Post 22, Encircling Gloom, Kindly Light: Seeing Glacier View with the Lantern of History

Note: Recently my grandson Braden Johnson, transferred documents from computers long dead to my iMac. Yesterday, an experienced researcher asked me about Glacier View. So I spent a few moments looking through old files and found this summary of much longer studies, without the tedium of the others that I wrote after hundred of hours of interviews and research. I post it today (11 November 2011) exactly as it was in its seventh edition, back in 2005. Readers of this blog may notice its content illumines earlier posts, especially the one on Daniel 8:14 and the “assumptions” that undergird its traditional interpretation.

Twenty-five years ago, 125 leaders and scholars representing global Seventh-day Adventism were invited to meet at Glacier View Ranch, a youth convention facility in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Now the two words, Glacier View, are famous as Adventist shorthand for dissension, even division. Currently there is scant agreement within the worldwide Adventist family on how to understand the event, but this problematic situation need not continue.

John Henry Newman was touring the Mediterranean as William Miller began traveling New England to proclaim “the Advent near.” Newman’s hymn longs for “kindly Light” to lead his pilgrimage from evangelical faith into traditional Christianity. William Miller cherished the lamp of Scripture on his journey from rationalism, past postmillennialism toward “the full faith of the Second Advent.”

Long years later, during the 1970s and 1980s, Miller’s spiritual descendants experienced “encircling gloom” as, for many, tradition took precedence over Scripture. The same problem impacts Adventism in 2005, focusing conflict and inhibiting mission. Therefore, it is crucial for the church to be aware that abundant sources offer a redemptive understanding of Glacier View and invite a coherent application of its major lessons.

The Interpretive Task

Now it is easy to describe Glacier View, listing 114 actual attendees, reviewing two thousand pages of documents, analysing two consensus statements and the ten-point summary prepared by six conferees. However, these pieces of the jigsaw fail to construct a coherent picture.

Glacier View was a Christian council; such events have demonstrated strengths and limitations since the one described in Acts 15. It was also an Adventist conference, so its process needs to be seen in the light of the “General Conference of Christians Expecting the Second Advent of Christ” (1840) and a host of such occasions in Millerite and Sabbatarian Adventism, including the Sabbath Conferences (1848-1850). Glacier View is the largest international event of its type convened primarily so administrators and scholars could together examine the most distinctive fundamental belief of Seventh-day Adventism. It followed soon after the General Conference presidency of Robert Pierson, during the council-rich leadership of Neal Wilson (1979-1990). Women were minimally represented and laypersons were absent. Crucially, Glacier View convened in America to lance a systemic boil erupting once again in the Australian part of Christ’s body.

However, the controversial decision commonly associated with Glacier View was made after the closure of the council, contrasting with both the spirit of the council and the content of the only two statements voted by it. This decision implemented the convictions of an Australian leader, Division president Keith Parmenter (1918-1993). The rationale for and method of that crucial decision would be important factors in ending the careers of many church employees. Four of every ten ministers serving in Australia and New Zealand resigned or were dismissed between 1980 and 1988, many for complex reasons related to Glacier View. Large but uncounted numbers of teachers and members were similarly affected. Trauma in families, conflict in local churches and diminished commitment to mission constituted an encircling gloom.

Grief experiences may be aided by understanding; it is, therefore, an Adventist duty to ask if therapeutic insights derive from Glacier View.

The Problem: Information

Above all else, Glacier View provides a case study of the problem faced by a community that is inundated with new information.

After two global conflicts and a pervasive economic depression, by mid-century nuclear colossi confronted each other malevolently across a trembling world. Adolf Hitler had marched to his doom exactly as Adventist evangelists predicted from Daniel 2 but, dismayingly, Armageddon was postponed yet again. Many Adventists were certain humans would never be permitted to infect heavenly spheres, but sinful men trod the surface of the moon. New modes for storing and transferring information were proliferating; the world was simultaneously shrinking into a global village yet expanding as a morass of insoluble problems. Gone was the optimism of the nineteenth century with its “parliament of man”: the United Nations, the impulse to unite Europe, the Arab-Israeli conflict (Jerusalem would be trodden by Gentiles until the end), stirrings in Africa, the social unrest of the 1960s in Western society and a host of other events were at the same time harbingers of the time of trouble such as never was and gleams of the golden morning. But confusingly, a multitude of predictions by Adventist evangelists and apologists required revision. The prophetic light that shines in a dark place revealed increasingly the peril of dogmatic predictions.

