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Even a Woman

Woman praying over Bible.

If you’ve taken a course in Adventist Church history, you may have heard about how God chose Ellen White to prophesy only after two men rejected their calling first. As the story is often told, after the Great Disappointment on October 22, 1844, a white man, Hazen Foss, was given the opportunity to share a prophetic message from God. But he stubbornly refused. Afterwards, God moved on to a Black man, William E. Foy, who likewise rejected this call. Because the men declined to share what they were shown by the Lord, God was then forced to use a woman. Oh, what a heartwarming moral: when God can’t get men, even a woman will do! 

First of all, this tale is inaccurate. Per the Center for Adventist Research: “After hearing her describe what she saw, Foss believed that God had taken the visions from him and given them to Ellen White. Ellen White mentions these details in a private letter, but neither affirms nor denies Foss' claim.” And as it pertains to Foy, he didn’t actually rebuff his call. In fact, he “continued to share his visions and preached on the second coming until his death in 1893. The idea has circulated that Foy also rejected God's commission to share the visions, but this is not true—he preached for some 50 years.” 

Perhaps even more disturbing than its inaccuracy, this revisionist history serves to perpetuate a pernicious theology that sets up racist and sexist hierarchies. According to this retelling, God’s apparent ideal is to use white men to share his message. Barring their availability, God will use a Black man. And if worse comes to worst, God can call a woman. Thankfully Ellen White was a white woman. Otherwise, who knows? God may have had to resort to—gasp—a Black woman! After all, God can use anything: if Balam’s donkey can be used, why not a woman? I’m not being sardonic with the donkey comparison; that’s an actual point I’ve heard multiple times in sermons by various preachers. Sadly, it is often repeated in the context of embarrassing attempts to be supportive of women. 

Some ministers have defended this sort of commentary, insisting it promotes the idea that although others might reject or underestimate you, God can use you. In the mid-19th century, Black people and women weren’t regarded as equals, so the interpretation has been used to show that “although man looks on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart!” See, “the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone!” It’s a valiant attempt to salvage this flawed take, but if we’re being honest, that’s not the sentiment actually being conveyed. 

There is a vast difference between someone teaching that humans judge based on the externals versus teaching that God has a preference for external characteristics. The latter flies in the face of our professed belief in equality at the foot of the cross. If we believe Acts 2, where God says, "I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters,” and Acts 10 where “God is not a respecter of persons,” and Galatians 3 where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for all are one in Christ Jesus,” then we can’t simultaneously teach that white men are God’s ideal and women are God’s second string.

This bad theology isn’t demonstrated historically either. Deborah and Huldah were both judges of Israel. Because we are more familiar with monarchies—which God relented and allowed Israel to have after they begged to be like the nations around them—it’s easy to downplay the role judges had. They weren’t the equivalent of our modern-day court magistrates. They were the leaders of the entire nation. Because we misunderstand this system of governance, we trivialize their role and overlook how God used women in these key positions. Their selection by God wasn’t a last-ditch effort during a shortage of men! Evangelists like Mary, disciples like Susanna and Joanna, prophetesses like Anna, apostles like Junia, missionaries like Priscilla, deacons like Phoebe, and leaders of house churches like the “elect lady” of 2 John, are all examples of women God used for mighty purposes—chosen when there were plenty of men around.

A few weeks ago, the North American Division hosted the Women in Seventh-Day Adventist History Conference. It highlighted the contributions of numerous women teachers, preachers, administrators, leaders, and other professionals who helped build up our church and spread the gospel. Some were married to ministers yet were regarded as stronger preachers than their husbands! Those well-versed in Adventist history know that—despite resistance to recognize Sandra Roberts as president of the Southeastern California Conference because of her gender—there have already been at least three other female conference presidents in the Adventist Church. This history goes all the way back to Flora Plummer in 1900, who served as president of the Iowa Conference. Petra Tunhiem and Phyllis Ward were presidents of the West Java Mission Conference and Central States Conference, respectively.

Trailblazing women within our denomination are not relegated to the annals of the past. GC Vice President Ella Simmons provided the Sabbath sermon during the aforementioned history conference. The conference was planned strategically to take place on the heels of the NAD Women’s Clergy retreat, where approximately 200 women in ministry convened for training, fellowship, and worship. Each attendee works in vital capacities around North America for the promotion of God’s work.

A few weeks earlier in Japan, another noteworthy event in church history took place. On September 17, Adrienne Townsend Benton became the first Adventist female active-duty chaplain to attain the rank of Commander. Navy Commander Townsend Benton joins Lieutenant Colonel Wanda Acevedo who, in 2021, was the first to achieve this milestone in the U.S. Army Reserves and in the military overall. It was heartening to see the women and men at Commander Townsend Benton’s promotion who bore testimony of her impact. Her leadership and mentorship were commended and celebrated by the multitude of service members who honored her work. There were men there—even Adventist men. Yet God saw fit to use Commander Townsend Benton. She wasn’t chosen “in spite of.” God chose her specifically for a special ministry.

Humans have a tendency to develop prejudices and retroactively justify them by claiming they are God’s preferences. We like to make God in our image. We forget that we’re made in God’s image—all of us!


Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.

Title Image by Ben White on Unsplash.

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