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Remembering Gary Land


Gary G. Land, emeritus professor of history at Andrews University and long-time member of the Spectrum editorial board, died on Saturday, April 26, at the St. Joseph Medical Center in Mishawaka, Indiana, after a long battle with cancer. A service is planned for this Friday, May 2. His first student, Ben McArthur, penned this tribute.

When Gary Land died this past Sabbath, we lost a person who stood at the center of the Adventist historical community for over 40 years.  His contributions went well beyond the many books he wrote or edited and beyond his influence as teacher and department chair at Andrews.  He served the church as a Christian intellectual, and in the New York Review of Books sense of that term, was perhaps the first in Adventist higher education.  If I exaggerate, it’s only slightly.  Let me explain.

Gary was a graduate of Monterey Bay Academy and Pacific Union College.  From college he went directly to University of California/Santa Barbara, where he studied American intellectual history with Robert Kelley (and worked for Otis Graham).  When Ronald Numbers left Andrews for Loma Linda in 1970, Gary received the call to Berrien Springs.  He would spend his entire career at Andrews, retiring in 2010.

I was there at his beginning.  Having survived the gauntlet of Don McAdams’s World Civ class as a freshman, I found myself the next year in Gary’s American History sequence.  I saw a lanky and already balding figure enter the classroom.  Soft-spoken and easily embarrassed, he was the model of diffidence. It was an endearing quality.  Gary’s humility and willingness to question his own ideas became his professional persona.  

None of that mattered to me then.  What I encountered was an approach to history I didn’t know existed: the history of ideas, styles, and sensibilities.  It was exhilarating.  Without benefit of Powerpoint (or any visual aid other than chalk and blackboard), Gary elucidated the concepts that shaped America.  I soon determined that this was the game for me.  Over the next two years I took whatever courses he offered.  In the process, Gary assigned books of a complexity not often seen in our current classrooms: works by Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn, Richard Hofstadter, and Perry Miller — all giants in the field in the 1970s.  I took advantage of his good nature (and the fact that he was still a bachelor) to occasionally drop by his apartment, where he would talk literature.  When he recommended John Dos Passos or William Styron, I dutifully found copies.  

It was Gary’s engagement with not only history but also literature and religious thought that gave him a special place in Adventist academia.  Andrews University in the 1970s housed an unusual number of accomplished faculty (the Seminary purge notwithstanding).  Gary stood apart for his knowledge of the Western intellectual tradition and particularly the currents of American thought.  He seemed always the best-read person in any gathering.  Further, he consciously sought to infuse this vein of intellectual serious-mindedness into Adventist discourse.  I think of one example.  His book Teaching History: A Seventh-day Adventist Approach, was both a conceptually sophisticated and a practical treatment of the subject.  

I trust that most veterans of the Adventist Forum community recognize Gary’s central role through the decades.  Although not one of the organization’s founders, as author and long-time member of Spectrum’s editorial board, he helped shape the most important organ of open discussion in the church.  

At this sad time, we can be grateful that Gary had the satisfaction of seeing one of his most significant works, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (which he co-edited with Terrie Aamodt and Ron Numbers), fresh off the press. (The book is being released by Oxford University Press May 2014.)  And though he will not see the final product, he was able to complete his biography of Uriah Smith.  Predictably, he already had set to work on a new project. 

To end where I began, Gary Land occupied a singular place in the Adventist academy.  He often devoted his time to championing the projects of others (as in making sure that Everett Dick’s groundbreaking 1930 dissertation on the Millerites finally found publication in 1994).  Such efforts were in the service of his driving vision: a church, a Christianity informed by historical reflection.  Gary was part of that special generational cohort which nudged our denomination toward intellectual self-scrutiny.  Although the church has wavered in its commitment to this uncomfortable endeavor, Gary marched straight ahead, to the end persuaded that only the examined religious tradition was worth embracing.

Ben McArthur graduated from Andrews University in 1973.  He teaches history at Southern Adventist University.

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