“Tell the World” Film Review

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“Tell the World” Film Review

Tell the World shares the humble origin story of the Seventh-day Adventist church in a compelling and inspiring manner while mostly staying true to the details of history. More than anything, the film serves as a declaration of the mission and focus of the Seventh-day Adventist church—to prepare the world for the soon coming of Christ. It also provides a helpful reminder to Seventh-day Adventists, who have in recent years been overtaken by various political issues, ideological wars, and strife both within and outside of the church. If the goal of the film was to present Adventism in a positive, favorable light, then the producers have largely succeeded. Seeing that Tell the World was produced by the Australian Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists with the help of the General Conference, it is not surprising to see the film carry an almost apologetic tone from start to finish, including its mildly triumphalist ending. Of course, no film is perfect and Tell the World too should be watched with a degree of sympathetic objectivity.

 

 

A Brief Overview

The film begins with the life of William Miller, a formally uneducated farmer who through his study of the Bible—the prophetic book of Daniel in particular—arrives at the conclusion that Christ will return sometime around the year 1843/1844. This startling discovery, along with the enthusiastic aid of his publicist partner, Joshua V. Himes, leads to a growing acceptance of Miller’s teachings amongst Christians throughout the nation. As many prepare for the imminent return of Christ, this eclectic group of Christians coming from diverse denominational backgrounds, later termed Millerites, undergo economic hardship, ridicule from the public, and severe church discipline (such as being disfellowshipped from their respective churches).

 

The second part of the film then shifts its focus to the Millerites after October 22, 1844, as they try to make sense out of their bitter disappointment and struggle to come to grips with the reality of their mistake concerning the nature of the cleansing of the sanctuary and the timing of the Second Advent. This part of the film chiefly follows the lives of Ellen Harmon (White), James White, and Joseph Bates, who together help organize the scattered Millerites, while discovering lost Biblical truths like Christ’s two-phase ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, the seventh-day Sabbath, and the gift of prophecy. As a result of several Bible conferences and earnest prayer, this group of former Millerites, soon become known as the Seventh-day Adventist church.

The last part of Tell the World focuses on the organization of the young Seventh-day Adventist church, including their formal acceptance of that name. Though the pioneers often lacked financial means, in the film we see that faith-led efforts allowed them to establish newspapers like the “Present Truth” and other printed materials. These were heavily dispersed with the intention of learning from their Millerite experience and discovering more of the forgotten truths of the Bible. In addition to the publishing ministry, we also see the manner that the early Adventists promoted health practices well ahead of their time, reformed education, and expanded their global mission by sending out foreign missionaries as an integral part of their larger mission—to proclaim the gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages to all the world.

 

 

Assessing the Film’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Perhaps the film’s greatest strengths are its high production value, quality of acting for certain characters like that of Ellen White and Joshua Himes, and most importantly, its overall encouraging portrayal of the Adventist story. Not only is the film informative, but it is also faith inspiring to see how Adventism’s early pioneers struggled and recovered from having their fondest hopes shattered when Christ did not return in 1844. While many Millerites left the faith and abandoned belief in God and His word, a small handful of men and women pushed through the feeling of despair and somehow became a people led of God with a worldwide mission. In this way, the film does a great job of capturing the experience and spirit of the pioneers. While the criticisms of the critics of the time are acknowledged, Tell the World does a fairly good job of dispelling these criticisms in a positive manner.

 

While the Adventist church has engaged in media ministry for many years, it is not common to see productions of this quality and of this nature officially produced and supported by the church’s upper levels of leadership. Some may take this as a positive sign demonstrating the church’s willingness to adopt modern methods of storytelling and invest more heavily in them, while others may feel that such efforts are long overdue. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Adventist church wants to take ownership of its own story and affect the way its history and identity is perceived and understood around the world.

