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Reflections on Revival and Reformation


I remember reading the first reports about the new GC President’s call for a “revival and reformation” in the summer of 2010, probably on the Spectrum site, and, to be honest, I didn’t think too much about it. It seemed such an innocent, reasonable—even obvious—call for a church leader to make, especially one just come to office. Within days, though, Ted Wilson was being denounced on the Spectrum and Adventist Today websites. I thought, “What’s so wrong with revival? How can there be such suspicion of something so basic to Christianity as revival?”

As time went by, I’ve come to see that there is a bit more going on: this is true both for the frequently repeated injunctions of church leaders that we need to be reformed and revived (which now finds expression in this quarter’s Sabbath School lessons); and to the hostility of rank-and-file church-members (at least in North America), as expressed on the web, in particular. So, what is really going on? And is revival and reformation something that Adventists should buy into?

First, “revival and reformation” is widely associated, in Seventh-day Adventist circles, with Robert H. Pierson, GC president from his election at the 1966 GC Session until his early retirement due to ill health at the end of 1978. At the Fall Council of world church leaders in 1973, Pierson called for a revival and a reformation of true godliness in the church, to fit it for the tumultuous end-time events that were, he thought, imminent. What is the significance of Wilson’s call being seen as a repeat of Pierson’s? Does it matter that it labels Wilson as Pierson redux (or revived!)?

Pierson is regarded with happy nostalgia by many Adventists of a certain age, by no means all of them conservative, but his reputation, probably justified, is a restorer of traditional, “historic” Adventist theology after nearly two decades of (allegedly) “liberalizing” tendencies under the presidency of Reuben R. Figuhr in the 1950s and early 1960s. Pierson himself seems to have seen himself this way, best indicated in an astonishingly emotional farewell speech in which he warned against the dangers of the denomination becoming modernized and secularized:

“There is a reexamination of positions and modernizing of methods. Attention is given to contemporary culture, with an interest in the arts: music, architecture, literature. The movement seeks to become “relevant” to contemporary society by becoming involved with popular causes. Services become formal. The group enjoys complete acceptance by the world… Brethren and sisters, this must never happen to the Seventh-day Adventist Church… You are the men and women … on whom God is counting to assure that it does not happen… Fellow leaders, beloved brethren and sisters—don’t let it happen!”[1]

Indeed, in that farewell speech he quoted Ellen White on the dangers of a false reformation: “this reformation would consist in giving up the doctrines which stand as the pillars of our faith”. [2]

So, to Pierson, the Seventh-day Adventist Church needed an authentic Biblical reformation and revival of godliness that would counteract the trends which he (and many other self-styled “concerned” Adventists in the 1970s) saw as having crept in, or as creeping in, to Adventist theology and practice in the years since the theological discussions associated with the publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957. To many other Adventists, of course, the shift since the mid-1950s had been away from legalism.

In other words, the terminology of “Revival and Reformation” is unavoidably associated, in the minds of many Seventh-day Adventists of a certain age, with Robert Pierson and the conservative currents of the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that the result was the undoing of what had been—as many would think—a healthy trend in Adventism means any usage of that terminology inevitably evokes suspicions, among many Adventists, that it betokens uncompromising conservatism. On top of that, we can add the suspicions many American Adventists had of Ted N. C. Wilson before his election. It’s not hard to see why his adoption of the rhetoric of “revival and reformation” was taken as proof positive that Wilson was the legalist, ultra-conservative they had feared.

But the second point is that, really, “Revival and Reformation” is much older than Pierson. It was in March 1887 that the Review and Herald published an article by Ellen White, which includes probably one of her most-quoted statements: “A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs.” [3] Editors of later compilations identify this as being about “Revival and Reformation” [4], which is partly unwarranted and is hindsight—but that’s because revival and reformation was a big issue for Mrs. White. On July 15, 1902 (111 years next week) the Review published an article in which she urged: “There is need not merely of a revival, but of a reformation.” [5] But this was elaborating on a position that would now have been familiar to hear readers. Five months earlier the Review had published an article in which Ellen White clearly spelled out her understanding of “Revival and Reformation”:

“A revival and a reformation must take place under the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Revival and reformation are two different things. Revival signifies a renewal of spiritual life, a quickening of the powers of mind and heart, a resurrection from the spiritual death. Reformation signifies a reorganization, a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices. Reformation will not bring forth the good fruit of righteousness unless it is connected with the revival of the Spirit.” [6]

So have too many Adventists been too quick to see shades of Pierson and the 1970s instead of Ellen White and the late 19th/early 20th century in the current call by church leaders for church members and the church to be revived and reformed?

