The Great Controversy Over Plagiary: The Last Interview of Walter Rea (Part Two)

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This is the second part of a two part series of conversations between T. Joe Willey and former Seventh-day Adventist pastor and author of The White Lie, Walter T. Rea. Read the first part of this series here.

The Glendale Meeting January 1980

The ad hoc committee of nineteen individuals (well-known throughout Adventism) was balanced across some of the culture bearers’ familiarity with earlier research on Ellen White’s use of literary sources. The committee met in Glendale, California, for two days on January 28 and 29, 1980.1 At this meeting, Rea presented a detailed examination of some of the things he had discovered. The group invited Rea to remain in the afternoon of the second day to answer questions. Robert Olson was appointed secretary of this committee. After reviewing Rea’s evidence, the Glendale group unanimously voted several recommendations to be conveyed to President Wilson and PREXAD.

Firstly, the committee expressed its “appreciation to Elder Rea for the enormous amount of work he had done” and “gratitude to Elder Neal Wilson and PREXAD . . . for their readiness to consider our recommendations.” The six important recommendations that followed were voted unanimously with cool, wistful elegance, and the wording pleased Rea very much.

The recommendations included this: “That we recognize that Ellen White, in her writing, used various sources more extensively than we had previously believed. In a number of her books the similarity between Ellen White and other authors is great enough to require the serious attention of our church leaders in order to determine the degree and significance of her dependence on other writers. And as soon as possible, a plan be developed for thoroughly informing our church administrators and immediate study be given to a plan for educating the church on the subject of inspiration and Ellen White’s use of sources including articles in the Adventist Review, Ministry magazine and though the Sabbath School lessons.”

They also recommended “that the leadership of the church and the White Estate continue to educate SDA believers, workers and administrators as to the methods used by prophets to reveal God’s will to His church through the inspired writings of both scripture and the messages of Ellen G. White.”

One General Conference member on the committee spoke up and urged that they should “all agree not to cover up.” After passing these recommendations back to Washington, a month later PREXAD abolished the Glendale committee, saying it had no further assignment, and it was not heard from again. The literary scholars met only once.

On February 5, 1980, president Wilson called available members of the General Conference Committee to discuss the literary criticisms introduced by Rea through the Glendale committee. The minutes summarized five general items that emerged from the morning discussions that would set the strategic accommodations or theory of inspiration in the future.2 Rea handed me a list of recommendations from PREXAD. The General Conference recognized five things:

(1)  There had been a significant use of literary sources by Ellen White;

(2)  Use of literary sources is consistent with the Seventh-day Adventist view of inspiration;

(3)  The church should be informed and at the same time educated on the doctrine of inspiration;

(4)  Walter T. Rea has done a considerable research but it is felt he should not be the one to communicate to the membership either the research or a view of inspiration; and

(5)  General Conference members were united in their continued confidence in Ellen White as the special messenger of the Lord to the Church.  

Less than two weeks later, the president of Southern California Conference, Elder Harold Calkins, and a member of Glendale committee, released the following statement in the Pacific Union Recorder: “The committee did not discover dependence on other authors in the Spirit of Prophecy writings.” This was exactly opposite from what he and the others voted in Glendale.3 It was also the beginning of double-talk that would haunt Rea throughout the rest of his career as a literary authority of Ellen White’s writings. Jerry Wiley wrote to Calkins, asking him to explain this false statement. Calkins did not respond.

As the Glendale Committee’s recommendations began to seep into the consciousness of Adventism, some adherents sent letters to the White Estate asking for clarification. In one query letter, Olson defended his position, “I think you have somehow gotten the wrong impression of that meeting, because it took no particular courage on my part to vote the way I did. All of the votes of the committee were unanimous. There was no problem with any of the actions that were taken. When we acknowledged that Ellen White had engaged in a certain amount of literary borrowing, we were not diminishing her authority as a prophet in the least. The brethren here in the General Conference do recognize that most of our people do not understand how inspired writings were developed, not only in the case of Ellen White, but also in the case of the Bible authors.”4

From item 4 above, one could surmise that the GC brethren had accepted Rea’s unequivocal and undeniable evidence but not Rea’s enthusiasm for educating and bringing about change in the world of inspiration for Ellen White. Once removed from his ongoing study, the stubborn pastor from Long Beach could only watch the renewing of fervor in the cultural support of previous teachings on the inspiration of the prophetess. The General Conference and White Estate began to expend greater energy in shoring up previous convictions. You can actually see the waves of resistance moving back and forth across the articles published by the church during the next five years.5 Even so, the question of the extent of her borrowings bothered many believers because they wondered how uninspired material, even fictional, became inspired through borrowing. To bolster her writing habits, Ellen White never explained what the Holy Spirit actually communicated to her on the topic of literary borrowing even though son William implied she had received such communications from God.

