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Situating Adventist History Conference Report Day 2


The church’s experience in the context of colonialism emerged as a major theme on Day 2 of the Situating Adventist History conference (January 9). Though it was not a stated title for any of the sessions, presentations throughout touched on aspects of Adventist interaction with colonialism in a wide range of locales — China, India, Africa, and Latin America. Promising new possibilities, along with challenges, involving the process of doing history, such as oral history, family history, and the use of diaries, including some that have just recently become accessible to scholars, made for a second theme connecting several of the presentations.

Icy sidewalks and parking lots necessitated a one-hour delay in the proceedings, held at the General Conference headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, after meeting the previous day at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park. General Conference president Ted Wilson accommodated the schedule disruption in order to welcome the participants to the place where Adventist “history is stored, and is made,” clarifying the latter to mean not just the headquarters building but the work of the global church that it represents (his remarks begin around the two-minute mark of the Session Two video linked below). Wilson, who earned a PhD in history from New York University, exhorted Adventist historians to be “honest and accurate” but also “gracious in giving the benefit of the doubt.” The unique and most important contribution of Seventh-day Adventist historians, he said, is to “bring hope out of research…hope in the leading of the Lord” as the church moves forward to complete its mission. He also reminded attendees of previously announced plans for church leaders to connect with the legacy of the Adventist pioneers by convening the 2018 Annual Council in Battle Creek, Michigan, the locale of General Conference headquarters for the first forty years of its history (1863-1903), and by growing beards for the occasion (with ladies encouraged to find other ways to make a similar gesture).

Brief reports on the day’s presentations follow, session-by-session, with links to YouTube recordings, beginning with Session Two. (Lisa Clark Diller reports on Session One and the preceding plenary addresses that took place on Day 1.)

Session Two: Adventist Mission in International and Transnational Perspective

In “The Anti-Christian Movement in China (1920s): An Adventist Perspective,” Ruth Crocombe, a PhD candidate at Deakin University in Australia, analyzed the Adventist response to the Anti-Christian Movement of 1922-1927 in which violent attacks were directed against Christian institutions in reaction to the Western imperialism that had decimated China for close to a century. Though Adventist institutions were hit hard, like those of other denominations, the Adventist church was the only foreign missionary agency to increase rather than retract its work during these difficult years.

Crocombe contends that the church increased it promotion of mission work in China because the violence was perceived as confirming expectations of a “time of trouble” immediately preceding the return of Christ which, in turn, made it all the more urgent to do as much as possible in the little time that remained. In 1924, the Adventist church ranked 18th among mission organizations in number of missionaries (95) active in China, but increased the number to 122 by 1927, thereby jumping to 4th place in the standings. While Adventist publications celebrated this as evidence of a unique strength, Crocombe demonstrated how situating the Adventist work more deeply in the broader, transdenominational context yields a more nuanced understanding. The relative strengthening of the Adventist position did not simply result from increased activity, but also came at the cost of silence on the serious questions raised by the missionary endeavor’s historic entanglement with imperialism. Meanwhile, others, such as the Methodists, who had been leaders in the field, grappled with and divided over these issues, thereby losing strength. Moreover, the Adventist advances were not unique but part of a broader pattern in which the work of conservative churches thrived while that of more liberal groups declined.

On the other hand, Lindsay Chineegadoo, a pastor in Ottawa, Canada, looked at evidence of positive resonances in Adventist publications with efforts to counteract British colonialism in his presentation “Indian Seventh-day Adventist History 1920-1947: The Context of British Colonization.” The nonviolent mass movement against colonialism employed the language of “uplift” in the quest for self-government and independent economic development. Chineegadoo suggested that the highlighting of uplift through economic self-sufficiency, health, and education (including girls) in Adventist publications may have signaled support for the national uplift mass movement, albeit transposed into an Adventist key.

