Post 76, A Noteworthy Thesis by Michael Chamberlain on Avondale College and Ellen White

“The Changing Role of Ellen White in Seventh-day Adventism

With Reference to Sociocultural Standards at Avondale College,”

by Michael Leigh Chamberlain, July 2001

On 22 February 2002, the Council of the University of Newcastle resolved to admit Michael Chamberlain to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of Education, Faculty of Education and Arts. I have read carefully and with appreciation Chamberlain’s 392-page thesis presented to the University in July 2001, subsequently examined by Professor Alan Barcan, Professor John Knight and Dr Harry Ballis.

Ron Laura, Professor in Education, University of Newcastle, supervised the thesis. It attempts an overview of Avondale College from its founding as the Avondale School for Christian Workers late in the nineteenth century to its status as a university-like institution at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The author has negotiated adequately a significant issue: how to deal competently in a single thesis with such a long time period. In fact, it is essential for the ultimate viability of his argument that he takes a broad-brush approach. He also transcends related problems, like the lack of access to certain types of resources and the demand for a sustainable perspective on recent events.

Chamberlain’s resolution of such matters depends in part on the way in which he combines clusters of insights from three distinct but complementary disciplines: education, history and sociology. Educational philosophy and more importantly Seventh-day Adventist educational ideals provide the backdrop for his investigation. Historical method is crucial for the enterprise. But Chamberlain’s work is also informed by methods and imbued by insights from sociology. Thus his writing may not be fully satisfying for educators, historians or sociologists. But some of the most fruitful scholarly enterprises are those that risk trans-disciplinary approaches. Chamberlain has succeeded in this self-imposed and more demanding endeavour.

As an individual with an interest in the history of ideas in the context of the interface between religion and society, I found myself wanting to argue with Chamberlain’s interpretation of the meaning of particular sources and the application that he made of their specific content. But I find myself in substantial agreement with the entirety of the big picture that he sketches.

This thesis has relevance for those who are interested in Australian education in its secular and religious forms. It speaks to many issues: the transmission of values, the impact of a majority culture on a minority subculture, the processes of change that may occur in a religious sect, the struggle between continuity and change within a community of faith, and more. It also embraces notions of administrative theory with particular reference to the relationship between organisers/expediters and thinkers/educators. Finally, however, Chamberlain’s thesis is a profoundly important gift to his church.

For this gift he is unlikely to be thanked in any official fashion. Some may categorise him as an unwelcome bearer of bad tidings who has unearthed disturbing data. Some may dismiss his work as equivalent to that of a bothersome investigative journalist. Some will sense his passion for his religious community and suggest he is too close to it to be objective. Perhaps an even larger number may charge him simply with being “critical.” But the fact remains that he has joined a small body of sociologists—like Robert Wolfgramm, Greg Schneider, Ron Lawson, Rick Ferret—whose work has profound meaning for Seventh-day Adventists.

Adventism began in 1844 as a fledgling religious movement inundated by the ashes of Great Disappointment. Within the lifetime of Ellen White, it developed an attitude of great certainty. During the next 55 years it experienced an even greater certainty until it was confronted by forces that derived from its relation to historic Christianity and its religious identity as they encountered elements of both modernity and post-modernity. The short-term result was a new uncertainty that engendered controversy, even an element of chaos. Since 1990, the church has been in a process of maturation as it develops a new consensus relating to data considerably unknown even to its thought-leaders two decades previously.

Chamberlain’s thesis is a warning that this business is unfinished, that historical understandings and hermeneutical issues are still important matters in the ongoing process. The flow of events over a century in the life of an educational institution offers a way of identifying fruitfully both issues and possibilities. This thesis should be required reading for those involved with the projection and maintenance of Avondale’s mission into Century 21. As individuals, we do well to undergo a physical examination as we plan an appropriate lifestyle. If what Dr Milton Hook has dubbed “Experiment on the Dora” is to succeed for a second century, it is essential for Avondale’s stakeholders to listen intensively to a range of diagnostic voices, including that heard in Michael Leigh Chamberlain’s thesis.

 Arthur Patrick,  28 February 2003,  posted 5 September 2012