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Denis Fortin’s New Butler Biography Addresses 1888 and Ellen White Tensions

Geoge Ide Butler Biography

Denis Fortin’s biography of George Ide Butler (1834-1918) is the fourteenth volume in the Adventist Pioneer Series and is thus far (sixteen more biographies are scheduled to follow) among the very best. 

With John Loughborough, George Butler belongs to last of the generation of the pioneers. As a child he accompanied his parents to Millerite meetings. When he died in 1918, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was firmly established in many countries with a total membership of some 165.000 members.

Denis Fortin, a professor of historical theology at Andrews University, devotes the first three chapters of his book to sketching the background for the life story of his subject. With grandfather Ezra Butler as a governor of the state of Vermont (1826-1828) George I. Butler hails from a prominent family. Fortin describes the Butler family in some detail, and paints in broad strokes the characteristics of life in 19th century America, in particular with regard to religious trends and aspects of Sabbatarian Adventism and the earliest period of the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Church. He pictures the somewhat chaotic community that slowly developed, and, in the words of George R. Knight in the Introduction, also gives us “a somewhat messy picture of Adventist leaders” (10).

The 23 chapters that follow take us, with a few thematic interruptions, through George Butler’s life, with due emphasis on the two periods of church service (1865-1888 and 1901-1908). They describe in detail how he started his church career at the local level, and then take the reader to his leadership in three conferences, before being elected to the presidency of the General Conference (1872-1874 and 1880-1888). After an interim period outside church employment, the story of his career continues with his presidency of the Florida Conference and of the Southern Union Conference. It was an extremely hectic life of preaching to churches and camp meeting audiences, of evangelistic campaigns, but also of endless administrative meetings, travel and, not to forget, writing.

Fortin takes issue with the description of Butler as someone with a “rugged heart”, that appears in the title of a much shorter, earlier, biography of Butler by E.K. VanderVere (1979). Butler’s leadership was undoubtedly characterized by authoritarianism, but this reflected to a large extent the leadership culture of the time. He could be self-deprecating, but also confrontational and unbending. However, Arthur G. Daniells, a later GC president, praised him in his funeral sermon as “intensely loyal to what he believed to be right” (page 609). In any case, he was exceedingly hardworking, which from time to time led to periods of serious burnout. Fortin states: “Butler has been a neglected pioneer and church leader in Adventist historiography. For the most part, he came to be characterized as a strong-minded person who stood on the wrong side of major events in Adventist history” (614). Sadly, as the subtitle of this book indicates, he was often misunderstood, by his contemporaries and by later historians.

An important, recurring, theme in Fortin’s book is Butler’s relationship with other leaders, and in particular with the White family, which often proved to be quite problematic. In the earlier part of his career Butler had to deal with James White, his predecessor as General Conference president. Although he experienced James as a difficult, even dictatorial, person, he believed (on the basis of “testimonies” from Ellen G. White) that James was a divinely appointed leader for the Adventist movement. Butler stressed that conviction in an essay that outlined his philosophy of leadership (139-142). 

Around the time of the famous General Conference session in Minneapolis, and also at some later moments, Butler’s relationship with William White (eldest son of Ellen and James) was strained, mainly because of church-political issues. The relationship with their other son (Edson) was even more complex. During his period as president of the Southern Union (1901-1908) Butler had to find a modus to cooperate with the independent, entrepreneurial Edson, who could almost invariably count on the support of his mother (583, 584).

Fortin refers to Ellen White as the “matriarch” behind the scenes (416). She was a constant presence in Butler’s life, with periods of closeness and estrangements. A testimony of severe rebuke (171-181) remained a bone of contention. Butler felt Ellen was at times harsh and unfair and could be influenced and incorrectly informed by others (188). Fortin’s comments on the tradition of public naming and shaming in that period are helpful to understand some of White’s harshness. However, Butler could never be sure of her full support.

Like all other pioneers George Butler was not a trained theologian, but nonetheless contributed to various theological discussions. He was a moderate non-trinitarian and a semi-Arian (531)—which was far from exceptional in this period of Adventist history. 