* * *

What do current church leaders actually say about their program of “R&R”? The official “Revival and Reformation” website answers the question “What is revival and reformation” thusly: “Revival is about a new experience with Jesus.” [7] It’s hard to find anything to dislike in that…

But again, there is more going on. For Ted Wilson, the call for revival and reformation is not just the general call that another leader in another denomination might make: for him, it’s really a seeking of the latter rain. Hence statements such as: “That’s why church leaders have made such an earnest appeal for a special season of seeking the Lord through prayer and repentance, asking for the power of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on those waiting for the coming of Jesus.” [8] Revival and reformation, in other words, is not something we need as believers because we are living in a world of sin, and need constantly to be revived in order to keep in touch with Our Lord and Savior. Instead it is a device that might help expedite the Second Coming.

It has also become part of the basis for Wilson’s frequent attacks on “mystical spirituality”. Witness comments like: “As Paul warned us 2,000 years ago, we have to be especially vigilant to ‘not be conformed to this world.’ Prayer practices, including what are sometimes known as ‘centering prayer’ and ‘labyrinths,’ and ‘contemplative prayer,’ frequently draw on non-Christian philosophies that encourage the emptying of the mind. Biblical prayer, instead, draws us into a quiet and focused rational contemplation of God’s Word and His faithfulness that yields in ‘the mind of Christ.” [9]

This, to me, isn’t so much misguided as just spectacularly missing the point. Some find these spiritual “disciplines” commendable and helpful to their spiritual lives; others may have legitimate concerns; but what I don’t think is in question is that, even if they aren’t really appropriate for Christians, they aren’t the cause of falling away or apostasy among Adventists. How many people do you know who have lost their faith because of centering prayer? I don’t think there’s any doubt: there are dangers for our denomination from modernization and secularization—there are intoxicating, heady brews, solvents of faith, especially among our young people; and societies, all around the world, are becoming more and more secular, so the dangers are increasingly widespread. However, for Seventh-day Adventists, contemplation isn’t one of them. Focusing on it distracts from the dangers that do exist.

So, even though the overall rhetoric of church leaders about revival and reformation is not just unobjectionable, it’s actually admirable, there are things beneath the surface. When Ted Wilson talks of revival and reformation, some of Pierson’s concerns are obviously in his mind (though given that he wrote his PhD dissertation on Ellen White’s thinking, it’s a sure bet that he’s also very well aware of what she wrote on the subject). The question is, given that there are grave dangers to Christian belief from secular postmodernity, whether Wilson’s subtext, so to speak, should distract us from the main text of the appeal being made by the church. It is, after all, not being made just by Wilson but by a range of church leaders respected by both the right and left of American Adventism. And it is an appeal that is pretty attractive: for a renewed personal relationship with Jesus. A call, to go back to Ellen White’s words, for “a renewal of spiritual life” and for “a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices.”

This is the call, after all, of the Psalmist: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Ps. 85:6). His call is to put our spiritual hand in the hand of “the son of man …Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, LordGod Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” (Ps. 80:17-19.) And it reflects the promise of “the high and exalted One … he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Is. 57:15)

Don’t we all want God to live with us and revive us? Don’t we all want to our relationship with the Son of Man renewed, and to have Him restore us? In the end, it doesn’t matter that conservative Adventists have been enamored of the terminology of revival and reformation and it doesn’t matter that the wellspring of the current call for R&R is a president who many American Adventists regard with suspicion. What matters is that all Christians need a revival of true godliness in their lives. And the church, corporately, constantly needs to be called back to its true purpose and to a realignment of, in Ellen White’s words its “ideas and theories, habits and practices” to bring them back to the model of the gospels. We all should want revival and reformation.


1. Robert H. Pierson, “An Earnest Appeal from the Retiring President of the General Conference,” Adventist Review 155/43 (October 26, 1978): 10.

2. Ibid., 11.

3. E. G. White, “The Church’s Great Need,” Review and Herald 64 (March 22, 1887): 177.

4. Editors, “A Word to the Reader” and “Introduction” to Section 3, Selected Messages, 1: 12, 120.

5. E. G. White, “An Appeal to Parents,” Review and Herald 79/28 (July 15, 1902): 7.

6. E. G. White, “The Need of a Revival and Reformation,” Review and Herald 79/8 (February 25, 1902): 2.


8. In an interview with Bill Knott:

9. Ibid.


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