Were there Independent Sabbatarian Groups in the Early Nineteenth Century?
By Craig M White
This article is much shortened version of a longer collection of information The Independent Sabbatarian Groups (non-Seventh Day Baptist) c1800-c1860, available online for free at http://www.friendsofsabbath.org/ABC.htm.
It was either in 1973 or 1974 as a youngster that I talked with a visiting Church of God minister about the origins of the Worldwide Church of God and its doctrines. Having been brought up in a religious environment, discussions around various Biblical topics, doctrines, ethics and church historical subjects abounded within my extended family and influenced me.
So, due to this background, of interest to me were the origins of the Church of God (Seventh Day) and also some similarities in doctrine between various groups (refer to my articles The Doctrinal Heritage of the Church of God in the Nineteenth Century and History of the Fair Chance Doctrine for detailed information).
The minister didn’t have any knowledge of this or answers, but the roots of Worldwide Church of God doctrines (regardless of source) and Sabbatarian/Church of God history and linkages continued to interest me in those years and have done so ever since. Especially the years 1800-1860 and the supposed missing link around 1820-1845.
For instance, I read about the Church of God (Adventist) in a book listing the religious denomination in America that I found either in the school or local council library (I think it was Handbook of Religious Denominations in the United States). The minister couldn’t understand who they were, so I commenced my own research into the matter. It took many years to find out that this was, apparently, the name (whether registered or not) for the Church of God (Unattached) grouping that broke from the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day) around 1905. It was certainly not an early name for the Church of God (Seventh Day) itself as I found out over time.
In the first instance, the term ‘Church of God’ is an appellation that we use today and from what can be gathered, was seldom used over the centuries. To understand the history of our forebears I like to use the term ‘spirit-led, Law-observant community of believers under God.’ The church, regardless of its title today, is the assembly of His people throughout the ages.
Sabbatarians continued since the First Century
Over the centuries, the true believers may not have officially called themselves ‘Church of God’ but would have gone under a similar title or another descriptive title.
Worldwide Church of God representative Herman L Hoeh wrote that
“… God’s people were commonly referred to as Sabbatarians in the 17th and 18th centuries and that is how we identified them – rather than by the now common denominational term Seventh Day Baptist … the church of God was used as a generic term, not a denominational term. We … do not dispute the use of other terms in the Sabbatarian churches, for the New Testament does the same” (“The Plain Truth Responds,” The Sabbath Sentinel, March 1992, p. 10).
Researcher Leon Lyell’s commented on this matter in an e-mail
“I think some of the people he mentions from 17C England (eg Bampfield who remained part of the Church of England) were not baptists but I think his thrust is correct, though in the seventeenth century the sabbatarians who were Baptists and who mostly anticipated the imminent return of Christ were not one organization. The issue of predestination was one which caused division for example.
Re the early SDBs in America, I think the key point is that there were many independent baptist congregations who valued their autonomy. What became the SDB conference brought the benefits of being organized but I’d guess that many congregations didn’t ‘join up’ so in that sense there are likely to have been a number with differing beliefs form the main conference who kept to themselves. Many believed that agreeing to a list of doctrines may prevent the church from growing in truth. I’d also guess that as these groups would have been small some would have died out as their leaders passed away and some individuals may have later become attached to the SDBs SDAs, CoG or other organized groups. Many of these congregations would probably have kept a ”church book” and those that survived could be with various regional historical societies. The SDBs may have some from those which joined their conference. I’d guess some may well come to light as more records held by smaller historical societies become digitized.” (20 November 2015)
A Church of God Timeline since 1800 has been developed tracking the major events during the history of this little flock and is available online at the aforementioned website.
In the collection of information in The Independent Sabbatarian Groups (non-Seventh Day Baptist) c1800-c1860, I brought together whatever sources that could be sought to find out more about the offshoots from – or those Sabbatarian groups that didn’t join the Sabbatarian General Conference in 1801 or thereafter. But I cannot vouch for their accuracy in every detail.
At that time only about 8 churches joined the General Conference with the majority remaining independent. Full organisation came about in 1806, I believe. Information on these early conferences is available in Seventh Day Baptist Conference. It’s Origin.
Twelve years later, in 1818, the General Conference voted to change the term Sabbatarian to Seventh Day Baptist. Some congregations remained outside of the General Conference, and I do not know if there are any records of them in State libraries in America or held by the Seventh-Day Baptists themselves.
Did these groups merge with the Church of God groups that sprung up in the 1840s-50s? Did they die out? Or did they become part of the Seventh Day Baptist Conference? No one knows, but it will make for an interesting hunt by researchers someday. But at this time no evidence exists for Sabbatarian groups that were separate to the Seventh Day Baptists having been extant into the 1840s – 1850s that joined the emerging Sabbatarian Adventists that emerged out of the Millerites. They may have, but any hard evidence is lacking.
We can merely speculate that these remnant Sabbatarian groups, in existence alongside the Seventh Day Baptists continued on and found their way among the other Sabbatarians or Adventists per the below.