This unexampled situation made Australian Adventism both nervous and hopeful. That archeology proved the Bible true was proclaimed to a thousand evangelistic audiences gathered by the title “Dead Men Do Tell Tales.” But archeology also illumined the Scriptures with disturbing new information. A seven-volume Bible commentary (1954-1957) for the people who already had “the truth” gave more than one interpretation for certain well-known passages. Even the text and translation of the Bible was not as sure anymore, a book was published under the scary title Problems in Bible Translation (1954). Science offered scintillating insights but even more disturbing challenges: the edibility and survival of Jonah might be well demonstrated by a modern narrative, but Genesis as a text for modern science was becoming hard to swallow. George McCready Price spent a half-century denying the existence of the geologic column; now his faithful students were explaining the geologic column. A movement that cherished “the message” needed by the world was under attack, so it seemed, from within and without.

Adventist Samsons smote the enemies of truth with great slaughter, using every available jawbone. An Australian (so long in North America his drawl was lost) put to flight the armies of the aliens in 1951 with Ellen G. White and Her Critics. But, shock horror, the ink was not long dry when researchers from within began to demonstrate the inadequacy of Nichol’s apology. Scientists commissioned to examine the crust of the earth and indicators of time lost their jobs when their research proved there was substance in claims they were meant to attack. Medico Jackson Saxon assured the church in 1971 that of all health writings, only those by Ellen White needed no revision; in 1976 Ronald Numbers suggested historical research indicated otherwise. Didn’t Ellen White get her ideas through a stainless steel pipe that conveyed God’s word directly to her ear? Were all the triumphs of Adventist apologetics Pyrrhic victories at best, Egyptian victories at worst? Adventist certitude was under threat from the dagger of evidence.

Fortunately, another Australian was found and sent into the colosseum to combat the lions. Desmond Ford was a convert from the Anglican faith, introduced considerably to Adventism by reading The Great Controversy and mentored at the Australasian Missionary College from 1947 to 1950 by a kindly Scot, William Murdoch. Ford was one of the two highest achievers at the first-ever Seminary Extension School in Australia (1957-1958), with Edward Heppenstall and Arthur White as instructors. Despite limited tertiary education before his graduation in 1950, but now with valuable pastoral-evangelistic experience, Ford completed a B.A. (Theology) degree in 1958 and then M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the United States. As chairperson of theology at his Alma Mater, Ford became Mister Adventist for Australasia, esteemed by students, sought for speaking appointments in conferences, churches and campmeetings.

The picture is clear now: the church from the mid-twentieth century was being confronted as never before by its world, a modern world two centuries after the onset of the Enlightenment. Seventh-day Adventism was born on a dreary October morning in 1844 and nourished by five “s” concepts: Second Advent, Sanctuary, Sabbath, State of the Dead and Spiritual Gifts. These landmark ideas became distinctives, transforming disappointed Millerites into ardent Sabbatarians, cherishing “the truth” and sharing “the message.” Each of these concepts was shaped by specific circumstances; they would be reshaped as an America-centric movement embraced a world mission.

Increasingly from the 1950s, the five landmarks of Sabbatarian Adventism experienced confirmation of essence and disconfirmation of detail. Loyal members were starting to see a necessity for change in perceptions of these truths and their presentation to both believers and potential converts. Astonishingly, for the truest of believers, people dismissed as “fallen Adventists” or even Babylon in the 1840s could speak of the Remnant as “redeemed brethren” in the 1950s. The discords of the troubled final years of Adventism’s “Great Dane,” M.L. Andreasen (1876-1962), were amplified in Australasia as Robert Brinsmead sang from the same hymn sheet. Now the fightings without were reinforced by foes that created fears within.

