Chapter 8

A Few Names in Sardis

From the booklet The True History of God’s True Church
By Gerald Flurry

In 1315, a man known as Walter Lollard moved from Holland to England with his brother Raymond. Walter was one of the chief Waldensian ministers. The two worked tirelessly together. Others joined their cause.

It is evident that Lollard’s work had a significant impact on England. In fact, the true Church took deep root for a while—for the first time since the effects of the original apostles had faded. Its members, and other heretics of the time, were called “Lollards.” One man who was branded as such—though never a member of the true Church—was John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe lived from 1320 to 1384. He is credited with translating the Bible into the English language. This was a deeply important development from this time. Historians refer to Wycliffe as an Oxford scholar, theologian and churchman. He held the Bible in the highest esteem. Though he was not part of God’s Church, what he accomplished in translating the Bible certainly helped the true Church.

Some of Wycliffe’s associates were Waldensians—remnants of the true Church—who had moved from the Continent to England. Though Wycliffe’s translation was unfinished when he died in 1384, the scholars he had worked with successfully finished the project. His translation was distributed throughout England over the coming years. This truly benefited the people of God in this part of the world.

It was in this climate that God began raising up the fifth era of His Church: Sardis.

‘A Few Names’

The Sardis era is described in the first six verses of Revelation 3. Verse 1 reads: “And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”

Christ emphasizes that He has the “seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars.” The Bible itself explains the symbolism: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches,” and the “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne … are the seven Spirits of God” (Revelation 1:20; 4:5). This imagery stresses the continuity of the true Church through seven eras.

Christ had promised that the Church would never die—but here He said the Sardis era would eventually die spiritually. Revelation 3:1 shows that, for a while, Sardis had “works.” It had a “name that thou livest”—the name of the “Church of God”—against which the gates of hell would never prevail (Matthew 16:18). Eventually, though, this era did die, and Christ had to raise up a new era.

Thankfully, not all of God’s saints succumbed to the slumbering spirit of this era. Revelation 3:4-5 have this inspiring statement: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”

Over the centuries—from the time certain Lollards arrived in England in the 14th century all the way to when God would restore all things through an end-time Elijah in the 20th century (Matthew 17:10-11)—a “few names” did not defile their garments. White garments symbolize righteousness and being cleansed by Christ’s shed blood (see Revelation 19:8; 7:14). The name Sardis can mean “red ones,” and red symbolizes sin (Isaiah 1:18). These “few” held to godly righteousness and kept the truth alive.

These “few names” will remain in the book of life, and Christ Himself will profess their names before the Father and angels. Christ said in Matthew 10:32 He would do this for those who “shall confess me before men.”

During the centuries of the Sardis era, some specific names emerge of saints who did an admirable work for God.

Renaissance

Understand the historical context surrounding the beginning of this era. In Italy beginning in the 14th century, a new movement began to shape the thinking of the Western world. People had become highly dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church. Many recognized that they had been oppressed economically, educationally and culturally. This movement sparked a new educational interest in philosophy, science, culture, literature, art and new religious thought. It would become known as the Renaissance.

It was an era of academic freedom. This led to many positive developments—but not all this new learning was good. The Renaissance produced a “new” spirit of criticism and skepticism as well. Eventually this led to the development of modern German Rationalism, which questions the very existence of God.

During the 15th century, scholars and clerics alike began to reject the authority and dictates of the Catholic Church. Some religious thinkers recognized the serious moral corruption in the church at Rome. Visitors to Rome were appalled at the sexual immorality and decadence openly displayed at the Lateran Palace.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed his now famous “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the court church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther protested the selling of papal indulgences for the forgiveness of sin, among other things. He was excommunicated and ordered to recant. Pope Leo x drafted a papal bull, or decree, denouncing Luther’s teaching, but Luther publicly burned the encyclical. Emperor Charles v planned to stop the new movement with military action but was drawn off by the threat of invasion from the Turks.

