Ted Wilson’s Obsession with “The Great Controversy”

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Published:
January 19, 2023

The first time I learned of Elder Ted Wilson and his administration’s strategy to distribute up to one billion copies of Ellen White’s The Great Controversy (TGC), I caught myself reflexively scratching my head. This was announced in August 2021 and it targeted beginning the massive project in 2023, ending in 2024. My question back then was—why? Why does the church want to give away perhaps a billion copies of a 164-year-old book, whose content reflects a world that is largely unrecognizable by the modern readers being targeted?

For a president who has staked the Lord’s second coming on Adventist eschatological configurations, Ted Wilson likely sees TGC as a goldmine unveiling end-time secrets justifying our church’s self-association with Isaiah’s (10:20-22) remnant motif. The book connects many important dots in the last 2,000 years of earth’s religious history. It tells us how, if not when, the cataclysmic end will occur. This is also the only book, of the dozens Ellen White wrote, that presents all the important Seventh-day Adventist doctrines cohesively “under one roof” and makes the Remnant Church case for Adventism.

Here are the book’s “Cliff Notes” highlights:

—In 1844, known within Adventism as the Great Disappointment, Jesus moved from one “apartment” in heaven to another and began a new phase of ministry called the Investigative Judgment.

—The Catholic Church and apostate Protestantism (branded with the Mark of the Beast) are in league with Satan against God’s elect (who have God’s seal).

—A Remnant (all but synonymous with Seventh-day Adventists), is tasked with proclaiming the Three Angels’ Messages of Revelation 14: announcing God’s judgment, Babylon’s fall, and the final destruction of those who worship the beast.

—A series of intervening events, including enactment of Sunday laws, “a time of troubles” when the Remnant will be persecuted by church and state, the call to “flee to the mountains,” etc., will occur in rapid succession.

—After the Three Angels’ Messages have been preached to all corners of the earth (which coincides with the completion of the Investigative Judgment), Jesus will return to take the elect to the promised heaven.

No rationale was given for this book distribution undertaking. But it seems unnecessary because, in the eyes of diehard TGC devotees—just by the breadth of important subjects it covers—TGC is the perfect book that defines Adventism. The project has the full backing of Wilson, whose personal motivations may coincide with the book’s aim, as an added bonus. Here’s Wilson at the announcement: “The Great Controversy is a marvelous book. I believe every word in this book. I support it and I promote it—the full and complete book.” But it is questionable whether Wilson’s enthusiastic endorsement is a substitute for responsible stewardship of church resources.

I had hoped, rather naively as I now realize, that time and the counsel of a larger pool of church administrators would prevail on the president to scuttle the scheme, or at least scale it down. But at the 2022 Annual Council session he dispelled any such hopes as he triumphantly announced that, in addition to the previous appropriation, he had secured from private donors even more millions of dollars toward the project. I don’t know if anyone has done the math, but a billion copies of a 678-page book is surely an expensive undertaking. Assuming a conservative estimate of $1 production and distribution cost per copy, a billion books equals a billion dollars. To put this in perspective, the entire church’s net worth is pegged around $16 billion, so a $1 billion commitment to TGC 2.0 is huge.

The cost is even more amplified when we consider the many other uses this money could be applied to: aiding Adventist Development and Relief Agency funding, assisting denominational K–12 education, subsidizing church health clinics in developing countries, etc. Some may argue that part of the funding is from private sources, which then should exempt the scheme from public scrutiny. In my opinion, it makes little difference if Wilson single-handedly raises some or all the money needed. He should be subject to the same advice he often gives to his subordinate administrators, cautioning that all resources are entrusted to us by God and thus must be used wisely.

Notwithstanding, I don’t consider the venture’s expensive price tag as the only or even the main reason to jettison the plan. We should reserve that for the book’s content. The Great Controversy was greatly influenced by its 19th-century setting and the author’s presuppositions, which grew out of that era. Much of TGC’s first part reflects a time that is now almost totally alien to the postmodern mind, so few people today would find its vision compelling or relevant. There have been many changes in the world since 1858 when Ellen White first published the book. A cursory look at a few such changes, beginning with the religious and political context, is helpful.

Anti-popish sentiments and chatter about impending Sunday laws legislation were rife in the halls of the US Congress, an environment that likely inspired White’s strident anti-Catholic language and positions in TGC. Today some of her views and characterizations of the pope and the Catholic Church seem anachronistic and outright embarrassing. The same could be said of Sunday laws. Back then it was logical to assume, based on what was happening in the US Senate, that enactment of Sunday laws was just around the corner. Yet no Sunday laws ever materialized, and during the intervening years, the idea has receded to the extent that it is no longer taken seriously. But the positions Ellen White took about these two topics remain intact in the full version of TGC. Her advice that when “the time of trouble” comes, believers should “flee to the mountains” for safety, also seems anachronistic in an age of satellites and GPS. TGC has been issued in a condensed form that scrubs some of this content, but Wilson is not in favor of abridgment and only promotes the full version.

