How Fundamentalism Influenced Adventism

How Fundamentalism Influenced Adventism

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Published:
May 27, 2022

A review of 1922—the Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism by Michael W. Campbell (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2022).


The emergence and development of fundamentalism in American Protestantism, and its influence on Adventism, has interested me since my first steps on the path of theology. I was a solid fundamentalist until the completion of my bachelor’s degree at Newbold College in England. When, in 1965–66, I continued my studies at Andrews University, these fundamentalist views were seriously challenged by a few of my favorite professors, in particular by Dr. Sakae Kubo. He recommended a few books on the topic of fundamentalism that I should read, and as a result I rather quickly escaped from its trappings.

A little over two decades ago, I once again read extensively about the role of fundamentalism in Christian theology and the relationship between Adventism and fundamentalism. I was invited to present the Beach Lectures of the year 2000, and I chose to develop a two-part paper on “Seventh-day Adventism and Fundamentalism.” This seemed to fit well with the overall theme—Religious and Cultural Diversity—of the annual Beach Lectures.1 Ever since, I have remained keenly interested in this topic. Reading and reviewing Michael Campbell’s newest book 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism was, therefore, a privilege rather than simply one item in a series of things on my “to-do” list.

Michael W. Campbell, who until recently served as a professor in theology and church history at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, has recently been appointed as the director of archives, statistics, and research for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His newest publication is a sequel to his earlier book 1919—The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism, which focused on the 1919 Bible Conference and its aftermath. This 1919 conference was of crucial importance but remained for a long time hidden in obscurity, as the records lay undetected in the denominational archives until the early 1970s.2 Campbell’s new contribution to the study of Adventist history will, we are promised, in due time be followed by a third study, which will report on his further investigations of the influence of fundamentalism on the Adventist Church in the decade following the General Conference session of 1922, which is the endpoint of the present study.

Campbell has packed a lot of information in this modest 150-page publication, and many readers who consider themselves well-versed in Adventist denominational history will probably discover things that are new for them. This was, in any case, my experience. The author describes the key characteristics of fundamentalism in early twentieth century Protestant America and the role of the main leaders of the fundamentalist movement, as well as the ways in which Adventism accepted and adapted the ideas of fundamentalism, as it struggled, in particular, with issues around the inspiration of the Scriptures and the question of how the writings of Ellen White relate to the Bible.

In the post-World War I era, Adventists felt “under siege” because of investigations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with respect to the patriotism of some of its leaders and certain aspects of its theology, such as the prophetic interpretation that painted a rather negative picture of the role of America in the end-time scenario (28, 29). However, like many other denominations in the United States, the Adventist Church felt, in particular, threatened by the liberal spirit of the times and the modernist “new theology” that had permeated much of American Protestantism. Adventist thought leaders agreed with leaders in other churches that a far too liberal approach to theology was rapidly gaining ground in their institutions of higher learning. This called for decided action to safeguard the Adventist identity of the denominational colleges, and it underlined the need to clearly distinguish truth from error by developing statements defining the core Adventist beliefs.

The second chapter with the rather intriguing title “Muscular Adventism” was for me perhaps the most fascinating section of the book. The Adventist movement had initially been quite progressive in terms of gender roles, but the situation changed drastically in the fundamentalist atmosphere that increasingly enveloped the church in the 1920s. A “muscular,” (i.e., emphasizing manliness) kind of Christianity developed under the influence of political and social trends in the United States and as a corollary of the opposition against liberal theology. Inspired by fundamentalist Protestant authors, Adventists also published “literature focused on defining gendered roles for Adventist women.” These publications “became increasingly dogmatic about women’s clothing and behavior” (43). The overall result was the almost total disappearance of Adventist women from denominational leadership roles.

The following chapter (3) deals with the fundamentalist drive in the Adventist Church to define in considerable detail what pure theology embodies. Campbell observes that nowadays Seventh-day Adventists are often well aware of the statement of beliefs of 1931 but know little or nothing about the three different statements that were formulated in 1919 and 1920, nor about the connection between the various creed-like “fundamental” statements and the fundamentalist wind that was blowing through the church. Campbell points to the trinitarian aspect, which, quite remarkably, was even affirmed by the actual use of the term “Trinity” (52).  The text of the three statements is found in one of the appendices of the book.

The defense of a literal six-day creation against the ever more popular theory of evolution (chapter 4) became a significant characteristic of the Adventist brand of fundamentalism. Special attention is given in this chapter to the role of George McCready Price, who became one of the most prominent thought leaders in Adventist fundamentalism.3 In this chapter, the author introduces the little known but effective expression of “weaponizing” one’s faith (65).  The term receives extra weight when used in connection with the use of Ellen White materials. 

Chapters 5 and 6 are centered on the inspiration of Ellen White. Verbal inspiration became one of the key facets of Protestant fundamentalism. It not only pushed Adventists in a verbal, inerrantist direction with regard to the inspiration of the Bible but also encouraged tendencies toward a rigid, literalistic reading of the writings of Ellen White.4 Many were prepared to place her writing on a par with the Scriptures as equally inspired, while some would even place the publications of Ellen White above the Bible and regarded these as the lens through which the Holy Word most be interpreted. Moreover, men like Claude E. Holmes and Judson S. Washburn5 used selected statements from the pen of the church’s prophet as “weapons” to attack the top leaders of the church. The issues surrounding the creation of additional Ellen White publications compiled from her prolific writings and the development of what amounted to a canon of her books, as well as the ongoing debate about her status as a divinely inspired author, are quite adequately covered. However, some references to book-length treatments by other authors would, no doubt, have been appreciated by at least some readers.

