Post 80: Michael Chamberlain, his PhD thesis, the “case,” and a new book by Ken Crispin

Considering the many accounts of the Chamberlain saga, my preferred newspaper reporter is Malcolm Brown, and my “top” book author is Norman Young (Innocence Regained). However, there are many other worthy analyses; one of the best in Ken Crispin’s “succinct, up-to-date overview of the inquests, court cases, appeals and Royal Commission” that compresses “a vast amount of evidence and event into a highly accessible account of a family tragedy and a travesty of justice on an almost mythic scale” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 29-30 September 2012, 33).

Reading the Herald review reminded me of the “other” Michael Chamberlains that I know, beginning with the little lad I first met in Christchurch, New Zealand, the city where my ministry began. Michael’s mother was a diligent student of Scripture who soaked up the content of the Bible studies that we shared in  an enthusiastic group. Then there was Michael the innovative young minister in North Queensland who confided to me his exciting vision for his local and corporate church. He seemed a very different Michael who, in the latter part of 1980, sat with head bowed in my MA classes. However did he pass his examinations so well despite the sorrow and turmoil that followed Azaria’s death? More than two decades later, Dr Michael Chamberlain asked my to write a Foreword for the considerably re-written form of his doctoral thesis, as a major book published by the inimitable John Knight of Post Pressed and the University of Queensland. My Foreword runs like this, in a very-lightly-edited form; the original is, of course, printed in the memorable book.

Michael Leigh Chamberlain melds insights from his Methodist roots and Seventh-day Adventist affiliation in making and reporting this massive exploration. Although he cares deeply about the Gospel of Christ and Christian values, Chamberlain refuses to allow his believer-participant status to diminish the rigour of his quest. Raised in New Zealand, he is a man toughened by years of misunderstanding and vilification from his adopted country, Australia; a husband racked by a spectacular failure of our courts to deliver justice; a father tormented by years of unresolved grief; a clergyman divorced from his calling by violent circumstances. But he has also been a teacher in outback and coastal New South Wales and is a community-orientated human being who values the support that known and unknown people gave his family during the long struggle to regain innocence.

This book fits under the rubric of Adventist Studies, specifically, the history, thought and practice of Seventh-day Adventists. It ranges widely across the movement’s pilgrimage, from its millenarian, revivalist, reformist and Restorationist matrix in the nineteenth century to its present status as a worldwide movement with seventeen million members. More specifically, the book focuses upon the continuing legacy of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915), the longest survivor of three Adventist co-founders. White lived in Australia and New Zealand from 1891-1900, mothering the South Pacific church, helping to establish the Avondale School for Christian Workers in 1897 (re-named Avondale College in 1964; now Avondale College of Higher Education) and fostering the initiatives that created Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga from 1903 onwards.

Chamberlain’s book will be controversial. The reasons are several. First of all, it crosses the lines between competing academic disciplines: history, religion, education and sociology. Some specialists in each discipline will score it for perceived shortcomings in their preferred area of expertise. However, in the final analysis, studies that embrace several areas of human endeavour may offer enriching insights in that they can better approach the actuality of human existence and historical experience.

Second, religious movements are usually slow to welcome historians that are not under their control; they tend to be even more nervous about sociologists. The church marginalised one of the first and finest doctoral dissertations on Adventist origins (1930); however, its ‘acceptable’ scholars used Everett Dick’s work extensively without acknowledgement until in 1994 Andrews University Press published the whole of it (see endnote 1). In 1979, Gary Land wrote an incisive article in an independent journal heralding the maturation of Adventist historiography, but during the 1970s and beyond several Adventist historians were dismissed from employment amidst tensions of the type well described in a scintillating essay by Jonathan Butler (see endnote 2). Pioneering studies of Adventism by sociologists like John Knight (University of Queensland), Robert Wolfgramm (Monash University), Ronald Lawson (City University of New York) seldom receive official accolades from the church even though they convey serious research findings in potentially constructive ways. Bruce Manners in 2004 and Rick Ferret in 2006 completed doctoral dissertations with strong historical foundations and compelling sociological interpretations. These studies offer an academic context within which to interpret Chamberlain’s book, but Chamberlain takes greater risks of drawing hostile fire.

If Adventist Studies for historians has been a risky enterprise, Ellen White Studies as its major subset has been even more so. Yet Chamberlain enters that disputed arena boldly and in great detail documents a transition that has been in process for decades at Avondale College. The more conservative Adventists are, the less likely are they to be open to the concept of change. But how can a movement founded in nineteenth-century North America offer accredited higher education effectively in twenty-first-century Australia without significant updating? How can a sect (in sociological terms, “a separated minority”) reach religious adulthood, embracing the best of Christianity yet evidencing faithfulness to its distinctive mission without responding to searching analyses of its historical development? How can Adventism implement effectively the values of “true education” enjoined in Ellen White’s copious writings as it prepares professionals for viable careers in the third Christian millennium without extended cultural and educational awareness?