Though it was not his original intention, Luther’s act started the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was never a part of God’s true Church. Northern Germany became Lutheran. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli conducted a similar movement in Switzerland, as did John Knox in Scotland. By 1531, Henry viii established that the main body of the church in England would come under the authority of the Crown. Roman Catholic religious authority and dominance was vigorously questioned.

The winds of change had only begun to blow with the advancement of the Renaissance and Reformation. In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed for conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth i. This removed the ongoing threat of Catholicism trying to seize control of the British throne. Then in 1588, the “invincible” Spanish Armada was overwhelmed by a great storm at sea. People all over England and throughout Europe knew this was a great miracle from God. This ensured Britain’s political independence from Europe, and its people believed more firmly than ever in freedom from Catholicism. The lasting effect was a separate, mostly-Protestant Britain.

The Printing Press

One of the most important technological advancements made during this Renaissance age had a significant impact on Church history and even on the world: the invention of the printing press. Few inventions in human history have had greater impact. Remember, the Waldenses had to painstakingly handwrite their copies of Scripture. The process was arduous and slow. Rarely was an entire copy made. Relatively few copies of the Scriptures existed prior to the printing press and were generally not available to the public.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing process changed that. One of the first books he became famous for printing was the most important book: the Bible. Soon, thousands of copies existed—then millions.

Established religion in Europe had tried to prevent the Word of God from reaching the masses. The Catholic Church had even confiscated and burned Bibles.

Think about that! Jesus Christ commanded us to live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)—what most Christians call the Old and New Testaments. True Christians are those who follow Christ.

The Catholic Church has a long, violent history of burning Bibles and, at times, burning the people who obeyed those Bibles! That is a spiritual abomination that this world must understand. It is the polar opposite of what the true Church of God would do!

The Catholic Church is guided first of all by its traditions. That means the Catholic Church is led by human reasoning—not the Bible, which is Jesus Christ in print.

Spiritually, that is a deadly disaster! It is one of the major ways that Satan deceives the Christian world (Revelation 12:9).

It is time that this world woke up to the true history of the Catholic Church!

Thank God the printing press torpedoed that church’s efforts to limit access to the Bible. The Word of God was out!

However, the worst martyrdom ever by the Catholic Church is just ahead of us—coming only months before the dreadful Day of the Lord and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ!

Again, remember this great truth: God is going to save most Catholics and most members of all religions. God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). God is going to save most of humanity who have ever lived, through a mighty last great day resurrection, at the end of the Millennium.

Through true repentance and faith, they will get to know God.

God truly does love the world. He gave the Sardis-era members of His Church the most important piece of communications technology of all time. Not only could the Bible be printed and multiplied, it could also be explained by means of the printed word.

However, the world was still ignorant and evil—it was still Satan’s world. These were still the “wilderness years” (Revelation 12:6), and as we will see, God’s Church faced daunting challenges. But God again called on His people to deliver His message of light! The world’s only hope is to receive that light.

Sabbath Keepers in Europe

Even though the Roman Catholic Church was in decline, life was still difficult for the people of God.

Sabbath-keeping congregations were scattered through mainland Europe. A little known Sabbath-keeping group existed in Russia from about 1470-1503. It was crushed with great cruelty by the government and church.

In Luther’s day, at least one Sabbath keeper was executed (in 1529) in East Friesland (a district of modern Germany).

Around that time, books were published in France defending the Sabbath. There, a group called Picards (after Picardy) fled from city to city or into other regions to avoid military service. Many of them gathered in Austria.

Persecution also drove many who opposed the Catholic Church into Bohemia and Moravia. Moravia contained three groups of people who baptized adults only (therefore called “anabaptists,” or “re-baptizers”) and one Sabbath-keeping group.

Bohemia was actively rebelling against the state-sponsored religion. Erasmus, a famous Catholic scholar at the time of the Protestant Reformation, speaks of Sabbath keepers there. They were the same people known as Picards, and were descendants of the Waldenses. There is even evidence that Martin Luther—in his attempts to revive congregational singing—found such practices already being preserved in Bohemia under Michael Weiss.

