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Scholar Tributes to Ronald Numbers

From left: Julius Nam, Gary Land, Ronald Numbers, Terrie Dopp Aamodt

Title image: The steering committee for the 2009 conference that produced the book Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2009). From left: Julius Nam, Gary Land, Ronald Numbers, Terrie Dopp Aamodt. 

Since the death of historian of religion and science Ronald Numbers on July 24, Spectrum has received the following tributes from Adventist scholars. 
From the 2 remaining members of the steering committee for the 2009 Portland, Maine, conference

Terrie Dopp Aamodt, PhD, Professor emerita of history, Walla Walla University:

I met Ron Numbers at Andrews University during the 2001 conference of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians (ASDAH). I had been asked to introduce him as the keynote speaker on Sabbath morning. His very late arrival led us to sing a lot of hymns. As it turned out, the highways had changed so much since his last visit to Andrews in the seventies that he had become lost and meandered about, trying to get his bearings. We all had a good laugh at his expense. Some crazy impulse prompted me to ask him later that day whether, if some of us put together a national conference on Ellen White in Portland, Maine, he would be willing to chair the event. He said, “Sure.”

That pipe dream became a reality at the 2009 Portland conference, “Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet.” It involved many leading scholars of American religious history, who gathered to evaluate chapter drafts for a proposed book targeting a general academic audience. Since many of those scholars did not know Ellen White well, Ron and his fellow organizers were as nervous as if we had arranged a blind date. The positive energy radiating from that event was a happy surprise, and the eventual volume published by Oxford University Press in 2014 was a satisfying outcome. The attention from distinguished scholars of American religion and from Oxford University Press were owed to Ron Numbers’s professional stature and connections.

As the conference was coming together, Ron was interviewed on a podcast. The host asked him why, given his stature worldwide as an authority both on the history of science and the history of American religion, he would put his reputation on the line by participating in a conference on someone as obscure and quirky as Ellen White. Ron replied that he saw the event as a way to help and encourage younger scholars. Since “young” and I had not been on speaking terms for some time, I was gratified and grateful to be able to slide along on Julius Nam’s coat tails.

I felt pretty special in that regard until I attended a festschrift conference at Florida State University honoring Ron on the occasion of his retirement several years later. During the festivities there were countless testimonials from “younger scholars” whom Numbers had befriended and aided in their career path. 

Ron Numbers’s habit of largesse is legendary. It even extended toward Seventh-day Adventism, a body whose officials at times tried to destroy his work and banish him from the community. Those actions stung, but even after all that, when he referred to Adventists he used the pronoun “we.” Perhaps his treatment fired his own generosity and unselfishness toward countless ordinary mortals. It is unlikely any other single individual will serve, in succession, as president of the American Society of Church History and the History of Science Society. But there’s more: prolific, world-renowned scholarship, wide-ranging success as an author and editor, a gregarious outlook, and a roguish sense of humor. It has been a blessing to know Ron Numbers. Along with a host of scholars in other fields, every historian of Adventism is in his debt.


Julius Nam, PhD, JD, author of Reactions to the Seventh-day Adventist Evangelical Conferences and Questions on Doctrine, 1955-1971:

Numbers was an advocate for Ellen White who took her and her world seriously and stood firmly against ecclesiastical appropriations of White for contemporary purposes, Ron embodied the gift of prophecy like none other—as to who White authentically was and what Adventist scholarship could become. He was a premiere evangelist for Adventism of our time—even if he may have cringed at and disavowed such a characterization. He showed the world and generations of Adventists a new way to be thoughtful, inquiring, and joyful students of the truth, both in and out of faith communities.

Longtime friends 

Jim Walters, PhD, Professor emeritus of ethics, School of Religion, Loma Linda University:

I had a personal connection with Ron, in that I was a student at Collegedale Academy when Ron was a physics major at the adjacent Southern Adventist University (then Southern Missionary College) in the early sixties. Prior to my decision to be a theology/communication major in college, I planned on a physics major with a jump-start. Hence, one summer I got Ron to tutor me in trigonometry. So when we spoke via phone a couple of months ago, he fondly recalled me as “his very first student.” Over the years he and I stayed connected, as friends and on second-tier academic projects such as a popular medical center publication, my sponsoring him and others associated with his (and Aamodt’s and Land’s) Ellen Harmon White anthology for a Loma Linda University Sabbath afternoon major panel discussion, and my having him lecture at my LLU Church Sabbath School class.


James Hayward, PhD, Research Professor of biology, Andrews University: 

Ron Numbers was my friend and colleague. We both earned STEM degrees at Adventist colleges, we both enjoyed a common interest in the history of science and religion, and we both were raised by fundamentalist pastor-fathers. We’ve shared many delightful meals and stimulating conversations. Whenever we were in the other’s neighborhood, we made contact so we could get together.

I first met Ron in 1989 at which time he visited Andrews University to discuss a book project with our mutual friend, Gary Land. Gary invited me to join them for lunch. Ron had distanced himself from mainstream Adventism, but when asked what he wanted for lunch, he replied, “What I’d really like is a vege-burger!” So, that’s what we had. I was impressed by Ron’s cordial, outgoing, gracious, albeit direct, manner—hardly the demon-possessed caricature created by his detractors.

Ron’s book Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White played a crucial role in my religious development. It was an honest book that sadly earned Ron the ire of many church officials who declared his work “of the devil.” The gist of his argument and the quality of his research, however, have stood the test of time and are now acknowledged by most Adventist historians. But when Prophetess became available in 1976, I had to pick up my special-order copy—concealed in a brown paper sack—directly from the manager’s office at the Andrews University bookstore.