In his presentation “Situating Adventist Urban Mission in Socio-Historic Contexts,” Gary Krause, director of the Office of Adventist Mission,” placed Adventist attitudes toward cities and urban mission in the context of American Protestant perspectives. Though the early Adventists’ comfort zone was the “grass and soil” of rural and small-town America, they initiated an array of holistic mission endeavors in the nation’s rapidly-growing cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, Krause showed that Adventists reflected the militant new fundamentalist discourse of the 1920s and beyond, in which “even benign social care activity was tainted with guilt by association.” Throughout the remainder of the century, Adventists tended to “short-change holistic urban ministry,” regarding it as threat to evangelistic efforts to win individual souls. Awareness of the distorting influence of “dominant discourse” thus underlies Krause’s call for a shift away from seeing cities in negative light to seeing them as “filled with people in need of God’s love,” and to show how “the gospel has definite social implications” that make it “good news for the totality of urban dwellers.”

Session Three: Contextualizing African-American Adventist History

Though he has most recently served as president of two colleges, Eric Anderson is a historian who earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of John Hope Franklin, a pioneering giant in the field of African American history. The “wizard” in his presentation “The ‘Wizard of Tuskegee’ and the Seer of Elmshaven” is Booker T. Washington, whose era as the nation’s dominant black leader from 1895 until 1915 coincided with the years in which Adventism’s expanding mission among black Americans compelled Ellen White to address the dilemma of race relations. Anderson noted that the scholarly reappraisal in recent decades that has placed Washington in a more favorable light as a champion of racial progress “is essential to any evaluation of Ellen White’s counsel on segregation, black education, and southern evangelism.” In this light, Anderson contended Washington was “more optimistic” about improvement in race relations and “more willing to protest” than was Ellen White. Despite the similarities in their approaches to education, Washington saw it as preparatory to equality, whereas Ellen White had preparation for eternity in view, and did not believe equality would ever become a reality in the present world. On a more positive note, Anderson observed that Ellen White “rose above her times” in being so “determined and passionate about a mission to black America,” and he believes more scholarly attention is needed as to the reasons for this commitment.

Working in essentially the same time period as Anderson, Douglas Morgan of Washington Adventist University explored implications from the experience of the first (in all likelihood) black convert to Adventism in Washington, D.C., with his presentation “James H. Howard and the Rise of Adventism as an African American Religious Alternative, 1896-1919.” Howard, a highly-educated progressive idealist, believed that church fellowship that broke down all racial barriers was an essential feature of the Adventist faith, directly counter to the descent of race relations in American society to their lowest point that was just then underway. Morgan suggested that Howard’s experience provides some clues as to why educated, progressive African Americans figure so prominently among the early black converts to Adventism, and why most refused to sever connection with the denomination even when it failed badly in sustaining that ideal. At the same time, looking at the unfolding events from Howard’s perspective suggests the value situating black Adventist history in the urban setting, as an alternative chosen by high-achieving African Americans from among the various religious and political options open to them, rather than something provided them only through special efforts of white people on their behalf.

The colonial context re-appeared in the presentation “Adventism and Ethiopianism,” by DeWitt Williams, formerly director of Health Ministries for the North American Division, and author of several books, including a recent volume that incorporates fresh discoveries about early black Adventist missionaries. Williams unfolded a remarkable saga in which:

  • Adventism’s nascent mission in southern Africa intersected with the Scottish missionary Joseph Booth, a radical racial egalitarian whose journey through seven different religious affiliations included a brief stop in Adventism;
  • The affiliation with Booth eventuated in overcoming the General Conference’s reluctance to send a black missionary to Africa;
  • Thomas Branch, who accordingly became the first black Seventh-day Adventist missionary, re-constituted the Nyassaland mission after a brush with danger through association with Booth’s radical plan to free Africa from colonial rule and return it to Africans!

And there’s more…watch the video!

Session Four: Oral History and Adventist History

Conference participants were rewarded with another invigorating dose of scholarship from a fresh perspective, when Nathan Devir opened the fourth session with “African Judaizing and Adventist Movements: Increasingly Interconnected Histories.” Devir, assistant professor of Jewish Studies, Religious Studies, and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah, presented findings from extensive fieldwork on interactions between Seventh-day Adventists and two Judaizing movements — the House of Israel movement in Ghana (featured in the film “Doing Jewish”) and the Internet Jews of Cameroon. Colonialism appears again as a backdrop. These movements are among many groups in Africa claiming Hebrew descent, but beyond that, reports Devir, in reading Hebrew Scriptures they discover similarities with pre-colonial tribal practices.

