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Twenty-Six Years under Wilson Leadership: a Review (1 of 2)

When Elder Ted Wilson’s current term as General Conference (GC) president terminates in 2025, a Wilson will have led the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for 26 of the last 45 years. Adventism is a relatively large global church that periodically elects its leaders through a “democratic” process. In modern times, it is rare to have two members of the same family exercise such a dominant administrative presence. Ted Wilson is the first president to serve three terms since the church switched to a five-year term system. If Ted, who will be 75 when his present term is up, relinquishes the GC presidency, he will have served three five-year terms compared with his father’s two. He is now midway through his third term, and as we begin the countdown to the end of his 15-year incumbency, it is not too early to assess what the Adventist Church has gotten in return for 26 years under the father/son duo. I will begin this examination by reflecting on the first Elder Wilson’s tenure as lead administrator of the world church. The next column will consider the stewardship of his son.

Neal Wilson (1979–1990)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were tumultuous years for Adventism. So many negative stories surfaced during this momentous period: Ron Numbers, Merikay Silver, the 1919 Bible Conference minutes, Donald Davenport, Desmond Ford, Walter Rea. This unsettled both the general membership and church leaders. Neal Wilson found himself at the center because he held multiple senior positions, including 11 years as GC president. Many blame both Wilson and his predecessor, Robert Pierson, for contributing to the moribund state of today’s church, particularly in the Western world, because these two leaders had no appetite for change.

In retrospect, Neal Wilson’s inflexible leadership style, perhaps believing he was guardian of a conservative ethos under assault, might have contributed to his perceived intransigence. But he might have misjudged his time. There was then much clamor in the larger society to give women opportunities long reserved for men. And some men, particularly leaders in conservative religious hegemonies, saw the trending equality gains as threatening. Thus they adopted an uncompromising governance stance that opposed any concessions to a changing society. It is unclear if Neal Wilson was influenced by this era’s counter-cultural bias in some of his attitudes toward women.

It was during his North American Division presidency when the 1973 Merikay Silver/Pacific Press pay inequity case made its way to the US appeals court. Wilson was involved from its beginning but refused to compromise in order to settle with the US Equal Opportunity Commission. He insisted on preserving the church’s “right” to pay women less than men, for comparable work. His justification was that Adventist Church structure, like Catholicism, was hierarchical. And that hierarchy, he argued, mirrored a family where men are the de facto authority. Consequently, they need to be paid more, even when doing the exact same work as women. Because the higher pay enabled them to fulfill their headship responsibilities.

The church was making this court claim in 1982 when America, some 20 years earlier, had passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act to address broader inequalities in society. Even more ironic, in 1972, the GC approved a policy prohibiting pay discrimination in church employment. So, they just needed to follow their own guidelines. Instead, Neal Wilson’s GC was in court defending pay discrimination at the Pacific Press. This made no sense, unless perhaps the president wanted to signal his personal opposition to women’s enfranchisement. In court, the judge used Ellen White’s equal opportunity statements to chastise the church for discriminating against women. So the church lost, and as a result, women employees are now paid equal wages for equal work.

It was also during Neal Wilson’s presidency that Desmond Ford, a prominent Adventist theologian and beloved pastor, was defrocked. The Ford debacle began at an Adventist Forum meeting where he made some comments concerning the church’s Investigative Judgment doctrine as well as the significance of 1844 in Adventist history. Some church leaders considered this to be heretical.

At the center of this controversy was the church’s teaching on Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Traditional Adventist interpretation joins this text to 1844 and events in heaven. In Adventist lay understanding, Jesus went from one apartment or chamber in heaven to another to begin going through the heavenly “books.” The goal of this investigation, expressed in 19th-century accounting language, is to balance the sins and good deeds of every individual in history in order to separate the saved from the lost. As the church explains it, Christ started this phase of his ministry on October 22, 1844. When this work is done, Jesus will return to reward the faithful with a trip to heaven, where they will be with him for a thousand years.

Not so, claimed Ford.

Thus began one of the most unfortunate yet consequential episodes in Adventist history. This was a missed opportunity, not unlike the 1919 Bible Conference. The church, given a more pragmatic leadership, could have used the occasion to reevaluate a teaching that seems to have lost its relevance. But Neal Wilson was no pragmatist. So at church expense, Ford was given a leave of absence from his teaching position at Pacific Union College to develop and defend his position. The result was a massive tome, 694 pages of small print he titled Daniel 8:14: The Day of Atonement and the Investigative Judgment. After nearly exhausting all angles of his subject, Ford stated his conclusions plainly:

Our traditional method of explaining the pre-Advent judgment will not stand up to critical examination. There are no texts teaching an investigative judgment as we proclaim it. Dan. 8:14 is speaking of a judgment upon Antichrist and his hosts, not the saints. The same is true of the judgment in Dan. 7 and Rev. 22:7. In none of these does the context speak of the saints being investigated.