Catholic records in Norway mention Sabbath keepers at Bergen and Oslo about 1435. However, they sat at mass on Sunday but privately kept the true Sabbath—a dangerous compromise.

In Finland, the Swedish King Gustav Vasa i persuaded the common people that hard times were caused by “not observing the seventh day called Saturday.” A letter from the king in 1554 ordered them to “forsake this way leading to damnation at once”!

What was the source of this seventh-day teaching? Lars Anton Anjou’s The History of the Reformation in Sweden speaks of an “antichurch party”—a non-Catholic and non-Lutheran group that taught the truth.

There was another larger group that kept Saturday yet didn’t separate themselves from the Lutheran Church, and they observed Sunday mass too.

These compromises led to Sabbath-keeping being stamped out in Scandinavia around the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, approximately 1618. “It was the same Sabbath-keeping church throughout Scandinavia! But it was involved in spiritual fornication—illicit relationships with Satan’s established churches,” explains the correspondence course (Lesson 52).

The majority of God’s Church was “worn out,” the correspondence course says. “When Luther appeared, only a few scattered Sabbath keepers remained. Even those people not in God’s Church and known only as ‘anabaptists’ (re-baptizers) were weary with persecution, and ready to surrender completely to the Roman Catholic Church. … [W]hen Luther absolutely demanded they give up even their rebaptizing of adults, many complied. The rest found Rome was not the only persecutor. More people were martyred after the success of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin than ever before. … The 16th century was a time of great intolerance and cruelty.”

Some Sabbath keepers scattered toward Brandenburg and Transylvania (Western Romania today, then part of Hungary). One leading man for God’s people in Transylvania was Francis David. One of his followers, Andreas Eössi, taught that the Sabbath foreshadowed the future marriage of Christ and the Church. Even though he and his followers acknowledged that they were physical Gentiles, they knew they could still be part of the “Bride of Christ” and rule with Him during the seventh 1,000-year period in human history. Each Sabbath, they dressed in their best clothes. They kept the Passover and the Feast of Trumpets. They taught that holidays like Christmas and Easter were invented by popes. They also acknowledged the biblical teaching regarding clean and unclean meats.

“About 1600, they compiled—and printed—a hymnbook of 110 paraphrases of Psalms and other poetical passages of the Bible. Forty-four relate to the Sabbath, five to the new moon, 11 to Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, six to Pentecost, three to the festival of Trumpets, one to the Day of Atonement, and six to the festival of Tabernacles” (ibid).

Simon Péchi, Eössi’s adopted son, was the next physical leader for these people. He was also a high-ranking official in Transylvania government, and was called to war in 1619, during the Thirty Years’ War. “This was the turning point—and the end of another 19-year cycle—in the history of these people. One cannot be both a part of this world and a true Christian at the same time!” (ibid).

The spiritual condition of the Church in mainland Europe did not recover from this compromise. Laws against Sabbath keepers sent them deeper into hiding or caused them to emigrate.

Sabbath Keepers in England

A similar drama surrounding Sabbatarianism was unfolding in England during these years. Even though Henry viii had seized control of the Church of England from Rome in 1534, England hardly enjoyed true religious freedom. And though Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth i permitted the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots—Elizabeth’s rival and a staunch Catholic who wanted to restore Vatican control to England—doctrinal intolerance remained. Although the Roman church had fallen into decline, a new wave of persecution against God’s Church came through the Protestant movement.

During the first several decades of the 1600s, it was still illegal to hold Sabbath services. Public preaching and worship were life-threatening activities. As a result, details concerning God’s Church at this time are sketchy. We know little about the members or the locations of local congregations.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the earlier work of Walter Lollard and his brother Raymond had acquainted many in Britain with true teachings of the Bible. Hundreds knew that an individual had to be fully immersed in water to be truly baptized. Thousands had learned that the world’s religious holidays came directly from paganism. Many learned that Sunday was not God’s true Sabbath.

Much of Sardis’s early growth came from teaching about the Sabbath. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth i (1558-1603), “many conscientious and independent thinkers” advocated the seventh day (Chambers’ Encyclopedia).

