Hope for the Historian as Activist

Hope for the Historian as Activist

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Published:
April 11, 2022

I attended my first Conference on Faith and History (CFH) in 2006 at Oklahoma Baptist University. At the time, Gary Land, chair of the history department at Andrews University, encouraged me to participate. I had not had much experience attending professional meetings and noticed at the time that very few of the Adventist scholars I rubbed shoulders with participated in any kind of professional meetings outside of Adventism. So, I was partly curious as well as envious of those who were involved, just to see what such a meeting was like. My friend Julius Nam, at the time a professor at Pacific Union College, joined us for a panel session about Adventism (Nam and I were then in the planning stages of the 50th-anniversary conference commemorating Questions on Doctrine). At that time, I was excited to see where Christian historians were doing research and where they were taking the church.

After sixteen years, with much of the intervening time spent as a pastor, missionary, and most recently, as a religion professor, I knew that I didn’t want to miss this gathering that typically meets biennially (and was delayed due to COVID-19). My wife, Heidi, is pursuing a PhD in early modern history at Baylor University, which was hosting the event, and I noticed how Adventists continued to remain involved—our friend, Lisa Diller, chair of the history department at Southern Adventist University, was the point person for the planning committee. I also found a much larger and more diverse gathering, a group that was wrestling with the very heart and soul of what it is to do history. What follows are some of my thoughts about this recent gathering, some of the Adventist papers, and the nature and importance of the historical enterprise for Adventism at large.

Hope for Historians?

Probably the person who intrigued me the most was Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She is the author of the best-selling Jesus and John Wayne, a book that has tremendously influenced my thinking over the past two years. It was a mutual CFH friend, Elesha Coffman, who first tipped me off about this book and encouraged me to pre-order the book even before its release. The book takes a deep dive into evangelicals and gender in the twentieth century, most notably beginning in the 1920s with the infatuation of conservative Christians with Teddy Roosevelt, on through the 1940s with John Wayne, or movie depictions of Mel Gibson as historical figures in The Patriot or Braveheart. Such popular portrayals belie a much more complex history of gender, a history that some have tried to posit as in tension or conflict with Christian ideals. But is it really?

Du Mez in her plenary address to the CFH shared some of her own story. Her most recent book detailing a militant, muscular Christianity in the twentieth century has garnered strong reactions in some circles, and for me, it is one of the most important books I have ever read (see my review in Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 2021, pp. 121-126). The history of gender is not simply the story of women or feminism, but at times it is the story of a militant variety of masculinity gone terribly wrong. Some people dismiss her work as that of a liberal Christian who must not believe the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is, in fact, very much a committed Christian who upholds a “high view” of Scripture (she details some of this story, too, in a recent distinguished lecture at Southwestern Adventist University). The problem with studying gender is not gender itself but instead the abuse of power. Historians of gender, such as Du Mez, help to open our eyes to power differentials where across time and space we can see when individuals have been voiceless, oppressed. By studying these marginalized groups, historians address cultural and social forces that shape our world. Gender differences are in fact a good thing that can and should be celebrated, so long as it is not at the expense of tearing down those who are different from oneself. Adventism, it should be noted, has at times imbibed such distorted and unbiblical views of masculinity, particularly after Ellen White’s death and on into the 1920s, details of which I highlight in a chapter about “Muscular Adventism” in my forthcoming book, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism (Pacific Press, 2022).

It seems that often the history people write does more to protect and maintain the status quo. Du Mez raised the question: who merits our love? Is it those who are in power or those who have been marginalized? Although some have criticized her work for not expressing hope, she responded that history is best seen through how it actually is, not how we would like it to be. Hope is not why we do history, but rather, the virtue that compels us to do history. History is complex and we need diversity within the historical profession to truly appreciate the past. We also need historians of integrity who are willing to criticize their own tradition—to be honest, and thereby preserve our witness. At one pivotal moment, she stated that “Jesus doesn’t need our protection.” Instead, he only requires our obedience. “This is not a war but faith seeking understanding,” she added. At the very end of her plenary, an Adventist scholar asked her to point out a positive example of masculinity. She replied simply that all gender should be an outworking of the fruits of the Spirit. Thus, a biblical masculinity, at its best, should be seen in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

Historians as Activists?

If Du Mez’s plenary address was impressive, the next plenary address by Jemar Tisby was fire. While pursuing his doctorate, Tisby authored two best-selling books, first, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (2019), and most recently, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice (2021). I had read his books and discussed them with a group of SWAU faculty at a recent faculty book club, so I was eager to hear him speak. He shared his experience with historical reflection, reframing the historian’s vocation as one of activist, articulating a vision for public engagement and courage. “Justice takes side,” he stated, adding, “I came to the study of history because I have a burden for justice.”

In a way that is like gender studies for Du Mez, Tisby sees a similar need to study inconvenient truths from the past. “What does this historical moment require of historians? What will be your witness? If you stand for truth, justice, and righteousness in a system that stands against those things, you will face resistance. You will face rejection from communities you thought were your own.” He argued that those gathered for CFH were living in times that called for moral clarity. It is not enough to merely write about the past but one must at times—informed by this historical awareness—work as an activist to make a difference. “I can’t just write for the academy,” he added. “I can’t just do my scholarship for the sake of other scholars.”

