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Adventist Scholar, Author and Administrator Herbert E. Douglass Passes Away


Herbert Edgar Douglass, Jr., a Seventh-day Adventist scholar, administrator and writer died this morning at the age of 87. Douglass helped to write the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series and authored “Messenger of the Lord,” a biography of Ellen G. White. He served as president of Atlantic Union College and Weimar Institute, as vice-president for philanthropy at Adventist Heritage Ministry, as associate editor of the Review and Herald (now the Adventist Review) and as associate Book Editor and vice-president for Editorial Development at the Pacific Press Publishing Association. From 2008 to 2014, he served on The Hope of Surivivors Board of Directors. Douglass wrote numerous Sabbath School commentaries for Spectrum Magazine. He lived in Lincoln, California until his death. General Conference archivist David Trim shares the following remembrance. -Ed.

Herb Douglass was truly a scholar and a Christian gentleman, in the fullest senses of those words. I value him for both.

As a scholar: he was an erudite theologian, who wore his learning lightly and had a gift for communicating to Everyman. He had an easy yet elegant writing style; he conveyed what he meant simply but powerfully – unlike many academics! He had a long and distinguished career in church leadership and administration, and partly as a result, it often seemed to me that he knew everyone of note in Adventism since c.1940. Herb had strong convictions and opinions, but they were always expressed with Christian love – one never had any doubt where he stood, but he wrote and spoke amicably and with wry, self-deprecating good humour. This is why I will remember him not only as a scholar of religious studies and church leader, but also as a great gentleman.

I got to know him only in the last six years of his life, and our acquaintance was sparked because of my own scholarly research on Adventist Christology. I emailed him, out of the blue, not knowing if he would even reply, because I knew I disagreed with him, but wanted to make sure I was disagreeing with what he really thought, rather than what others said he thought, or my own misunderstanding of his position.

To my profit and soon to my delight, Herb did answer my email. It was the start of a long electronic epistolary relationship – we exchanged around one hundred emails and eventually I had the pleasure of meeting him in person. I quickly realised that his views were more nuanced than I had thought. For some Adventists who disagreed with him, Herb became a kind of bogeyman; his views have, I fear, been somewhat caricatured at times. In fact, he had a subtle understanding of soteriology and Christology, sensitive to fine distinctions, and I was glad I emailed him, for although I still disagreed with him, I understood much more clearly what the actual grounds of our disagreement were. I realised, too, that we had far more in common than I thought. Not least was his love for Jesus – his theology truly was Christ-centred; he also had a passion for this remnant Church and its prophetic role; a strong belief in the Spirit of Prophecy as manifested in Ellen White (on which he wrote a widely read book); and a zeal for mission.

I was obliged, as an historian, to point out (in public, having done so first in our e-correspondence) that his interpretation of Adventist historical Christological views was flawed, since the evidence told a more complex story than of the simple “fork in the road” in the 1950s that Herb (often) posited in print. In addition, we had theological differences: I respectfully dissent from his postlapsarian view of the nature of Christ and concomitant notion that humans, here on earth, can permanently “overcome sin”.

However, from the emails Herb sent me, I learned immensely about the history of Adventist theology in the 20th century and the personal relationships that always underpin theological controversy; he really did seem to have met, known and liked every Adventist theologian and church leader of consequence in the last 75 years. The result was that our correspondence benefited me greatly! I hope he got a measure of intellectual stimulation – he certainly seemed to enjoy our email “conversations”. But I don’t doubt that I got the better of our exchanges – meaning only that I got more out of them – they were richly rewarding for someone who had been an historian of the Reformation and come only lately to Adventist history. And I found myself in an interesting position – the more I knew about Herb, the more certain I was that he was wrong on certain theological issues, yet the more I liked and respected him.

At one point, we wrote to each other about the controversies in the Church since the late 1970s. I will take the liberty of quoting him, for his words show the measure of the man. He wrote to me, regarding one notable Adventist thinker who became notorious for heterodox views:
“He knows I have never diminished him—we just have fundamentally different worldviews. It is the lesser lights that have said some outrageous stuff about what they think I think. But this is all understandable. Goes with the territory. I refuse to let anybody be my enemy.”

Herb Douglass never, in my experience, even in private, ever abused any of the theologians with whom he had crossed swords. Veritably, he never diminished his opponents. I was really delighted when Herb at one point called me his friend. But it makes sense – he wanted to be friends with every other Seventh-day Adventist.

There are few scholars who can write for all audiences. Even rarer is the person who can have strong convictions, share them firmly, and yet do so in a cordial, even Christ-like way. That was my friend Herb Douglass. We will learn the truth of all things in the earth made new; but I hope for several millennia at least of amicable debates, learning from each other, even while we learn from Our Lord and Saviour, who Herb loved so much and served so well.


David Trim, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S., is the Director of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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