Back in the 1980s, I was the Church Ministries Director of the Quebec Conference. I was alone at the office when the phone rang. I was instantly startled by the tone of the voice at the other end. An angry man went on the attack: “Is this the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?”
I asked who he was.
“I am the police commissioner of Montreal.”
Somewhat frazzled, I asked him the reason of his call and obvious unhappiness.
“We have received numerous complaints about a book entitled The Great Controversy that is being placed in letter boxes in a “wealthy section” of the city. After some research we have identified your Church as the publisher and distributor. A quick perusal has clearly shown that the book is very anti the Catholic Church and thus falls in the category of ‘Hate Literature’ because its content can easily create hatred between communities”.
Then he quoted from an article of law that prohibited such an action and mentioned the heavy fine that went along for distributing material attacking another church.
My mind went numb for a moment, then I explained that our church did not usually do mass distribution of books, only short brochures that summarised who we were and what we believed. I added, that it was very possible that some individuals might be acting on their own and that we would certainly find out who and try to stop the action. He relented and agreed not to proceed with the threat.
Later I reported the incident to the conference president who quickly found out that a church member from another conference had donated $20,000 to some local members for the purpose of purchasing and then distributing the book. They selected the wealthy part of the Montreal. The action infuriated the residents who also had a long history of complaining to the police about Adventist church members who on Saturday mornings caused quite a bit of inconvenience by parking anywhere they could due to a lack of car lots. Of course, the two incidents were not related but together they had exacerbated the hostility of the community.
The saddest part was the reaction of those who had initiated the “evangelistic” dispersal of the book. Upset when the conference asked them to stop, they accused the leadership of cowardice, apostasy, and bowing to the pressure exerted by the “agents of Catholicism that infiltrated the church.” The incident taught me how difficult it was to explain to determined believers that not every action was Biblically timely or wise. Instead they found comfort in their understanding that good people were always going to be persecuted, even by their own church at times. I believe that the action of the conference was instrumental in protecting the Adventist church from what might have been a very nasty court action (we all know the frenzied appetite of the press for such occurrences).
Therefore it was with apprehension that I heard of the General Conference plan to freely distribute The Great Controversy on a large scale. I believe that the book was inspired and I know that Ellen White wrote that it should be placed in all homes, but I find myself wondering if doing so at this time in history is wise.
Did not the Apostle Paul write that we should not treat the prophecies with contempt but test everything and hold on to what is good. Doing so will enable us to avoid every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Not treating the writing of the prophets with contempt is about testing them as to their timeliness and relevance, which will help us to avoid using them in ways that are not good.
Written in the United States of the nineteenth century, The Great Controversy had quite an impact because America was a Protestant country and any writing that depicted in dark overtones the doings of the Catholic Church was bound to be highly popular. Some of the words that Ellen White used to describe the Pope and the prelates of Rome are very harsh but the political, social, and religious contexts made it understandable and facilitated the spread of the book. Today, any publication that dares to use a similar approach is quickly vilified as hate literature. We condemn similar anti-Catholic language used by white supremacists in their rallies, should we be careful not to be perceived as doing the same?
In 1988, I became the pastor of the Ottawa church. After my first sermon I was standing in the foyer greeting the members on their way out. A distinguished looking lady introduced herself, then told me that after being a Charismatic Catholic for years she had recently been baptised into our church. She informed that she had been severely criticised by family and friends but had maintained her relationships. She then invited me to meet with them, which I readily accepted for the following week. When I arrived, the lady greeted me but the ten other people in the room remained withdrawn. I had hardly had time to take my seat when to my great surprise the hostess asked me to justify the publication of The Great Controversy, which she said had almost prevented her from joining our church. Some well meaning Adventists had given it to her. She explained how harsh she had found the author’s statements against her church which, she added, had always been there for her whenever she had gone through some difficult and painful experience. I noticed the nods of the others. Then the dam burst, accusations and feelings of resentment surfaced. They had all read the book and were quoting those passages that referred to the Pope as a monster and also described Satan and the priests conniving to destroy the Truth. The remarkable thing was that they did not question the historical facts but the interpretation of the facts as well as the overall tone and the ‘vitriolic’ words. I must admit that defending the book against these accusations was not easy. I most certainly do not wish to repeat the experience.
Mass distribution, I’m afraid, will cause a similar reaction. I do not believe that having to face irate people and the press and maybe the court, charged with distributing hate literature, is necessarily what Christ had in mind when he said that those who would be persecuted for his namesake should consider themselves as blessed.
Beyond my personal experiences, I have listed below some reasons why I am not sure of the wisdom in mass distribution of The Great Controversy.
The length of the book:
It is well established that reading is no longer the favourite pastime of our contemporaries. Furthermore, reading religious works has been out of fashion for quite a while (even for believers who prefer to watch religious programs on TV). Today, communication must be fast if only to retain the attention. Few people have or take the time to read anything unless it is “texted”, emailed, on Facebook or Twitter. Newspapers are folding because of the decline in readership. I believe that it is much to expect that people would take the time to open a six-hundred-plus-page book, which moreover requires at least a passing interest in European history.
The West at best shows a very limited interest in religion and secular Australia and New Zealand show almost no interest at all. Add to this the fact that postmodernism rejects any idea that pretends to gather together clusters of events that have no natural link with one another and interpret them in terms of a common theme and ascribes meaning to them. The Postmodern mind finds it problematic to accept what it calls a meta-narrative defined as the overarching explanation of a state of affairs. The author of The Great Controversy does just that when she gathers historical events covering almost two thousand years and incorporates them into a vast panoramic concept that she identifies as the war between God and Satan. As acceptable as this seems to us as believers, this approach is highly suspicious to most contemporary readers.
Does it contain error?:
Adventist scholars spend quite a bit of time researching our beliefs and practises. Most of the time the research will confirm the doctrine under scrutiny, but sometimes the scholars are lead to acknowledge that added insights shed new light that calls for a re-evaluation of some beliefs. Over time the new understanding becomes part of our system of beliefs. Thus, many scholars and well-informed church members consider somewhat outmoded some prophetic interpretations and beliefs that are presented in the book. Three cases in point are (1) the signs in the sun, moon, and stars dating back some two hundred years are not considered to be indicative of the nearness of the Parousia; (2) the understanding of the investigative judgment; (3) That it is Satan and not God that pours the seven bowls (Revelation 18) over the wicked. The people who might choose to read the book will probably be the kind of readers that will question some of the theological material and, finding it wanting, reject the book altogether.
As a result of all the above, I’m afraid that the rubbish bins of our countries will be filled with discarded copies of The Great Controversy. That would be a tragedy indeed and certainly not what Ellen White intended when it was first published.
—Pastor Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown and pastors two churches in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.