When I learned last winter that Desmond Ford died, I wanted to find some place to pay my respects. So I wandered over to Spectrum. Reflecting on Dr. Ford’s life and ministry led me to think about my own experience in the Seventh-day Adventist world, and since. This is my modest effort to account for my teaching and thinking from when I first encountered the SDA world, and on to the present.
Over the past forty years I’ve had occasional contact with some whom I knew for the fifteen or so years I was more directly involved in the SDA experience. But I have not followed the SDA church since that time, and I have not engaged with any of the off-to-the-side ministries/groups who have themselves oriented their existence to their belief that the Mother Ship needs fixing, or offended souls who have had negative experiences with Mother and whose testimonies are intended as a warning to others.
My thinking is in three parts. First, to socially locate myself I offer a bit of my history within the SDA church, and how my experience evolved off to the side, and then afterward from my departure to the present. Here are stories of how I encountered SDA leadership and others. I didn’t find Adventism to be one thing.
Second, I wish to share something of Bowen theory, the theoretical framework that’s informed my thinking and practice (personal and professional) for the past thirty-plus years. Here is how I engage my own family system, clients, professionals, and colleagues around how I use systems theory to inform theology and biblical studies. This occurred after my SDA-related experiences were behind me. As readers engage this part of my history, perhaps some may understand why I have found this useful over time, and why it might be useful with thought leaders in the SDA community.
Third, I want to share how I approach scripture and faith, and then wrap everything around to the beginning.
When my Air Force enlistment ended (1964), and because of my experience in USAF Security Service (of which more some other time), I carried with me a sense that I would in time find an important enough cause to serve, a person to love, and a people to do it with. I found the SDA Church and Sara about the same time (okay, the Adventists I first met were aligned with Bob Brinsmead, so there was that). Throughout the 1960s, my SDA experience was deeply informed by those who believed the SDA framework mattered, and deeply so. Mine was not a trivial investment. I’m not good at trivial.
SDA experiences 1965-1980
The seeds of how I would leave SDA connections (late 1970s) were sown in the manner of how I entered (around 1965), and a whole constellation of events that occurred in that fifteen-year interval. This is a story of dissent (not personalizing it to me alone), of reflecting on a process of how differences were brokered between thoughtful — and sometimes not so thoughtful — lay-persons, clergy-types, and church authorities.
I came into the SDA Church in the mid-1960s through the influence of two kind and thoughtful SDA women who helped my mother. As it happened, both were energized by Robert Brinsmead’s Sanctuary Awakening message, a framework that deeply informed how they led Bible studies with our family. I became a Seventh-day Adventist in 1965. Entering Atlantic Union College January 1966 (I met Mark Finley there), I was soon warned that Brinsmead’s name was not to be uttered casually. At AUC I spent time mostly with seniors, some of whom wondered aloud how Bob Brinsmead’s influence could have possibly facilitated my joining the SDA Church.
I moved to Redlands, California in May 1966, and spent the next school year (1966-67) at La Sierra College (and there I believe I met Monte Sahlin). Sara and I married December 1966. At LSC it was my good fortune to learn Greek from Madelyn Haldeman. During the summers of 1966 and 1967 I worked as an orderly in the operating room suite of Loma Linda University Hospital, learning well from the OR Supervisor Maxine Darling, a truly fine professional. When OR cleanup or autoclave instrument sterilization tasks were slow, I sometimes watched Dr. Ellsworth Wareham’s team performing thoracic surgery, and pioneering open heart procedures.
In the summer of 1967, when the new hospital was just up and running, I remember meeting “Dr. Heartwell” when I returned a patient to her med/surg room from surgical recovery. Arriving at her room, I noticed this patient in distress. I alerted the desk, and a floor nurse calmly announced over the PA system: “Dr. Heartwell, room xxx.” This was how key emergency staff and a crash cart were sent racing to a problem. That patient was in her late 20s, and some day she would die. But she would not die that day. Because, Dr. Heartwell.
My wife and I returned to New York State in the fall of 1967, eventually moving to Canton, New York to raise our growing family in a rural environment. By 1970 my membership transfer got lost in the ether (being labeled a “Brinsmead” was all that was needed in New York Conference to complicate one’s SDA experience) and I was no longer a member, though I stayed within the echoes of SDA culture, but at arms-length.
