In the Seventh Day Adventist church, your last name is more important than your first. Out in the “real” world, we acknowledge each other by our first names. When we are introduced to someone, we are interested to learn their first name; not their last. Yet, in the Adventist world, they are much more concerned with the latter. Why does it matter? Simple; your last name determines what family you “come” from. This is very important, and it will determine your social and even moral worth to the rest of the SDA community.
Understanding this concept is vital to understanding why it is terrifying to dissent against the church, and why your family members will fight very hard to “bring you back”. A lot of things this website talks about apply almost exclusively to conservative Adventists (and offshoot sects) exclusively, but this applies to liberal Adventists as well.
Family members reflect on others
In “The World”, people usually move up the social sphere by the things they do, the money they earn and the friends they make. In a family, the older brother can be considered rich and successful; while his younger brother can be considered a failure, reject who is languishing in prison. Most of society will not lower the worth of the older brother because of what his younger brother has done, and society will not usually lift up the younger brother because of what his older brother has achieved. Yet, in the SDA world, they would. The actions of your family influence how others judge you (which in turn influences the opportunities you are given, the friends you can make and who you can marry) and, perhaps in a move that is infinitely more cruel, yours impact on them and their chance at a “successful” SDA life.
I do not wish to reveal my last name, so let us say my last name was “Brown”. So I belong to the Brown family. Let us say one of my Adventist friends wanted to introduce me, Lana, to their other Adventist friend. Here is a conversation that would likely occur; “You should meet my friend, Lana.” “Oh, Lana is it? What family does she belong to?” “The Brown family.”
Their friend would now be thinking, “ah, the Brown family huh?” And they would start to search their mind for all of the information they know about them. Breaking down the social intricacies of the SDA church is difficult, but here are some of the elements that they will access in deeming the worth of your family’s name:
- First up – have they heard of the family before? If not, that is a bad sign for two reasons. Firstly, it could indicate that your family has done nothing significant enough to be known, so you haven’t been dedicated/good Adventists. Secondly, it could mean that you are a new convert. While this isn’t bad per-say, it isn’t good. Because Adventists are exclusive, they respect families that have been in the church for several generations. Those families get extra credits. As a new convert, you will always be at a social disadvantage.
- How big is it? Adventists want to uplift Adventism; the more babies people have, the better (more SDA children to take up the torch). Big families are therefore looked upon as better; they represent a bigger contribution to the church. They also look out for each other, and work together to increase their social status.
- Is your family associated with any scandal? If so, it doesn’t matter what you do, nor if you were involved or not; your name is pretty much tainted. I have seen rich families have their status ruined by legal scandals. Their children will forever be tainted socially by the actions of their parents.
- Is anyone in your family particularly special? Your brother might be musically talented, charismatic and good looking. All of these talents will be celebrated by church members and he will be considered an Adventist darling. This will improve your family name.
- Is your family rich? The more money you have, the higher your status. The same with being good looking. If you look good, your status instantly goes up.
- More minor good/bad things that they may have heard about you (do they eat meat? If so, that is a strike against their name. Do they attend Sabbath School every week? If so, that is a plus. Was there a divorce? 2-3 strikes against them).
The individual vs. the family
The Adventist in our example will be accessing your family name, comparing it against all of these variables. “Hmmm, the Browns… they’ve been in the church a few generations and they’re a small family. They aren’t involved in any scandals, but they aren’t that prominent. But that boy, Roger Brown, he is wonderful. They don’t seem that rich, but they do drive nice cars.” If this person were to rate the Brown family on a scale of 1-10, they might get a middling 6.5 score. I do not mean to simply it so frivolously, Adventists certainly don’t literally rate people on a scale of 1-10, but they do access both the practical and moral value of each family.
Now, Lana Brown is not solely judged on the basis of her family name. She wouldn’t be instantly rated a “6.5”. The person would then access Lana on the basis of her own merits. Let us say that after doing that, she found that Lana rated a very average 5.5 on the scale. To then determine Lana’s overall worth, they would then access her by combining the family worth with her worth. Combine the scores together, and Lana is rated 12/20. Lana is lucky, she gets a 1 point extra boost in value because of her family. This will mean that people will be nicer to her and offer her more opportunities.
What this means for SDA defectors
There is another criteria that people judge your family name against; family dedication to the church. The Browns are a small family; but they are all in the church. Well, let us say that Lana decided to leave the church. This is a huge blow to her family name. It is incredibly shameful.
Firstly, people will inevitably blame the parents; they didn’t do a good enough job to keep them in the church. They will never say this to their face but that is what everyone is thinking. Secondly, it shows cracks; Adventists strive for perfectionism, are cliquey and are constantly judging each other. They create the false illusion that everything is perfect in their lives. Someone leaving shows that this isn’t true and that the family isn’t perfect.
Lana leaving is a blow against the Brown family. It is made worse by the fact that they are small; a greater percentage of them have “left the church”. If a parent loses both of their children to “the world”, people will know. Inversely, if a parent leaves, it affects the family name less as long as the children stay. However, children is a big blow to the family name. “Oh, the Browns? Ah, their daughter, Lana, left the church didn’t she? How sad.” When we defect from the church, we blow a hole in the lives of our family. Roger’s value will now go down. He will have fewer opportunities available to him.
Hidden from the world
Adventists all know these things are true – but they don’t realise that they are doing it. It is not put as overtly as this, even though this is overtly what everyone is doing. Because “The World” does not do this, it is very hard to explain to outsiders what goes on. SDA defectors internally understand that them leaving is going to hurt their family’s status/lives (even though they probably haven’t analyzed it this deeply and so do not therefore understand why).
The fear of hurting and the following guilt is very, very strong. It is elements like this that could be used to argue that Seventh Day Adventism is a cult, or has strong cult-like tendencies. This is a form of control; while nowhere near as extreme, escaping is like escaping a prison camp and leaving your family behind to be tortured for more information. This is one of the many psychological pressures that leave silent dissenters to stay silent.
The Heritage Singers, the perfect Seventh Day Adventist family.