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Reflections On the Maine Event

The unbelievable intensity of the Maine Ellen White Conference has made it hard for me to settle down and write. A host of inter-related issues are churning around in my head. But Augustine (via Chuck Scriven) spoke a great truth: “I have learned many things that I never knew before, just by writing.” So I am writing. Here are some random reflections.

A Correction: Wrong Church. My first blog entry drew some interesting responses when I identified the Unitarian Church where we held our Sabbath sunrise service with the Methodist Church in which Ellen Harmon worshiped and from which her family was expelled. Julius Nam sent me this helpful and intriguing correction:

You may want to independently verify this, but I believe the church where we met Friday night and Sabbath morning has always been a Unitarian church. The church that you’re referring to – the Methodist church that disfellowshipped the Harmons – is actually around the corner from that church on Chestnut Street. – Since the First Parish Church where we met was built in 1825-26, Ellen certainly passed by the church on the way to her church, Chestnut Street Methodist Episcopal Church, whose building is now a fancy restaurant that opened in the past year. The building, though, is not the same that the Harmons attended. It was built in 1856-57.

For all kinds of reasons, I wince when I make a mistake like that, but am grateful for sharp eyes that put things right.

Adventism: A Mainstream-sectarian body? Even though the church building in Maine is not a (subtle) pointer toward the possible fate of Adventism, blog respondents were right in noting the question lurking behind my original comparison: Is Adventism headed down the same path as Methodism? If you want a vivid reminder of what that might look like, try this “liberal” revision of Amazing Grace, from the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, California. The original words are in brackets:

‘Twas guilt [grace] that taught my heart to fear

And pride [grace] my fears relieved

How precious did that pride [grace] appear

The hour I first believed.

– cited in Christianity Today, 1993.11.01

That question of “Whither Adventism?” swirled in, around, and through virtually everything that happened at the conference: Is Adventism counter-cultural and thus sectarian? Or is it mainstream? At their point of origin, most new religious movements are sectarian, swimming upstream against the prevailing culture. A “sect” – in contrast with a “cult” that is clearly heterodox (heretical) – can be quite orthodox in its teaching; it simply seeks a community that allows a more intense religious experience over against the more relaxed culture-accommodating denomination or church.

Christianity in its birth-pangs was clearly sectarian, standing over against both mainstream Judaism and Roman culture. Early Adventism was also sectarian: “Babylon is Fallen!” trumpeted the second angel of Revelation 14:8 and early Adventists uttered a hearty amen, adding the cry of the other angel in Revelation 18:4, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.”

To be very candid, for many years now, much of my professional, personal, and devotional energy has been focused on the question: “How did Ellen White move from condemnation to cooperation as her dominant mode of operation? Given the clear thrust of the second angel’s message, it is nothing short of revolutionary to hear her say to A. T. Jones, the most biting of Catholic-bashing Adventists: “The Lord wants His people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong, even though the condemnation be just. He wants us to do something more than to hurl at our adversaries charges that only drive them further from the truth.” – 6T 121 (1901)

Similarly, to a Brother Boyd on assignment to South Africa she wrote:

In laboring in a new field, do not think it your duty to say at once to the people, We are Seventh-day Adventists; we believe that the seventh day is the Sabbath; we believe in the non-immortality of the soul. This would often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach. Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus. (Gospel Workers, 119-120 [1915]; Evangelism, 200; cf. “Letter to a Minister and His Wife Bound for Africa” [June 25, 1887 = Letter 12, to Elder Boyd; almost verbatim “original” of the Gospel Worker quote] in Testimonies to Southern Africa, pp. 14-20).

The desert- and mountain-dwelling separatist impulse represented by the second angel’s message was the one segment in Adventism that was scarcely present at the conference, residing mostly in the memories of those who once were there, or who know people who are. In practical terms, that meant that it did not “feel” like there were spies watching for shadowy traces of beastly Babylon. And that was why the conversations were so lively, so honest, and so helpful. Without realizing it, everyone there was practicing what the “mature” Ellen White preached:

In the advocacy of the truth the bitterest opponents should be treated with respect and deference. Some will not respond to our efforts, but will make light of the gospel invitation. Others – even those whom we suppose to have passed the boundary of God’s mercy – will be won to Christ. The very last work in the controversy may be the enlightenment of those who have not rejected light and evidence, but who have been in midnight darkness and have in ignorance worked against the truth. Therefore treat every man as honest. Speak no word, do no deed, that will confirm any in unbelief. 6T 122 (1901) originally to A. T. Jones

In the panel that brought the conference to a close, two comments struck me as particularly intriguing. Ron Numbers called it the most important EGW event in 90 years. George Knight said he never thought he would ever see these people all together in the same room.