Over Labor Day 1974 a few of us put together a long-weekend Bible conference at Labrador Mountain ski lodge in Central New York State. Around 150 gathered for study, music, good food, and fellowship. When we returned home, we learned that three families (mine was on that list) who regularly met with the Canton SDA Church were forbidden to attend any longer because of our “unauthorized” activities. That decision came from the then-Conference President and caused great distress for the local pastor who had to enforce the matter. The congregation predictably split. For a short time after that we met in a home.
In November 1974 a patron of Henry Foote’s natural foods store in Canton (Henry’s family was one of the three forbidden to attend) came in one day, wondering if Henry knew anyone who might like a church, to use and to have, and she handed him the keys for a very rural old church, in the hamlet of South Russell, that she had been using in recent years for children’s Sunday School activities.
As it happened (I could not make this up) the church building was erected by Seventh-day Adventists in 1892 (and used by SDAs until 1922). It was a single-story wood clapboard structure, with a vaulted roof, an off-to-the-side bell tower, a pump organ and a piano, and oak pews and pulpit. We met there every Saturday from 1975 until maybe 1983. Our congregation used the then-current SDA Hymnal, and Ellen White material was common. Henry Foote led services in rotation with others, ending only when he and his family moved out of Northern New York in 1977. Sometimes on summer Sabbath days, after the service, we would share a picnic lunch on the lawn, next to tall conifers and a wrought iron fence that bordered the cemetery. In the oldest part of the South Russell cemetery were the graves of SDA families from the 19th and very early 20th century.
When I wasn’t on the road, I led services and taught what I’d been learning as a researcher for Present Truth/Verdict. Local Christians who otherwise met on Sunday in their own churches often met with us on Saturday. Worship-leading was shared among those of us to put this project together, and our church became a nurturing environment for leadership growth for women and men, without distinction. One day an entire home fellowship of The Church of God (Seventh Day) showed up, and stayed.
I am a lifelong student and reader, and early on I sought everything I could find in print from the pen of Ellen White. Her writings were a major influence in my early years within the SDA community. Even after Bob Brinsmead moved away from the Sanctuary Awakening message towards the Protestant Reformation’s framework of justification by grace through faith (1971), many of us still wove Ellen White material into scriptural teaching and understanding (although she herself never emphasized the Protestant Reformation’s central message in any disciplined way). Throughout the 1970s, however, we shifted away from using Ellen White materials. Later we learned that her pen was routinely dipped in other people’s inkwells. When I handed off my large Ellen White collection to a self-supporting school in New England (early 1980s), SDA cultural benefits could not negate the theological and intellectual challenges I witnessed regarding how the SDA denomination handled dissent. SDA leaders seemed to want an audience rather than a conversation. In common with other fundamentalists, SDA leadership seemed allergic to questions.
I worked with Bob Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict from 1975 until about 1979. My intellectual curiosity served us well, though I believe David McMahon in Australia was a more disciplined researcher than I was. (David died July 2019, his life ended as he was preparing for a PhD in Egyptology.) No matter. We all shared a common vision, living inside our ever-expanding collective sense of the New Testament’s gospel as we then understood it. Present Truth had about one hundred thousand readers in 1975, with maybe a quarter clergy or clergy types. That year the Fallbrook, California office sometimes received over two hundred letters a day. Bob Brinsmead told us then that Edward Heppenstall shared with him that Present Truth was perhaps the most influential instrument in the SDA community at the time.
My work led me to gather many hundreds of books and articles in theology and biblical studies. We subscribed to over one hundred English-language journals of theology and biblical studies from all over the world. And at five cents a page I spent perhaps three thousand dollars duplicating materials at a local university’s library copy machine (St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York) and on the road. University inter-library loan was my friend.
I traveled a lot, to seminary and university bookstores, and to meet with theologians and academics on matters of interest to PT/V. Also, I organized speaking itineraries for Bob Brinsmead, and conference gatherings for weekend and longer events. Geoffrey Paxton and I traveled for five weeks together in 1977 as he engaged enthusiastic SDA student audiences and others around The Shaking of Adventism. Towards the end of that itinerary we met with Des and Gillian Ford. Geoff was a gifted and thoughtful man whose engaging humor resonated with his audiences. Somehow he knew when playfulness mattered more than seriousness.