When Baptist preacher William Miller proclaimed the imminent return of Christ commencing about 1831, many began to respond (he was a Sunday keeper and never became a Sabbatarian). Whilst his followers were popularly known as ‘Millerites’, among themselves they were known as ‘Adventists’ – proclaimers of Christ’s second coming – His literal second coming.
The second coming of Christ literally to the earth, a 1,000 year reign of His upon the earth and other truths were very seldom mentioned or believed in Christianity – until the Advent movement. Indeed, at that time Christianity was indifferent to Christ’s return or was seeking it to occur after the millennium!
It took some years before a handful of the Adventists adopted the seventh-day Sabbath. This is how God, in His mysterious ways did this:
“Rachel (Harris) Oakes Preston (1809-1868), had a great influence on the Sabbatarian movement. She was a Seventh Day Baptist who persuaded a group of Adventists to accept the Sabbath and thus to become in that sense, the first Seventh-day Adventists. Born in Vernon, Vermont, she joined the Methodist Church, then joined the Seventh Day Baptist church of Verona, Oneida County, New York. Later she moved to Washington, New Hampshire, to be near her daughter, Delight Oakes, who taught school there. When Mrs. Oakes sought to introduce the Sabbath to the company of Adventists in the Christian church there, she found them so engrossed in preparation for the coming of the Lord that they paid little attention to her Seventh Day Baptist literature.
She did eventually gain as a convert, Frederick Wheeler, a Methodist preacher. One Sunday while conducting the communion service for the Christian congregation, he remarked that all who confess communion with Christ in such a service as this “should be ready to obey God and keep His commandments in all things.” Later Mrs. Oakes told him that she had almost risen in the service to tell him that he had better push back the communion table and put the communion cloth back over it until he was willing to keep all the commandments of God, including the fourth. Knowing she was a Seventh Day Baptist, Wheeler thus began serious thinking and earnest study, and not long after about March, 1844, as he later related, he began to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. After the Great Disappointment in October, 1844, during a Sunday service in the Washington church, William Farnsworth stated publicly that he was convinced that the seventh day of the week was the Sabbath and that he had decided to keep it. He was immediately followed by his brother Cyrus and several others. And Mrs. Oakes, in turn, soon embraced the Adventist teachings. Thus it was that the first little Sabbatarian Adventist group came into being.
Mrs. Oakes later married Nathan T. Preston and moved away. Not until the last year of her life did she join what had meanwhile become the SDA Church.” (Adapted from the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, Volume 10, page 1149, 1976. Review and Herald Publishing Association.)
Five groups emerged directly from the original Adventist/Millerite movement: Seventh-day Adventists (1863), Church of God (1866), and three Sunday-observing Adventist groups: Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (1888), Advent Christian Church (1860) and the Life and Advent Union (1862) (the latter two merged in 1964). Except for the Sabbath, the Sunday observing Adventists groups have some major similarities to the Sabbatarian Churches of God, including the future Kingdom of God on earth, conditionalism (soul sleep), anti-trinitarianism and water baptism.
Both Adventists and Churches of God are familiar with their common roots and beginnings during the nineteenth century. With the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, some individuals and fellowships either never joined and remained outside of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, withdrew in 1863 or withdrew three years later in 1866 (see Linden, 1844 and the Shut Door Problem, pp. 80-81; Bjorling, The Churches of God, Seventh Day. A Bibliography, pp. 10-14). Of course, the Seventh Day Baptists remained a separate entity to this day.
Later, with the incorporation of the scattered non-Seventh Day Adventist and non-Seventh Day Baptist churches, the new group eventually became known as the General Conference of the Church of God. In 1923, the name General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day) was officially adopted and has remained such to this day. It was never known as Church of God (Adventist).
Select References and Suggested Further Reading
|Benedict, D. (1813).||The General History of the Baptist Denomination in America. Volume 2. Mannin & Loring Printers.|
|Campbell, M W. (2015).||Developments in the Relationship between Seventh Day Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, 1844-1884. A paper presented to the American Society of Church History, 16 April.|
|Cross, W R. (1950).||The Burned-Over District. Harper & Row, New York, NY.|
|Davis, T. (1851).||A General History of the Sabbatarian Churches. Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, PA.|
|Haloviak, B. (1984.)||Some Great Connections: Our Seventh-Day Adventist Heritage from the Christian Church, General Conference Archives, USA.|
|Kiesz, J. (1965).||History of the Church of God (Seventh Day). Midwest Bible College, Stanberry, MO.|
|Kiesz, J. (2016).||“CG7 elder and evangelist Kiesz gives church history”, The Journal, 29 February.|
|Knight, G. (ed) (1994).||1844 and the Rise of Sabbatarian Adventism. Review & Herald publishing, Hagerstown, MD.|
|Linden, I. (1982).||1844 and the Shut Door Problem. Libertryck, Stockholm.|
|Seventh Day Baptist General Conference. (1907).||Seventh Day Baptist Conference. It’s Origin. The American Sabbath Tract Society, Plainfield, NJ.|
|Weston, H. M. (1949).||“The Seventh Day Baptists”, The Ministry, January, pp. 17-19.|
|White, C. M. (2022).||Church of God Timelines. Sydney, Australia.|