The Participants. Who were the people that Knight never expected to see together in the same room? Here is a sampling:

A. The first generation of EGW critics. These were on the ground floor when the Association of Adventist Forums was formed and began publishing Spectrum (1969). Some are still active in the church, even employed by the church; others currently have no formal ties to the community: Roy Branson and Ron Numbers were both members of the original AAF board. William Peterson and Don McAdams both wrote memorable articles on Ellen White’s use of sources; Jonathan Butler’s notoriety came from his article on Adventist eschatology. The first edition of Numbers’ Prophetess of Health was published by Harper and Row in 1976. Vern Carner, founder of the journal, Adventist Heritage, was also present. Carner was a key player in the publication of two collections of historical essays, Edwin Gaustad’s The Rise of Adventism (Harper and Row, 1974) and Gary Land’s Adventism in America (Eerdmans, 1986). A 1984 conference on Millerism and a subsequent collection of essays, edited by Numbers and Butler, The Disappointed (Indiana University Press, 1987) was in honor of Carner’s work in Adventist historical studies.

B. Women. Three of the 21 proposed chapters were written by women. A total of 67 names were on the official list of invitees, 18 of them women. Of the women, 8 are Adventists, all from SDA campuses. Three were from La Sierra University: Kendra Haloviak, Ginger Harwood, and Marilyn Loveless; two were from Walla Walla University: Terrie Aamodt and Beverly Beem; Lisa Diller was from Southern Adventist University, Joan Francis from Washington Adventist University, and Susan Gardner from Southwestern Adventist University. A number of strong voices of both genders urged that the chapters on women’s issues come first in the book.

C. Notable Scholars. The conference attendees good-naturedly bantered about “insiders” and “outsiders.” The array of notable, published scholars attending the conference was impressive; 22 had no obvious connection with Adventism. Significant published authors included Paul Boyer, Ruth Alden Doan, Joan Hedrick, David Rowe, Ann Taves, Laura Vance, and Grant Wacker. Published Adventist authors included Ron Graybill, Floyd Greenleaf, George Knight, Gary Land, Douglas Morgan, Jon Paulien, Greg Schneider, Gil Valentine, and Woodrow Whidden.

D. Church People. For church employees, an invitation to an Ellen White conference co-organized by one of Ellen White’s most vocal critics, Ron Numbers, would not necessarily be a cause for great joy. Yet the primary organizers are deeply committed Adventists, convinced that Ellen White was a significant figure in American history and deserves serious scholarly study. Julius Nam (LLU), Terrie Aamodt (WWU) and Gary Land (AU) were the leading “church” lights in the planning process. But Ron Numbers was very much on board, ensuring a remarkable number of qualified non-Adventist participants, who, in my view, played a crucial role in the conference. Merlin Burt from the White Estate and two former employees of the White Estate, Ron Graybill (LLU) and Arthur Patrick (Avondale, Australia) often provided helpful background information. Bert Haloviak from the General Conference archives played an essential “insider” role. Eric Anderson, president of SWAU, W. G. Nelson, academic dean at Kettering College of Medical Arts, and Craig Newborn, pastor of the Oakwood University Church, also ensured that the church presence was solid and unequivocal.

E. Outsiders. Two of the 21 proposed chapters were written by “outsiders,” both of them women: Ann Taves on Ellen White’s “Early Religious Experiences” and Laura Vance on “Women’s Roles.” Joan Hedrick captivated the conference with her opening lecture on Harriet Beecher Stowe; Grant Wacker’s Friday night lecture on Billy Graham was also well received. Otherwise one “outsider” – and one “insider” – responded to each proposed chapter. Time and again the visiting scholars expressed their delight at being invited to participate in the conference. Several of them told the whole group that this conference would rank as the “best” one they had ever attended. And I would have to say that their participation was part of what made it so good. They put their finger on weaknesses, affirmed the strengths, and, in general, did exactly what the organizers had hoped they would do.