 

Despite a few minor hiccups, Tell the World does a good job of staying close to the history, especially in relation to major events. In fact, one could argue that the film errs on the side of trying to squeeze in too many historical events in the film’s allotted time. Notwithstanding the film’s somewhat uneven story pacing, most people are not likely to notice the minor historical miscues. However, for the historically savvy viewer, things like the supposed use of hot air balloons on the part of the Millerites, the introduction or presence of certain characters that would not have been present at a particular time and place, the failure to utilize key historical sites in the film, and the handling of Rachel Oakes Preston with the depiction of Sabbath keeping in Millerism detract somewhat from the film’s historical authenticity.

 

In my estimation, the last point is the most glaring as the film does not explicitly acknowledge the fairly common existence of Sabbath keeping Millerites prior to the Great Disappointment of October 22. For example, as early as 1841, James Begg, a Millerite minister in Glasgow Scottland, wrote in favor of the seventh-day Sabbath in the Millerite newspaper, Signs of the Times.[1] And while the extent of Sabbath keeping in early Millerism is impossible to calculate, the number must have been significant enough to catch the attention of the likes of George B. Utter, a Seventh Day Baptist leader and editor of the Sabbath Recorder,[2] as well as Millerite co-leaders, William Miller and Joshua V. Himes.[3]

 

 

Understanding the Shortcomings

Despite the historical reality, it is understandable given the constraints of time and film space that the writers and producers chose to simplify the history and merely focus on Rachel Oakes Preston and her role in introducing the Sabbath to Frederick Wheeler and other Millerites. And yet, even this portrayal could have hewn more closely to the historical line. On a related note, it also seems a little perplexing that despite Tell the World’s close filming proximity (Ontario, Canada) to upstate NY and New England, none of the actual filming was done at known and recognized Millerite or Adventist sites. Understandably, budgetary constraints were undoubtedly an issue and the logistics were likely too much for the producers to overcome. Nevertheless, this seems like a bit of an unfortunate missed opportunity that would have only strengthened the film’s historical authenticity.

 

 

Final Thoughts

Overall, Tell the World was a thoroughly enjoyable film for me personally both as a committed Christian Adventist and as a historian. I believe that people of all ages, including young children will enjoy the film’s exciting, faith affirming, and informative story. It is definitely a must watch movie for every Adventist and for all people of faith interested in church history. For these reasons and more, I highly recommend it to Adventists and non-Adventists alike, as well as anyone else that may want to better understand the Seventh-day Adventist church. While the movie might be too long and too oddly paced for most to watch in one sitting, I am happy to report that the film has been broken down into six smaller episodes. From my viewpoint, this seems to be a better way to enjoy the film and process the story. Either way, I believe that Adventist viewers will walk away from the film inspired by the beginnings of their church and the sacrifices that their pioneers made for the work of the Lord, while non-Adventist viewers will walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for those “crazy” Adventists who believe it their mission, to tell the world, all that the Lord has commanded and to help prepare people to meet their God.

Enjoyed the review?  View the film Tell the World online for free.

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Notes.

[1] James A. Begg, “Letter from Scotland,” Signs of the Times, April 1, 1841, 3.

 

[2] George B. Utter, “The Second Advent and the Sabbath,” Sabbath Recorder, June 13, 1844, 2.

 

[3] “The Lord’s Day,” Midnight Cry, September 5, 1844, 68-69; “Thoughts on the Second Appearing and Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Signs of the Times, May 1, 1841, 19; “The Ordinance of the Year of Jubilee,” Signs of the Times, May 1, 1841, 22. See also “The Lord’s Day,” Midnight Cry, September 12, 1844, 77.

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About the author

Steve Toscano

Steve Toscano is completing a Ph.D. in Adventist Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. A native of southern California, he has earned degrees in theology, education, and church history and has served as a Bible worker, missionary, youth pastor, and Bible teacher. Steve is happily married to Shylene, and they are blessed with two wonderful children, Annalyn and Joshua.