Ford became the most-sought-after person to combat both types of critics. But the terminal illness of his wife, Gwen, diminished his resilience. A pilgrimage to Manchester offered respite and discovery. Although a coterie of determinedly uncompromising ministers and members was beginning to doubt his “answers to objections” against “the truth,” some were comforted by the announcement that he would study in England under the noted “fundamentalist” scholar, F.F. Bruce. This assurance was not enough for others: Manchester was a “worldly” university; Bruce was in that Babylon of which a voice from heaven said, “Come out of her, my people.”

More trouble was in the offing. A groundhog is a small, burrowing North American animal that digs down, along, then up, takes a deep breath and says “Aha! Pure air here.” For years Brinsmead had caught Adventists’ attention with his groundhog method of doing theology, burrowing down from the perplexities of the 1960s to the certainties of early Adventism and 1888 to find pure theological air. Now he began applying his method differently, going back to the Reformation. Wasn’t that the religion of Barnhouse, Martin and the suspect book of 1957, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine?

My ministerial career almost ended in the 1960s when I could not in good conscience declare “Robert Brinsmead is of the devil.” I could say Bob had done some devilish things (as have I!); I could point out serious disagreements between my theology and his. But I was confident a person disfellowshipped for an alleged connection with Brinsmead was now ready for readmission in the congregation of which I was pastor. The executive committee of the conference came to believe that I must prove my “loyalty” with six unequivocal words.

Now it was the 1970s; the “new” Brinsmead and Desmond Ford, M.A., Ph.D., Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Theology at Avondale College, seemed to be saying the same thing about “the gospel.” Ford was the leader for parrying Brinsmead during the previous decade. But he attended an institution in Babylon, earning another doctoral degree under the supervision of an outstanding Babylonian. In a world of diminishing certainty, Ford had to answer the unremitting stream of questions pouring on to the church’s corporate desk. But his answers didn’t sound exclusivist to true believers. One of the most trusted of them labelled Desmond Ford “Doctor of Doubt” and wrote a passionate pamphlet detailing “The Dangerous Doctrines of Doctor Desmond Ford.”

It did not help to calm conflict that from 1970 a plethora of new questions was asked about the life and writings of Ellen White. The church in the United States was discovering and burning its heretics, too, so we Australians had precedents to guide us. With the experience of Ronald Numbers dimly perceived, Australians “knew” in 1978 that Walter Rea’s claim (Ellen White consulted sources when writing her 1898 masterpiece) was completely false. By 1980 Rea’s cat was already out of the Adventist bag, but even in 1982 the Australasian Record claimed a literary relationship of about 0.002 existed between Ellen White’s writings and those of other authors. That figure would need multiplication by 15,000 when the Veltman team reported on fifteen chapters from The Desire of Ages.

These paragraphs offer illustrative exhibits from a vast array of evidence indicating Adventism of the period was encountering a large volume of qualitatively new information, sufficient to exercise the spiritual gifts of its finest advocates. No longer were tidy lists of proof texts adequate for the demanding task of sharing Adventism in Western society.

Pioneers, Specialists, Parties and the Problem Personified

Non-specialists founded the Advent Movement, including two farmers, a teenage girl, a retired mariner and a schoolteacher with 29 weeks of formal education/training. Profound respect is indicated for these pioneers in that the five biblical landmarks they perceived remain crucial after sixteen decades. An individual Adventist does not denigrate the church’s health message by consulting a heart specialist: nor does the church diminish respect for its founders by consulting specialists in a range of relevant disciplines. However, few Adventists of 1980 appreciated the fact that biblical understanding is usually progressive, not static.

I returned in 1973 to the village where I was born, Cooranbong, to teach at Avondale College, after fifteen years of evangelism, pastoral ministry and study in New Zealand and the United States. It was obvious that Australians had come to rely more heavily upon Desmond Ford as the church’s consulting specialist than upon any other person. But, almost immediately, I became aware that Mister Adventist for most was already Doctor of Doubt for many. Parties were developing in Australian Adventism, depicted by two acronyms: Grof and Fish. In the main, retired ministers and administrators captained the “Get Rid Of Ford” army with Ellen White their definer of doctrine and unchanging truth their banner. The “Ford Is Staying Here” troops had no cohesive leadership; often they included masses of young people so fired with enthusiasm for the gospel that they witnessed for their faith anywhere, even on city streets.