Personal Observations. My impression is that several of the participants, especially those whom I have described as first-generation EGW critics, have moved on to other things. But they were still interested enough in Ellen White studies to come and enter into a serious dialogue. The third edition of Numbers’ Prophetess of Health (Eerdmans, 2008) contains a new preface by Numbers, but otherwise appears to be a re-issue of the second edition (University of Tennessee Press, 1992) with its “Introduction” by Jonathan Butler and a psychological analysis of Ellen White, co-authored by Numbers and his wife Janet. Numbers has also been active in publishing works on the history of “scientific creationism.” In 2006 an expanded version of his 1992 book, The Creationists, was reissued by Harvard University Press. That topic, however, never came up for public discussion, even though Numbers addressed it in his proposed chapter.

My dialogue with Numbers over his proposed chapter on “Science and Medicine” illustrates where I am likely to take issue with those critics who focus primarily on the problematic early EGW statements. It was from Numbers’ first edition of Prophetess of Health (1976) that I first learned that Ellen White had taken her boys to a phrenologist to have the shape of their heads examined. Typically, Christians find ways of making peace with the wild things in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. But Ellen White is much more recent. Surely we shouldn’t have to take time and place into account for a “prophet” so recent as the 19th century! So, like most Adventists reading Numbers, I was surprised. But about that same time I had also embarked on the project of reading Ellen White’s Testimonies for the Church from start to finish (1855 to 1909). There I was equally startled to read this quote in 1T 296 (1862): “Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.”

Given what we know today about phrenology, a traditional (inerrancy) view of inspiration has no way of explaining how such a point of view could be inspired. But 22 years later she wrote: “The sciences that treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place; but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls” (Signs of the Times, November 6 1884). Aha! Now we have a statement that we can live with. But is the second statement inspired and the first one not?

Calvin Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, to the rescue – via Ellen White! And having just heard Joan Hedrick’s fascinating opening night’s lecture on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the nation-transforming book, Uncle Tom Cabin’s, we were all alert to the Stowe name. Several Adventist voices at the conference noted that Ellen White’s statements on inspiration include those published in Book 1 of Selected Messages (1958), one of which is a revision of a statement originally written by Calvin Stowe. “It is not the words of the Bible that were inspired,” Stowe had written, “it is not the thoughts of the Bible that were inspired; it is the men who wrote the Bible that were inspired.” Ellen White revised that statement to: “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.” – 1 SM 21 [Ms 24 1886]. I find it significant that she left out his denial of “thought” inspiration. Her own settled position includes thought as well as person, but the crucial contrast is person instead of word. For me, it has been enormously freeing to be able to see the “person” as inspired rather than the “words.” That enables me to see everything in Scripture as “inspired” because the messages come through inspired persons. But those messages are not inspired “words” coming directly from God as absolute truth.

Numbers has the knowledge and resources to produce a carefully nuanced history of Ellen White’s views on health and science. He noted, for example, that Ellen White wrote little on the subject of sex after 1870. He also noted that “she did late in life recommend blood transfusion, undergo an extensive series of x-ray treatments for spot on her forehead, and receive a vaccination against smallpox.” My question is: How did Ellen White get from point A to point B? An answer requires careful historical work. The following two quotations, for example, help explain why Adventist institutions of higher education did not go the way of the Bible colleges – a question that several of the “outsiders” raised. A school of medicine requires real science. Did Ellen White support that? Indeed she did. Speaking against the tendency to appeal to her word and example as the basis for action, she exclaimed: “If you have not got any better conviction – you won’t eat meat because Sister White does not eat any – if I am the authority, I would not give a farthing for your health reform.” – “Talk by Mrs. E. G. White Before Representative Brethren, in the [Battle Creek] College Library, April 1, 1901,” Ms 43a, 1901, p. 13. [Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D. C.]).

A more flamboyant statement is one from the Testimonies in 1870:

My voice shall be raised against novices undertaking to treat disease professedly according to the principles of health reform. God forbid that we should be the subjects for them to experiment upon! We are too few. It is altogether too inglorious a warfare for us to die in. God deliver us from such danger! We do not need such teachers and physicians. Let those try to treat disease who know something about the human system. The heavenly Physician was full of compassion. This spirit is needed by those who deal with the sick. Some who undertake to become physicians are bigoted, selfish, and mulish. You cannot teach them anything. It may be they have never done anything worth doing. They may not have made life a success. They know nothing really worth knowing, and yet they have started up to practice the health reform. We cannot afford to let such persons kill off this one and that one. No; we cannot afford it! 2T 375 (1870)

What are we allowed to say? In his initial remarks to the attendees, Julius Nam had asked the attendees not to quote anything from the participants without their permission. So right at the end of the conference, I asked about that very point. Terrie Aamodt, Bev Beem, and I were all scheduled to give a report on the conference at the Sunnyside Church in Portland, Oregon, the very next week end. What could we say? The organizers put their heads together, then agreed that we could say anything we wanted to! That was a mark of how healthy and respectful the conversations at the conference had been.

