In August 2009, Spectrum welcomed its newest team member, David Trim—a scholar with a wide variety of interests and a very unique area of specialty. Here is a sampling of discussions on European Adventism, race relations in the British church, and religious violence.
RD: You have quite an international background. You are British, but you were born in India and you grew up in Australia. Where do you consider yourself to be from? How do you bring to together your various ethnic identities?
DT: I consider myself to be both Australian and British, and I’ve always stayed interested in India. One of our family’s favorite things when I was growing up was to show slides of our time there. I have a few memories, but with some I’m not sure whether they are real or if they've come from hearing all the stories!
RD: Now you’re living in the United States. What’s it like and what brought you across the pond?
DT: Well, I’m actually not here for much longer. Pacific Union College has an endowed visiting chair in history, the Walter C. Utt professorship, and I was fortunate enough to be offered it (and then lucky enough that they asked me to stay on for a second year). My wife is from Central California, and in the past I had a couple research fellowships in this country— a month at the Huntington library near Pasadena and two months at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Because of those experiences, I came here thinking I knew America pretty well. But I’ve learned that actually, one has to live here to know it.
RD: What’s your take on American Adventism versus European Adventism?
DT: Adventism was planted in Europe by America, but it always struggled and was really shaped by the local culture. On the other hand Australia, being culturally between Europe and America, had an easier time absorbing the Americaness of Adventism. So Australian Adventism is like American Adventism in many ways, but European Adventism is less so.
The most striking thing about European Adventism is that it’s so small, and minorities sociologically have certain ways of behaving. Being an Adventist in America is easy because we’re reasonably well known. We’re larger than a lot of small Christian denominations; we have the hospitals, schools, and universities. And since Adventism is a religion of self-improvement, it tends to be middle-class and prosperous. So if you’re an American Adventist, you grow up just assuming that certain things are possible.
But in Europe, where Adventism is small and not nearly as prosperous, there’s almost a siege mentality— a sense that certain things aren’t possible. There’s a sense that the rest of society isn’t going to be interested in what the church does.
I think sometimes Americans don’t realize the value and infrastructure that our educational and health care institutions provide, even for those who don’t send their kids to an Adventist college. There are some Adventist hospitals in Europe, but I can count them on the fingers of one hand and t. There are none in Britain. In the entire country of the Netherlands, there is no Adventist high school and I think only one Adventist primary school. In Britain there are probably fewer than ten primary schools and two high schools for 25,000 Adventists. Somehow these things have just never been a priority for us. In Germany for a while the church looked like it was about to take off, and so the institutional structure is a little bit better in some parts of the country (though it still doesn’t compare to the States).
RD: I wonder if that kind of “can’t do” attitude is contributing to the decline of the church in Europe, or if it’s vice versa and the decline is giving European Adventists a "can’t do" attitude.
DT: I think more the latter than the former. And the fundamental issue is that Europe is very secular and has been for much of the twentieth century, so this is not just an Adventist problem. Most churches have been in decline up until recently, though in the last ten to fifteen years there’s been a kind of spiritual renaissance in some parts of Western Europe.
In the 1880s Ellen White made the point that Adventism hadn’t started right in Europe. The original missionaries tried to use strategies that worked in America without being sensitive to the very different cultural context in which they were. From what we know (this is an area where Adventist historians need to do more research), it seems that American Adventism was always drawn from land-owning farmers who therefore had some money. It’s remarkable that such a small group was able to send and support missionaries abroad.
In Europe the middle classes were uninterested in this little religion from America, and so only the working classes were attracted. Then in the mid twentieth century, Adventist growth came in France, Britain, and the Netherlands through immigrants from the former empire (the West Indies and Africa). So again the existing lower socio-economic bracket made it difficult for the church to appeal to more prosperous people.
RD: How are immigrant Adventists and local European Adventists getting on these days?
DT: I think they get along very well now, but that hasn’t always been the case. One of my best Newbold students went on to do an MA in history at King’s College London, and for her thesis she wrote on the history of race politics in the British church from 1950-1980. It actually shook her faith a little because of what she discovered about the reality of a lot of white attitudes in the church.
But that was in the past. In the late seventies and early eighties the church went through a period of angst and even bitterness. But then it recognized the problem and chose to deal with it in a way that other churches in Britain did not, and in some cases still have not, done. The first non-white bishop in the Church of England was only appointed in the twenty-first century, despite the fact that the Church of England also draws a lot of its support from immigrants who are more religious than secular Europeans. We, on the other hand, started getting minority conference presidents in the early eighties, and in 1990 an immigrant from Jamaica became a Union president. That is thanks to steps the church deliberately took in the late seventies.