One of these individuals was a minister named John Traske. Around the year 1616, he ordained four evangelists. Their combined labors brought many people to God.

For his preaching, Traske was censured in the Star Chamber. He was publicly whipped and imprisoned. Sadly, under this persecution, he recanted his belief. His wife, however, never did: She died in prison after being held there for 15 years.

Concerning the Sardis congregations in England, the correspondence course says: “We know that one of the London churches goes back at least to the time of Traske and the four evangelists whom he ordained. Evidence is that this ‘Mill Yard’ congregation dates from 1607, or even the 1580s. Positive evidence is extant for the existence of several other congregations in the 1650s” (Lesson 53).

We do know of a couple of other leading men at the time who preached the Sabbath in England. One was Theophilus Barbourne, a former Puritan minister in Norfolk (where many Anabaptists from Holland had migrated). He published books in 1628 and 1632 advocating Sabbath observance, and Robert Cox’s Literature of the Sabbath Questions states that he “may be regarded as the founder in England of the sect at first known as Sabbatarians, but now calling themselves Seventh-Day Baptists.”

Though people from the world referred to them as Sabbatarians or Sabbatarian Baptists, the people who formed these congregations referred to themselves as the Church of God. Only later did a group of Sabbath keepers organize themselves into the Seventh-Day Baptists.

One famous seventh-day minister, Edward Stennett, wrote that by 1668 in England, there were “nine or 10 congregations that keep the Sabbath, besides many scattered disciples.” He was writing to a group of members in Rhode Island that hadn’t yet organized into a congregation—and he addressed them as “the remnant in Rhode Island who keep the commandments of God and the testimonies of Jesus”—a reference to Revelation 12:17 (Cox, op. cit.).

During this time, the people of God began to make use of the printing press. Books and pamphlets about the Sabbath were circulated widely, and many works were published expounding other biblical truths.

However, though many people recognized the truth about the Sabbath and argued for it, most of these people did not repent and fully surrender to God, and they were not converted. Throughout most of the Sardis era, many people associated with the Church, but only a small number of them were truly converted.

Continued Persecution

The true Church was still in the midst of its 1,260 wilderness years (Revelation 12:6), years dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which kept the Church largely in hiding. Protestants are children of the Roman Catholic mother (Isaiah 47:1, 8-9). They retained most Catholic doctrines. They are prophesied to return to the mother church in these last days.

The main thrust of the Protestant persecution came from the Puritans within the established Church of England. The Puritans strongly advocated Sunday worship. The Sabbath controversy was brought before the highest leaders of the land. Laws were passed against Sabbath observance.

A few Sardis ministers in England initially took up the fight. They were imprisoned. Many of the people of God who were bold enough to profess Sabbath-keeping were publicly flogged. Many of these faithful people died in prison. One execution in particular struck fear into the hearts and minds of many. Because he preached to his congregation on the Sabbath day, John James, a minister, was sentenced and hung, had his heart cut out and burned, and was drawn and quartered!

Regrettably, after this period of persecution, only a few stayed true to the faith once delivered. Giving in to their fears, the majority of Sardis believers accepted Protestant doctrine—even the false teaching of the trinity. Even several ministers, when they were confronted with imprisonment by Protestant reformers, gave up the faith. Instead of resisting the Protestant enemies, many began to be influenced by them.

Christ had warned the Sardis era, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God” (Revelation 3:2). The Sardis members kept some of God’s true doctrines. They were God’s people. But they didn’t watch world events. The Greek word translated “be watchful” means to wake up. These people were spiritually drowsy and failed to warn the world of what was to come before the return of Jesus Christ.

“Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” (verse 3). Because of the persecution, the Sardis-era people began to let the truths slip that had been given to them by the Thyatira era. Jesus Christ admonished them to strengthen their beliefs that remained.

The Ambassador correspondence course states, “Yet, through fear of persecution—in England and later also in America—many of God’s people continued to fellowship with those who had fallen away, and even with some of the churches of this world! Many of the successors of the Waldensians had now become Puritans within the established Church of England. Others outside that church had become Baptists.” Some of the Sardis ministers maintained fellowship with these people.

