Did Desmond Ford Receive a Fair Trial?

Did Desmond Ford Receive a Fair Trial?

Adventist Peace MLK Event Banner Image


Written by: 
March 12, 2018

Listen to this story:

Should it take over three decades to clear one’s name?

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was a Seventh-day Adventist who was wrongly imprisoned for the alleged murder of her baby daughter Azaria in 1980 in the Australian Outback. The guilty verdict was only fully overturned in 2012, after 32 years of seeking justice.1

In1980, another Australian Adventist, Desmond Ford, also faced a trial of sorts at Glacier View, Colorado. Dr. Ford had challenged the traditional Adventist understanding of a pre-advent investigative judgment (“PAIJ”).2 On September 2, the General Conference’s Executive Advisory Committee (PREXAD) recommended:

Dr. Ford be given the opportunity to withdraw voluntarily from the ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. If he chose not to do so, the Australasian Division should relieve him.3

Dr. Ford still stands convicted. After 38 years, why should we care?

We should care because Church administrators are today grappling with similar issues of theological diversity and rebellion. I care because the issue decimated the Church in my country of Australia,4 and people are still hurting.5 I care because although I do believe in the PAIJ,6 putting on my own lawyer’s wig and gown,7 I fear Dr. Ford did not receive a fair trial. I care because Christian decision-makers are meant to be superior to secular judges (1 Corinthians 6:3).8

Consider the evidence.

1. Elder Neil Wilson’s assurances – breach of legitimate expectations?

President Wilson promised at the beginning of the conference:

This is not a Des Ford meeting. Des is not on trial before this group, though some of his views are on trial.9

Moreover, during the convention a compromise seemed struck. Desmond Ford agreed to remain silent on the PAIJ issue and President Wilson endorsed that concession.10

However, Dr. Ford’s subsequent defrocking raises concerns of legitimate expectations. That is, “a reasonable expectation that a legal right or liberty will be obtained or renewed, or will not be unfairly withdrawn.”11

2. Committee documents – failure to consider relevant considerations and considering irrelevant considerations?

A major reason cited by the PREXAD for recommending Dr. Ford’s termination of employment included, “the Sanctuary Committee had rejected his arguments.”12

As I understand it, two primary documents were produced at Glacier View. The first was the Consensus Document: Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary,13 which was the principal product of the conference.14 Importantly, Dr. Ford himself accepted this document, meaning, “He was therefore in harmony with his brethren.”15

A second document was also produced entitled The Ten-Point Critique. However and importantly, “this document is not a product of the committee, nor does it reflect the thinking of the committee.”16

Looking at the PREXAD decision, it is as if they considered an irrelevant consideration (the Ten-Point Critique) but ignored the relevant consideration (the Consensus Document). Justice demands, “the discretion be exercised by reference to relevant and not irrelevant considerations.”17

3. The Ten-Point Critiqueabuse of power and improper purposes?

As to why the Ten-Point Critique was even prepared, one eyewitness who helped author that document explained:

By the Tuesday evening it must have been obvious that the direction the SRC was taking was not likely to produce a consensus statement that could be used against Des.18

Moreover, even those few who were involved in its drafting misunderstood its purpose:

the 10-point statement suddenly became some kind of official creedal test. This was to give it a task well beyond my understanding of its original purpose and without regard forits somewhat hasty and limited nature.19

This raises legal concerns about abuse of power and improper purposes. These demand “powers, however permissive, must be used with scrupulous attention to their true purposes and for reasons that are relevant and proper.”20

4. Playing the man and not the ball – apprehensions of bias?

Personal conflicts also obviously existed because eye-witnesses wrote about them quite openly: “Frankly this attitude mystified more than one of the committee members.”21

This gives rise to questions of a reasonable perception of bias, which is whether, “if right-minded persons would think that, in the circumstances, there was a real likelihood of bias on a person’s part.”22

5. The Dallas Statement of Fundamental Beliefs – breach of no evidence rule?

Following Glacier View, the 1980 General Session in Dallas, Texas adopted a Statement of Fundamental Beliefs.23 Surprisingly, Dr. Ford agreed with the Statement.24

The General Conference also admits Dr. Ford “generally complies with the requirement of the four propositions to which he was asked to respond.”25 However, they questioned Dr. Ford’s sincerity by speculating about what he did not say.26

Decision-makers can’t read minds, so they must not rely upon speculation and circumstantial evidence. This raises the no evidence rule, which is the idea that “a decision-maker must make a decision on the basis of logically probative material rather than mere speculation or suspicion.”27