Later, Numbers came to me personally and said that I could quote anything he said – as long as I made it clear what was humorous and what was serious. Wonderful! Except Numbers is quite capable of deadpan humor, so that could be dangerous license. He himself noted an example where his humor had been mistaken for seriousness in a public dialogue at the conference.

One more personal exchange with him was intriguing. In his wrap-up comments at the end, Numbers pointed out that he had agreed to participate in the conference under two conditions: no personal attacks and no apologetics. And the conference wonderfully fulfilled those conditions. When he asked me how I liked the conference, I referred to those two conditions and said that they simply reflected the teachings of Jesus as embodied in his second great command: we are to treat others the way we would want to be treated. Strong-minded people expressed real convictions at the conference. But we called one another to account in ways that were appropriate. I think I could even hear a hearty amen from Jesus.

Conversations on the plane. This story would not be complete without a brief comment on what happened on the way home. I was in the same SUV with Ron Numbers as we headed to the airport on Sunday afternoon. He asked me where I saw myself on the “liberal/conservative” scale in Adventism. So I told him about my pie chart: I’m lemon pie; he’s pecan. We had great good godly fun talking about all that. This was my first opportunity to get acquainted with him personally. His close friends see him as a very kind person and people-loving. He doesn’t know what to do with Ellen White. But he has lots of company on that score.

At the airport, we discovered that Jon Paulien, Ron Numbers, and I were on the same plane to Detroit. Paulien boarded first. As Numbers and I waited for our turn, I stepped up to him and asked, “What’s your seat?” He checked: “3B.” I looked at mine: 3A. We had a wonderful conversation.

I will share just one segment because it relates to how we live in the church. Numbers asked me how I would compare his position with that of Graham Maxwell’s. “You both would focus on the importance of Jesus’ second great command,” I said. “But he is a deeply religious person.” Then he explained the reason for his question. When Numbers was teaching at Loma Linda, the rumor went around that Graham Maxwell was funding Numbers’ research. Knowing Maxwell as I do, I would see that as highly unlikely. Maxwell is a great fan of Ellen White. One doesn’t have to talk long with Numbers to realize that his relationship to her could at best be described in terms of love/hate – a couple of his friends playfully made that comment at the conference after he had exclaimed that he couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in Ellen White, Joseph Smith, or Mary Baker Eddy. (Was he serious?). But from what I know of both men, the possibility of Maxwell’s funding Numbers’ research is highly unlikely. Highly. Highly.

That led me to reflect on the accusation that has gone around that I share Desmond Ford’s “new theology.” Anyone who knows anything about theology would know that Ford and I come at theology from radically different directions. But if you want to get rid of Graham Maxwell, link him with Ron Numbers. If you want to get rid of Alden Thompson, link him with Desmond Ford. Both linkages are tragic and very misleading. What was so beautiful about the conference was that one of Ellen White’s sharpest critics and one of her most enthusiastic defenders could be placed together on a plane (by a kindly providence?) and have a wonderful conversation.

I suspect that even Ellen White would have been pleased about that. After all, it was she who counseled a GC president on how he should deal with A. T. Jones, a man with whom Butler had serious disagreements. This is what she counseled him:

If a brother differs with you on some points of truth, do not stoop to ridicule, do not place him in a false light or misconstrue his words, making sport of them; do not misinterpret his words and wrest them of their true meaning. This is not conscientious argument. Do not present him before others as a heretic, when you have not with him investigated his positions, taking the Scriptures text-by-text in the Spirit of Christ to show him what is truth. You do not yourself really know the evidence he has for his faith, and you cannot clearly define your own position. Take your Bible, and in a kindly spirit weigh every argument that he presents, and show him by the Scripture if he is in error. When you do this without unkind feelings, you will do only that which is your duty and the duty of every minister of Christ. (EGW to G. I. Butler, Letter 21, 1888 [October 14], The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials 1:98)

Arriving Home: Sobering Realities. On the plane from Salt Lake City to Pasco, Washington, I had another wonderful conversation. A perceptive Adventist woman who takes a very practical approach to life was my seatmate. She asked good questions and appreciated honest answers. But she reads neither Spectrum nor Adventist Today. She is the kind of person who is delighted that she can download Ellen White’s Steps to Christ and Desire of Ages to her cell phone so that she can read them when she travels. There are many good Adventists like her. It was a rich conversation as we talked about precious things, all the way to Pasco.