“Jesus Christ was concerned about the inevitable result of this relationship with the world that some of His people maintained. They allowed, even encouraged, the circulation of more and more false doctrine among His people, causing more to fall away ….

“The Sardis era of God’s Church should have profited by the experiences of—and Christ’s messages to—the Thyatira and Pergamos eras of the Church before them. They should not have tolerated the unconverted and unbelievers in their midst!

“However, God’s people throughout the Sardis era felt they must always ‘have love’ for those of differing opinions. They even invited them right into their meetings and asked them to speak! They did not realize that condoning falsehood which does harm both to the believer and the hearer is never showing real love. …

“By the later 1700s, these people had so adopted Protestant viewpoints that they began to elect their ministers instead of relying on Jesus Christ to select them” (Lesson 53). Under Sardis leadership, much of the truth in God’s Church was lost.

Although the true Church of God never had a lot of members in England, by 1800 it had become almost extinct. By this time there were no ministers to pastor the three remaining English congregations. An American minister had to be imported to help these congregations, and he led them to a brief period of prosperity. But these congregations referred to themselves as Seventh-Day Baptists, not as the Church of God.

All was not dead there though. Those who did not give in to persecution went deeper into the “wilderness”—to a place that guaranteed religious freedom from the influence of Catholic Europe and Protestant England. God’s Church was to survive in the New World. The establishment of the American Sardis Church enabled a “few” to remain true during this embattled and weakened fifth era.

A New Life in America

In 1620, Puritan Pilgrims struck out to obtain, among other things, religious freedom. Establishing colonies in the New World inspired the aspirations of many people who disagreed with the unbiblical practices of the Church of England and were disenchanted with the religious situation in England.

A man named Roger Williams had moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. He was enthralled with the potential freedoms of the New World. However, he soon found himself in serious disagreement with the heads of the Puritan government established in the colony. Puritan leaders insisted that the civil government had a divinely ordained right to impose Puritan religious views on its subjects. They strongly rejected the authority of Rome—but replaced it with their own intolerance!

Williams believed that the civil government had the right to enforce public morality but did not have the right to restrain religious conscience. He believed individuals had the right to choose how to worship. He insisted on the separation of church and state.

Eventually, Williams had to flee Massachusetts. In 1636, he formed in Rhode Island a new but small society where total religious freedom was permitted by law and where the majority ruled in all civil affairs. In 1643, he sailed to England to obtain a charter for the new colony, and by 1647, the colony’s unique set of laws was established.

Rhode Island was the first place in the world to guarantee freedom of religion as a basic tenet of its constitution,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages (emphasis mine). This colony soon became a safe refuge for those expressing differing religious beliefs. Many Baptists and Quakers who had experienced severe religious intolerance in the other colonies migrated to Rhode Island. This colony set a standard that would soon be adopted by the fledgling United States of America.

Rhode Island Headquarters

In 1664, Stephen Mumford was sent from the Bell Lane Church of God in London, England—a Sabbath-keeping church—to Newport, Rhode Island. News of the tiny colony’s religious freedom gave a new burst of hope to the harried Church of God. Not finding any other Sabbath keepers, Mumford and his wife associated for a short while with members of the Baptist Church in Newport. “He did not proselytize, but quietly maintained his own belief. Several members of the Sunday-keeping congregation became convinced that they, too, should observe the Sabbath,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. After seven years, a congregation of fewer than 10 members was formed. It was America’s first Sabbath-keeping congregation.

“At first they met in private homes,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “In the historical museum at Newport, their record book is preserved—containing names—their contributions—even records of their ordination services.”

A pamphlet published by the Newport Historical Society provides these remarkable details about God’s true Church: “The observance of the seventh day as the Sabbath in Newport dates back to 1664, when Stephen Mumford came from London and brought with him the opinion that the whole of the Ten Commandments, as they were delivered from Mount Sinai, were moral and immutable and that it was the anti-Christian power which thought to change times and laws that changed the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week” (Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, no. 158, Spring 1975, Vol. 48, part 2).