Resisting Writing the White Lie

Rea continued to quietly add to White’s writing parallels after the Glendale Conference. He was no longer in the limelight. Bruce Weaver, a seminary student under ministerial appointment by the Arkansas/Louisiana conference, discovered an unmarked file folder on a table in the reading room in the James White Library at Andrews University. The folder contained examples of Rea’s literary criticisms of the prophetess writings. The White Estate’s foiling plans were in the folder discussing who could be trusted on Andrews University faculty to help blunt the impact of Rea’s findings. Weaver copied this file and sent it to Rea. Consequently, Rea was not surprised when Arthur L. White explained the counter evidence by pushing directly into the heart of Rea’s arguments and began to prepare the church in the Adventist Review for what might be expected from Rea’s sourcing revelations. When it was discovered that Weaver had copied this file, he was dismissed as a graduate student and his ministerial appointment was revoked for passing the sensitive materials to Rea.6

To preempt the revelations of Rea, the church rushed to publish The White Truth which was intended to defend the inspirational integrity of Ellen White. It is important to note that The White Truth (1981) was published prior to The White Lie’s appearance in 1982. This book did not mention Walter Rea by name. The author of The White Truth was an investor in Davenport.7

Embarrassed Adventists accused Rea of approaching the LA Times for the interview. The religious editor at the Times, John Dart told Spectrum that “the interview was not initiated or suggested by Rea.” (Vol. 11, Number 3. p. 49). Rumors had it that Rea was going to be fired. A month after the LA Times article (November, 1980), Rea was asked to meet with the local Conference Committee. Concerned, Rea offered a compromise as an attempt to keep his job. Rea assured the committee that he had not initiated the interview or supplied background information used in the interview. He agreed to work with any committee to study the matter of White’s borrowing. He agreed not to speak publicly on the subject or talk to “anyone in the peanut gallery as Elder Calkins put it.” Also, Rea agreed not to publish any book on White as long as he was employed. After Rea was fired, he felt he was released from any of these stipulations. Rea’s book was written in 1982 and was first titled “Too Close to Call,” but later changed to The White Lie.8

Critics bashed Rea’s book as “grossly exaggerated.” Ministry magazine recommended those “honestly searching for the truth about Ellen White should make their way through Rea’s book, even if the journey is a little jarring at times.” Doug Morgan, historian from Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University), said, We do need to at least pay attention to him. Is it possible that those who have overused or misused Mrs. White are making her of “none effect,” who have lynched the very lady they profess to adore as Rea charges?9 Some critics went so far as to say that The White Lie was written in a strident personal tone throughout the book.

Historian Jonathan Butler felt that Rea “reacts with the harshness of a man who feels not only misunderstood but abused.”10 I told Rea that maybe Butler was on to something that might have led Rea to explode against his colleagues in the ministry as “the super-salesmen of the psychic,” referred quite often in The White Lie. Was there something in the way he was treated by church leadership that provoked Rea’s withering belligerence toward his friends in the ministry?11 Listening to Rea’s account after the LA Times, it seemed possible that Rea was also somewhat naïve about what he had written. I told him he reminded me of someone who tipped over a beehive and then wondered why he got stung and had to run for cover.

The church was facing three tumultuous issues, of which Rea and The White Lie was only one. The other two problems were associated with Desmond Ford’s criticism of the investigative judgment and Donald Davenport’s financial scandal. Rea told me that he thought he was fixed in the stream of the ill-gotten “Ford Davenport Rea” (FDR) exposure. He sincerely came to believe that the real reason for his dismissal was his early involvement in exposing the Davenport misconducts, not his research on Ellen White’s literary dependency.

Mrs. Davenport was a member of Rea’s church and brought the “court-sealed records” of investors for Rea’s help in determining if her husband was hiding assets. Seeing the list of church investors, Rea brought in Jerry Wiley, and together they began to write letters to church leaders involved with Davenport, seeking to embarrass them. Bringing this to light did not help Rea’s reputation at the time, especially in the letters he wrote to the General Conference president Robert Pierson and Pacific Union Conference president Walter Blehm. Rea would go on to write a rough draft of The Pirates of Privilege that deals with Davenport. But it was not published by agreement to his sustentation restoration.

Around March of 1980, after being advised that Pacific Union College professor Dr. Fred Veltman would be assigned the continuing literary analysis of White (in The Desire of Ages project), Rea cut back on his own literary criticism and assumed a more vigorous pastor’s role in his church. Rumors that Rea was going to be fired continued.

In a letter addressed to Rea in July, 1980, Wilson raised his own concerns about Rea’s future. “You and I have been a part of the Seventh-day Adventist ministry long enough, Walter, to know that ordination becomes a binding, sacred agreement. It indicates our full acceptance of all the vital truths and teachings of this church, including the fact that the gift of prophecy was manifested through the ministry of Ellen White, and that this is an identifying mark of the remnant church. . . .To many it appears as though you have been carrying on activities which tear down the very things that you are supposed to build up.”12

After the LA Times article, the conference leadership decided that Rea’s research had carried him too far into labeling the denomination’s highly respected pioneer Ellen White a plagiarist. Rea was fifty-eight years old. Had he not shared his results, it is likely he would have retired from the ministry under the natural order of things. As it was, Rea thought the church was punishing him because he spoke out publicly which was against the church’s wishes and opening the awareness of financial improprieties in Davenport.13 He naively thought his discoveries would launch a different Ellen White the prophet project and more visibility to financial affairs. Eventually the leadership’s decision to discipline Rea was not because his information was incorrect or because he failed to perform his ministerial duties. The month before Rea was disciplined, he told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that he knew his firing was coming because he had “spilled the beans.” Around this time, Rea became frightened because “there have been some threats against my life.” He was reluctant to discuss the details with the reporter,14 and he did not reveal these threats to me.

