Last week a computer expert kindly transferred the contents of an out-of-date disk on to a memory stick that my Apple can read. This piece, though focused on February 2004, seems relevant for the present.
A new phase of the Adventist conversation about Ellen White in the South Pacific Division began during February 2004. Three factors stimulated the process: the Ellen White Summit convened February 2-5; the book by Graeme Bradford entitled Prophets are Human launched at the Summit; an editorial and four interviews entitled “Ellen White for today” by editor Bruce Manners published in Record, February 7-28.
The Summit was reported in Record, the “official paper” of the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, 21 February 2004; in Spectrum: The Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums 32, no. 2 (Spring 2004); and in Adventist Today 12, no. 2 (March-April 2004). Within a few months of its release, Dr Bradford’s slim volume is selling widely in the Southern Hemisphere and becoming well known in the Northern Hemisphere. Over twenty letters published in the Record reflect aspects of a much wider discussion amongst Adventists throughout Australia and beyond.It is useful for the Church to keep abreast of the ongoing conversation in order to offer effective pastoral care to its members as they seek to understand coherently and apply faithfully Ellen White’s writings.
Any observations made so close to February 2004 can only be tentative at best; in other words, they are likely to require revision as historical perspectives become possible. However, it is appropriate to express preliminary assessments as well as to revise these in the light of the additional evidence that the passage of time will make available. Five observations appear useful at this point.
The response of ministers, teachers and members indicates that there is significant interest in the life and writings of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915). The Seventh-day Adventist Church is in its thirty-fifth year of sustained historical reflection on Ellen White as its co-founder and inspired “messenger.” Vitality, energy and passion are evident in the 2004 phase of this ongoing dialogue and dialectic.
The situation is vastly different than in 1970, in that Ellen White studies are now more fully democratised. This process was accelerated when duplicators became common; it was intensified with the invention of photocopiers; it is ubiquitous in the electronic era with its videos, websites and e-mail. Discordant responses from members indicate that, currently, not all are singing from the same sheet of music, but the Church has no option but to report honestly and interpret cogently all the known data.
Indeed, a range of responses to the data is still apparent amongst the faithful, with three stances most evident: reversion, rejection and transformation. Reversionists are still apt to deny evident facts; rejectionists are still tempted to flee Ellen White and even the Church itself; transformationists still need to ask constantly What is truth? and then explore how known truth should shape the beliefs of individuals and impact the entire community of faith.
It is evident that not all the Church’s pain is in the past. For instance, some Record correspondents demonstrate denial, shock, anxiety, fear and anger. From the opposite position, others express concern over the length of time it has taken for crucial evidence to be validated and given open discussion. In addition, some of these people are apt to claim significant data are still awaiting adequate recognition; in this they are correct.
Despite these opposing interpretations of the recent past, there are clear signs that the Church is well into a period of developing consensus with reference to the available data. Some studies of conflict (for example, see Ministry, November 2001)indicate that about twenty percent of a community is likely to be represented in each of the polar opposite positions, with perhaps sixty per cent adopting a median position. As a matter proceeds, coherent leadership is likely to reduce the numbers on the two edges, as accurate data is considered in a calmer context. Indicators are many that the Church has entered an era of fresh opportunity for a greater understanding and, consequently, a more effective implementation of both nurture and mission.
A Context for Action Steps
The present discussion regarding Ellen White implies that currently a valuable opportunity exists for the Church to more adequately understand and apply Ellen White’s writings. Amongst the contextual indicators, the following appear to be noteworthy.
The Summit demonstrated the importance of biblical, historical and theological studies as a way to further develop a coherent understanding of Ellen White and her writings. The Church is now equipped with mature scholars in these and related disciplines; therefore, the potential for a thoroughly informed and balanced approach appears promising indeed.
History demonstrates that ideas proposed by pioneer thinkers or researchers may take a century to become well understood in workplaces and homes. The data relating to Ellen White and its coherent interpretation have been considerably available for three decades, but it is evident that the Church still has a very considerable educative obligation to its members with reference to a cluster of related matters, not least the nature of biblical inspiration, the role of prophets in the Old Testament and the New, as well as the life and writings of Ellen White in relation to the history and thought of the Church. The 1999 Strategy document and the sheaf of responses from Summit attendees indicate directions that are potential and essential at the present time.
Graeme Bradford’s volume Prophets are Human has laid a substantial and effective foundation for part of the educative process needed within local congregations. But so brief a treatment in such a popular form cannot be expected to address the full range of issues that are crucial. Carefully prepared follow-up articles (in magazines, pamphlets and journals) and books are required.One the latter genre, Bradford’s sequel to Prophets are Human, is already in draft form and deserves supportive assessment, editing and publication.
Despite the level of democratisation of Ellen White Studies mentioned above, Adventists that are not computer literate (and even some that are highly skilled in using computers) demonstrate a naivety that will imperil the unity of the Church for a long time to come. The data from the National Church Life Survey (2001) currently being prepared for publication indicates that four out of every ten Adventists may hold a view of biblical inspiration that is not in accord with authentic Adventism. (Unrealistic, unsustainable, essentially fundamentalist views of biblical inspiration can lead to disillusionment when confronted by evidence that is apparent in both Scripture and Ellen White’s corpus.) It is from these folk that some of the most strident criticisms of the Summit, the book and the Record have come. The Church needs to love and respect these members even though their expectations and responses (so well identified by Dr Roger Coon in his 1982 lecture at the International Prophetic Guidance Workshop) place them in spiritual danger and often threaten Adventist unity and mission. This reality and a number of related others, indicate the providential existence and essential role of the Ellen White/Adventist Research Centre, offering a way to foster enhanced understanding of four issues that share a symbiotic relationship: the life and writings of Ellen White; the history and thought of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The leadership of the South Pacific Division has taken wise and effective steps to implement the far-reaching intent of the 1999 Strategy document, with encouraging results and predictable expressions of dissent and even anger. Responses to the initiatives of the Summit, the book and the Record indicate constructive possibilities lie before the Church as it seeks to offer effective guidance and mature pastoral care to its constituency. Pastors and teachers are the front-line interpreters of Scripture, history and theology; they are also the on-the-ground nurturers of individual members. Ways are available and necessary for the ongoing support of such leaders. If theology is indeed “faith seeking understanding,” the corporate Church has a crucial role to facilitate a future that enhances its adherents’ perception of the identity and mission of the Second Advent Movement. The life and writings of Ellen White are essential matters for consideration if the Church is to envision effective unity and mission in the immediate future. The events of February 2004 indicate that the ongoing Adventist conversation relating to Ellen White is marked by health, passion and constructive possibility.
Note: This comment is limited to 1,500 words. I am in the process of preparing an annotated edition of perhaps eighty documents I have written in the past quarter-century, summarising the data relating to Ellen White that has surfaced since 1970 and attempting its interpretation. This project was envisioned for completion by 30 June 2004, but has been delayed by 35 days of radiation therapy. If it is accomplished and made available in CD form, it may in a small way support the quest of those who wish to understand this aspect of “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”
Arthur Patrick, 24 June 2004, posted 13 September 2012