These people continued their association with the First Church in Newport for some time. But as the Newport Daily News of May 25, 1870, reported, after a time, “the leading or ministering brethren of the church began to preach against the views of the Sabbatarians concerning the Sabbath, which brought on disputes and dissensions; when finding it would be impossible in that state of things to enjoy themselves they, on the 7th day of December, 1671, withdrew from the First Church and established a church of the Sabbatarian order under the pastoral care of Mr. William Hiscox.” Among the members of this new church were Samuel Hubbard, Stephen Mumford, Roger Baster, Tacy Hubbard and Rachel Langworthy, seven in all.

“That this new faith brought from England by Stephen Mumford was embraced by some of our best citizens of that period is brought to light in a letter written by Samuel Hubbard of Newport to Dr. Edward Stennett, pastor of Bell Lane Church, London, and dated June 29, 1678, only seven years after the congregation was formed. It says in part; ‘Our governor died the 19th day of June, 1678, buried 20th day; all this island was invited; many others were there, judged near a thousand people; brother Hiscox spoke there excellently led forth; I praise God.’ This was none other than Gov. Benedict Arnold” (Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, op. cit.).

As this short excerpt shows, although God’s first congregation in America began with fewer than 10 people, it eventually took firm root. Even some of Rhode Island’s governors were Sabbath keepers!

More details of the rich history of this first congregation in America can be found in The Seventh Day Baptist Memorial, Vol. 1. This book records a dramatic confrontation over the Sabbath between the First Baptist Church ministry and five of the original members of the Church of God. In fiery sermons, the Baptist ministers attacked Mumford’s teaching concerning the Ten Commandments, especially the keeping of the Sabbath. One of these ministers was John Clarke, a founding member of Rhode Island and close friend to Roger Williams. These sermons stoked a confrontation.

The Sabbath keepers called a hearing in December 1671 and decided to split from the Baptist Church. Detailed minutes of this meeting are preserved in the First Baptist Church of Newport archives. All five members were given an opportunity to speak. Tacy Hubbard is listed as the first to have spoken. She is also recorded as having been the first to convert to the seventh-day Sabbath. The minutes clearly show the determined resolve of these five members to keep all of the Ten Commandments. None of them feared being expelled for their beliefs.

The Newport Church continued to grow, albeit slowly, for the next 30 years. In the early years of the 18th century, the Church built a simple but elegant meeting house, part of which still stands today as part of the Newport Historical Society.

In 1708, the Church had grown large enough to expand into two congregations. The Westerly, or Hopkinton, congregation became known as the headquarters church. Historical records show that ministers from other congregations were sent to Westerly for ordination.

Congregations in America

Another local congregation was founded at Piscataway, New Jersey, in 1705, with the name “the Church of God.” According to the Seventh Day Baptist Memorial (Vol. 2, no. 3), the minister of this congregation was sent to Westerly to be ordained. So the connection of this local congregation with Rhode Island headquarters is clear.

A subsequent issue of the Seventh Day Baptist Memorial (Vol. 2, no. 4) describes a record in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, that speaks of “the Church of God dwelling at Shrewsbury.” This is corroborated by Corliss Fitz Randolph in his book A History of the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia. “Outsiders sometimes spoke of the ‘Sabbatarian’ church of such and such a place. But none of these was the official name,” the correspondence course explains. “Christ shows that His people should be kept through the Father’s name (John 17:11). This is why the official name is ‘the Church of God’” (Lesson 53).

The congregation at Hopkinton “soon became a thriving church of several hundred,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages. “A bridge today marks the spot where their meeting house once stood. Several thousand were baptized here on the banks of the Pawkatuk River.”

The churches in America continued to grow through the 18th century. There is evidence that they kept the annual holy days. Though not specifically recorded, the reason the Newport congregation became two congregations may have been that the Church had outgrown its facilities for keeping the Feast of Tabernacles.

Here is what the Ambassador College course states: “The ‘Westerly,’ or ‘Hopkinton,’ congregation retained the original records—being recognized as the leading or headquarters location.