Enter Keith Parmenter, Australasian president, 1976-1983. A fluent preacher and a gracious leader, his farming background was enhanced at the Australasian Missionary College by accountancy studies and then the pre-degree Ministerial Course (1947). He knew the distress his predecessor had borne as stalwarts charged Ford and anyone who seemed theologically like him, or said similar things, with at least incipient heresy. Perhaps, Parmenter reasoned, Ford is a big fish in a little pond; in the United States, the towering strengths of others would balance his enthusiasms, then he could return to his beloved Avondale.

So Ford was at Pacific Union College by mid-1977. But the news from across the ocean wasn’t reassuring. Instead of burial in classrooms and learning from sages, Ford was speaking at colleges, campmeetings and everywhere. The Palmdale conference of 1976 hadn’t ended discussion of “the gospel”; even Adventist Review and Ministry saw Righteousness by Faith differently. So Ford’s “sentence,” to do time in a far country, needed prolonging. Then the sky fell on 27 October 1979, when Ford accepted an invitation to address the Pacific Union College chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums. To speak to a Forum was bad enough, to speak about the sanctuary and the thought of Ellen White in that context was dangerous. That Robert Brinsmead was (wrongly) blamed for distributing tape recordings of the address worldwide (50,000 copies, it was suggested!) was claimed as convincing evidence of a conspiracy between Ford and Brinsmead. Novellas like Walton’s Omega confirmed what was already “known”: Desmond Ford was the “omega of apostasy” predicted by Ellen White.

Glacier View and its Outcome

Church councils seldom meet in irenic circumstances: Nicea, for instance, had to satisfy a petulant emperor who wanted unity above truth. Some Glacier View conferees gave convincing evidence they hadn’t digested two thousand pages of homework placed on their desks three weeks before Glacier View. However, with all the limitations under which they labored, about 114 diverse individuals from all over the Adventist world in a mere five days created and voted approval of two consensus statements. These two documents illustrate what can happen when Christians talk to each other with Scripture as the focus of their attention. Elsewhere I’ve listed 39 papers needed to illumine Glacier View more adequately. One such paper should explore the question: Did the Glacier View conferees make as much progress in understanding the sanctuary teaching in five days as the church usually achieves in fifty years?

What does a harried administrator do in a time of crisis like Glacier View? He is likely to seek for a trustworthy view of the issues under consideration. Parmenter had found that, increasingly, and it was the same formulation that energised the earnest people who for more than a decade had been gathering faggots to burn Desmond Ford. The consensus statements crafted by the largest and most international body ever assembled to study the sanctuary let him down, badly. Even Ford would say he was “thrilled” with the consensus statements; Ford wrote in plain English his commitment to teach and preach within their parameters. Such an outcome would never be acceptable for those Parmenter would face immediately upon his return to Australia. Any solution that retained Ford contradicted Parmenter’s personal perception of counsel given by Ellen White. More than that, Parmenter believed the (false) allegations that Ford and Brinsmead were co-conspirators. Why else would Ford refuse to declare Brinsmead was of the devil?

On 15 August 1980, eight other administrators supported Parmenter in his hour of need. (The individual perspectives of Parmenter, Wilson and several others each merit an article of this length to adequately understand their engagement in the Glacier View process and its aftermath.) Adventism, a movement born with an antipathy for creeds had developed the creed that was written in the minds of true believers. Nine men chose a rationale and method that marginalised two documents expressing consensus and centralised the one defining difference, a statement neither voted nor discussed by the Glacier View conference. Thereafter, for years, the church would emphasise difference, not consensus.

Nine leaders on a Friday afternoon made a template for the accusations and trials of scores of ministers and uncounted others. Glacier View was unprecedented; now it was launched as Adventist shorthand for trauma and division. Even the flickering lantern of history reveals a stark reality: for a time the kindly light of Scripture shining on the Adventist pathway would be hidden under the bushel of tradition.

Arthur N. Patrick, DMin, PhD
Research Fellow, Avondale College
Cooranbong, NSW 2265, Australia

Seventh draft, 31 October 2005