Harold Bloom in his somewhat acerbic book, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), discusses several "made-in-America" denominations. These denominations include Pentecostalists, Mormons, Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a variety of New Age movements. It is important to note that all of these American sects have strong Apocalyptic expression and derive certain defining points of doctrine from the Book of Revelation. My purpose here is to review three "made-in-America" denominations and note their dependence upon the Book of Revelation. Specifically, I wish to provide a broad overview of Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the New Age religious fellowship known as the Church Universal and Triumphant. In each case, I will make reference to World Wide Web sites that provide a variety of links to each of these denominations.
Both the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses arose in the wake of the Great Disappointment of 1843 (or, as revised, 1844). Briefly, William Miller, a premillennialist Baptist lay preacher had reckoned that in 1843, the world would experience the "cleansing of the sanctuary" identified in Daniel 8:14. This cleansing would usher in the 1000 year reign. When none of the predicted events occurred in 1843 (or 1844 for that matter), the Great Disappointment came to pass. A remarkably imaginative young woman named Ellen White began to have visions in the months following the Great Disappointment and these visions assumed the stature of "Testimonies." Collectively, they had the effect of galvanizing various sects of Adventists from around the country to form the Seventh Day Adventists.
K. R. Samples, "From Controversy to Crisis: An Updated Assessment of Seventh-Day Adventism," (Christian Research Journal 11 ) has argued that on most points of doctrine, Seventh Day Adventists do not deviate appreciably from mainstream evangelical Christianity. He does identify three points of deviancy, however. The first is Sabbatarianism which holds that faithful observance of the Sabbath (in this instance, Saturday) is morally absolute. Indeed, more extreme Adventists will argue that keeping the Sabbath will procure salvation. The Sabbath is viewed as a sign of God's covenant between Himself and His people. It is to be a "day of delightful communion with God." Those who do not hold the Sabbath, as well as the other commandments of God, have the mark of the beast mentioned in Revelation 14:9-12. The second point of deviancy from mainstream evangelical Christianity is the authority of Ellen White and her voluminous writings. It does seem clear that Adventists view her visions and testimonies to be the product of a well-formed gift of prophecy. However, they do not equate her writings with the canonical Scriptures. The third and most convoluted point of deviancy has been referred to as the Sanctuary Doctrine or the Doctrine of Investigative Judgment. In essence, this doctrine surfaced as a reinterpretation of Miller's Great Disappointment. Two Adventists, Hiram Edson and O.R.L. Crosier, concluded that the date (1843 or 1844) was accurate but the event - Jesus' return to earth - was incorrect. Rather, Edson and Crosier argued that in 1844 Jesus entered not the earthly sanctuary but a second compartment of the heavenly sanctuary. Up until 1844, Jesus had been purchasing salvation by his death upon the cross. However, after his entry into the second compartment, he began to examine the lives of those who had received forgiveness. Only those who passed this second judgment would be assured of translation at the moment of his second coming.
Throughout their history, Seventh Day Adventists have developed a strong reliance on the "prophecies" of the Bible as predictive of the course of history. An interesting contemporary expression of this attitude may be found in a set of explanations for certain symbols in the Book of Revelation. A Web site maintained by Eric Martin presents the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a rather unique way. The first horse is false religion which occasions the three other horses representing war, famine, and pestilence. Another Martin site identifies the seven churches of Revelation (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea) as symbols of sequential eras or time periods from the beginning of Christ's ministry to the end of time. It is important to note that the last period (Laodicea) began in 1844 and we are now nearing the end.
Charles Taze Russell was the found of the Jehovah's Witnesses. After abandoning his Presbyterian/Congregational upbringing, he found resonance with early 19th Century Adventists. However, eventually he broke with the Adventists over their view that the second coming would be in the flesh rather than in the spirit (Bloom, 1992). The Witnesses believe in an all-powerful God - Jehovah - whose principal agenda is an imminent victory over Satan in the Battle of Armageddon. For the witnesses, the end-time has already come since the six thousand years of human existence ended in 1975. We are, then, in a brief period before the second coming. Arguably, the Witnesses are the most extreme of all millenarian denominations. According to Bloom (1992):
What makes the Jehovah's Witnesses different is not their expectation of destruction, but their violent hatred of what will be destroyed, which is to say: our country, our world, our common planet....There are no positive elements in existence that the Witnesses seek to salvage; they wish to see all of us vanish, and as quickly as possible (p. 162).
Witnesses study the Book of Revelation incessantly. Perhaps the most widely known reference is Revelation 7:4-8 (and 14:1-3) which places the number of redeemed at 144,000, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Russell identified his early followers as the nucleus of the 144,000 who would serve Christ directly in the millennium. Most of the rest of us - the "great multitude" - will enjoy a less glorious future. There is also an obsession with the end of the world which will be ushered in by the battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:14-16) in which God will triumph over the very real and abominably wicked spirit being called Satan who malevolently influences the world. However, God will be victorious and destroy the present system of things. The ungodly will be wiped out.
A more recent American denomination is the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) which is syncretism of Christianity, certain eastern religions ideas, and New Age doctrines. CUT was founded in 1958 by Mark Prophet who claimed to have begun to receive revelations at the age of 18 from various Ascended Masters, who have their own home page, a group which includes but is not limited to Jesus, Buddha, El Morya, and the mysterious St. Germain. Since his death in 1973, Mark Prophet has become an Ascended Master. Mark's wife, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (also known as Guru Ma and the World Mother) now serves as spiritual leader of CUT which is headquartered near Corwin Springs in the Gallatin Valley of Montana.
The doctrine of CUT is rather broad and at times inscrutable to my way of thinking. CUT claims to be Trinitarian but its formula is quite unorthodox. For example, the Godhead includes a feminine dimension - the Father/Mother God - who expresses a "perfect balance of the energies of spirit and matter." As I interpret it, the Father is the spiritual force and the mother is the material force. The theology is clearly pantheistic ("All of life is God. All of consciousness is God.") The destiny of enlightened humans, according to CUT, is to become one with the Ascended Masters. Through certain ceremonies and rituals, devout followers will realize their Christ-consciousness and become one with the Ascended Masters. The eastern dimension involves a doctrine of reincarnation through endless cycles to purify the self so that union with Christ is possible. Once this purification and unification has occurred, God calls the person to return to the Divine Source also knows as the "I AM Presence."
As Wainwright has pointed out, the rather strange and mystical theology of CUT involves extensive use of the Book of Revelation. For example, there is reference to (1) God as the Alpha and Omega, (2) the dragon and the beast from the sea, (3) Armageddon, (4) the imprisonment of Satan (which is now taking place), and (5) the millennium. Like the sixties song, Cut sees our present time as the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius." There is a strong survivalist mentality within CUT and its followers have built a network of bomb shelters in the Gallatin Valley and they are busily developing a community arsenal.
The three aforementioned examples of "made-in-America" religions with a strong adventist character point to the power of the Book of Revelation to impel charismatic personalities into positions of authority. Miller, White, Russell, and the Prophets all used Revelation to greater or lesser degrees in the formulation of their theologies. From an orthodox and scholarly perspective, these theologies are flimsy and irresponsible. Nevertheless, they have drawn thousands of adherents and still enjoy considerable strength and a growing worldwide following.
John M. Hutchinson