Late in coming, believers had a new concern. Did it really matter that its prophetess, a self-described “messenger of God,” was a plagiarist? She had given the impression that her messages came directly from God, not paraphrased or copied from others. Wasn’t that good enough? Maybe she thought that God owned everything and that she could utilize what was available for her own writings? Her grandson tried to use the most common defense: “Ellen White in actuality used very little from other authors, and it was no injury to them. There was no misrepresentation in the matter.”15 But in the end . . .

Rea learned that as a local pastor he was not to become influential on such matters, but a simple passenger on the voyage of life as a pastor, and only allowed to remain on board without touching the helm or handling the riggings. That task was assigned to professor Fred Veltman, someone the administration could trust. After several years of research, Veltman also discovered that there was clear evidence from Ellen White’s personal handwriting that she had composed textual materials on the Desire of Ages and that these handwritten materials showed that she took literary expressions from the works of other authors without giving them credit. Generally, Veltman found the closer one is able to move back through the textual tradition to White’s own hand, the greater is the degree of literary dependency. Veltman’s conclusion was that White used approximately 31 percent from outside sources in parts of The Desire of Ages. Perhaps his most important concluding remarks were these:

“How do you harmonize Ellen White’s use of sources with her statements to the contrary? I must admit at the start that in my judgment this is the most serious problem to be faced in connection with Ellen White’s literary dependency. It strikes at the heart of her honesty, her integrity, and therefore her trustworthiness.”16

Rea could go along with that as he was saying the same thing.

Walter T. Rea was born on July 12, 1922 and passed away August 30, 2014, leaving behind two children, a son and a daughter. He was 92 years old.

 

T. Joe Willey received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla College, and La Sierra University.  He was a fellow with Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and served as a research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.

 

NOTES:

1.  Ad hoc committee members included, Ralph Thompson (Chair), Robert Olson (Secretary), Walter Blehm, Harold Calkins, Herbert Douglass, Fred Harder, William Johnsson, Harold Lance, W. R. Lesher, Donald McAdams, Jack Provonsha, Walter Rea, W. L. Richards, Ottilie Stafford, Fred Veltman, Louis Venden, John Waller, Mervyn Warren and Jerry Wiley.  Also present the second day (Jan. 29), Galen Richardson, Jim Wagner, Ron Graybill and James Nix.

2.  Minutes of Meeting. General Conference Committee. GC Archives. February 5, 1980. 80-31.

3.  Cited from a letter from Jerry Wiley (associate dean USC Law School) to Harold Calkins March 18, 1980. “I have thought for some time about the short piece you printed in the February 11, 1980 Pacific Union Recorder, and I simply cannot harmonize the committee’s action with your statement … My memory of the meeting is in direct conflict with what you wrote in the Recorder.”  Sent also to Neal Wilson.

4. Letter from Robert Olson, Secretary, EGW Estate to Eryl A. Cummings, February 21, 1980.  

5.  The Truth About the White Lie. Ministry Insert. August, 1982.  

6.  In the fall of 1978 Bruce Weaver copied a list of books in Ellen White’s library at the time of her death. He systematically purchased copies he could find in used book stores and acquired copies from the libraries and examined them for evidence of plagiarism. He left Adventism in early 1982. For fanaticism in early Adventism; see Bruce Weaver. Incident in Atkinson: The Arrest and Trial of Isreal Dammon. Adventist Currents. Vol. 3, No (1), 1988.  

7.  John J. Robertson. The White Truth. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publ. Assoc. 1981. 112 p. See L. A. Times.  anuary 16, 1982/Part II. p. 5.  

8.  The New York Times stated; Walter Rea has inflamed the issues confronting the cult with incontrovertible evidence he provides in The White Lie. Time Magazine stated; The White Lie is a bombshell which has shocked the church.  

9.  Doug Morgan. The White Lie. College People. (Summer, 1982):32-33.  

10.  Jonathan Butler. Prophet or Plagiarist: A Dichotomy. Spectrum. 1982. 12(4). p. 44.  

11.  He was friends with Neal Wilson and Robert Olson at Pacific Union College.  

12.  Letter to Walter Rea from Neal Wilson. July 2, 1980.  

13.  Adventist Minister is Unfrocked after Calling Prophet Plagiarist. The Washington Post. Friday, December 12, 1980.  

14.  Ronald Yates. “Church Jolted by Plagiarism Charge.” Chicago Tribune. Sunday, November 23, 1980. p. 12.  

15.  John Dart. “Plagiarizing Prophets: Are Words Tainted?” Los Angeles Times. Part 2, p. 5. December 24, 1980.  

16.  Fred Veltman. The Desire of Ages Project. Ministry. December 1990. 

 

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