“The reason for this transfer is most interesting. Previous to this time, the ‘Westerly,’ or Hopkinton,’ site had become the regular meeting place for ‘a yearly meeting’ of members from all over! It was such a meeting—on September 28 (Gregorian calendar)—that the decision was made to establish the new congregation. Details are lacking, but it is highly significant that this date falls during the Feast of Tabernacles of that year!”

According to The Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America, records of their annual meetings show that they consistently fell either during the fall holy day season or near Pentecost. None occurred on Christmas, Easter or during the summer. God’s people were, at least in part, trying to observe the holy days He had ordained.

“In the meantime, a number of other congregations of Sabbath keepers had been formed—mostly of new converts and immigrants from England. And though they recognized their relationship to the mother church in Rhode Island, distance made it necessary for the brethren in New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to gather in annual meetings in their own areas. These assemblies often sent greetings to each other by letters and by delegates. At these times, ‘the Sabbath, with its general communion, was indeed an high day’” (The Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America).

It was not until some time later that many of these people accepted the Protestant idea that God’s holy days had been done away.

Seeds of Heresy

The inherent weakness of the Sardis era was the lack of true spiritual repentance and conversion in the majority of people claiming membership with the Church. Thus they had little conviction to uphold God’s great truths. Jesus Christ stated clearly, “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:3-4).

The greatest opportunity the Sardis Church ever had to proclaim God’s message was when it came to America. But the church was a dreadful failure. That is why it died spiritually!

Although God’s faithful ministers established the churches with the truth and good growth occurred, after a period of time the people let it slip away. As Christ stated in verse 4, there were always a few who remained faithful, but the majority forgot what they had heard. The Sardis Church in America fell into the same confusion as its English counterpart. Though many people joined Sabbath-keeping congregations, they did so simply because of the convincing doctrinal argument for the Sabbath, not because they had truly repented.

Among those who came into the Church were some who, like in Jude’s day, “crept in unawares” (Jude 4) specifically to draw away converts for themselves. Many people, being spiritually shallow, succumbed to these heretical ministers.

One such preacher of heresy was William Davis. This man had studied at Oxford to enter the clergy, but then changed his mind and instead became a Quaker. After moving to Pennsylvania, he bickered with other Quakers and switched to the Baptists. Not long after that, he came to believe in Sabbath-keeping. He founded a seventh-day church near Philadelphia.

“Mr. Davis came among the members of the Newport, Rhode Island, Church of God in 1706 and applied for membership. He was turned down on the grounds that he held wrong doctrines!” the Ambassador College course states. “Four years later he tried again at Westerly and was accepted, subject to approval by the annual meeting. Approval was finally granted, though some still objected. In 1713, he was authorized to preach and baptize.

“But had this man become a true member of God’s Church? His fruits show he had not. He was in trouble with the Church, and was ‘in’ and ‘out’ of fellowship for the rest of his life …” (Lesson 53).

The true nature of this man and his doctrines can be discerned in a letter he wrote to defend himself and accuse the truth: “Now all this enmity against me among seventh-day men arose against me originally from a noted seventh-day man and soul sleeper in this country,” he wrote, “who above 20 years ago opposed me about my principles of immortality of human souls, and afterward proceeded to differ with me about my faith in Christ and the trinity ….” These beliefs obviously differed sharply from those of God’s true Church. Sadly, however, Davis was not put out, and he did considerable damage!

Denominations Formed

William Davis’s descendants and followers continued to spread the false doctrine that he brought into the Church. By 1800, the immortality of the soul, trinity and other doctrines of the false church were prevalent within the Sabbath-keeping churches in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Fighting in war was also permitted. Many of his followers began to form a denomination that adopted the name “Seventh-Day Baptist” in 1818.

In recent years, some have erroneously believed that the Seventh-Day Adventist movement came out of the Church of God. The Adventist movement actually began in the Sunday-keeping churches. William Miller misinterpreted Daniel’s prophecy of the “2,300 days” and began to expect the return of Christ in the year 1844. His followers became known as Millerites, and later Adventists, named after the Second Coming.

