NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee-based Seventh-day Adventist pastor said a leadership group's visit to his church on Tuesday was an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the denomination, which has been placed in the national spotlight because of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.
The retired neurosurgeon is a practicing Adventist whose faith has drawn attention now that he is viewed as a front-runner for the Republican nomination. He was recently criticized by GOP rival Donald Trump, who appeared to be trying to paint Carson as part of a faith outside the mainstream.
Deann Bradford is director of the leadership group that visited Nashville First Seventh-day Adventist Church. She didn't give a specific reason for selecting the church, except that it was among several "houses of worship" the group chose to learn more about.
Bradford described the group as "emerging leaders" who are participating in a yearlong program to learn more about their community.
"We were looking for diversity," Bradford said. "This is our first year to ever visit here ... we learned a lot."
Following the group's visit, Nashville First Pastor Melvin Santos said he was glad to have an opportunity to explain about the Seventh-day Adventist faith after the criticism by Trump.
During a rally last month in Florida, Trump noted he was a Presbyterian, calling his own church "middle of the road." Then he added, "I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about."
The Seventh-day Adventist Church — formed in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan — was born from what is known as the "Great Disappointment," when Jesus failed to arrive in 1844 as expected by thousands of Christians in a moment of widespread religious fervor known as the Second Great Awakening. Many of these disheartened faithful, called Adventists for their belief in Christ's imminent return, continued studying the Bible together and set Saturday as their Sabbath day of worship.
Ellen White and her husband James were leaders in that movement and founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For the small number of evangelicals who pay close attention to the church, their unease is focused in part on Ellen White, a prolific writer considered a prophet by Adventists, whose views continue to shape the denomination.
Some pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention protested this year when Carson was invited to address their annual meeting. While the reasons for the objections were mixed, some cited the religious weight given to White's opinions, even though Adventists, like other conservative Christians, consider only the Bible authoritative.
Santos said some believe Adventists are not a "true Christian Bible-based group," even likening the denomination to a cult.
But he emphasized Tuesday that the Adventist church is "Christ-centered" and seeks to create a better society through a spiritual focus on healthy living and an extensive network of hospitals and medical clinics. He also said Adventists place a heavy emphasis on protecting religious liberty.
"There's a lot of misconception and misunderstanding of the church," Santos said. "This was an opportunity ... to clarify."
During his discussion, Santos noted the diversity of the denomination, which he said has 18.7 million members worldwide, with 1.2 million in North America.
At his Nashville church, alone, Santos said nearly 50 countries are represented.
"People from all over the world are worshipping here," he said. "This is like a miniature heaven on earth, because we need to learn to worship together, not wait till we get to heaven."