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Is Milton Really the Adventist Prophet of Education?

John Milton, best known for the epic poem Paradise Lost, wrote several other poems, pamphlets, and plays which aren’t as celebrated today as they once were in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. However, despite their lack of current popularity or recognition, they are still relevant in the here-and-now, especially in regards to current Adventist debates over knowledge, censorship, and education.

A current issue of education that is being argued and debated by Adventists is whether or not it is acceptable for a Seventh-day Adventist institution to teach evolution in its Biology department. The latest outburst has occurred because the Michigan Conference claimed that La Sierra University was apostate[1]. The Conference has even gone so far as to state that “effective June 1, 2010 the Michigan Conference has removed La Sierra University from its list of Adventist Colleges and Universities which qualify for employee subsidy. This means that no employee may expect tuition support if they have a dependent attending La Sierra (Gallimore).”

This was a shocking blow to many, not only because of the insulting nature of the letter in which this statement was included, but also because it is a basic denial of educational options to the children of Michigan Conference employees. Higher education on an Adventist campus is an expensive feat. The conferences are able to make up the lack of a high salary by offering financial aid to the dependents of employees who attend schools on the subsidy list. In this way, conferences are able to uphold the ideals of Adventist education by ensuring that the dependents of their staff attend Adventist institutions. Although there are other Adventist schools that these Michigan dependents could call their own, the matter still remains: is it appropriate to withdraw financial aid when the cause is education? And what’s more, what would John Milton, the man who influenced the Puritans, early America, and Adventism itself, say about it?

Milton wrote extensively about the dangers of knowledge in Paradise Lost, and this is the view that most people believe that he actually held. In reality, he was a firm believer in the exploration of knowledge through education, and advocated in his 1644 publication Areopagitica for the right to learn and to express oneself through freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He knew full well what censorship could do. After all, as Daniel Sullivan writes in “Milton’s Areopagitica & Freedom of Speech on Campus,” “banning a book is counterproductive because it will ensure that it is read.” On understanding and agreeability for learning environments and freedoms, Milton said the following:

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions…Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up…What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the illdeputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this…tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men (Areopagitica and Of Education pg. 45).

Milton understood what many do not. Education is vital. Even if what is being taught isn’t correct, it is still important. Wrong ideas can lead to right ideas. More than twenty years before exploring the themes of good and evil knowledge during the Fall of man, Milton was already addressing how evil can lead to good.

Good and evil we know. . .grow up together almost inseparably. . . . It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil. . .leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into…that is to say of knowing good by evil (Areopagitica and Of Education pg. 17).

Milton’s emphases are echoed by one of the founders of the Adventist church, Ellen G. White. It is important to understand that Mrs. White was raised in an environment that revered Milton and his writings. In early America he was highly praised, so much so that G. F. Sensabaugh writes in Milton in Early America: “Americans spoke of him so often and made him such an intimate part of their lives that before the eighteenth century closed he had become a household and a community word.” It was into this world of Miltonic awe and veneration that Ellen White (nee Harmon) was born. Her views on education, lifestyle, and the battle between good and evil[2] reflect Milton heavily—enough that she has been accused of near-plagiarism (see Dick Anderson’s “Ellen White’s Copying of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.”). The issue of divine inspiration can be debated[3], but it is obvious that her writings emulate his.

Most people who accuse her of lying about being divinely inspired note things like the resemblances between Paradise Lost and Patriarchs and Prophets. Mrs. White’s detailed, but unbiblical, knowledge of the battle between Satan and God’s forces, what Eden was like, and the separation of Adam and Eve[4] just moments before the fateful encounter with the serpent at the Tree of Life are a few of the things that have aroused suspicion. But regardless of whether or not Heavenly intervention is the case, Mrs. White mirrors Milton, and by default, so does the Adventist church.

The Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Education[5] uses Mrs. White’s phrasing from Education to explain the values of Adventist learning. The goals “to develop a life of faith in God”, “to nurture thinkers rather than mere reflectors of others’ thoughts”, and the aim “to restore human beings into the image of their maker” through “true education” are usually thought to be solely Mrs. White’s opinions. In an article on the applications of the Philosophy of Education, James Tucker from Andrews University says that “the only philosophy of education we have. . .is that which is based on the principles presented by Ellen White (‘Pedagogical Application’).” Nevertheless, if Mr. Tucker were to read Milton’s tract Of Education[6], he would know that Mrs. White was influenced by this work. There are several examples of how their thoughts on schooling are similar, but one Miltonic sentence that sounds particularly Adventist[7] is this: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, to be like Him…” (Areopagitica and Of Education pg. 59)

Milton also influenced the early Adventists in areas apart from heavenly struggles, the Fall, and education. In Paradise Lost, the angel Michael instructs Adam on the importance of moderation.

The rule of not too much, by temperance taught,

In what thou eat’st and drink’st, seeking from thence

Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,

Till many years over thy head return:

So may’st thou live…” (Book XI, lines 531-535)

Likewise, temperance and moderation are themes in the Adventist sub-culture. Thanks to Mrs. White’s (and as we now know, Milton’s) insistence[8] that one ought to live healthfully and temperately, these are elements that help set us apart from other Christian denominations.

Nowadays, the Adventist church seems to have strayed from the ideals that Milton had regarding many things. If he were here today, would he be surprised that the Michigan Conference is denying financial aid for La Sierra University? Would he be surprised at the cause of controversy? Chances are that he would be outraged. As he said, and as Mrs. White reiterated, we have the right to broaden our horizons. We have the right to better ourselves, to become thinkers instead of copy-cats, and to be “directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation (Education 17).”

Whether evolution or creationism is correct should not be the issue, seeing as how La Sierra University still teaches and upholds the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. If we were to reapply what Milton fought for, and what our early church embodied, we would be much better off: the right to egalitarian knowledge. Withholding funds for education goes against Adventism’s and Milton’s emphasis on schooling.

Learning about opposing views prepares us for “the joy of service in this world” (Education 13). Our curricula are supposed to include studies needed for “responsible citizenship in a given culture.” (“The Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Education”) Nowhere does it say that the church wishes to foster ignorance. Our interest in unhinged education should not diminish simply because a subject such as evolution is controversial. Milton would not have backed away from such a topic, and neither should we.

[1] That is, having supposedly strayed from the faith our church has in the Genesis description of creation.

[2] This is brought to light in her Conflict of the Ages series, most notably in The Great Controversy.

[3] There are several possibilities. God may have sent visions to both, or he may have used Milton to inspire the truth in White, etc.

[4] This is cited frequently, since Genesis 3:6 says that Adam was present at the time of temptation.

[5] Policy FE05, FE10

[6] “An eclectic work” in which Milton “freely draws on available theories of empiricist knowledge and frames them within the terms of rational Christian morality…” (Viswanathan)

[7] Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that Mrs. White sounds particularly Miltonic.

[8] In Counsels on Health Mrs. White writes that temperance and moderation are required in all things. She also says, imitating Gabriel, that “excessive indulgence in eating and drinking is sin.” (pg. 50)


Natalie Romero is a student at La Sierra University.

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