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Whither Wilson?

ATLANTA: Ted N. C. Wilson’s election today brings to an end the 11-year tenure of Jan Paulsen. Wilson becomes the 17th individual to hold Adventism’s highest office and the first person whose father, Neal C. Wilson, was also president of the church.

Underlining his conservative credentials that assisted his elevation to the presidency at the third attempt, in his short speech accepting the vote, Wilson told delegates that the Adventist denomination was “God’s remnant church.” He said he did not have the answers to everything but intended to follow the counsels of Ellen White, the church’s prophetess. “We are going home soon,” he said.

Wilson’s election was not only a vindication of his long campaign to win the presidency, but it also adds to Adventism’s gradual retreat back to a more fundamentalist stance that has been evident ever since Desmond Ford, the dissident theologian, was expelled from the church in the 1980s.

The church’s conservative elements were delighted by the announcement today. Down at the Amazing Facts booth Don Mackintosh described Ted Wilson as someone who wants a clear message for the church.

“It’s not a question of whether you believe this or that particular detail of doctrine,” he added. “But what’s the point unless the message is clear. He who is everywhere is nowhere, as Seneca said. Ted will give voice to those who want to be part of a clear message.”

Mackintosh also believed that Wilson’s election will mean that women’s ordination would not occur as long as he is president. “Ted’s already gone on the record on that issue. He says please don’t go ahead because it will split the church. I agree with Ted.” As for creationism Mackintosh looked forward to a statement on biblical origins indicating that God created the world in seven 24 hour consecutive days that could come as early as next week.

On the other hand, advocates of women’s ordination, a broader approach to the earth’s origins, and of other issues such as gay and lesbian inclusion, reacted with dismay. Signs that a second Wilson presidency might lead to exactly the kind of polarity that some hope won’t happen was indicated by the fact that his acclamation was not unanimous on the floor.

The vote in the nominating committee may have been overwhelming but on the floor a small number risked their positions by voting against Wilson’s accession. Wilson mark II might be like Bush mark II, a conservative retrenchment on the part of the son against a relatively more liberal father.

One head of a prominent Adventist institution who asked not be named felt nothing but foreboding about Wilson’s election. This individual observed:

The new president has always been perceived as coming from a conservative point of view. The question now will be whether he will lead from the center and he has an opportunity to do that within the next few days. But the early indications from his speech, with all that emphasis on the remnant, are not good. He has to show that he is president of the entire church and not just one point of view.

In his acceptance speech Wilson paid generous tribute to Paulsen, who led the church since 1999. History’s verdict on his presidency is likely to be mixed. The first president with a Ph.D., Paulsen was one of the best minds ever to lead the church. But his understandable desire to keep an increasingly diverse church united left crucial issues like the ordination of women unresolved.


Keith Lockhart is co-author of Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream.

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