My last responsibility with Verdict involved extensive background research that culminated in Brinsmead’s (1979) 1844 Re-Examined. Around that same time, many of us watched from a distance as Walter Rea was rubbished by The Brethren for his compelling evidence of Ellen White’s unacknowledged literary borrowings. Desmond Ford’s experience at Glacier View didn’t go well, and of course Brinsmead himself was forever toxic. The intellectual dishonesty demonstrated by church leaders toward responsible dissenting voices was duly noted by thoughtful pastors and laity, triggering what I believe was a substantial brain drain from the denomination (even this might be an understatement).
A brief word about what I’ll call “The Cookie.” The proto-SDA Shut Door experience (1844-1851) was predicated on a deeply-held belief that a little flock remnant were especially chosen, and those who rejected the message were not, for the door of probation was shut in 1844. This small group of believers held what I’ll call The Cookie, the unshakable conviction that there was a door, a shut door, between the saved and the lost, and they were on the right side of that door. The remnant had The Cookie. Leaving aside details of the rationalizations that facilitated the transition in little flock thinking around 1851, about the earthly sanctuary in the wilderness being a “type” of a heavenly sanctuary (without a typological, proof-texting hermeneutic, this ideological transition could not have happened), what survived was a deeply-held belief in a sanctuary message and the Sabbath as a sign and seal of this people’s specialness. Remnant thinking was baked into my early SDA experience, which was something that to my knowledge colored and textured the mindset of not only every denominational publication but also every so-called self-supporting community.
So, what was it that allowed me and many of my friends and colleagues to move away from the pervasive influence of the “having-the-Cookie” mindset? How did I and others properly leave Adventism? Well, it wasn’t Bob Brinsmead. And it wasn’t strictly my work that stood back of Brinsmead’s 1844 Re-Examined (I spent three months gathering and organizing the materials Bob used to write his missive), although that was certainly one historical nail in the coffin for me. Importantly, my departure was informed by my broad and deep 1970’s work with contemporary and historic theology and biblical studies. SDA ideological roots were not really derived from theology but from the Little Flock’s Biblicist orientation. Those narrow, proof-texting foundational experiences set the stage for what was possible going forward. As The Brethren in the 1980s circled their wagons around 27 propositions, my world was expanding. I studied the emerging world of social-scientific scholarship (that importantly opened up and popularized new ways to understand the world of 1st century CE Christ-followers and their Judean forerunners), and other influences. Many social connections with SDAs survived the transition. Some did not. But I did not move to the fringes of Adventism, to live with those who continued to orient their faith around efforts to re-direct the Mother Ship.
I served three congregations as pastor in the 1980s, eventually earning a Master of Divinity degree from Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada (a seminary of the United Church of Canada). While it was a degree for what I was getting out of, it deeply informed my personal and professional life in lasting ways. For a time in the early- to mid-1990s I provided pulpit supply for mainline Protestant congregations in Northern New York State. I suspect I’ve preached a thousand sermons in forty congregations over my lifetime, the last in 2012.
Since 1992 I have worked as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State, in private practice for the past twenty years. Over the past thirty years, from Oregon to Connecticut, I’ve led training events and seminars with senior and mid-level professionals in human services, social services, public and parochial school systems, law enforcement, and clergy and lay religious audiences, teaching how systems theory informs one’s understanding of family and organizational leadership and why that matters to their respective personal and professional worlds.
In Part 2, I open up the family systems theory framework that has informed my personal and professional life since I discovered it in 1986. In Part 3, I explain how I engage scripture, and how I understand the ancient peoples on whose shoulders all Christians stand. I shall also revisit the SDA world of forty years ago as I experienced it, and share how I now look back on shared experiences of fear, reactivity, hope, and courage.
Read Part 2 here and look for Part 3 on December 13.
Douglas Ort is a private-practice Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State. He earned a Master of Divinity degree at Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, a seminary of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s he was Research Editor for Robert Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict. His over thirty years of study and practice of Bowen family systems theory, combined with his life-long disciplined study of theology and biblical studies, provides him a unique perspective as a counselor and as a teacher with professional and lay audiences over the past thirty years and more.
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