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Our Millerite forebears and Sabbatarian founders were apt to refer to themselves as "the people of the Advent near." In other words, they were millenarians focused decidedly on an immediate, glorious return of Jesus Christ.
Twenty centuries of Christian millennialism demonstrate that such movements cannot forever maintain the white heat of expectation. Ardent Millerite believers who didn’t dig their potatoes or who undervalued their earthly possessions before 22 October 1844 soon experienced the cruel reality of hunger. Joshua V. Himes vigorously gathered funds to meet the needs of those made destitute by actions that had seemed faithful to the truth of the Bible. Over a seven-year period, Sabbatarians realised that the door of mercy wasn’t shut after all; a world mission had to be both contemplated and implemented. One hundred and sixty-four years later, some of us fifteen million Seventh-day Adventists are trying to understand the historical development of our theology and how to apply what Jesus meant when He said, "Occupy till I come."
Rolf Pöhler’s Andrews University doctoral dissertation (1995) has developed into articles and books, including Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development (2001). Pöhler convincingly presents the importance of understanding the constructive change that has occurred over time in Adventist teaching. Rick Ferret’s doctoral dissertation (Sydney College of Divinity, 2006, soon to be available as a major book published in the United Kingdom) unpacks some of the long Adventist struggle to be faithful to the truth of imminence yet responsible to the need for enduring institutions. Now another doctoral study examines a luminous historical event that speaks profoundly about some of the most significant tensions in Adventist faith and experience. The principal event under examination was controversial when it occurred back in 1919, but after a few years it was almost forgotten for half a century. Since 1979 when Spectrum published transcripts from its proceedings,1 it has been interpreted in contrasting ways. On the one hand, earnest believers cast it as a misinterpretation of Adventism leading to reprehensible apostasy. On the other hand, equally sincere believers present it as a commendable attempt to understand Adventism faithfully and articulate it convincingly.
The 1919 Bible Conference
Michael W. Campbell’s just-completed study, "The 1919 Bible Conference and Its Significance for Seventh-day Adventist History and Theology," offers this gripping observation at the end of the third chapter:
To read such a comment is to activate important questions. Who were the participants and what did they say? What were the "truth" issues, then and now? Were theological unity and revival achieved? After almost ninety years, does the conference agenda still matter, anyway? Why has 1919 been so incendiary?
The first answer to the last question is simple: two stalwart believers who probably did not even attend the conference (there is some ambiguity in the extant evidence!) soon waged a pamphlet war, claiming the 1919 discussions compromised Adventism and led it toward the deadly "omega of apostasy." The second answer concerns the present. Similar charges are still being leveled by stentorian voices on Adventism’s right wing.3
Campbell’s Appendix A (222-3) identifies 65 attendees, their job descriptions and ages at the time they met for over four weeks (between 1 July and 1 August 1919) in the newly-completed basement of a Washington Missionary College building, Takoma Park, Maryland. He helpfully separates the main conference, at which theoretically all 65 attendees participated, from the smaller group of about 18 administrators, Bible and history teachers who conferred after the close of the main event.4
During the discussions, the physical temperature was at times either "sizzling" or "stifling"; the human engagements were spirited, often frank but never malicious. Perhaps nine stenographers, including three women, attempted to record the proceedings. The stenographers could not always hear the remarks made from where they were sitting and some entire discussions (in one instance, a block of sixty pages) were deleted from the conference records at the direction of the chairperson (the General Conference president). Campbell laments on page 94: "It is regrettable that only a fraction of what could have been recorded has been preserved." But any historian is likely to be excited by the fact that more than 1,300 pages of transcripts are available for study, as well as a consensus statement, articles and books written by participants, plus a growing number of historical reflections. A set of the existing transcripts is available, neatly bound in five volumes, on the shelves of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale College, three kilometers from my home. Since similar copies are located on the Internet and in Adventist research entities around the world, Campbell’s study can be read in the light of unusually-rich primary documentation.