Despite official church resistance to his views, Ron’s work on Ellen White, John Harvey Kellogg, George McCready Price, creationism, and other topics put Adventism on the map of American religious history scholarship. Prior to his death, Ron was nearing completion of a major work on Kellogg. I hope his research and writing on this volume will not be lost.

Late last summer, I invited Ron and a friend to join me on a trip to the Galapagos Islands scheduled for this coming August. Ron responded that he and his friend would think about my offer but noted that during a recent cruise he had needed help getting around. Then, several weeks later, on October 22, he wrote again saying that “as much as we’d like to join you, I think we should decline. We’re both really disappointed (of course, it’s October 22!)”—Ron never abandoned his Adventist consciousness.

I, for one, am grateful to Ron Numbers for his many contributions to the history of science and religion, his additions to our understanding of Adventism, and his kindnesses to me as a friend. He was a straight shooter, something I admired, and he left us too soon.

Generosity to Adventist scholars

Christie Chui-Shan Chow, PhD, author of Schism: Seventh-day Adventism in Post-Denominational China (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021):

Ron and I crossed paths in the past years. The first time in a history seminar at Princeton, after which we had lunch at the seminary cafeteria. The next time was in a General Conference archive annual meeting. We reconnected after he spoke at the Sligo Sabbath School during the COVID lockdown. He and I came very close to collaborating on a project about the GC president William Branson, who was to lead the China work after World War II, but this never happened. I later withdrew from the project because I had to revise my manuscript for publication. Ron was so kind to share some of his Branson research with me. “We can always pick up the project if you like,” he graciously said. What a great scholar who was enthusiastic to nurture a young mind. What a lost opportunity for me to work with a great historian. A few weeks ago I wrote to Jonathon and asked about Ron. I told Jonathon that Ron would never know how his scholarship had impacted me and that I am using his books and telling his story with the church wherever I teach. Jonathan was so kind to pass on what I said to Ron. For this I am very grateful. 


Lisa Clark Diller, PhD, Professor of Early Modern History, Southern Adventist University, president of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians:

Numbers retained his affection for the members of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians, and in the last two decades contributed his academic connections and resources to Adventist scholars who were getting started in the profession. Young Adventist historians studying the history of science or Christianity in the United States had books donated to them, were given references to graduate school, or were taken to lunch at conferences when Numbers ran into them. When he found a stash of 150 original World War I propaganda posters in the attic of his home, he donated them to the History department at his alma mater Southern Adventist University. He provided introductions for Adventists to historians beyond the church and encouraged their publications. When he came to the ASDAH 2013 meetings at Union College, he confessed that he was impressed with the way current Adventist historians have navigated their support for the church and the quality of their scholarship.


Michael Campbell, PhD, director of Archives, Statistics & Research for the North American Division:

I first met Ron Numbers when I serendipitously sat across from him in 2001, the same year he gave the presidential address for the American Society of Church History. While familiar with his controversial work about Ellen White, this chance encounter was the beginning of more veggie burgers at academic conferences as he shared about his background growing up Adventist: the grandson of a General Conference president, attending Southern Missionary College, his career as a young academic, and then still later, his departure from church employment and becoming a self-ascribed agnostic. As a teenager, he took his faith seriously, anxious about being perfect and persevering through end-time events, until he experienced a loss of faith while attending a ranger program about evolution at Yellowstone. Despite significant challenges, he remained connected to the world of Adventism, often speaking to groups of historians about his Adventist background and even encouraging others to pursue Adventist history. I also discovered that whether you agreed with him or not, he enjoyed the repartee and that he wrote many reference articles in encyclopedias about Ellen White and Adventism so that much of what the wider world outside of Adventism knows about these topics is informed by his research and writing.


Kevin Burton, PhD(c), director of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University:

I did not know Ron that well, but I did spend time with him in person on three different occasions in my life. I first met him when my wife and I were doing research at the General Conference Archives in January 2014. Ron was there doing research on W. H. Branson (his grandfather) at the same time. He bought Sarah and me lunch in the GC café on one of those days. The second occasion is when he gave a lecture at Florida State University when I was there doing my PhD coursework. Again, we had a very nice time chatting together. Finally, I was with him for three days when I helped box up his papers and bring them to the Center for Adventist Research. I spent many hours with Ron one-on-one over this period, and he paid for all of my meals. We had such a wonderful time talking, and I really got to know him a bit during this trip. He called me on the phone several times after that, mostly to talk about his papers and things related to preserving his legacy.  

Though I did not know Ron Numbers as well as many others, I considered him a friend. He was more than a distinguished historian—he was very generous, a kind gentleman, and fun to spend time with. I had the privilege of working with him recently to preserve his personal papers and make them available at the Center for Adventist Research. During our many hours together, we shared good food (which he generously paid for), talked about Adventist history, and laughed about the intricacies of life (Ron had a great sense of humor). I will never forget parting company with him on this occasion. He was truly touched by what we were doing at Andrews University to help preserve his legacy and wished me God’s blessing. I wished him God’s blessing in return and, though saddened by his departure, I am glad he is at peace.


This video was filmed at the Portland, Maine, conference in 2009 that produced the Oxford University Press book  Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. In this video Randall Stephens, a scholar of American religion, then at Eastern Nazarene University, now at University of Olso, interviews Ron Numbers about White, Adventism in general, and the impact of John H. Kellogg on American eating habits.


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