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Situating Adventist History Conference Report Day 1


While the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians (ASDAH) normally holds meetings only every three years, twice in the last four years (2014 and 2018), David Trim, Director of the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR), has taken advantage of the many historians attending the national meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C., to host an additional conference.

This “Situating Adventist History” conference is jointly sponsored by ASTR, ASDAH, and the Department of History and Political Studies at Washington Adventist University (WAU).

The conference began Monday at WAU. It was very cold outside, and the weather was a hot topic on the news and in our conversations.

Andrew Howe, president of ASDAH and Professor of History at La Sierra University, welcomed the disparate scholars to the event, reminding us that in an era when “facts” are under attack, more than ever we need to think about how to situate scholarship in useful ways. David Trim gave a short history of ASDAH and welcomed us on behalf of the GC. The provost of WAU, Cheryl Kisunzu, also welcomed us and meditated on how historians can help alleviate fear for the future as we cultivate remembrance and marshal our resources for “such a time as this.”

Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World, gave the devotional. He shared some of his adventures in tracing his own family history and the significance and inspiration that it provided for him. He focused on the ways that God sometimes answers the prayers of our ancestors in ways they could not have imagined—and that we can have confidence in his continued presence as we move forward in history.

The morning consisted of four plenary addresses. These were all outstanding, and as they were not filmed, I have extended my summary to try to do justice to their ideas. The addresses were given by four historians:

Nicholas Miller (Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary): Adventism, Fundamentalism, and the Bible

Alec Ryrie (University of Durham): Apoliticism, Apocalypticism and Anticlericalism: The Place of Adventism in Protestant History

Reggie Williams (McCormick Theological Seminary): To Love Your Neighbor You Must Know Yourself: Black Christianity and the Revelation of Black Humanity

David Holland (Harvard Divinity School): Dualism and Its Discontents: Seventh-day Adventists, Latter-day Saints, Christian Scientists and the Ontological Revelations of the Nineteenth Century

The first plenary session was by Nicholas Miller who based his presentation on his contribution to the recently released The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America. He argued that while Adventists are conservative, they do not have the same roots as most American fundamentalist churches and, therefore, really should not be categorized as fundamentalist. Miller laid out the “hermeneutical heritage” of Adventists as rooted in both Arminian theology and a Scottish Common Sense paradigm.

In Miller’s description, the early Adventists were foundationalist to a certain degree and believed truth could be ascertained, yet they did not see all truth as “scientifically provable;” some truth could be ascertained internally. But Adventists were also comfortable with epistemological diversity. They did not tend to use the fundamentalist phrase “plain reading of Scripture.” Instead, they referred to the “plain teaching of Scripture,” which meant the Bible could be interpreted by people in ways beyond what the words literally said in order to find out how God wanted humans to act. This was important, Miller says, for subjects such as eternal hell, use of alcohol, women speaking in church, and slavery. Adventists came to different conclusions on these topics than what might be seen to come from the simple words of the Bible.

Ellen White’s invocation of the Incarnation model for interpretation of the Bible (the idea that Scripture, like Jesus, was fully divine and fully human) was being used by other moderate Christians at the time. Miller cites Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband who also described inspiration in this incarnational way in order to push back against fundamentalists within the Presbyterian Church. Miller says this shows the connection between this moderate view of inspiration and social activism, such as the abolitionist movement, which Adventists and other Protestants in the Arminian New School theological approach were all part of.

Miller spent the second half of his presentation laying out the gradual shift within Adventism after the death of Ellen White to a more fundamentalist tenor in spite of what can be seen as stunted attempts by the official church at communicating what Miller called “moderate approaches” to inspiration. The most recent phase of our history he identified as “the international phase” and argued that it brought a more conservative — though not fundamentalist — turn to the church because Adventism was planted around the world before the fundamentalist movement fully developed in the U. S.

The second plenary address was by Alec Ryrie, author of many books on Protestantism and the Reformation. Ryrie affirmed how important he has found Adventism to be in the wider history of Protestantism. Few sectarian and prophetic groups like Adventists have been able to institutionalize themselves without smothering the inspirational impulse that birthed them.

Ryrie explored how these Spirit-led groups endured. Some of them owe this survival to their founders (such as Methodists with John Wesley) who were both pragmatic and open to the ongoing work of the Spirit. Adventists, he said, clearly reflect Ellen White’s organizational skills combined with her charisma. He spent the rest of his talk focusing on the three ways Adventists tapped into Protestant themes and so bridged the divide between short-lived sects and more stable mainstream churches:

1. Apocalypticism: Protestants were more likely to see the world ending sooner and to include apocalyptic views of world events. However, with time some churches forgot about the end of the world altogether while others have kept it close. Adventists are unusual in that they have held on to apocalypticism without being unbalanced and while building institutions such as universities. Here he argued that Ellen White’s leadership may have given Adventists a gendered, “feminine feel,” more pragmatic and measured.

