The new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, an exhaustive online source of all things Adventist, launches today, says David Trim, Director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference. In this interview, he explains the complex process in preparing articles and some of the things readers can expect to find.
Question: The new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, an online and free reference work covering all aspects of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the people who have contributed to it, is launching on July 1. Is it ready?
Answer: The Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists is ready to launch. Many articles remain to be written, but the website has more than 2,100 articles and more than 3,600 photos.
There are about 20 standard Adventist historic photos, of James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, and A. G. Daniells that get used in almost every article, blogpost, or camp meeting presentation that deals with Adventist history. It’s exciting to share photographs not only of the legendary leaders but also of hundreds of other significant but lesser-known Adventists, from every continent. And almost none of the 3,600 photographs have been published before, or even seen before other than by close family. So we believe that not only the articles, but also the images that accompany them, will be fresh, new, and often intriguing.
The SDA Encyclopedia was planned to be launched in conjunction with the General Conference Session 2020. The General Conference Session was postponed due to the global pandemic. Why didn´t you want to delay the Encyclopedia as well?
Given that there are still a large number of articles to be written, that was an option. But we have always said very clearly that the website would premiere in 2020 and for the last year we have been targeting July 1st, a date we had shared. We wanted to honor the commitment we had made.
Also, we hope that the appearance of the ESDA Online will motivate new people to volunteer to write the articles for which we haven’t yet found authors. So though it’s frustrating not to have the platform of a GC Session, which is the ideal way to reach the Adventist community worldwide, we decided, with counsel and support from the GC officers, to move ahead with a “virtual launch.”
The GC´s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, the department in charge of this project, previously announced the Encyclopedia would launch with an estimated 8,000 articles. Will more continue to be added?
As I mentioned, we only have a quarter of the articles finished, but many more are in process.
Because this is a refereed work of scholarship, there is quite an involved process for an article to be added to the website. We have a team of 20 regional editors around the world, and a number of other thematic editors, who are responsible for finding authors to write articles that relate to their theme or their part of the world. This means that articles reflect the global nature of the church, with authors from around the world. That is really exciting!
But we have also had to use writers who have never written history before, and some have even never been published before. That means the regional editors sometimes have a lot of work to do on articles, even before they are sent to referees for peer review.
Often revisions are requested, which the regional editors moderate. Once they are “signed off” by the regional editor, then in many cases they are translated. (Early on we determined that the best person should write on any topic, not the best person with good English.) We have received a huge amount of assistance from the church’s world divisions in making translations.
Once we receive the articles at the main office, they are reviewed, then sent to be copy edited, and then formatted, and then uploaded.
We have hundreds of articles going through peer review, and hundreds more that authors are working on. But there are also many for which regional editors could not find authors. We hope that once people read what is in the ESDA Online, they may be motivated to get involved.
You mentioned 20 regional editors, plus thematic editors, as well as all of the many voluntary writers. Who are the writers and editors and how were they chosen?
We at the ESDA main office identified good regional and thematic editors. Sometimes we found it difficult to find editors, or to persuade the scholars we wanted to serve as editors to make a major commitment for five years! We also worked with divisions to find capable local editors, and that has made us aware of talented scholars who we didn’t know about before, but who work to very high standards.
Authors have generally been proposed by the regional and thematic editors. Each division has appointed a consultant editor, who has reviewed all of the suggested authors, because of course we in the main office often know little or nothing about a suggested name.
This also means that world church leaders have been very supportive, because they know they have representation in the process — while for us the consultant editor has been the crucial liaison, who has often solved problems at the local level.
How will you ensure that the Encyclopedia is accurate and transparent, and that writers are not simply apologists for the Church? I believe you are at pains to ensure this is not a public relations exercise? How is that possible?
This question is phrased in an interesting way and is slanted one way. I would put it this way: throughout the project I have felt keenly the need to walk a fine line between undertaking hagiography or whitewashing church history on the one hand, and engaging in negative criticism for the sake of it, or in some attempt to prove scholarly bona fides, on the other side.
Sadly, there have been a lot of both in Adventist historiography. Both approaches produce bad history. But I have believed throughout that it is possible to walk that line — that it is possible to produce articles that are scholarly, comprehensive, and authoritative, but also faith-affirming.
Using the established academic process of peer review helps to ensure high scholarly standards. It has greatly complicated the process, but it is essential for there to be confidence in the outcome.