His views on inspiration were not so common. He suggested that there are degrees of inspiration, in the Scriptures and in the writings of Ellen White (367).  This view helped him to deal with certain difficulties in Ellen White’s writings. In the controversy about law and gospel at the time of the Minneapolis General Conference, Butler opposed those who believed the law in Galatians to be the moral law, rather than the ceremonial system of law. For some time he was unclear in his views on righteousness by faith, but eventually he acknowledged that the new view, which was also held by Ellen White, was positive for the church.  Later in life he mingled in the controversies about “the daily,” (595-598) and the beginning of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (598-600).

Two chapters (23 and 24) are devoted to the issues around John Harvey Kellogg and his alleged promotion of pantheism. Butler was one of Kellogg’s few remaining friends during this period. A study of the intense correspondence between the two men, Fortin maintains, sheds new light on the controversy between Kellogg and the church’s top leaders, and shows that the sustained accusation of pantheism was not justified and to a large degree a pretext to deal with Kellogg’s striving for independence of the medical branch of the church (574). 

For those who are reasonably informed about early Adventist history reading this fascinating life story of Butler will provide confirmation of a few constant phenomena: the exceptional devotion and sense of calling and sacrifice of the leaders in those early decades, but also the tendency to put too much power and authority on just a few persons. And the tendency to institutionalize the church, often beyond available financial and personnel resources.

To get an even more complete picture of the challenges Butler had to face, this new book should be read in conjunction with Gerald Wheeler’s volume in the Pioneer series on James White, and two books by Gilbert M. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents and J.H. Andrews: Mission Pioneer, Evangelist and Thought Leader. Some of the books by George R. Knight about the key players in the 1888 Minneapolis Crisis will also provide further insights.

Throughout Fortin’s book the reader gets glimpses of what the atmosphere in early Adventism was like. He does not mince words in referring to the, often combative, atmosphere in the small Adventist congregations, where many of the members were related by family ties, and to the often-toxic atmosphere in larger Adventist communities, in particular in Battle Creek. Also, the fact that so many prominent ministers had moral problems, makes one wonder.  This by itself makes the book a must-read for those who promote “historic Adventism” and think that early Adventism provides us with a sublime model of Christian thinking and living for today. It should give food for thought to the adherents of Last Generation Theology, who champion the possibility of becoming perfect. Even the pioneers, with Ellen White in first place, were far from perfect!

If there is anything in the book that upset me in a special way, it is the way in which Ellen White often related to church leaders. Gilbert Valentine’s biography of Andrews struck me in a similar manner. How could a divinely inspired person be so harsh, and show so little pastoral sensibility when communicating with fellow-leaders, and how could she be so political in her maneuvering, and so manipulative? Reading Fortin’s work left me with the same uncanny feeling.

Another thought that stayed with me after reading the book was the wish that some Adventist historian will write a “people’s history” of early Adventism. More biographies of pioneers will appear in the years to come, but we also need to know more about the people in the pew.  How was Adventism lived and experienced by the members? What made them convert to Adventism? What made them stay? What caused many of them to leave? What was their religious experience like?

This Butler biography is skillfully constructed, with much detail.  It is referenced by a multitude of endnotes for each chapter, containing significant extra information. It would have been helpful if the authors, to which Fortin refers in the text, would have been identified beyond their name, and (as a non-American) I would have found a map of the USA, with the states where Butler served, quite helpful. 

According to Denis Fortin, Butler was “likely the most experienced church leader of his entire generation” (590). After reading his story I concur, but with mixed feelings. I feel sorry for Butler because of how he was often treated by other leaders–notably members of the White family. I feel a lot of empathy for him because of the struggle many church leaders face: maintaining one’s own intellectual and theological integrity and, at the same time, striving for unity and harmony in the church. But, in spite of all his imperfections, I cannot help but feeling great admiration for the way Butler filled his various leadership roles with so much energy and passion for his church.

About the author

A native of the Netherlands, Reinder Bruinsma 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 president of the Netherlands Union. More from Reinder Bruinsma.
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