6. Hitting Dr. Ford with a sledgehammer – lack of proportionality?

The facts demonstrate Dr. Ford did affirm the Church’s Consensus Document and Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, as well as accept the compromise of remaining silent. His subsequent defrocking therefore raises issues of proportionality, which is the principle of justice: “You must not use a steam hammer to crack a nut, if a nutcracker would do.”28

7. Not letting the Australians off the hook – unlawful pre-judgment and sub-delegation?

Finally, my focus till now has been on the GC’s PREXAD decision of September 2. However, we should remember it was the Australasian Division and Avondale College (based near Sydney) who were technically Dr. Ford’s employers. They were the ones who terminated Dr. Ford’s position on September 18.29

This raises concerns about pre-judgment and sub-delegation. That is, “only a body or person in whom a power is vested is entitled to exercise that power,” and an “entity with decision-making power is not entitled to delegate that power to another without lawful authorization.”30


The above brief study illustrates there are serious questions about whether Desmond Ford received a fair trial in 1980. That this occurred within the context of a debate about a doctrine centered on the idea of divine justice is an irony no one should overlook.


Notes & References:

1. Later forensic evidence proved the baby had in fact been killed by a dingo (a native Australian wild dog): ‘Dingo to blame for Azaria’s death: coroner’, The Age, 12 June 2012.

2. Based on applying a day-for-a-year principle to the 2,300 mornings and evenings prophecy of Daniel 8:14, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (GC) itself defines the PAIJ as meaning: “The investigative judgment refers to a preadvent judgment in which the cases of all those who have ever accepted Christ are examined from the record books, and the sins of those accounted righteous are blotted out. This judgment began in 1844 and will end with the close of probation” – see W. H. Johns, “The ABCs of Dr. Desmond Ford’s Theology”, Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 7/22/98), ff1.


3. J. R. Spangler, “Events Since Glacier View”, Ministry, October, 1980, p.15; Desmond Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, A Retrospective on October 27, 1979, (2017), Kindle Ed., loc. 1778 at 83%; Richard Coffen, “Glacier View: A Retrospective”, Adventist Today, (2016).

4. I have been anecdotally told that the SDA Church in Australia lost about 30% of its clergy in the direct aftermath of Glacier View. I also note similar “purges” occurred in the US. To cite a singular example, consider contemporary anti-Adventist critic Dale Ratzlaff, who “was abruptly fired by the Conference for expressing a conviction shared by a majority of the forty or so Bible scholars at Glacier View, that administration had misjudged and mistreated Desmond Ford the year before”: Raymond Cottrell, ‘The Sanctuary Doctrine: Asset or Liability’, JIF symposiumin 02-04 November 2001.

5. This became apparent to me when I was contacted by some of the major protagonists involved in Glacier View. There are entire anti-SDA ministries still active against the Church, in large part about what happened in 1980. Having been born in 1979, this frankly seems ludicrous. Thus, it is apparent to me that what happened at Glacier View is still very much a tumor affecting the long-term health of the Adventist Church, especially in Australia.

6. In particular, I would reject Dr. Ford’s statement, “In none of these [texts] does the context speak of the saints being investigated”: Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, loc. 1778 at 83%; Richard Coffen, “Glacier View: A Retrospective”, Adventist Today, (2016).

Whether I disagree with what Dr. Ford meant rather than said is another question. As a general rule, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to ambiguities in human language.

7. Please note my comments are not a formal legal opinion and shouldn’t be relied upon as such. My comments primarily come from a historic and journalistic perspective, reviewing an event of some forty years ago. Nothing in my comments should be construed as suggesting anyone did anything illegal – or legal for that matter. The analogy to legal principles primarily concerns moral imperatives, noting Christians are called to a higher standard of justice than secular courts.

8. I further note Glacier View occurred in the U.S. but Dr. Ford was eventually fired from the Australasian Division of the SDA Church. I also practice law in Australia. The question therefore arises which jurisdiction should I cite in terms of espousing these principles of justice – U.S. or Australia? It doesn’t much matter, because as I said, I am primarily citing legal principles as an analogy of moral imperatives.

Nonetheless, most of these principles are broadly the same in both countries and across the common law world. I have therefore chosen to cite, where possible, those principles from their original jurisdiction – the United Kingdom, where I have also practiced. I cite relevant case authorities as well as draw guidance from Peter Leyland, Administrative Law, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2005). An Australian perspective can also be found in W. Lane and S. Young, Administrative Law in Australia (Sydney: Lawbook Co., 2007).

9. Based on the shorthand transcript recorded by Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus,” cited in Desmond Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, A Retrospective on October 27, 1979, (2017), Kindle Ed., loc. 1333 at 62%. Also corroborated by J. R. Spangler, “Personal Glimpses into the Background and Results of the Glacier View Sanctuary Review Committee,” Ministry, October, 1980, p.6.