Each year we had meetings of all the regional and thematic editors at the world church headquarters. We discussed the issue of balance at length several times, partly because it is not simple; scholarly standards and what can be acceptably shared publicly differ around the world. But all the editors were clear that the church is best served by articles that “tell it like it was” — the church is flawed because it is human, and being truthful is not only a biblical value, it also allows for lessons to be learned, while there is still enormous scope for readers to be inspired.
So, having said all this, and talked about the fine line, did we always get the balance right? I’m sure we haven’t — but I believe generally we have, because we all had the same goal, even if it hasn’t always been quite achieved in practice. And where readers identify issues, we hope they will communicate with us. Because ESDA is online, we will regularly correct existing articles as well as adding new ones.
Why did the GC want to produce a new SDA Encyclopedia?
It was in late 2014 that GC President Ted Wilson asked me to develop a proposal for updating the SDA Encyclopedia. He and other world church leaders recognized that the old Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia had not been revised for twenty years and that many new articles needed to be added. But they were also aware of some other issues.
That original SDA Encyclopedia, which was launched at the 1966 GC Session, was written by about eight people at the Review & Herald publishing house in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Back then, well over a third of church members were of European descent in North America, parts of South America, Southern Africa, Australasia, and Western Europe. All world church leaders and almost all of the church’s scholars were of that limited ethnic group.
Reported membership has increased from 1.7 million in 1966 to 20.5 million in 2019. Today there are more than 110 Adventist universities around the world, by no means all of which have History Departments (alas!) but all of which have capable scholars, often local people — rather than missionaries — working at them. The old SDAE was revised in 1976 and 1996 but essentially by adding articles, not revising existing ones. It thus remains an artifact of a different time and a very different church.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the movement to topple statues were not as prominent in late 2014 as they have since become but the issues they were addressing were ones that affected the old Encyclopedia, and it was partly for that reason that I proposed not an updated SDA Encyclopedia but a whole new work, which would reflect the church of today, and also take account of the wonderful developments in Adventist historiography starting in the 1990s.
What do you anticipate the Encyclopedia will be used for, and by whom?
There’s really no end to the uses it could be put to. I really believe that. Obviously for scholars it represents a new era, since the old SDA Encyclopedia articles were mostly very short and many significant figures had no article at all. But it also can be used by high school and elementary school teachers — some of the stories are accessible to quite young children.
For that reason, ESDA can also be used by the person who gets asked to tell the children’s story in church at the last minute; and of course it is an extraordinary resource for mission stories.
I hope church members who don’t have a job to do on Sabbath morning or an assignment to write will turn to it for enlightenment and inspiration.
And I hope it will be widely used by people not of our faith — and not just by historians, but by someone who has heard of Adventists, has seen an advertisement for an evangelistic meeting perhaps, or caught part of an Adventist broadcast. If they think, “Who are these Seventh-day Adventists?”, I hope they will turn to ESDA Online, and as a result decide, “Yes, I want to know more about the Adventists and what they believe, because their history is impressive."
Are there any plans for a print edition of this new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, or will it always be entirely online?
The plan is to publish a print edition in English, in due course, and at least one division publishing house has already asked to publish a translated edition. We need to get a bit closer to the target number first. Regardless, the up-to-date online edition will be “the” edition, with the authoritative text.
What things have been more difficult than anticipated? What do you wish you knew when you started it five years ago?
I wish I had realized how much time it would take to really get world church leaders fully on board. We have had splendid support from the world divisions from the start, but it took a lot of time to communicate down to union, conference, and mission level about the project. That proved more difficult than anticipated.
And so, strangely, did getting the church’s universities and colleges really fully engaged. Perhaps many academics thought, “I don’t work in History, this is nothing to do with me.” But there aren’t many Adventists who are historians, and we need every scholar deploying their skills. In a few parts of the world that has happened. In others, we still haven’t got really strong support for the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Our hope is that the launch of ESDA Online may help to generate more enthusiasm.
I wish I knew how difficult and time-consuming it would be! Perhaps I would have just said, “Let’s do an update of the old encyclopedia after all!” But then there would still be the need for carefully researched, authoritative, truthful, yet faith-affirming scholarship that reflects the myriad nationalities and ethnicities from all around the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I am somewhat disappointed that we have not got more articles online for the launch. But I am pleased that I have been able to be part of the largest, most complex, most international, and most diverse scholarly project the Adventist Church has ever undertaken. I believe God has blessed and will continue to bless, as we continue to find ways to record, commemorate, and understand, the way He has moved in the life of the Church.
Visit the new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists at http://encyclopedia.adventist.org
David Trim, Ph.D, has served as Director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists since 2010.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photos courtesy of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference.
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