While ultimate truth never changes, our comprehension of truth is forever partial but, hopefully, ongoing. Why was such a perception of truth so important in 1919? Wearing his historian’s hat, Campbell offers convincing evidence that there was a long-perceived need for Adventists to examine their history and teachings anew in terms of changed religious and political circumstances. Enormous effort had been devoted to interpreting "the daily" of Daniel 8, 11 and 12, and identifying Daniel’s elusive "king of the north" (see page 138). Millerite exegesis and Uriah Smith’s applications spawned questions that demanded reconsideration during the early years of the twentieth century. Whereas the dissolution of what had been an Ottoman Empire since the year 1300 had seemed a great sign that the end of all things was at hand, World War I didn’t turn out as Adventist expositors and evangelists expected.
For some of the participants at the 1919 Conference, solutions were basically very simple indeed. The church had "the truth" and so, just as the "pioneers" envisioned things during the explosive General Conference in Minneapolis back in 1888, the 1919 attendees had a clear duty to "stand by the old landmarks." If the Bible was sometimes ambivalent, in the view of those Campbell calls "traditionalists" or "conservatives," God’s living mouthpiece was certainly not. Since God had spoken through a last-day prophet (Ellen Gould White, 1827-1915); the present necessity was to heed and obey His voice.
But the 1919 event also included those to whom Campbell attributes "progressive" minds. Some of them (like A.G Daniells and W.W. Prescott ) knew the Adventist prophet from long years of close, personal association.5 They understood clearly the way in which Ellen White did her work, the role of her literary assistants and advisers, as well as how she engaged in or authorised the responsible revision of her writings (especially The Great Controversy editions of 1884, 1888, 1907 and 1911). They were well aware of how she used the writings of other authors, both Adventist and non-Adventist. They had lived for decades under the constant discussion of issues like the law in Galatians and the "daily" in Daniel. They also remembered in detail what Ellen White had said against using her writings to settle Adventist controversies.
Analytical sentences leap constantly from Campbell’s pages. "The conferees at the 1919 Bible Conference represented the best-trained group of Adventist leaders and educators ever officially convened to that time" (86). Thus, in a very real sense, 1919 was the first "scholarly" conference in Seventh-day Adventist history (87). "A major unidentified purpose of the Conference, therefore, was to discover how the church would deal with change, and more importantly, with doctrinal conflict" (100).
Campbell’s first two chapters underline the significance of well-known studies by George Knight, Arnold Reye (well interpreted by Lester Devine), Gilbert Valentine and Mark Pearce, for instance, that assess the impact of Fundamentalism on Seventh-day Adventism. Campbell identifies clearly the traits of Fundamentalism, Dispensational Premillenialism and the Holiness Movement, and he cites Adventist reactions to such Christian impulses. During 1918 and 1919, selected Adventists attended and reported three major prophetic conferences that convened in Philadelphia and New York. These Fundamentalist conferences seemed to present a fresh opportunity for the Remnant Church. Might such Bible believers actually become allies in the fight against common enemies like evolution and modernism? Might Fundamentalists be open to an even truer "fundamentalism" that embraced such Bible teachings as the Sabbath?
However, the 1919 conferees in Takoma Park were more than keenly aware of threatening external enemies and potential Fundamentalist friends. Their prophet was dead. She had helped to guide the good ship Adventist through many storms: the Righteousness by Faith controversy that began in 1888 and continued long thereafter; the "Holy Flesh" incident; the old but still-unfinished "daily" controversy; the re-organisation struggle of 1901; the move from Battle Creek to Takoma Park; and the 1902-7 Battle Creek crisis that so shriveled the "right arm of the message." A felt need was for the voice of a living prophet to speak clearly to the current dilemmas! For Stephen Haskell, "one expression" in an Ellen White testimony was still likely to be worth more "than all the histories you could stack between [North America] and Calcutta" (68). But for the progressives, it was necessary to exegete Scripture and understand the actual biblical focus and historical consciousness of Ellen White. It is noteworthy that some 44 per cent of the conferees were Bible and history teachers, most of whom thirsted for what they could regard as a reasoned response to the available data.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a topic not intended for extensive consideration in 1919 surfaced as the principal focus during four sessions of the main conference and its follow-up meetings. The discussion of the Trinity was still too sensitive for Daniells to allow the stenographers to report it, despite Ellen White’s declaration (see The Desire of Ages, 1898, page 530) that in Christ there is "life, original, unborrowed, underived." Above the tumult over issues like the Trinity, the daily and the king of the north towered the importance of the Adventist prophet: "the most sensitive discussion of all" was that regarding her "inspiration and authority" (114).