10. “FORD: …Since October 27, I have refused to speak on the judgment, and I have no intention of speaking on it until the brethren have studied it…

WILSON: …I believe it is an answer to prayer. I accept your statement, Des, at face value. At no times has this church endeavored to control minds…Yes, I would accept that”:

Andrews Scholars, “An Open Letter to President Wilson”, p.61; Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, loc. 1566 at 73%; 1643 at 77%.

11. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Schimdt v Secretary of State for Home Affairs [1969] 2 Ch 149. In biblical terms we might cite numerous texts about keeping one’s word (Num. 30:1-2; Matt. 5:33-37; 1 John 2:5).

12. Spangler, “Events Since Glacier View,” p.14; Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, loc. 1779 at 83%.

13. J. R. Spangler, ed. “Consensus Document: Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary,” Ministry, October, 1980, pp.16-18.

14. Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its New Consensus,” Spectrum,Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.2.

15. Andrews Scholars, “An Open Letter to President Wilson,” Spectrum,Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.61; Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its Consensus,” loc. 1937 at 91%.   

16. For example, it did not involve the Full Committee but only a select number of delegates, was only presented at the very end of the convention, and was never voted upon: Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and its New Consensus”, Spectrum,Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p.2.

17. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Lord Keith in R v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, ex p Lonrho Plc [1989] 1 WLR 525 at 533. In biblical terms we might cite Jesus’ statements about proper fact-finding (Matt. 18:15-20) or the example of the cities of refuge (20:4).

18. Norman Young, “A Reluctant Participant,” Adventist Today, vol. 4, issue 6 (2006), p.7.

19. Ibid.

20. For an exposition of this principle of justice see R v Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, ex p World Development Movement Ltd [1995] 1 WLR 386. In biblical terms we might cite the prohibition against perverting justice by helping a poor man in a lawsuit, meaning the ends never justify the means (Ex. 23:1-9).

21. See also President Wilson, who “mentioned Dr. Ford’s charisma and how this quality causes people to rally about him regardless of the rightness or wrongness of his doctrinal position”: J. Robert Spangler: “Editorial Perspectives,” Ministry, October (1980), pp.6, 9. 

22. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Lord Denning in Metropolitan Properties Ltd v Lannon [1968] 3 All ER 304. In biblical terms we might cite the directive that personal ill feelings are irrelevant – even people we hate deserve even-handed justice (Ex. 23:3-9; Matt. 5:44).

23. “Consensus Document,” Ministry, October (1980), p.16.

24. I am now, and always have been, in fullest harmony with the main doctrinal positions of our church as set forth in the ‘Statement of Fundamental Beliefs’ as voted in Dallas in April this year: Desmond Ford, “Parmenter-Ford Correspondence,”Ministry, October (1980), p.11.

25. Spangler, “Events Since Glacier View,” p.14 (Mr. Spangler’s own emphasis).

26. “However, after carefully analyzing Dr. Ford’s responses and focusing on what they did not say as well as on what they said, PREXAD felt his position was not sufficiently positive…”: Ibid.

27. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Ashbridge Investments Ltd v Minister of Housing and Local Government [1965] 3 All ER 371. In biblical terms we might cite principles establishing an onus of innocence and mercy, requiring unequivocal evidence of guilt before punishment (Deut. 19:15; Acts 5:38).

28. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Lord Diplock in R v Goldstein [1983]. In biblical terms we might cite the axiom about an “eye for an eye,” which is actually a biblical passage about proportionality of punishment (Ex. 21:24; Col. 3:25). Moreover, note proportionality still presumes mercy trumping judgment (Matt. 5:38-48; Jam. 2:13).

29. Ford,Seventh-day Adventism: The Investigative Judgment, loc. 1784 at 83%; Spangler, “Events Since Glacier View,” p.15.

30. For an exposition of this principle of justice see Ridge v Baldwin [1964] AC 40. In biblical terms we might cite Absalom’s rebellion, in acting as unlawful delegate in judging matters on behalf of his father, King David (2 Sam. 15:1-6).


Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. He has tertiary qualifications in history, law, military studies, theology, and town planning. For about a decade-and-a-half he has worked as a government administrative-lawyer, mostly in immigration and planning areas. He regularly gives advice and training, including to government ministers and mayors, on how to make just and fair decisions. He is a member of Livingston SDA Church in Perth, Australia, and has authored a book on Adventism entitled, “Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know”…A Lawyer’s Defence of Adventist Belief and Practice.

Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash


If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Spectrum Magazine Donation Page: Help Support Independent Adventist Journalism