Devir has found that Adventists form the largest pool of recruits for these movements. An Adventist pastor he interviewed in Ghana did not seem overly troubled by defections to the House of Israel; he expressed hope that they would eventually return, interestingly, as better Seventh-day Adventists.

Mutual esteem seems to prevail between Adventists and the two groups despite theological disagreements. In the House of Israel, Adventists are considered a “good catch” as marriage partners. According to one interviewee they “do everything right,” although Jesus remains a bit of a problem. Devir detects a pattern of “mutual envy” that reinforces links between the groups. For the Judaizers, it is “infrastructural envy” — Adventists have the schools and universities, where a number of Judaizers attend). For Adventists it is “holy envy” — many, he says, would like to go further in implementing Judaistic (and African) features such as separate worship space for men and women, and observance of festivals. For the Judaizing movements and the Adventist enviers, law observance does not seem burdensome but is appealing as a way of connecting with a pre-colonial heritage. Judaism also holds an advantage in having a clean slate on colonialism (in contrast to Christianity) and on slavery (in contrast with Islam).

Michael Sokupa’s presentation, “The Adventist Historiography of the Margins: Legitimizing Oral Adventist History in Africa,” enlightened text-oriented westerners about the value of oral history, how it functions in African communities, and the importance of doing everything possible to preserve and utilize it in constructing Adventist history in Africa. Sokupa became an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate in 2016 after serving the African church in numerous pastoral, administrative, and academic capacities.

He pointed out that traditionally every community has an historian responsible for local oral history — an invaluable resource yet one fraught with challenges. One of the foremost has to do power and authority over the process. At one stop in a “heritage tour” that he undertook with a group to investigate sources for African Adventist history, a woman kept interrupting a man who was the appointed historian, and gave clear indication of being the more knowledgeable source of information. In another instance, Sokupa found the protocol at the Adventist church was that only the current church elders were permitted to speak. Thus he was prevented from hearing the memories of older members whom he knew to be descendants of the pioneers of Adventism in that region. He also noted that the practice of preserving local oral history through re-telling is beginning to fade away. All the more important then, it would seem, to take pains to work through the obstacles to make use of this endangered resource.

Lisa Clark Diller of Southern Adventist University brought together the themes of colonial contexts (perhaps “neocolonial” is more precise in this instance) and the processes of doing history with her presentation “My Adventist Family History: Myths, Oral History and the Archives.” Diller reflected on the challenges involved in writing biographical articles for the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists on legendary Adventist missionaries Lillian and Orley Ford, who also happen to be ancestors prominent in the family lore she experienced. She discussed five “historiographical streams” that she is contending within the process:

1) Methodological issues such as the role of her own subjective engagement with the topic and how to adjudicate the evidence from differing types of sources — secondary (e.g. These Fords Still Run), archival, and family.

2) Latin American history: Here is the neocolonial context in which the interests of indigenous people, traditional power structures, and modernizing reformers swirl around those of the missionaries.

3) Missiological history: issues revolving around approaches to mission work and the interaction of various missionary agencies.

4) Women’s history: the complexities of navigating changing norms and perceptions of gender in dealing with differing types of sources from differing time periods.

5) Family history: how much credence to give, for example, to claims that are uncorroborated or contradicted by other sources.

Diller gives life to these matters, which may seem dry in print, with vivid examples delivered with her trademark enthusiasm. I can only recommend the video as a primer from a first-rate professional on the process of doing Adventist history that would be useful both for those who may be engaged in it as a side project and those for whom it is a central preoccupation.