When Jesus Christ did not return in 1844, the Adventists’ expectations proved to be an illusion. Members of the movement broke into several factions. The biggest group, not wanting to admit that it had been wrong, began to teach that God’s throne was cleansed in 1844. A Seventh-Day Baptist member introduced the Sabbath to this group. By about 1846, the Sabbath was widely publicized among its members.

This group did not join the Seventh-Day Baptist church. They actually affiliated with the small true Church of God. They even gave up their beliefs in a trinity and a human immortal soul. However, these Adventists were never part of the true Church of God. In 1854, they began to put a price on the literature they distributed. By 1860, the majority rejected the name Church of God and officially took the name Seventh-Day Adventists. These followed the teachings of Ellen G. White. Sadly, some of the Church of God members followed along.

“Instead of the true gospel, the Kingdom of God, they substituted doctrines of Ellen G. White, called ‘the shut-door policy,’ ‘the investigative judgment,’ a ‘2,300 day’ doctrine and ‘the spirit of prophecy,’ identifying Mrs. White as the church’s prophet who actually set the church’s doctrine,” Mr. Armstrong explained in Mystery of the Ages. “They adopted the name Seventh-Day Adventists, by which name they are known to this day.”

All of this happened during the Sardis era, and some of God’s people were seduced by it.

There were some faithful few, however—mostly in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri—who refused to go along with the false teachings of the Adventists, and who “restored certain truths that had fallen into neglect in the previous century,” Mr. Armstrong continued. “They moved their headquarters to Marion, Iowa, and then to Stanberry, Missouri.”

Of this time period in Sardis, the Ambassador College course states: “The printing plant and the magazine formerly published in the name of the Church of God were taken over by the Adventists. But a group of faithful in 1861 began the publication of a new monthly paper called The Remnant of Israel, later changed to the Sabbath Advocate, and finally the Bible Advocate” (Lesson 53).

Willamette Valley

For the next 70 years, after the departure of the Adventists, the efforts of the Church of God did not bear much fruit. Although the people retained the knowledge of the Sabbath and Ten Commandments, they lost God’s form of government completely. The Church was organized into a democratic-like general conference where votes were counted. A great deal of God’s precious truth was lost.

Through the remainder of the 19th century, their numbers slowly increased. A missionary work was done in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and the Philippines. Descendants of these churches can still be found in Latin America today. A few strong family groups in America provided a certain weak continuity for the Church. These families were located mainly in Missouri, Oklahoma and Oregon.

“And so it was that some time in the 19th century, a small congregation of the true Church of God was established in the peaceful Willamette Valley in Oregon,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “They were farmers, without formal education. They lacked trained ministers to teach and guide them. But they had the name, Church of God, and they faithfully kept the Sabbath day.

“God’s Church had come a long way across the turbulent centuries since the day of Pentecost.

“It was weak, and lacked influence. Years of persecution and compromise had taken their toll. Much truth had been lost. But they had stayed the course.

“In the Willamette Valley, they waited. It was nearly time for the baton to change again—into the hands of those God would call to do His end-time Work” (Mystery of the Ages).

Realize the tragic mistakes of this era. The people forgot from whom they received the truth. They failed to remember the history of the men and women who willingly died to preserve the truth. When persecution struck, many failed to hold fast! “Much was lacking in the doctrine and practice [Sardis] received from the latter end of the Thyatira era. Proper organization and government in the Church were in great need of strengthening. And they desperately needed a school for the training of a qualified ministry,” the correspondence course says (Lesson 53). They desperately needed a school—a college—for the Work to grow!

In addition to these problems, as we will see, the Sardis era also committed a serious sin in that when shown their errors, its leaders failed to repent.

From the decline of Ephesus through Sardis, most of the incredible truth revealed to the Church by Jesus Christ had become lost. By the 1930s, the Church had become ineffective in preaching the true gospel. But Christ was preparing one individual to restore the gospel and then take it into all the world.

Continue Reading: Chapter 9: Philadelphia’s Open Door