Chapter 7 returns to a more general description of Adventist fundamentalism and mentions some “lingering questions,” especially with regard to Ellen White’s inspiration, which have remained with us until today. It also points to the increasing interest in biblical archaeology as fitting in this age of fundamentalism, in which “proving” the correctness of the Bible remained an urgent aspiration. The fact that Adventism is rather unique among Christian denominations for not having split along modernist-fundamentalist lines is worth noting.

The eighth (and final) chapter narrates how fundamentalist controversies could even impact church politics and the election of top leaders in the denominational hierarchy. The ugly militant attitudes of some influential men eventually led to the end of the presidential period of Arthur G. Daniells. His successor, William A. Spicer, “had a calming influence” on the higher denominational echelons. However, the fundamentalist direction of the church was not significantly affected.

The epilogue provides a useful summary of the content of the book. It emphasizes that as the church “became increasingly fundamentalist,” it “changed in terms of its attitudes about race and gender.” The church tended toward a greater degree of separation between the races and exclusive male leadership.  The epilogue also stresses how in the fundamentalist climate of the 1920s, a “canonization” of Ellen White’s writing was emerging and there was “a new predilection to use her writings as a lens through which to interpret the Bible, effectively placing her writing as equal to or above the Bible” (112). 

F.M Wilcox was one of the thought leaders of the time who called “for a more moderate form of Adventist fundamentalism” (114). Campbell concludes his epilogue by stating that this “was a path that Adventism needed back then and continues to need today” (116).

From my perspective as a progressive Adventist Christian, I profoundly regret that a century after the period analyzed in this book, a large segment of the church feels once again “under siege” from liberal trends and ideas, and seeks refuge against these dangers under a renewed umbrella of fundamentalism. Influential top leaders in today’s church advocate a “plain reading” of the Bible, and though the church officially denies that it believes in verbal inspiration, there are many indications that the church de-facto operates on that basis in its hermeneutical and exegetical praxis. After it seemed for a while that women could soon be accepted in all forms of ministry, the fundamentalist cloud that presently hangs over the church obscures full gender equality at least for the time being. And just as a hundred years ago, today many of the church’s educational institutions tend to be suspect as places of liberalism—in particular with regard to harboring non-orthodox views of the earth’s origin. Eventually, the era of fundamentalism, which began in the 1920s, gave way to a more open climate, in particular during the presidency of Reuben R. Figuhr (1954–66). And after another fundamentalist intermezzo during the presidencies of Robert H. Pierson (1966–79) and his successors, this open climate reemerged when Jan Paulsen held the top post in the church (1999–2010). Perhaps this swinging of the pendulum gives those who long for a more open climate the hope that change can once more occur.

One of the few points of criticism that I have after reading this book is its exclusive attention for American Adventism. Ludwig R. Conradi (1856-1939), for instance, was a key person during the period under consideration in the theological development of European Adventism. He had (and promoted) important ideas about inspiration, including that of Ellen White.

But apart from this, I believe Michael Campbell has done the church a great service with this second book in his series of studies on the state of the church in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Pacific Press is to be recommended for regularly publishing books about the history of the church that are not self-congratulatory (as many such books were in the past) but take an honest look at our denominational past. They provide us with precious lessons for the church of today and tomorrow.

 

Notes & References:

1. Reinder Bruinsma, Seventh-day Adventism and Fundamentalism. The Beach Lectures for 2000. Published by the Centre for the Study of Religious and Cultural Diversity, Occasional Papers, no. 4 (2006).

2. For my review of “1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism”, see SPES CHRISTIANA, Journal of the European Adventist Society of Theology and Religious Studies, Spring Issue, 2020, pp. 161-163.

3. I would have expected a few references to important publications about Price, such as Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), and Edward J. Larson, Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1997).

4. In a number of cases Campbell could have been more specific in his statements about Ellen White. He mentions in passing that Ellen White’s body was kept in a vault at the Battle Creek cemetery for over a year, until it was finally interred in August 2016 (p. 68). The source from which he quotes—a chapter by T. Joe Willey, in Terrie Dopp Aamodt et al. eds., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2014—actually states that she was buried on August 26, 1915, after having been kept in a vault during 34 days. Campbell further refers to the “significant debts” (p. 68) that Ellen White had when she died. A reference to Gilbert Valentine’s seminal book about this issue would have been appropriate: Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage, first published in 2006 and more recently republished by Oak and Acorn (2019).

5. The short biographical articles of these two men in: Denis Fortin and Jerry Mons, eds., The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2013) are written by Michael Campbell. He also contributed an excellent biographical article about Holmes in the Online SDA Encyclopedia.

 


Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring he was last president of the Netherlands Union.

Title image credit: Pacific Press

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