So yes, our history was unfortunate, but better than some. We can’t be proud of what happened in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, and we mustn’t think that everything is perfect even now. But I think we can be proud of the response we took. I say Thank God for the immigrant community. Without them the church in Britain might just barely exist!
RD: Your PhD dissertation was on the English involvement in the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What light has this background shed for you on the religious aspects of the current US Iraq/Afghanistan wars?
DT: Well it certainly gives one a perspective on the wider war against radical Islam, which isn’t just an issue for America after all.
I’ve always had an appreciation for the significance of religion as a motivating factor in wars. I think post-religious people in the west have tended to think of religious wars as one of those relics of the Middle Ages. Western people have assumed that since they couldn’t conceive of fighting wars in the name of religion, nobody else could. What some have failed to realize is that actually the world is more religious now than ever; it’s only the wealthiest parts that are less religious. That’s why 9/11 came as such a shock to the western world. The religious side of it was bewildering.
One response I’ve heard is that religion doesn’t drive people to kill, but the perversion of religion. That’s actually just a matter of semantics— a way of ducking the problem by redefining it. The truth is that sincere, middle of the road members of a number of Christian churches and other religions throughout the world have at times sincerely believed they were obliged to wage war.
Another thing Adventists will say (and they share this view with many secular scholars), is that ordinary people don’t fight; they’re misled or duped by their leaders. Social and economic history was the dominant paradigm when I started my studies, and to some extent it still is. So the assumption has always been, “Well, people might use religious rhetoric, but it’s really just a cover for economic motivations.”
RD: And you don’t think this represents the entire truth?
DT: No, I don’t think it does! Very clearly there were people who used religious rhetoric and the power of religion to cover motives that were either personally economic or geo-politically advantageous. But I think this represents the minority. The majority have waged war for a variety of complex reasons, of which socio-economic factors have only been a part. Religion itself is also a very important part of the matrix.
RD: How extremely disappointing. I wish we could blame religious wars exclusively on other motivations.
DT: Well, I think that’s what we’d prefer. I first encountered this desire when I was starting out as a PhD student in the mid/late nineties. I understood why secular atheist or agnostic historians would find it so difficult to grasp that the people who did these things were genuinely motivated by religious considerations. But I was rather disappointed to find Adventist scholars also saying that ordinary people fought because they were misled, stirred up by the rhetoric of their leaders, or compelled. It struck me as ironic that religious people too wanted to deny the reality of religious motivation. But it’s precisely for the reason you touch on: we don’t want to admit that it’s true.
RD: I’d like to deny it, yeah. Absolutely!
DT: My research was on the actual Englishmen who went to fight in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. For most of that period England as a nation was not at war, but Englishmen still went to Europe to fight in the wars of religion. After examining their writings and patterns of action and so forth, it’s very clear to me that these ordinary people looked at the world around them and said, “We’re in the time of the end; the antichrist is at work. I am required to combat the antichrist.” Or they saw their fellow believers being persecuted and felt obliged to help them. Most of these people were not duped or misled.
Another thing people like to do is dismiss all participants in religious war as mad or irrational. I’m particularly frustrated when media or commentators dismiss Jihadists as fanatics, because if you call them fanatics then it means you don’t have to understand them. We have to learn what makes them tick so that we can disarm them. A good example of this not happening is Waco, where the FBI decided that David Koresh was basically just a fanatic. There’s a scholar who has interviewed all the surviving Branch Davidians and his belief is that when the siege started at Waco, Koresh didn’t believe they were in his predicted apocalyptic scenario yet. He wanted to talk to the FBI people about the book of Revelation, but they didn’t want to do that. This scholar believes that if the FBI had been willing to talk to Koresh about his bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecy, then they might have actually eased his suspicion. But by treating him as a nut instead and increasing pressure the way they would with a secular person holding hostages, they just entrenched his opposition by convincing him that his apocalyptic scenario was about to unfold.
RD: That’s a fascinating hypothesis and also very troubling. I’m sure it has applications for today.
DT: Well, I think it’s true with Jihadists. Rather than just saying that they’re fanatics, we need to understand what’s motivating them so that we can stop them.
The people I’m particularly focused on are Calvinists. And Calvinists were the chief cause of war in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. Of course, they were often defending themselves against persecution, but on a whole they were far more militant and militarized than any other Protestants. They were like the Jihadists today because they didn’t believe that the political process was secular, and so for over a hundred years they caused or were major factors in wars and revolutions throughout Europe.
