Remember the Sabbath Day: The Cost of Difference by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadI grew up Seventh-day Adventist and was educated at Seventh-day Adventist schools all the way through college. I can tell endless quirky stories about growing up – about the time my parents gave me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read at the age of seven and I was certain, certain, that they had no idea what devilish literature they had given me (all those horrible hags and werewolves), so I promised myself never to tell them because they would feel so bad for having led me astray. (I figured it out when I reread the story at the age of nine.) About my joy in meeting missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the train station on my way to and from school, so that we could proof text against each other. I was always certain that my marked Bible (marked with Sabbath texts, carefully traced with different colored pens, based on a pamphlet I had picked up somewhere) would eventually lead someone to the truth. (Again, I was nine.) As I entered adolescence, I became increasingly worried about the early Adventist dictum that the degree of responsibility you have as a believer is proportional to the degree of light you have been given – after all, I had a lot of light! In fact, I knew the truth.

But no stories like this will tell the truth of my relationship with the church. Yes, I grew up in ways that seem strange to many people: keeping Saturday holy starting Friday at sundown, without TV or movies until about the age of eleven, as a life-long vegetarian (although I became a pescetarian in my twenties), believing that Jesus Christ will return soon, having read the Bible cover to cover by the age of nine (do you see a pattern emerging?), and so on. Having spent the last decade plus outside Adventist institutions, I know much more than I did then about the ways in which my upbringing and beliefs were unusual by mainstream standards. Yet unlike many people who become theologians, and unlike many women who become feminist theologians, I never experienced the church as a particularly repressive site, even though the external forms of my life look very different now. I loved the church, and despite some unfortunate experiences with authority during my high school and college years, the church gave me gifts that I have valued ever since.

First and foremost, it taught me what it costs to live a life that looks different. The way we lived when I was a child required enormous effort and courage. It may have looked stultifying, and sometimes it was – but it also offered visions of alternate forms of life. My father explained to me that keeping the seventh day holy was a protest against consumerism, since Saturday was the primary day for shopping in Norway. I took for granted that there was no hell – the worst Adventists could imagine was simply to die, forever. It was almost impossible for me to believe that people could be Christians and believe in a God who would sentence them to eternal torment! Anticipating the end of the world served as a promise of a different world – not an escape from this one, but a transformation of it. Although we only took communion (never eucharist) four times a year, we practiced footwashing every time we did it; admittedly, the most awkward ritual imaginable, but also a strong affirmation of bodiless and touch. And, most of all: we were told that it is the individual responsibility of each and every person to search for truth and to be guided by her own conscience rather than by a creed.

Was, and is, my church anti-feminist? It does not ordain women, at least officially. (Some local congregations and conferences do.) Seventh-day Adventists, once champions of religious liberty in the United States, are becoming increasingly indistinguishable politically from evangelical Republicans. The church is, officially, anti-gay. So yes, the church is anti-feminist – that’s one of the main reasons I’m no longer active in it. And yet.

Even as I live my daily life outside the orbit of Seventh-day Adventism, I remain grateful for the vision of a different life that it offered me. It helps me to connect with my students, many of whom come from different denominational backgrounds to divinity school and are forced to confront the question of who they will be when they return to their home churches. It taught me to dream of a different world. It taught me that things do not need to be the way they are – and just how hard it is to make that different world a reality.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.

Categories: Belief, Christianity, consumerism, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Seventh-day Adventism

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13 replies

  1. Thank you Linn. You expressed some of my own feelings about the church I grew up in, and which nourished my young spirit (back when I too, knew everything!) Sometimes I forget the good things in suffering the not-so-good things about the institution.


  2. Fascinating. You must have been a truly wondrous nine-year-old. Good for you! But I bet you drove other people nuts. Are you still dreaming?


  3. I also held steadfast “truths.” Mine were at eleven. By sixteen I had traversed quite a distance. Your story still resonates.


  4. Like most of you here, my church experience as a child was ambivalent. In my case, it was highly ambivalent. I wanted to be a minister when I grew up, but realized at nine(?) that there were no women ministers in my denomination. But I loved the music, how the sermons made me think, that it introduced me to what seemed most important in life, and that it offered me a community who agreed on what was right and wrong. Eventually, I disagreed with those values (or at least with some of them). But when my daughter was almost 6, I realized that she (and I) needed a religious community, a different kind of community than the one of my youth, but still a community that would espouse and model the values (right and wrong) that were important to me. It may be a truism, but parents espousing and modeling values doesn’t have the same impact as a whole community. So she grew up Unitarian Universalist.