It is in this context that Campbell highlights one of the most arresting realities of 1919. H. Camden Lacey could opine that the Bible "is verbally inspired, and the Testimonies are not, and do not claim to be, but the Bible does" (159). Therefore, although the progressives were essentially "united on the non-errancy of Ellen White’s writings" (159), Adventism would become "pervasively Fundamentalist during the 1920s" (184). So, by 1951, Francis D. Nichol could write a whole book (Ellen G. White and Her Critics) that gave Ellen White a mostly-Fundamentalist profile, and to this day Fundamentalism is cherished in large sections of Seventh-day Adventism.
Campbell documents urgent requests made during the 1919 meetings for a statement on inspiration. However, the topic may have been "too controversial for church administrators to probe" (160). Even Daniells was at times during the conference subjected to "a grueling interrogation about the nature of inspiration and the authority of Ellen White" (195). Soon thereafter he became the focus of a violent pamphlet war. Further, Adventist "history teachers and the use of ‘historical method’ became especially suspect as Adventism became more Fundamentalist during the 1920s," during which time its history teachers were "on the front line of those who were pushed out of the church" (190). So thoroughly were the 1919 discussions wrapped up and put away that my cherished mentor, Arthur L. White (secretary of White Estate, 1937-1978) didn’t even know early in the 1970s that the conference had been convened, let alone the content of its deliberations.
Campbell tells why and how the 1919 transcripts were "discovered" by Donald Yost as part of a process that Arthur White spearheaded from 1972. During those years the church moved rather quickly to organize its headquarters archive and establish research centers to serve the various geographical areas of the world. The bold publication of selected transcripts from 1919 in Spectrum "changed the contours of Adventist historiography" (201) after 1979 and was "an unsettling revelation amongst Adventist intellectuals" (202) in an era that was "tumultuous" for Ellen White studies" (202). Roy Branson as Spectrum editor would later reflect that the publication of the 1919 transcripts constituted "the single most important issue" of the journal (203). In Branson’s opinion, "People were stunned that there were leaders of our church who tracked views similar to Adventist academics" (203).
From the vantage point of 2008, we can reassess the ideas and integrity of a number of Adventist leaders from past generations. A doctoral dissertation, two books and articles by Gilbert Valentine have rehabilitated Prescott and enabled us to understand his remarkable contribution to the development of Adventist theology. After Campbell’s account, Daniells can now be better understood as "a champion of theological integrity and spiritual insight with a clear understanding of the ministry of Ellen White" rather than as a pioneer of apostasy (206). Oh that all the 1919 participants had acted on Benson’s plea "that Adventists not associate the virtues of ‘historical method’ with the vices of ‘higher criticism’" (192).
So, Michael Campbell joins a group of 21st century doctoral candidates whose diligence and skill help to push back the horizons of Adventist understanding. Their dissertations are too rich to package in a few cryptic sentences. But, for me, Michael Chamberlain (2001, now published as a major book in Australia, 2008) demonstrates why an adequate hermeneutic for Ellen White’s writings is both a crucial need and an unfinished task. Paul McGraw (2004) and Julius Nam (2005) help us to make meaning from the contrary waves of opinion regarding Adventism’s most-controversial-ever publication, Questions on Doctrine (1957). Rick Ferret (2006) offers convincing evidence that sociology has a crucial role for those who seek to interpret "the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history."6 Now Campbell locates the 1919 event as an instructive scene on the long stage of Adventist history. No one in the future should presume to talk at depth about this epochal conference without a thorough understanding of his dissertation.
Yet, Campbell’s study is also an incentive to continue unpacking similar scenes that address the same or related themes. He establishes that 1919 was qualitatively different from the Adventist conferences that preceded it. The next such event, in 1952, was far less significant–in part because it published its proceedings but not even a line of its far more restricted conversations. Not until 1982, when seventy of us gathered for the first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop in Washington, would the essential significance of 1919 be understood more fully and enunciated more clearly–with the major discussions recorded on audio-cassettes.7
Campbell has introduced us effectively to the players on the Adventist stage in 1919 and helps us understand their lines. The evidence suggests that the discussion of Ellen White’s life and writings in 1919 was rather impromptu, almost unintentional, but that it was, in fact, crucial for those wishing to understand the church’s identity and mission. Campbell helps us ponder that a few progressives might have understood Ellen White adequately, but their light was mostly hidden under the pervasive bushel of Adventist Fundamentalism. It is clear from Campbell’s analysis that we must now listen more attentively while others help us better appreciate the messages of all inspired writers–and how the authority of Scripture transcends that of Ellen White–if we are to share Adventism effectively with a needy world.