The proposed answers being given to these questions and a host of others like them are less than convergent. Some earnest believers view almost any change from the nineteenth century approach as apostasy. For instance, of some sixty books written by the Standish brothers, more than a score (like their periodical The Remnant Herald) charge the official church with apostasy from its founding mother or traditional teachings. The Standishes also developed a rival educational institution in country Victoria, modelling their Highland College considerably on what Avondale used to be. They adopted Ellen White’s voluminous writings as “inerrant in the autographs,” often advocating a reversionist stance when confronted by new information. Adopting a polar opposite position are those who criticise Avondale for too closely adhering to historic formulations regarding Scripture and Adventist doctrine.

Between the extremes of reversion to traditional Adventism and alienation from the movement altogether are those who are determined to transform Avondale constantly in the direction of what they believe to be essential Adventism. Taking the abiding principles and the enduring wisdom of the Bible and Ellen White and applying these in the challenging cultural context of the twenty-first-century, they are apt to claim that Adventism has no creed but the Bible and that Ellen White has continuing relevance as a lesser light that leads to the greater light of Scripture. Such Adventists are unashamed as they engage in what H. Richard Niebuhr calls “the double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis” (see endnote 3). Their philosophy and actions affirm a host of Ellen White aphorisms including “truth can afford to be fair” and “No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation” (see endnote 4).

Chamberlain will stir significant conflict with his historical and sociological analyses, but there is more. He deals respectfully with Desmond Ford and seeks to place the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Adventist ministers during the 1980s (now so well documented by Harry Ballis in a doctoral dissertation and major book, see endnote 5) in an understandable context. This, for some of Chamberlain’s critics, will constitute an unpardonable sin. It will also intensify within Adventist Studies the type of situation Germans, Japanese and Australians face over the interpretation of their national histories, a matter well introduced in the writings of Stuart Macintyre (see endnote 6). If Australian social historians Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey can be the focus of misunderstanding, Chamberlain should not be surprised if he suffers in similar fashion.

Chamberlain wisely observes that the experience of religious institutions of higher learning in the United States shouts warnings to Avondale’s decision makers, the same as it does for those administering a hundred other senior colleges and universities operated by Seventh-day Adventists in various parts of the world. His book demonstrates the need for the vibrant debates such as that which occurred over the research of medico Don McMahon as well as the research design advocated by Leonard Brand. Chamberlain’s findings make crucial the content of the Ellen White Summit convened at Avondale College during 2004 and they underline the significance of Graeme Bradford’s books Prophets Are Human (2004), People are Human (2006) and More Than a Prophet (2006) (see endnote 7). While I often feel the urge to disagree with specific applications that Chamberlain makes from particular words that he cites, his “big picture” conclusions are absolutely compelling. The process of scholarly debate thrives on this type of situation, for effective scholarship is self-correcting.

This book should be required reading for all persons—church members, pastors, administrators, sociologists, historians, and researchers—engaged in Adventist Studies or seriously interested in understanding the ethos of Adventism. If it spurs the church to more quickly and faithfully construct and implement a mature hermeneutic for the writings of Ellen White, Michael Leigh Chamberlain’s years of unremitting toil will be at least partly rewarded.

Arthur Patrick, written 12 December 2007, edited and posted 30 September 2012


1. Everett N. Dick, William Miller and the Advent Crisis 1831-1844 (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1994).

2. Gary Land, “From Apologetics to History: The Professionalization of Adventist Historians,” Spectrum: A Quarterly Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums 10, no. 4 (March 1980), 89-100; Jonathan M. Butler, “Introduction: The Historian as Heretic,” in Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992), xxv-lxviii. Remarkably, this book has since been published in a Third Edition (2008).

3. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951), xi. I apply Niebuhr’s insights to Adventism in “Christianity and Culture in Colonial Australia: Selected Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist Perspectives, 1891-1900” (PhD dissertation: The University of Newcastle, 1992).

4. Ellen G. White, “Christ Our Hope,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 20 December 1892, 785. Access to Ellen White’s voluminous writings is facilitated for computer users via and the official White Estate website.

5. Peter H. Ballis, Leaving the Adventist Ministry: A Study of the Process of Exiting(Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1999). The book is a title in the Religion in the Age of Transformation series with Anson Shupe as Series Adviser.

6. See Stuart Macintyre and Ann Clark, The History Wars(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003).

7. I review these matters in various sources, including “Prophets Are Human! Are Humans Prophets?” Spectrum 33, no. 2 (Spring 2005), 73-74.