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For early Advent believers, so-called "present truth" was dynamic. And indeed, as the few hundred Sabbatarian Adventists of the 1840s grew to 3,000 by 1863 when the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially established, their doctrinal understanding underwent no less striking changes.

Early on, pioneers such as James White were fervent in their call to "come out of Babylon." At first, this was a message to leave organized religion and return to gospel simplicity.

This doesn't surprise religious historians, who have observed that every few generations, people feel compelled to go back to the fundamentals of their faith. Indeed, this trend fueled the Second Great Awakening.

But what is striking, Trim says, is the reversal White pulls as the movement expanded. By 1859, James had come to believe that the call to "come out of Babylon" actually meant to leave disorganization and accept church structure.

But as they moved toward church structure, early Adventists didn't lose their initial zeal. Rather, they were able to carve out a balance between the radicalism that pervaded much of the religious expression in the mid-1800s and the conservatism that would follow. Itís an equilibrium the Adventist Church still maintains today, Trim says, and it finds its roots in the longstanding tension between spirit and order, dating back to the early medieval church.

"You have to have the spirit because order becomes staid and ossified and hierarchical, but you have to have the order because the spirit becomes chaotic and self-destructive," he says.

Adventist Church pioneer Ellen White was crucial in preserving this balance. Through her prophetic gift, Trim says White was ideally situated to temper inevitable squabbles between early Adventist leaders such as her husband, James, Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, John Nevins Andrews, George Butler and others. All of them were "incredibly high-powered, driven individuals," personalities necessary to propel a localized movement into a global church, he says.

Modern Seventh-day Adventists might find early Adventist pioneers peculiar. Some didn't believe in the Trinity or the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and thought Christ was a created being. Many observed Sabbath from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday, regardless of actual sunset times. They also had no qualms over eating unclean meats.  All this, however, would change in the coming decades.

What today's Adventists likely would recognize in their forbearers is conviction. In the Sabbath, Second Coming, Sanctuary and other fundamental beliefs, early Adventists believed they had discovered what Trim calls a "key" to unlocking the entirety of biblical truth.

"They realize that these doctrines are all saying the same thing about God, they're all pointing in the same direction, and so early Adventists feel compelled to stand by them.

"This concern for truth is inspiring," he says.
 
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