Session Five: Autobiographical and Autoreferential Adventist Writings

The value and use of diaries and the historical subject as writer came to the forefront in the final session. Ron Graybill started things off with “Situating Ellen White’s Correspondence and Diaries.” Graybill, now an independent scholar, served for thirteen years at the Ellen White Estate and did ground-breaking work on Ellen White and racial issues, among other topics. His fascinating discussion on the seriousness with which Ellen White took her calling as a writer, her writing habits, the tools she used for the task, her grammatical and spelling skills, or lack thereof, and the process by which words moved from her pen to publication is another one that defies summary — it needs to be viewed. And Graybill stated well the importance of these considerations:

Examination of the creation, transcription, editing, duplication, distribution, and preservation of [Ellen White’s letters and diaries] at different stages of Ellen White’s life reveals even more opportunities to illuminate, enrich, or correct the understanding of the edited official transcripts, and thus situate her writings more firmly in the stream of contemporary scholarship.”

Gilbert Valentine’s “Personal Diaries as Sources for the Study of Adventist History: Filling in the Context of Adventist Events and Communities” surveyed an abundance of diaries now available to historians of Adventism, including some very exciting recent discoveries, and illustrated how they can enrich historical accounts. Valentine is a leading historian of Adventism who recently retired as Professor of Leadership and Administration at La Sierra University.

Of particular interest are two sets of diaries that came to Valentine’s hands serendipitously in 2016. The first was kept by Theodore Bogardus Lewis (1844-1923) who was custodian of the Battle Creek Tabernacle for twenty-five years, and after retiring from that role, served as an elevator operator at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Obviously, these were ideal vantage points from which to observe everyday life and interactions at these centers of the Adventist world, and recorded details that not only will provide texture to historical accounts, but could yield insights on any number of matters in ways impossible to predict. The second set of diaries was kept by T.B. Lewis’ son, evangelist Theodore Gardner Lewis (1875-1942). Together, they comprise six large volumes of transcripts that, along with the original diary volumes, now reside in the Heritage Research Center at Loma Linda University.

In the concluding presentation, “‘Out of her sphere’: Jennie Thayer and the Victorian Era,” Ashlee Chism, an assistant archivist at the General Conference Office of Archives, Research and Statistics, made use of a diary to illuminate the aspirations and struggles of a single woman who devoted her life to serving the church full-time in publishing and editorial work. Chism made effective use of scholarship on the use of diaries by single women in the Victorian era to frame her analysis. Diaries allowed “the writer to create a space in which to engage with the world around them without upsetting the social equilibrium in which they lived.”

In an entry at age 24, Thayer expressed frustration in striking terms with the choice of either accepting the role of “household drudge” or being regarded as “‘strong-minded,’ ‘out of her sphere’ &tc &tc.” Thayer’s diary, said Chism, expresses tensions between doing God’s will, pleasing family, and seeking personal fulfillment. It also sheds light on the day-to-day lives of Adventists engaged in church work, revealing people who “loved God, the gospel, and mission work,” but also argued (“they were Adventists!”), got lonely, and tended to feel inadequate.

The conference did not stir any exciting controversies, but I sensed a genuine energy and excitement about both the content of the presentations and, more germane to the conference’s purpose, the potential of the multiple possibilities introduced for new ways of understanding the Adventist experience and thereby enriching its future.

In brief closing remarks, David Trim, the principle organizer of the conference, expressed desire for a greater number of female presenters, but also pointed to impressive ethnic and geographical diversity. The participation of outstanding scholars outside the Adventist orbit was a particularly rewarding feature (see the Day 1 report). They did not pop-in to give their paper and then rush off, but stayed for as much of the conference as their schedule would allow, listening to presenters of lesser stature, engaging in the discussions and interactions between the meetings that build rewarding relationships.

The conference was another in an impressive and mounting array of endeavors that David Trim has initiated and led to enhance the pursuit of Adventist history. Conference participants warmly endorsed an expression of gratitude to him that came from the floor at the close of the conference.


Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Chicago (PhD, History of Christianity with an emphasis in American religious and social movements). Since 1994 he has served on the faculty of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010).

Read more of Doug Morgan’s writing for Spectrum here:


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