  5. Reading your post reminded me about my 11-12 year old self who was determined to be the best Catholic ever. Studying the bible, making devotion calendars for the other girls in my “Daughters of Mary” group and then finally being kicked out of said group for sharing my findings that connected the Virgin to earlier Goddesses. I am most definitely not Catholic anymore but I also can’t help but be grateful for some of the gifts it gave me. I still can get emotional while gazing at certain Mary sculptures, love the practice of lighting candles for prayers and burning incense to cleanse/bless. It feels healing to be able to take the good from our childhood religions while moving forward with our new spiritualities. Thank you for sharing your story Linn!


    • Dearest GODDESSSPIRALHC, keep lighting candles no matter what you choose to practice involving your own choice of worship. God knows the goodness in your heart and the development of goodness in your mind. You have been chosen from the foundations of creation, from beyond time and space as have all who believe in the Creator of our world. Man’s (or woman’s) opionions matter nothing at all. Your communication with Our Heavenly Father is of the utmost importance, and if you give your heart to God daily, he will surely lead your heart in his direction. I am a former Seventh-Day-Adventisi,
      and since having freed myself of any man-made set of conditions, I have become aware that all humans are in the image of God–not just Catholics, Protestants, Adventist, Mormons, Jehovahs Witnesses or any other specific brands of worship. Listen to the love in your heart and commit yourself daily to the Father. I will see you in the Kingdome to come!!

      Your Friend, Randy


      • Thank you Randy but I choose to see the divine as a She, a Mother Goddess not a father. I don’t relate to those patriarchal metaphors which do not support women in their growth. I see the divine as a part of myself, all living beings and everything that exists not just human beings. I also don’t believe in heaven but reincarnation. :)


  6. Thank you so much for this post. I also grew up Seventh-day Adventist and am no longer practicing. I do not usually feel as positively toward my experiences, and it is good to be reminded to acknowledge the gifts Adventism has given me.


  7. Hmmm…I question leaving an organization because of the perceived practices of it’s leaders while the message is truth. While Jesus was here on Earth, he practiced as a Jew but challenged the leaders of the church with his beliefs/actions. I also grew up Adventist, six pair of shoes polished and in a row Friday evening and walking out the door Sabbath morning with the oven set so when we arrived home lunch would be warm (with no “work” required). I continue to love the SDA church, though my familly was chunned as we were the only divorced family in the church (1965), but my father taught us love and not legalism. I think remaining in the church as a “rogue” is a challenge that God wants us to step to. And, then again, it is the person that is saved – not the church.


  8. Dear, you have many of the same memories as I have–breakfast and dinner prepared before Sabbath waiting in the oven so we wouldn’t work and break the law. I found the rules to be tedious as a young boy and intolerable as a young man. Baptized at sixteen, I went looking for a closer truth,
    a closer relationship by attending one of The Adventist Academies in Oregon. I was sorely disappointed. Instead of looking inward, I looked at the outward examples of imperfect people. Too late to change my mind, I abandoned the church and remain a rogue Adventist to this day, Some of its tenets I can’t let go of. The one thing I find so hard to understand is the anti-gay attitude of the church, and not just the Adventists, but all so-called God worshipers. Let Jesus example toward them as well as all sinners be a guide. Our leaders should have this simple truth engrained on their hearts, and settled in their souls. Peace be unto you and I’ll see you in the Kingdom to come!!

    Your Friend, Randy


    • Hi Randy, Jesus did not create us to judge. I feel his exasperation as He taught here on Earth and the people didn’t get it. He finally broke it down to simple “rules?” Love Me, Love Others. That is the simplicity of being a Christian Seventh-day Adventist. That said, I love all people including gays. Isn’t it wonderful…we do not have to judge or even think about it…we just get to love all of God’s humans. I know this is not the norm within the SDA church. If I looked at the people (especially the legalistic ones), I would never be an SDA. I am also pro-choice. It is between God and a woman what she chooses to do. There are so many people struggling…I just want to show love the best I can, no matter how out of my comfort zone it makes me. Randy, as long as you believe in Jesus, love Him, love others, you’re doing just fine. :)


  9. Having exceptional parent’s didn’t hurt either, did it? Thank you for your graciousness. Adventism in spite of our feminine founder is floundering about equality in ministry. Please keep talking to us to remind Adventists that we were not founded to be a church, but a movement towards truth and towards Jesus. We got slavery right, some of us understand equality in ministry, our children will learn to judge others based on character and morality, not gender attraction I look forward to your book.


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