Ultimately, of course, Calvinists integrated into the existing political system. I’m still researching this, and I’m not a hundred percent sure why, but my hypothesis right now is that they lost their political aggression once they felt secure that their religious rights would be respected. Perhaps we can find an analogy in that for radical Jihadists. If we can assure them of their religious rights, then the aggression may diminish. But again, it means coming back and understanding why are they doing what they do, rather than just saying, “It’s irrational; it’s mad. We can never understand it, so let’s just destroy it.”
RD: Your research provides great evidence for people who would like to undermine religion by pointing to history. So why are you still religious? If it’s so socially dangerous, what’s good about it? Where does the teaching of peace fit into all this?
DT: That’s a very good question. I think first and foremost we have to be honest about the truth of the relationship between religion and war. I do believe Adventists should be peacemakers in the world around us, but we can’t do that if we turn a blind eye. If we’re looking to engage with the secular world then we have to deal squarely with evangelistic atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. Yes, religion does have the innate capacity to provoke war. And I’m not a pacifist! I think we have to be very cautious about war, but I believe there are times when war is justified. Some religious wars have been a matter of defense. Particularly in the post-reformation period, some of the European wars of religion were Protestants defending themselves against Catholic persecution (and vice versa later on). So just because religion causes war doesn’t mean that religion is evil or wrong.
RD: But of course then you have to deal with the question of why religion causes the persecution that necessitates defense. One thinks especially of the crusades.
DT: Yeah, it’s troubling! I have done a seminar on this at churches around the west coast, asking why religion leads to intolerance and persecution. People often say that the crusades were to convert people, but actually the crusades never really had as their overt intention any designs to convert anyone (which is just as well, because they succeeded in converting no Muslims. Just the opposite!) The crusades were about facilitating pilgrimages and defending territory that was perceived to be Christian.
RD: So when you know all this, why are you still a believer?
DT: Well, for a variety of reasons I just believe in the truth of Christianity. I believe that there’s a God, and I find the scriptures to be intellectually compelling. Nothing humans do is going to shake that. I have a fairly cognitive approach to belief, I guess.
I also believe Christianity to be true at a deep, personal level. I’ve seen it work in my life. And although religion leads to intolerance, persecution, and communal violence, it also produces incredible devotion to others. Almost all the major charities and development agencies working in Africa began as Christian groups, and many of them still have that connection.
And so going back to these evangelistic atheists who want to condemn Christianity, well they have to be true to historical reality as well. If we’re going to say that religion has done all these bad things, then we have to say that religion has also done all these good things. And not just Christianity. Giving alms to the poor is also one of the five pillars of Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism likewise encourage people to give money to the poor.
Religion has also contributed to many scientific discoveries. The history of science and technology in the late nineteenth century shows very clearly that the idea that religion and science or religion and progress are opposed is just not true. Much of the leading scientific research that made breakthroughs during the first scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was done out of Christian devotion. And even during the late nineteenth century, many scientists were motivated by their Christian faith and their desire to find out more about God’s creation.
So religion is actually a tremendous force for good. My research just happens to focus on the negative side! I think if you were to put the negatives and the positives into some kind of cosmic balance sheet, you’d find that religion has been more positive than negative. In any case it has that potential. We have to come back to the example of Christ in the gospels, and if we do follow that then we’ll be peacemakers, peace builders, and contributors to our communities. We’ll make this world a better place, even as we look forward to the second coming that will make things perfect.
RD: What do you do for Spectrum and for how long have you been doing it?
DT: I learned about Spectrum in the mid-80s when I was a teenager becoming aware of what was going on in the church. I liked it because it was dealing with issues in a way that not all of our church magazines were doing at the that time.
I’ve been overseeing the Sabbath School section of the website since last August. I met Bonnie Dwyer at the Adventist Society of Religious Studies conference in 2008, and we got on well immediately. She asked me to submit the paper I’d read there to Spectrum, and then asked me to submit some other presentations as well. They’ll be published in the print journal at some point down the road.
David Trim received his BA from Newbold College before attending King's College London, where he wrote a PhD dissertation on English involvement in the European wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From 1998 to 2007 he was on the faculty at Newbold College, teaching history and theology. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has held visiting fellowships at the University of Reading (UK), the University of California at Berkeley, the Huntington Library, in Pasadena, and the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. Until the end of 2009 he was the Walter C. Utt Visiting Professor of History and Religion at Pacific Union College. His publications include books on military and religious history, 30 scholarly papers (articles in peer-reviewed journals, or book chapters), and articles in Seventh-day Adventist publications such as Liberty Magazine and The Adventist Review.