Post 73, Fundamentalism and Adventism: After Controversy, Growing Understanding?

A compelling PhD study by Paul McGraw of Pacific Union College offers fuller understanding of “one of the thorniest problems in Adventism”1 and thereby strengthens the possibility that the Seventh-day Adventist church can transcend a fifty-year conflict.2

McGraw intimated the nature of his research at the Triennial Session of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians in Portland, Oregon, on 11 April 1998; now his 315 pages fulfil the high expectations that seemed latent in his project from its beginning. McGraw’s dissertation became available to me for extended scrutiny only on the morning of 3 August 2006; it was so interesting that I completed a first reading of it by the next evening. Coincidentally, on August 4 the Sydney College of Divinity gave notice that a doctoral study by an Australian pastor, Rick Ferret, had received the approval of its examiners.3

I almost held my breath as I re-read Ferret’s final draft in the light of McGraw’s dissertation: both plough some of the same historical ground. However, the two studies are vastly different in methodology: McGraw writes primarily as an historian, making effective use of copious and often new primary sources; Ferret offers trans-disciplinary perspectives. including a strong sociological orientation that makes fresh syntheses and applications of existing literature. Both dissertations are greatly needed by the church, not least because they demonstrate why and how two scholars working in total isolation from each other arrived at conclusions that are congruent.

The Adventist Problem

There are a small number of issues so close to the core of Adventist identity that different perspectives relating to them have led to serious debates and even long-term wars. Elsewhere I contend that it required about one hundred years for the primary sources relating to the General Conference of 1888 to be adequately gathered, focused, understood, and coherently interpreted in writing. However, long before the hundred years had elapsed, indeed, as early as the General Conference of 1950, a new phase of the conflict over the 1888 message of Righteousness by Faith was initiated. This controversy had little chance of an effective resolution prior to the Palmdale Conference of 1976 and more especially the Righteousness by Faith Consultation that began in 1979 and published its definitive report on 31 July 1980.

The Adventist fire that re-ignited in 1950 was fed with explosive fuel as the reality of a sustained conversation between Adventist leaders and Fundamentalists/Evangelicals became known and itself began a long process of misinterpretation. While the principal alternative viewpoint was given credence by the “Great Dane” of Adventism, Milian Lauritz Andreasen, it relied on a rapidly developing independent press in the United States and, in Australasia, Robert Daniel Brinsmead’s Awakening Movement. By the 1970s, as other issues increased the complexity of the conversation about Adventist landmarks, their history and meaning, streams of independent publications were flowing over the church, with one strand of them alleging that in 1957 Adventism either commenced or accelerated a journey into apostasy.

Since then, the opposing sides in this ongoing debate have found it increasingly difficult to talk calmly to each other. Some strategists suggest that usually a particular conflict engages only between twenty and forty per cent of the citizens of a nation or the members of an organisation, those who adopt polar-opposite positions. In other words, often the majority are unknowing of the issues or perhaps indifferent to them.4 To quantify the participants in any Adventist struggle may be subjective, even risky. But there is a constructive truth that can be stated with reference to 1957: the warfare that began five decades ago can now be understood effectively in terms of the primary documents from that effervescent period.

Touring the Battlefield with McGraw

Back in 1978 at a conference in Washington, D.C., my colleague James Nix kindly offered to introduce this naïve Australian to the Civil War battleground of Gettysburg. I assumed the visit may require an hour, or even two. How wrong I was! Nix introduced me to a particular battle but also to a war that was fought in ten thousand places, a struggle that told much about its participants, their nation, its past and its future. I came from Nix’s one-person, guided tour of Gettysburg with a sense of profound humility and awe, sorrow and hope.

McGraw’s early chapters make clear the conflict that escalated with the publication of Questions on Doctrine must be interpreted in the light of Seventh-day Adventism as it developed after 1844 and later suffered unresolved traumas, including the departure of the stalwart D.M. Canright in the 1880s and the foreign missionary E.B. Jones in the 1940s. As a movement developing its landmark ideas in a hostile environment, Adventism cherished the distinctiveness of its remnant concept, fostering separation from the wider society and even from those Christians who also held a high view of Scripture. McGraw pictures well the crying need for a new appraisal of Adventism in the 1950s when so many earnest Christians labelled it as a cult, and he details effectively the pioneering efforts and considerable skill of such leaders as LeRoy Edwin Froom in effecting that process.

