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Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion

by Laura Lee Vance

Buy the book: Laura Lee Vance. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion

Release Date: February, 1999

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Laura Lee Vance. Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion


American Journal of Sociology

In Seventh Day Adventism in Crisis, Laura Vance has produced a monograph that will surely be of interest to scholars who study religion, gender, and social change. Consistent with much current gender scholarship on the emergence of theologically conservative religions, Vance's study reveals how differently history reads when gender becomes a central analytical category for examining religious transformation. This volume aims to address several interrelated questions, including: How did a religious movement in which women initially wielded visionary leadership eventually come to deny women access to many of its most powerful institutional positions? How have large-scale social changes influenced current debates about "women's place" within contemporary Adventism? In fixing her attention on such issues, Vance produces a book that is not simply a historiographical account of shifting gender relations with Adventism - though a focus on that topic alone would have been quite an accomplishment. Rather, recognizing that the best historical research informs contemporary predicaments, Vance combines a backward-glancing eye attuned to Adventism's past with an insightful investigation of present-day gender relations within this religious denomination.

Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis begins by recounting the historical origins of Adventism, a sectarian religion that emerged during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Special attention is paid to the apparently prophetic visions and writings of Ellen White, an early Adventist thought to have received direct revelation from God, detailing the divine mission of this nascent religious movement. Much of the first half of the book then proceeds to analyze the distinctive - and often paradoxical - facets of Adventist doctrine and practice. For example, Adventists are generally committed to the infallibility of the Bible; yet, at the same time, members of this religious group conceive of divine revelation as progressively unfolding into "present truth." Moreover, Adventism has long decried the excesses of "the world" (e.g., gambling, movie going, and various dietary indulgences) even as it has implored its adherents to affiliate with unbelievers for the purpose of evangelism. The Adventist challenge of finding one's place "in but not of the world" is very similar to that faced by other theologically conservative religions. Yet, perhaps the greatest Adventist contradiction entails the eventual erosion of women's leadership authority within a religious denomination whose core doctrine was initially defined - or, better, divined --- by a female prophet. In rendering her portrait of Adventism, past and present, Vance avoids homogenizing this diverse and changing religious tradition. Her careful analytical approach reveals how internal cleavages among Adventists themselves emerged historically and continue to surface in light of this religion's conceptualization of an evolving "present truth." Consequently, the first half of Vance's book evenhandedly combines rich idiographic accounts of particular events in Adventist history (e.g., chaps. 1 and 4) with broader analyses of this religion's theological presuppositions and political organization (e.g., chaps. 2 and 3).

Part 2 of this volume focuses on Adventist responses to a series of recent social changes - shifting definitions of gender and sexuality, the recent rise of women's labor force participation, and controversies over women's ordination to the ministry in many Protestant churches. Because Vance has detailed the particularities of this religious subculture so well in the book's first section, she moves deftly through Adventist responses to these various issues - aided, where appropriate, by back references to section one. For example, Vance examines contemporary Adventist support for gender equity in the workplace with an eye on the post-1870 writings by Ellen White, who defended the payment of equitable wages to female employees and became a champion of women's public-sphere participation in Social Gospel movements. Moreover, current Adventist controversies over women's ordination are understood in light of the rich cultural tradition of Adventism. This multilayered tradition contains strands of early Adventist egalitarianism interwoven with more recent accommodations to secularized visions of gender difference. This reading of structural change and ideological diversity within Adventism effectively challenges those who would equate religious conviction - and especially theological conservatism - with an unreflective preservation of the status quo.

Vance has collected and mined a vast array of data to conduct this study. She draws from archival sources, secondary historical treatments, and Adventist pastoral texts. She has also gathered primary data using participant-observation, in-depth interview, and survey techniques. Given the conceptual breadth and methodological triangulation evidenced in this volume, some readers might charge that Vance simply attempts to cover too much ground in one monograph. I do not share that criticism. Although it is easy to envision other works--for example, a more ethnographically focused monograph-that could effectively build on the material in the present volume, this book draws together coherent and compelling narratives from these various data sources. As a result, Seventh-Day Adventism in Crisis provides a holistic analysis of a religious tradition that has undergone great change since its emergence and continues to redefine itself as we enter the next millennium.

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Library Journal

This fine piece of scholarship presents a systematic application of sociological models to a movement whose heart and soul is sectarian. In examining Seventh-day Adventism's history and development from its inception as a postmillennialist movement in the 1800s to its current status as a faith tradition with a distinctive identity, Vance (psychology/sociology, Georgia Southwestern State University) has crafted a remarkably readable book of religio-sociological research. Vance argues that Adventism's move from sectarianism to institutionalization has succeeded through the creation of physical structures which reinforce its unique identity while meeting temporal needs that allow for a more accommodating response to the world. This thesis is borne out by Vance's examination of family structure, theology, and the development of the movement. One area of unique identification for Adventists is that of gender roles, and it is here, she finds, that Adventism has the greatest opportunity to alter the boundaries of church hierarchy not only for itself but for the Christian community as a whole. Highly recommended.

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