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A “Great Controversy” Mailing in Portland Sours Many on Adventists


Pastor Katelyn Weakley had no shortage of church business on her mind when she went into her office in early May. The next day, she was going to be kicking off an evangelistic series at the Mount Tabor Seventh-day Adventist Church, a small neighborhood congregation in Portland, Oregon, where she has pastored for almost three years. It would be the first time leading such a series by herself, and she had spent months planning how to make the event relevant to her congregation and community. The theme was “Restoration: A Broken World Turned Beautiful,” and Weakley, who in addition to being a pastor has a background in social work, had scheduled guests who included a representative from the neighborhood association, a mental health therapist, and a member of an organization that works with the city’s houseless population.

But the church secretary had an unexpected message to share when Weakley arrived. A woman who lived nearby had called demanding answers about why she had received a copy of The Great Controversy by Ellen White in her mailbox—addressed to her deceased husband. Upset and seeing that the book was connected to the Adventist Church, she looked up the phone number for the nearest congregation. The church secretary answered the call and tried to diffuse the situation, telling the woman that while the Mt. Tabor Church hadn’t distributed the book, she could drop it off if she didn’t want it.

Now, the secretary was also wondering where the book might have come from. Weakley remembered reading about previous mass distributions of The Great Controversy, where entire zip codes in places like New York and Chicago had received copies. Something similar must be happening in Portland, she thought to herself. And after investing months of effort into creating a meeting series designed to connect with the local community, someone was indiscriminately distributing an Adventist book that had already angered at least one resident.

“I was so upset, and so demoralized,” Weakley told me.

“I prepared this very contextual evangelistic series. And right before I start, here comes another style of evangelism that, in my opinion, is just completely out of context for the city of Portland.”

Over the coming days, residents posted on social media about the books arriving in their mailboxes. Local newspaper Willamette Week published a story identifying Remnant Publications, an independent Adventist nonprofit based in Michigan, as the source, noting that the organization “has previously targeted other cities it believes to be plagued by social problems.”

A post on Reddit received hundreds of comments, ranging from bewildered to frustrated to downright angry.

“Imagine if they’d taken the money spent on publishing and mailing this to feed the hungry, provide shelter to the unsheltered, and offer aid to sick people,” one user wrote.

“I collected a bunch from my apartment complex and added them to my camping supplies,” another added. “The paper they used is actually perfect for fire tinder, and the book conveniently holds it all together in a compact and portable way.”

On Twitter, Alex Zielinski, a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting—who happens to be a woman—wrote that she received a copy addressed to “Mr. Alex Zielinski.”


Remnant Publications has been mass mailing The Great Controversy since 2012, according to Charlene Hall, director of development and planned giving for the organization. Last year, it sent copies across the state of Vermont. In 2016, it was Chicago. In 2015, Philadelphia. In 2013, New York City. The organization also sells a variety of Adventist and Christian literature.

Public tax filings show that the organization brought in over $1 million in contributions and $8 million in total revenue for 2020, the most recent records available. According to its website, Remnant Publications has committed to printing 10 million copies of The Great Controversy for distribution across North America this year.

When reached for comment about the Portland distribution, Hall told me that the organization often picks areas based on requests from people living there. Two years ago, a family near Portland began doing their own zip code mailings through Remnant Publications. Desiring to help that individual effort, Remnant went on to add Portland to its list of locations for a mass campaign. It took about three months in early 2023 to raise the money for the Portland project, Hall said.

For cheap delivery rates, the organization uses a company that specializes in direct mailing to send the books in bulk to local post offices, where they are then distributed on regular mail routes. Hall did not have an exact number-per-book for Portland but said that the bulk delivery rates keep costs low. In 2015, the organization claimed that it took $1.10 to send each book, including delivery.

In May, a Twitter user who identified themselves as a Portland-area mail carrier shared a photo of a pallet of books at a USPS facility. “We letter carriers had to cart these out for two/three days to get them all delivered,” they wrote. “Not a fan.”


“This is one [route’s] case load. Times this by 35 routes in the station.” Photo by @Therealjpstern.

In total, over 300,000 books were delivered across the Portland area. In response to environmental concerns, Hall said that all the books are printed on recycled paper.

According to Hall, it’s also common for Remnant Publications to receive messages from residents following book distributions. She estimated that her office received around 200 calls from people in the Portland area.

“With Portland, boy did we get a lot of negative phone calls and email messages from people,” Hall said, though she added that there had been a few positive responses as well.