From his viewpoint, even the writing of history is under threat. “We are living in a time when there is an attack on the accurate telling of history. That is what the anti-critical race theory is about. Dismantling this idealized and valorized image of the past by telling a truer story and the resistance to that effort. What do we as historians have to say at this moment?” As such, he described the present as one of an epistemological crisis. That which is inconvenient is often labeled as fake news. His plenary address was a challenge for historians at CFH to rise to the occasion by writing provocative history, honestly and openly addressing those issues in the past, most notably race, that should and must inform our current situation.

Adventist Historians & Historiography

During these plenary addresses, among others, and a whole host of paper sessions, there was a group of Adventist scholars percolating and sharing their research. On Thursday afternoon, a panel session was chaired by Elesha Coffman, a professor of history at Baylor, about “Seventh-day Adventist Case Studies in Protest, Resistance, and Transformation.” Adventist scholars weren’t holding back in their historiography in this session, probing new contours within Adventist historiography.

First up was Edward Allen with “The Bible Alone is Our Creed.” In this paper Allen, a professor at Union College, traced the origins of anti-creedalism in the nineteenth century, demonstrating that the early Adventist pioneers shared sensibilities against creedalism that were quite common at the time. Next was a paper I wrote about “Adventist Fundamentalism, Race, and Gender.” In this paper, I argued that it was the influence of the historical Fundamentalist movement, most notably in the 1920s, that radically altered Adventist views about race and gender in the early twentieth century (subjects explored in more depth in my forthcoming 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism book). Then Gilbert Valentine, recently retired as a professor at La Sierra University, shared about “Resisting ‘Neo-Adventism’: Tensions Between Seventh-day Adventist Fundamentalists and Progressives, 1966–1979.” His research was a distillation of a much longer monograph released the week after the conference titled Ostriches and Canaries: Coping with Change in Adventism.  And then finally, Austin E. Loignon, who teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Arlington, presented some of his dissertation research about “Fit for Translation: John Harvey Kellogg and Salvific Health Reform.” His paper documented the spiritual beginnings and transformation of Kellogg, who, after his spiritual break with Ellen White in 1899, began to move the Adventist health message and reforms into a mode for salvation. Afterward, we had a pleasant discussion about the mutual themes that tied our scholarship together. I could not help but think that Gary Land, who has since passed away, would have been quite pleased to see such a panel about Adventism at CFH.

Gil Valentine (La Sierra University), Austin Loignon (University of Texas at Arlington), Michael Campbell (Southwestern Adventist University) and Edward Allen (Union College). 


In addition to this specific session, two other Adventist scholars presented their research in other panels. Heidi Olson Campbell, a PhD candidate at Baylor who specializes in early modern European history and gender studies, presented in a paper session about “Women in Reformation Theology” about “From Shrews to Good Puritan Wives: The Reformation of Erasmus’s Women in Coniugium in English Translations.” Her work explores the shifting portrayal of women’s roles in translations of Erasmus’s Coniugium in early modern England in its political and religious contexts. Also, Kevin M. Burton, PhD candidate at Florida State University and newly appointed director of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University, presented a paper on “Millerite Abolitionists and the Challenge to Postmillennial Theory.” Burton’s research showcases how at the inception of Millerite Adventism, these Adventists were already ardent activists. Both Heidi and Kevin are doing excellent research as Adventist scholars probing new frontiers in Adventist scholarship at major research universities outside the Adventist academic bubble.

During the conference, a gathering of Adventist scholars, including a group of undergraduate students from Southern Adventist University and Southwestern Adventist University, along with Spectrum Executive Editor Alexander Carpenter, shared a meal. No doubt Gary Land’s heart, were he still alive, would have been “strangely warmed” to see many more Adventist scholars continuing conversations that he started at the time when CFH was founded and throughout the rest of his professional career. Many years ago, Land shared with me how he wished more Adventist scholars would become involved in CFH, and in many ways, thanks to the work of Diller and others, we are seeing that dream fulfilled. And if the scholarship of Du Mez and Tisby is any indication, along with a myriad of other papers by Christian scholars from a wide variety of backgrounds, such conversations need to take place with other Christian scholars. Adventist scholarship and historiography need to be shared in such venues. Just as one example, a scholar at a major university came up to me and shared how in his course on American religious history he assigns readings by “William Miller,” but he has come to appreciate the nuances of Adventism enough that he differentiates such readings and what he used to also assign—readings by David Koresh. Most Adventist adherents would appreciate such nuance. And this is part of the reason why it matters that Adventist scholars should not do scholarship merely for other Adventist scholars but need to engage in the wider Christian academic world. After all, as John Fea similarly stated at this year’s CFH: “Good historical thinking can change the world.” Adventism can become more historically accurate and honest in its witness by paying close attention and participating with other scholars at CFH and similar academic gatherings. After all, Adventists are a “people of hope” and as such should and must be compelled to be faithful in both their historical and historiographic witness.


Michael W. Campbell is professor of religion at Southwestern Adventist University. He was recently named as the new director of archives, statistics, and research for the North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. His new book, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism, is available now. 

Title image credit: The Conference on Faith and History

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