because we still believe it is a personal choice,” Bryant says. “But we believe [vegetarianism or veganism] is the healthier choice.”
Do their beliefs differ from traditional evangelicals?
Not much. Aside from different days of worship and an outsize emphasis on health and nutrition, doctrinally the two are about the same. Evangelicals and Adventists believe in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and many of their original members came from other related denominations, like Methodism, or even some from Roman Catholic traditions. The current Seventh-day Adventist Church considers itself to be Protestant.
“If you know our faith, you can’t say we don’t have the same beliefs as other Protestants,” Bryant says.
Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, concurred that there weren’t many differences in beliefs or theology. But some of the notable stylistic differences may be why Adventists can be viewed very skeptically by some evangelicals.
“I think there’s kind of a cultural difference and a residual suspicion because they worship on Saturday rather than Sunday,” Balmer said. “My observation is that Seventh-day Adventists are looked askance [at] to some degree. It’s not because of anything heretical in what they believe, but it’s just kind of a cultural difference.”
Do some evangelicals believe Adventists are a cult or are not Christian?
Some may, and there is still some residual skepticism. Earlier this year, Carson was disinvited from speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference because of theological concerns.
On the website of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, the church classifies Adventists as a “sect” of Christianity, not a cult, “because it has a number of distinctive doctrines not in accord with the mainstream of historic Christian faith.”
Could Carson’s faith impact his standing in the GOP primary?
Probably not. Evangelical voters are far more skeptical of Mormonism, which deviates more from their brand of Christianity than do Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. So if Republicans could nominate Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, Carson’s own religion shouldn’t be a stumbling block either.
And if Trump is trying to throw doubt on Carson’s own faith, there remain plenty of questions about his own — including the fact that the church he says he attends says he isn’t an active member.
Carson has drawn scrutiny for some of his comments on abortion and other social issues. Where does the church stand on those?
The church says it does not condone abortion except in cases to save the life of the mother, and abortions are not performed in any of its hospitals.
It also recognizes marriage as solely between a man and a woman. But Bryant says that Adventists “also have a compassionate heart in terms of fellowship and acceptance for all those who come in fellowship and worship in our churches [and] do not condone singling out any group for scorn or derision, let alone abuse.”
But while a same-sex couple would be welcome to fellowship with their church, they would not be allowed to join as members or be baptized.
Are Seventh-day Adventists endorsing Carson?
Definitely not. When he announced in May, the church released a statement reiterating its neutrality and reaffirming its belief in separation of church and state.
“We have a very strict and very strong focus on religious liberty,” Bryant says. “We advocate and we believe deeply that church and state should be separated.”
These beliefs would seem counter to Carson’s assertion last month that a Muslim shouldn’t be allowed to be president.
Are there other notable Seventh-day Adventists in politics?
Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who gained notoriety for his pointed prayers during the government shutdown two years ago, is the first Seventh-day Adventist chaplain in Congress. Two House members also hail from the church: Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas; and Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who like Carson is a doctor. Former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., was also a Seventh-day Adventist.