The Role of Women in the Early Adventist Movement -- By: David A. Dean

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 22:2 (Spring 2008)
Article: The Role of Women in the Early Adventist Movement
Author: David A. Dean

The Role of Women in the Early Adventist Movement

David A. Dean

DAVID A. DEAN is the Berkshire Professor Emeritus of Advent Christian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.


Women played an important and often overlooked role in the development of the Adventist movement in the nineteenth century United States. As a reform movement that set aside established traditions and looked afresh at Scripture, early Adventism found and espoused biblical support for women in ministry. Eventually, debates about women preachers ensued, foreshadowing contemporary arguments about gender. This article will summarize the development of Adventism and the role of women within the nascent movement. It will then look at the lives and ministries of three of Adventism’s most influential women: Harriet Hastings, Ellen White, and Anna Smith. These women were contemporaries, each active in ministry while married and each living into her eighties, but with notable differences.

Early Adventism

In 1831, the Baptist farmer-preacher William Miller began to preach openly his expectation of a personal and visible return (“Advent”) of Christ in the near future. Nine years passed, though, before his message began to attract much public attention. From late 1839 to the autumn of 1844, the obscure preacher and his unique message metamorphosed into a mighty movement with a thousand lecturers, a hundred thousand adherents, and a million worried observers.

When Christ failed to return to earth on October 22, 1844—the date on which many Adventists had expected his coming—the popular movement collapsed under its disappointment. Notwithstanding, in the twenty years that followed, the Advent message preserved itself through a half-dozen small denominations: the Church of God (Abrahamic Faith, c. 1845), the Seventh-day Adventists (c. 1847), the Evangelical Adventists (1858), the Advent Christians (1860), and the Life and Advent Union (1863). These new religious groups pulsated with the Advent hope and promulgated their message with great conviction and enthusiasm. That original vitality continued at least until about 1880, when the first generation of committed leaders had dropped from the scene.

This thumb sketch of modern Adventist history suggests to me that we can most profitably examine the period from 1840 to 1880. Prior to 1840, there was a man and a message, but no movement. From 1840 to 1845, we observe the Advent movement in its ecumenical, or interdenominational, phase, when believers from a variety of churches worked together to awaken a sleeping world. Then, from 1845 to 1880, the movement gave birth to Adventist denominations which still sought to proclaim the Advent, yet d...

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