McGraw’s history is not a partisan one; it is irenic, even-handed. He has listened to contrasting voices amid the confusing sounds of battle so perceptively that he can interpret their meaning faithfully. He avoids the impulse to engage in “right-on-our-side” apologetics and the violent polemics that sometimes parades as history. Like that by Nix at Gettysburg, McGraw’s tour leaves me with a profound sense of humility in view of human perceptions versus the way it appears God would want to lead His people, with awe at what was actually achieved by Adventist and Fundamentalist/Evangelical leaders, with sorrow at the way in which both people and processes were misunderstood, and with hope that all of us who are members of the Adventist family can better value each other as we focus more intelligently on our identity and mission.

A Brief Summation, for Now

We are less than honest if we fail to admit that currently a deep rift exists in the Seventh-day Adventist church and that this rift derives in considerable measure from events that occurred between the initial representations by Robert Wieland and Donald Short to the General Conference (1950) and the death of M.L. Andreasen (1876-1962).5 McGraw’s guided tour through the disputed terrain introduces us to the participants in the struggle with honesty yet empathy. His account makes sense in terms of the existing studies by those who have particular axes to grind as well as the responsible analyses offered by such authors as Keld Reynolds and George Knight. Therefore, McGraw’s dissertation offers a capstone for the arch of understanding that has been built by others with diligence yet amidst danger, with enthusiasm and yet often with the need for demolition and redirection of effort.

McGraw also helps us understand the vibrant presidency of Reuben Figuhr (1954-1966), preceding an era of particular intensity led by Robert Pierson and his colleagues (1966-1979), and followed by far-sighted church councils during Neal Wilson’s leadership (1979-1990). He provides us with a way to begin to understand the nature and mission of both the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society. After taking McGraw’s tour, we can better appreciate who we are, why conflicting maps of the Adventist journey since 1957 abound, and how the Adventist future may be more promising if we choose to learn from our past.6

Such a limited review as this can intimate some of the strengths of McGraw’s study but it can neither express nor evaluate them adequately. His dissertation illumines two related matters: Adventist identity and the relationship between Adventists and other Christians. He contends that since the inception of Christianity, “the question of legitimacy has faced every emerging religious group.” Therefore, it is not surprising that Seventh-day Adventism has for so long “struggled with the question of whether acknowledgment by other Christian groups was desirable or simply a sign that it had compromised its calling.” McGraw’s concluding paragraph specifies an important aspect of his  multi-phased contribution to a rapidly-developing discipline, Adventist Studies:

Because of the fact that even in 2003 there continue to be individuals on both sides of the debate who hold to opinions which mirror those held by both sides prior to the Evangelical Conferences of 1955-56, this work is important. Just as the conferees on both sides realized that the issue which most deeply divided them was that of terminology, it is equally important for those who still see an insurmountable divide to look at the complete story in which at least some individuals on both sides tried to reach out the hand of fellowship and bridge the divide created in the minds of many by a simple word, “cult.”

That “complete story” has dynamic potential for the Adventist future. Internal unity is crucial for our mission as Seventh-day Adventists, as are effective relationships with other Christians.


1 See George R. Knight, “Historical and Theological Introduction to the Annotated Edition,” Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Berrien Springs, MI.: Andrews University Press, 2003), xiii-xxxvi.

2 See my review entitled “Moore’s Light on An Adventist Trouble,” Adventist Today 14, no. 3 (May/June 2006), 22, 23, 20 for an assessment of A. Leroy Moore’s helpful volume and notice of other  researchers that should be consulted.

3 Rick Ferret, “Charisma, Sectarianism and Institutionalisation: Identity Issues in Seventh-day Adventism” (PhD dissertation: Sydney College of Divinity, 2006), 416 pages. Ferret invested seven years of effort in this study; currently he is negotiating its publication. I have reviewed it briefly under the title “After Richard Ferret: Should Adventists Baptize Sociology, Now?” (publication forthcoming).

4 David Brubaker, “Church fights and the ‘third voice” middle,” Ministry, November 2001, 20-21.

5 See for the full text of Virginia Steinweg’s biography of Andreasen, originally published as Without Fear or Favour (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1979).

6 McGraw’s dissertation is entitled “Born in Zion?: The Margins of Fundamentalism and the Definition of Seventh-day Adventism.” It was directed by Dewey D. Wallace, Professor of Religion, The George Washington University, and is available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hopefully, all Adventist institutional libraries will accession it in the near future.

Arthur Patrick, written 22 September 2006, posted 22  August 2012