Another characteristic of the book that has not stood the test of time is its political/cultural “landscape.” The Euro-American world that propelled much of the book’s narrative has significantly changed—almost to the point of non-recognition. Since its publication, Europe has gone through two devastating world wars that appear to have irreversibly changed its people and their beliefs. The effect is that Europe today is no longer the Christian bastion it was two centuries ago, as secularism has taken hold. The empty and neglected cathedrals found throughout the continent bear witness to Christianity’s glory days that won’t return any time soon. So, if TGC is conceived as the linchpin that awakens the world out of its comfortable stupor into embracing a 19th-century Adventist worldview, we might be whistling past a long-abandoned “graveyard.”

Additionally, the book pays almost no attention to non-Euro-American countries. For example, neither China nor India, two of our world’s most populous countries, were even mentioned in TGC’s calculus. In the same vein, the two largest continents, Asia (which is home to 60% of the world’s population and 40% of earth’s land mass) and Africa, are barely referenced. And not a single Latin American country is covered or even footnoted. Instead, almost every country in Europe gets White’s attention. A book whose mission is to communicate how the world—as we know it—will end cannot rely on transient events of a bygone era to frame its message. Consequently, TGC’s relevance is called into sharp question when 75% of its intended audience cannot identify themselves in a supposedly global script. In a way, what Ellen White does is predictable. Any writer, given a 2,000-year span and a universal backdrop, could paint a canvas of their choosing.

On the religious front, the world of TGC bears little resemblance to our contemporary scene. The Roman Catholic Church is not nearly as politically powerful as it once was. And its moral authority is in an even worse state, making the church’s depiction in TGC seem caricatured and analogous to expending too much energy to flog a paper tiger. Protestantism continues its fragmentary course as individual-owned megachurches proliferate, thus altering the denominational landscape from what was the norm in White’s day. Non-Christian religions like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other geographically-tied faiths with large followings are absent in her sweeping book.

The Great Controversy carries additional unique baggage that rankles contemporary sensibilities. Its harsh anti-Catholic rhetoric could be considered by some today as hate speech. The following excepts are examples that might have been acceptable, even popular, in the 19th-century Protestant world of Ellen White, but which could be cringe-inducing to readers today:

It is one of the leading doctrines of Romanism that the pope is the visible head of the universal Church of Christ . . . and has been declared infallible. He demands the homage of all men. The same claim urged by Satan in the wilderness of temptation is still urged by him [Satan] through the Church of Rome, and vast numbers are ready to yield him homage. (The Great Controversy, 48)

Marvelous in her shrewdness and cunning is the Roman Church … And let it be remembered, it is the boast of Rome that she never changes. The principles of Gregory VII and Innocent III are still the principles of the Roman Catholic Church. And has she but the power, she would put them in practice with as much vigor now as in past centuries. (507–8)

Then there is the “plagiarism” accusation that has bedeviled the book for over a hundred years. Careful investigators have shown that unacknowledged literary borrowing is endemic in the “history” sections of TGC, of which the “Jerome” chapter is particularly illustrative. Ellen White declared in 1887: “I have not been in the habit of reading any doctrinal articles in the paper, that my mind should not have any understanding of anyone’s ideas and views, and that not a mold of any man’s theories should have any connection with that which I write.” Elsewhere she was even more explicit in denying any literary indebtedness: “The words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation.”

Ron Numbers, Walter Rea, and John Dart, to mention a few, call the veracity of these declarations into question. We now have known for a very long time that she relied heavily on other human writers in composing TGC and other books, throughout her long writing career. She did this without disclosing her indebtedness. Until this is unequivocally acknowledged, and hopefully apologized for, the church cannot put forth TGC as an “evangelistic” tool without risking charges of duplicity and covering up the alleged deception. This has to be cleared up because it goes to the heart of Ellen White’s prophetic claims.

So, knowing all these things, why are we still allotting so much money and time to this endeavor?

Cluttering people’s homes with up to a billion copies of an unsolicited book is not evangelism. Having quietly surrendered to the numbers, we no longer insist with any conviction that the second coming is dependent on our singlehanded spreading of the Three Angels’ Messages to a world that recently topped eight billion people. But it appears that Ted Wilson sees in TGC a shortcut to fulfilling this self-imposed mission and is attempting to circumvent the labor-intensive flesh-and-blood evangelizing process.

If this is the thinking behind TGC 2.0, then it matters little if the recipients of these unrequested books ever open a page. An estimated 90 percent or greater of those who receive such material in their mailboxes redirect them to their trash bins. Does this really matter to Wilson and his backers? What is important to them is that we are seen as doing something, a “something” predicated on a mental acquiescence to a belief set. Instead, like Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians, we should focus on living among and helping people who wish to actually consider a new faith. Flooding mailboxes with TGC is a contactless witnessing model, like prayer-walking, that prioritizes appearance over action, words over experience. Because doing, actually exemplifying Christ’s ethic in a one-to-one setting, is hard and unglamorous.

 


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit:  Sigmund on Unsplash

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