But when I got home I opened a package from a young man who has left Adventism, not on the rationalist left side of the spectrum, but on the right. He now worships at an evangelical church. He has a relative in our valley who was very eager that I talk with him. So several weeks ago we had a good telephone conversation and he agreed to read two of my books: Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, my first semi-popular book, one that includes no Adventist jargon and no Ellen White. It was published by Paternoster in the UK and then Zondervan in the US. It has been reissued by a former student of mine who is now a Methodist. The other book was Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White Grew from Fear to Joy and Helped Me Do It Too (Pacific Press, 2005). It is very autobiographical and loaded with Ellen White material. Devout conservative Adventists have often found that book more helpful than Inspiration.

The young man had read my two books and put notations in the margin. In Escape from the Flames, whenever I spoke of Ellen White’s “use of sources,” he penciled “plagiarism” in the margin beside it. I had not convinced him at all, he said. Indeed, he accused me of tearing down his Bible in order to save Ellen White. A deeply religious person, he has left Adventism for a fundamentalist church on the right, but uses all the same arguments against Ellen White as those who leave Adventism on the rationalist left. In his cover letter, he says this about the Bible: “One cannot compare the diverse and changing teachings of one person over a period of 75 years to the incredible agreement of 40 different Bible authors over a period of 1500 years. The agreement of Scripture and its teachings with itself is incredible….” He enthusiastically sent me a CD of a sermon by his pastor. It was a good sermon, but not one that would prepare the Bart Ehrmans of the world for the close reading of Scripture while retaining a strong faith in God. “You cannot pick and choose,” said his pastor. But it was Jesus who signaled that a new era was dawning. He touched a leper (Matt. 8:3); he let a hemorrhaging woman touch his garment (Matt. 9:20); he touched the dead body of Jairus’ daughter. Numbers 5, the subject of our Sabbath School lessons this quarter, says that all those kinds of people are to be sent out of the camp so that no one would be defiled. But Jesus did not send them away. He touched them. “You cannot pick and choose,” said the pastor. But surely we have chosen and we do choose. Should we not take those biblical issues seriously?

But all that points to the other recent conflict in Adventism. If Adventism could be described as pre-Numbers and post-Numbers, an observation that was rightly made at the conference, it could also be described in terms of pre-Ford and post-Ford. That is a religious question not directly addressed at the Ellen White conference. But that is one that greatly interests me because of my deep religious convictions. And I must admit that I often feel lonely in Adventism because it is so hard to find a community that is both exploratory and devout. Why is it that at both extremes, left and right, the tendency is to see only part of the evidence instead of it all? At the conference, the Sabbath morning worship service was a deeply meaningful experience for me. I can understand why the organizers did not include formal religious elements in the conference itself. But I admit that I missed that more explicit reminder that all of our work is done in God’s presence.

As a last word, let me refer to an experience in Adventist academia that has left a deep impression on me. Sophisticated Adventists are often a bit embarrassed about being too openly identified with fervent faith. Instead of doing our scholarship in the presence of God, we tend to separate scholarship and faith. That reluctance was evident at an academic lecture I once attended on the campus of an Adventist institution of higher education. The invited guest was the well-known ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas from Duke University. He was given a fine introduction but without any indication that he was addressing a Christian community. He stepped to the podium without comment, said, “Let us pray.” It was beautiful, a prayer that nearly moved me to tears, as I recall. But the enduring memory has been of his silent rebuke of a Christian community that does not know that it is Christian, or is at least afraid to say so too loudly. I want to make room in the community for the Ecclesiastes people, those for whom God is a reality, but a more distant one. In Ecclesiastes there is no prayer, no praise, no worship. Yet the author fears God: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2, NRSV).

We must make room in the church for the Ecclesiastes people. Yet many others are not able to see the Bible as it really is because they are in such awe of God – like the young man who sees the Bible in completely uniform terms. We must find ways to include both kinds of people in the church. The Maine conference was an important step in that direction.

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