Now that all of us can read Campbell’s excellent study of the 1919 Bible Conference in the light of abundant primary and secondary sources, it is imperative that we act on the insights it shares with us. Campbell is right on target when he points out that the conference was in essence a struggle over hermeneutics (219): how to interpret the Bible and the writings of Ellen White faithfully in terms of all the available evidence. The "pioneers" at the conference were determined to stay by the hermeneutics that had given William Miller fifteen ways to arrive at 1844; that had enabled Josiah Litch to offer startling but unsustainable predictions about the fall of the Ottoman Empire; and that spurred Uriah Smith and other Sabbatarian Adventists to write so much about "the sick man of the East" (Turkey). In 2008 we cannot but be awed by the faith and commitment of Miller, Litch, Smith and a host of others who proclaimed similar convictions so earnestly. However, we find greater biblical and intellectual integrity amongst the "progressives" who sensed the inadequacies of the hermeneutics that had led dedicated believers up dead-end roads.
Adventism is still a millennialist movement due to its passion for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ. It has become a world religion and therefore its integrity is under scrutiny by both friends and enemies. At heart it is an impulse to encompass and share what Ellen White liked to term "the truth as it is in Jesus." Now that we better understand the 1919 Bible Conference will we, heirs of the Millerites and of the nineteenth-century Sabbatarians, focus more effectively and winsomely on "present truth"?
1 Molleurus Couperus, "The Bible Conference of 1919" (pages 23-26); "The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy In Our Teaching of Bible and History" (pages 27-44); "Inspiration of the Spirit of Prophecy As Related to The Inspiration of the Bible" (pages 44-57), Spectrum: A Quarterly Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums 10, no. 1 (May 1979), 23-57. [back]
2 (PhD diss., SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 2008), 101. Campbell’s supervisors included historians Jerry Moon, Gary Land and George Knight; a theologian, Woodrow Whidden; and an external examiner, Donald W. Dayton. [back]
3 For instance, in a series of books and many magazine articles published in the United States and Australia by Russell R. Standish and Colin D. Standish, the 1919 conference is presented as an illustration of "doubt" to the extent that they declare simply, "The 1919 Bible Conference was a disgrace to our church" (162). Cf. their volume The Greatest of All the Prophets (2004), 162-172, with their comment on Daniells in Half a Century of Apostasy (2006), 237. [back]
4 In a footnote, Campbell states: "The 1919 Bible Conference was actually composed of two concurrent conferences. The primary conference was the 1919 Bible Conference which extended from July 1 to 19, 1919. During the evening there was an additional series of teachers’ meetings that extended beyond the Bible Conference until August 1, 1919. Both will be collectively referred to in this dissertation as the ‘1919 Bible Conference’" (xiii). [back]
5 The three best witnesses about the level of information Adventism had regarding Ellen White at the 1919 event were Arthur G. Daniells, William W. Prescott and H. Camden Lacey. Their testimony is congruent with the extensive data readily available in the files of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale College, referenced in part within such papers as "The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White" (Part 1 and Part 2) that are available on http://sdanet.org/atissue. Note, in particular, the interpretive studies by Gilbert Valentine that are cited. Daniells was chair of Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 1915-1935. [back]
6 In order to identify these dissertations and understand this brief review in a broader context, the reader should consult two documents: Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students (Avondale College, 2006) and "Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism: ‘a constant process of struggle and rebirth’?" (2008). The latter article has been refereed and accepted for publication by the editors of Journal of Religious History; see http://www.avondale.edu.au/research::Journal_Articles/ for the online version. Note, as well, the earlier discussion of related issues: Arthur Patrick, "Graeme Bradford and Ellen White’s Inspiration," spectrummagazine.org, 5 April 2007; Trevor Lloyd, "The Gift of Prophecy Revisited," spectrummagazine.org, 21 June 2007. [back]
7 See my paper "The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White: 1982 in Historical Perspective," referenced above (footnote 5), in the context of the other Ellen White studies that appear on the same website. [back]