2. Anti-clericalism: Resentment and rejection of priesthoods of every kind is also encoded into Protestantism. This instinct has “rumbled on” through Protestant history, perhaps especially in the United States, and definitely in Adventism. This suspicious view of the educated elite included the medical establishment. So health reforms were definitely part of the popular challenge to the priesthood of medicine; hydro and sanitarium healthcare was cheap and relatively accessible and easily connected to spiritual reform. Ryrie asserted that this makes sense of why White’s health reform would fall on fertile ground in the U.S. But Adventists also made the successful transition to include more professionalized medical practice in their institutions.

3. Apoliticism. Today Europeans and Americans often see politics as the most important way to solving world problems, and political activity is viewed as virtuous. But Protestantism has a strain within it that is neither liberal nor political but which looks beyond the state to other sources of value and reform. Luther himself was apolitical and did not care much about the details of earthly government. This apoliticism is sometimes seen as submission to tyrannical authority. But for much of world history, Christians have withdrawn from the world and seen that as a virtue. This view might lend less apocalypticism and messianism to our current politics, and that would be a good thing, Ryrie suggested.

Adventists represent a fascinating balance which has allowed them to be extremely successful while maintaining many of the sectarian traits. Ryrie concluded that they may be the most important religious group in the world that is also neglected by the scholarship in the field.

The third plenary by Reggie Williams, author of Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, helped contextualize the theological and ethical implications of white supremacy, especially within the church. He argued that the construction of “whiteness” during the Enlightenment period resulted from taxonomies of race which said there were certain ideals for mankind and that those who didn’t live up to them were less than human. It was at this point also that Jesus became white, instead of a Middle Eastern Jew. Whiteness became the true image of God on earth, and thus white supremacy distorts the image of God by locating the divine in a specific ideal human type. It leaves humans in a mess because it distorts our common humanity.

Williams then traced the project of the Harlem Renaissance and its revelation that white supremacy was a lie: black people were, in fact, beautiful and intelligent and talented. The notion of the Black Jesus in the Harlem Renaissance was not an attempt to depict a black man as white people would see him. Jesus was supposed to be beyond race, not confined by the controlled world of whiteness. In fact, Harlem writers and artists depicted Jesus as the face of the disinherited. He was a poor Jew from a colonized place, and they contended that white Americans in the 1920s and 1930s would likely not have recognized Him.

Williams reminded us that privileging certain bodies as better than others prevents us from seeing other people as fully human, as fully the children of God. White supremacy hurts white people as well as people of color because it prevents them from confronting their own full humanity. Recognizing our human worth gives us courage to work and live and, thus, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The final plenary address was by David Holland who is currently working on a comparative biography of Ellen White and Mary Baker Eddy. Holland began by pointing out that three prophetic movements in the nineteenth century all developed unique ways of talking about the relationship between the body and the spirit: Adventists, Mormons, and Christian Scientists. All adhered to something he called monism—an ontological unity that was a reaction/resistance to the predominant dualism which separated body and spirit/soul. One element of the nineteenth-century context that promoted such monism was the concern to protect God’s character and emphasize his love. Ellen White explicitly argued that the ontological unity of a restored man, who was renewed in both body and soul, was where the love of God could best reside. This was an anthropology that was modeled on divinity. Eddy argued for a loving God based on ontological sameness between humans and God. But all three movements were trying to narrow the difference between humans and God and to defend His goodness through arguing for ontological unity.

The crisis of religious authority that these prophetic movements embodied also shaped their theology. They no longer wanted the authority of the clergy but leadership that had a direct relationship to God, to the same Spirit that had produced the Bible. This also was a push back on secularism, which said there are different spheres of authority. Prophetic authority erased the line between the sacred and the temporal, and so did monism, which said that there was no such thing as earthly bodies and heavenly souls; instead, it was all one. Finally, all three movements were deeply concerned with order and predictability. They wanted a law-abiding cosmos. The monistic world is more manageable than a dualistic one. Holland ended with a long series of quotes by White that connected the Law and its on-going importance to the unity of spirit, mind, and body.

The Q &A time was in many ways the most revelatory part of these talks, with questions that provoked thinking on how these arguments worked globally in the Adventist Church, on how American racial ideas shaped our denomination, how black Christians were integrating or rejecting feminism, and how ideas of time and history were shaped by monism or ontological unity.