This addressed what he considered to be our inappropriate hermeneutical application of Daniel 8:14. In his next sentence, he zeroed in on what could be inferred as the illogicality of our position:

God does not need books and 140 [now 180+] years to settle the destiny of men. Neither do the angels or the unfallen worlds, or inhabitants of this earth stand to profit by an investigative judgment as we have described it.

For years, particularly after the 1888 Minneapolis GC Session, the church adopted a posture that we are justified by grace, not works. Thus Ford’s critique is a concern at the heart of the gospel itself. If we are justified by faith in Jesus, why is there a need for the Investigative Judgement, which relies on our works as determinant of whether we are saved or not? Ford, in essence, was calling the church out for preaching a justification by “works” gospel, but not admitting to it.

In 1980, as one of his first presidential duties, Neal Wilson convened a meeting of some 120 of the church’s leading theologians and administrators at Glacier View, Colorado, to vet Ford’s defense. But Ford did not stand a chance. Many of his examiners would later confess that they did not even read his manuscript, which was the basis of the inquiry. Ford had touched on the most sacred cow in Adventist theology. The Investigative Judgement is our explanation for the Great Disappointment and, consequently, our specialness.

His firing was therefore virtually preordained. He would be sacked from his teaching position and relieved of his Adventist ministerial credentials shortly thereafter. But since then, either out of contrition for recognizing Ford was right after all, or perhaps embarrassment for the high-handed way he was let go, there seems to be a collective unspoken agreement by Adventist leadership to allow this topic to die of neglect. The Investigative Judgement doctrine is still a church teaching, listed as Fundamental Belief #24. But it is rarely discussed, as all who value continued church employment sensibly keep their silence. And if the topic can’t be avoided, as when it’s referenced in a Sabbath school study guide, we give it a new name: Pre-Advent Judgment.

Des Ford was not the first academic to be forced out of church employment for criticizing Ellen G. White or something she wrote. There were several before him, but Ronald Numbers’s firing was the first to get attention outside of the Adventist subculture. In 1974, the Loma Linda University board of trustees voted not to retain Numbers when they got wind of his research manuscript. This was two years before Harper and Row published Prophetess of Health. Neal Wilson was the board chair when the decision was made to terminate Numbers’s appointment. Ron’s book would be the first serious contextual investigation by an Adventist academic of White’s writings, though his work was tailored narrowly to her health messages. It showed that material she claimed to be direct messages from God were previously known to her from human sources.

The plagiarism charge against White was recognized within Adventist academic communities in the 1970s, but it still had not gained traction in the church at-large. That changed when Walter Rea’s The White Lie came off the press in 1982. The preponderance of Rea’s evidence of uncredited sourcing throughout her major writings was too overwhelming to ignore. For many, these revelations proved too much and they left the church.

A feeling of betrayal resulted. This extended to those denominational leaders who, over a long-time span, knew about her unacknowledged borrowing, yet did nothing. This was confirmed in 1979 when Molleurus Couperus published the unedited transcripts of the 1919 Bible Conference minutes, which had been discovered in 1974. There we learned that four years after her death, important church leaders who knew Ellen White personally and were acquainted with her writing process were uncomfortable with how she was increasingly being perceived as inerrant. Walter Rea would no longer be welcome in Adventist pulpits after his revelations. This wasn’t because his research was unsound but because he conducted the study at all. Like Ford, Rea’s core thesis was not contested. Instead, official Adventism took umbrage with the book’s title and attempted to shift attention from the content of his research to its process.

Neal Wilson was a central figure in almost all the controversies that occurred during his presidency. He might not have originated the disputes, but his responses to these important events are what defined him. A non-conciliatory stance to every perceived assault on church pillars likely disposed him to use dismissal as a threat to academics who were beginning to question church dogma in earnest. Maybe the combined weight of issues raised by Merikay Silver, Desmond Ford, and Walter Rea—in an increasingly shifting Adventist socio-theological landscape—was more than any one individual could bear. Or, it could simply be that his approach, like a solitary individual trying to keep an ocean wave at bay by standing in its way, no longer worked in a postmodern environment. His constituents might have thought as much, so when his second term was over, in spite of his declared desire to remain in office, Neal Wilson was not reelected to a third term as GC president.

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.

Title illustration by Spectrum. Source images: Tor Tjeransen / AME (CC BY 4.0); Centro de Pesquisas Ellen G. White.

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