While Hall laughs off some of the names she’s been called, she said she is sometimes saddened by people’s rejection of the book. “I think one of these days, when Jesus comes and they’re not a part of it, they’re going to say, ‘I wish we had read that book,’” she said. “And that’s the part that’s kind of sad. But it could be that one of them one day will pull it off the shelf.”

Remnant Publications has already begun raising money for its next distribution, which will send the books to the entire state of Maine.

The Great Controversy Project

Although Remnant Publications is an independent organization and claims no direct funding from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its efforts to distribute The Great Controversy have mirrored official initiatives from the denomination. After being elected president of the General Conference of the Adventist Church in 2010, Ted Wilson announced The Great Controversy Project, which would aim for a “massive world-wide distribution of the book.”

Even among some Adventist Church members who view Ellen White as a spiritual leader, the idea has been controversial from the beginning. “I’m afraid that the rubbish bins of our countries will be filled with discarded copies of The Great Controversy, wrote Eddy Johnson, an Adventist pastor, for Spectrum in 2011. Within Ellen White’s books, The Great Controversy has also garnered criticism for its anti-Catholic views. The book was originally published in 1858, a time of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. However, White seemed to soften her own views later in life. “I am certain that Ellen White would have further revised The Great Controversy, or would have written a totally new book to explain the great controversy concept, had she lived in the 2020s,” writes theologian and Spectrum columnist Hanz Gutierrez.

Ted Wilson has remained committed to the mass distribution concept. In 2021, he announced The Great Controversy Project 2.0, saying that the Adventist Church would promote two years of “massive distribution” of the book, aiming for 1 billion copies shared worldwide in 2023 and 2024. Independent organizations and individual church members are encouraged to acquire their own copies to give out. The downsides of such an approach—from cost to environmental impact to lack of efficiency to the content of the book—continue to be raised by many.

Other representatives from the Adventist Church defend the methods. In the June 2023 issue of Adventist World magazine, Sam Neves, associate communication director for the General Conference, addresses criticisms of the Great Controversy Project. The cost may exceed $1 billion, he writes, and “more than 8 million trees” will be cut to make that many books. But, he argues, the costs are justified, and critics who prefer “welcoming churches that actively alleviate the suffering of others in our communities” should instead focus on sharing the prophecies of Revelation.


Katelyn Weakley was at home when a mail carrier brought a copy of The Great Controversy to her address last month. She asked him what it was like to deliver the book to so many people. “What I hear from a lot of people who received it is that it’s basically hate speech,” he replied, adding that he advised people to put the book in the recycle bin if they didn’t want it.

In the days that followed, Weakley tried to talk with anyone she encountered who was upset or confused about the books. People started making posts in the Facebook group for her neighborhood, and she tried to explain the book and how it was coming from a group in Michigan.

Despite the distractions, Weakley says that her meeting series went well. But while the fervor around the books has started to die down, she is still left to deal with the aftermath.

“I am pro the book The Great Controversy,” she told me, “but I also think there are certainly better and worse ways to introduce it and to glean components from it that are applicable to us today.” According to Weakley, in cities like Portland, the assumption can’t be that everyone is a Christian, and one can’t immediately jump into talking about what type of Christianity is best. Many people also have their own religious trauma that might be triggered by receiving an apocalyptic book in the mail.

When looking at methods of how to reach people, Weakley says she hopes to follow the teachings of Matthew 10, where Christ tells his disciples to first go and minister to the people of their own culture and, as she explains it, live "with the people, doing good amongst the people, teaching amongst the people." To Weakley, trying to proselytize from a distance, without first committing to serve a community, misses the mark.

“When I think of a mass mailing, that feels so opposite of what Jesus is asking of his disciples," she told me. “He called us to reside in the place where you’re ministering.”

“Portland was like, ‘Why spend millions of dollars to send us this book when we have homeless people filling the streets? When global warming is destroying the planet?’ I think there are so many better principles for evangelism that Jesus gives his disciples.”

Despite a continued onslaught in the national media to portray Portland as a city on fire (no, the city did not burn to the ground over the last several years, and no, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous cities in America), Weakley maintains that the people are friendly and open-minded.

“I think as a Christian, if you have a willingness to sit and talk and listen, then you will be listened to,” she said.

Advocates of mass literature evangelism in the Adventist Church say that anyone successfully reached justifies the means. But if the reactions of Portland residents are any indication, this method also comes at the cost of thousands of people associating Adventism with a disrespect for their personal identity, the destruction of the environment, and an antiquated view of religion.


Alex Aamodt is managing digital editor and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.

Title image: a charred copy of The Great Controversy, photographed in Portland, Oregon, in May 2023. Photo courtesy of Suzette Smith.

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