After lunch, a panel featured Adventists in the larger American nineteenth century. Unlike the plenary addresses, these are available through the General Conference livestream, so I will summarize them more briefly here.

Brian E. Strayer (Professor emeritus, Andrews University): Seeing Themselves as Others Saw Them: Battle Creek Adventists in the Public Eye, 1855–1890

Strayer treated us to a lively survey of how Adventists in Battle Creek were perceived by their neighbors as evidenced in the local newspapers from the 1850s to the 1880s. Adventists primarily kept apart from their neighbors at first and were viewed with suspicion by the newspapers; but they gradually increased in number and became more involved in businesses, publishing, music, and education. As they invested in the city, the newspapers began to treat Adventists more positively, but several salacious stories were circulated by one paper especially: The Nightly Moon. Strayer’s work demonstrated how often the stories in the Moon were false but also how invested and integral a part of Battle Creek the Adventists had become. They were carefully watched and their events thoroughly covered. It was a delightful reminder of how much extra insight we can gain from outside observers, and from doing thick local histories.

Kevin Burton (PhD candidate, Florida State University): Situating Views on Military Service: Seventh-day Adventist Soldiers and the Church’s Political Rhetoric During the Civil War

Burton delivered perhaps the most controversial paper of the day. He argued that against the norm of scholarly and popular opinion today, Adventists, in fact, did not start their history as a committed peace church. His research shows that they signed up to fight for the Union in the same proportion as the rest of the North. It is clear from the debates in the Review that Adventists had a range of opinions on military participation, from strong pacifism to strong cooperation in combat roles. The leadership of the church, Burton asserted, falsely presented the church as being uniformly consistent regarding pacifist practice in order to allow its members who wanted exemptions to be able to get them. Burton provided thick analysis of the primary evidence, including the promotional materials produced by the church for government consumption, and he suggested that some of the schisms that occurred after the war were directly related to the conflict between pacifists and cooperators in the war effort. His conclusion was that apocalyptic groups like the Adventists often still participate in nationalist projects even though they believe Jesus is coming soon.

Michel Sunhae Lee (PhD candidate, University of Texas): Sacred Time and Sabbath-keeping in Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Sunhae Lee provided one of the most creative papers of the day. She looked at how often Sunday sabbatarianism in the form of Sunday laws and ordinances was policing not just activity but sound. The descriptions of Sabbath breaking often involved discussion of “noisy” activities, mostly in entertainment or the business realm. The idea of a “quiet Sabbath” meant that some forms of moral reform were trying to enforce white Protestant forms of introspection and had class element to them. Lee analyzed the ways Adventists engaged in these conflicts, especially in California before the repeal of the Sunday laws in 1883. They argued that they were a quiet people, and that if sound were measured literally, they were making much less noise at their Sunday work than others who were not being charged with breaking the law. Lee suggested that Adventists were less metaphysical than other sabbatarians in their relationship to sound even while they argued that the Sabbath was entered into individually and internally. The debates over sacred sound and time help show how morality was being extended into these non-material spaces, demonstrating the difficulty of separating the sacred and the secular.

Edward Allen (Professor of Church History, Union College): The Student Volunteer Movement as Context for Seventh-day Adventist Missions

Allen argued that the Adventist Student Missionary Volunteer movement was rooted in the SVM organization begun by Dwight L. Moody in the late nineteenth century, and this paper linked the two forensically. This organization was wildly popular and effective in promoting conventions, publications, and sharply pragmatic in spreading the gospel around the world. Adventists who attended the SVM conventions were deeply impressed with them, saw the Holy Spirit at work there, and wrote to encourage others to participate. Some of the Adventist bands that were founded on college campuses were opposed by faculty because they were participating with a non-SDA movement. But most of the early SVM leaders seem to have been unconcerned by such potentially ecumenical activity. The band in Walla Walla used (without attribution) word for word the same pledge that the SVM required. Some of these bands had little connection with the larger SVM groups, but it seems Adventists attended the state meetings into the 1920s and used their material throughout the same period. Allen argued that Adventist missions did not occur in a vacuum and that they used many of the same ideas, inspiration, materials, and tactics of other Protestant mission movements. Adventists saw themselves as part of this larger Protestant mission and did not denounce the others as “apostate Protestants”; they simply thought they had a unique eschatological and prophetic message to build on the message of Jesus that was given by the rest of the Protestant evangelists.

The day ended with a tour of the General Conference Archives and a banquet.

Click here to read the Day 2 Report.


Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University.

Read more of Lisa Clark Diller’s writing for Spectrum here:


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