Post 84, Eight Years in the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre That Serves the South Pacific Division: Some Random Recollections

I felt enormously privileged in 1976 when I was appointed as the founding curator (the title was soon changed to that of director) of the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre opened at Avondale College to serve the (then) Australasian Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Such a task was beyond my expectations and even my dreams: I was charged with superintending, gathering, sharing and interpreting the primary and secondary sources relating to four important areas: Adventist history and thought, as well as the life and writings of Ellen G. White.

Probably there were several reasons why I was appointed to this particular role. It was known that I was raised in a family that had specific, detailed memories of Ellen White as friend, neighbor and prophetic witness.  During 1898 Ellen White met with my widowed paternal grandmother (Amelia Patrick) at the Brisbane camp meeting and advised her to bring her three sons to Cooranbong, where the Avondale School for Christian Workers was being carved from the bush. My maternal grandfather (John Pocock) had years of contact with Ellen White before she provided him accommodation at Sunnyside for about seven months while he worked on the Avondale School project and then, in 1899, Ellen White insisted that Pocock bring his family to Cooranbong to continue working with the developing Adventist ventures there.

So, having a family with positive attitudes toward Adventism and its prophet, I graduated from the Australasian Missionary College (now Avondale College of Higher Education) in November 1957, just in time to soak up the contents of Pastor Arthur White’s “Prophetic Guidance” lectures at Australasia’s first Seminary Extension School, December 1957-January 1958. Already, as a Theology student in 1955, Pastor LeRoy Edwin Froom, fresh from writing his four volumes entitled Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, had inspired me with new vistas of Adventism: “diamonds from Daniel, pearls from Paul, and rubies from the Revelation,” he declared. In my mind, I awarded Arthur White a doctorate for the quality of his two months of presentations, and determined to pursue similar investigations when our family had saved enough money to travel to and study at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, part of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States of America. While there (1970-1972) I was befriended by Mrs Hedwig Jemison who, as the key person in the White Estate Branch Office at Andrews, seemed convinced that articles and papers that I wrote were appropriate, an opinion that I believe she shared with Pastor White as Secretary of Ellen G. White Estate, Inc. These and related factors may well have influenced my appointment to the Research Centre.

Back in September 1973, when I returned to Australia and was after five days called to Avondale, I carried a Diploma of Theology and Teaching (Avondale, 1956), a Bachelor of Arts (Theology, Avondale, 1957), a Master of Arts (Cum Laude, Systematic Theology, Andrews, 1972), a Master of Divinity (Andrews, 1972), and a Doctor of Ministry (Biblical Studies and Clinical Pastoral Education, Christian Theological Seminary, 1973). With the practical experience of a dozen years of pastoral evangelism (1958-1970) behind me, my teaching career at Avondale seemed promising. In 1976 I was also told that my appointment to the Research Centre was approved by White Estate (primarily) and the South Pacific Division (secondarily) as being like marriage, for life. The 22-point job description that was meant to guide me seemed a godsend. I was now half time in the Department of Theology and half time in the Research Centre, being paid for doing work that I loved. After all the celebration with Elder Paul Gordon and Mrs Jemison setting up and opening the Centre during February 1976 (see Milton Hook, “U.S. Research Worker in Australasia,” A.S. Jorgensen, “Ellen G. White Estate Secretary to Visit,” Alfred S. Jorgensen, “The Ellen G. White S.D.A. Research Centre,” “Research Centre Opened at Avondale,” Australasian Record, 16 February 1976, 1; 23 February 1976, 2; 3 May 1976, 8-9) the early years of my service were irenic but stimulating. So many Adventists seemed excited about the Research Centre and its possibilities.

I chose as the Centre’s secretary Mrs Eleanor Scale whose diligence and loyalty to her task and mine was impeccable. We valiantly tried to embrace the tens-of-thousand of pages of original materials under our care in print, photocopies and microform. The tens-of-thousands of pages of Ellen White letters and manuscripts were the most cherished resource, the Question and Answer File was valuable, as were the thousands of Document Files, except that soon a battery of new questions were being asked of us in person, by telephone and in letters. But even as significant a publication as Ronald Numbers Prophetess of Health (1976) seemed manageable. I went to the 1978 workshop in Washington, D.C., convened for White Estate headquarters staff and Research Centre directors, only to be further awed by the richness of Adventist heritage. While at the workshop we were told that a pastor in California was alleging that Ellen White used sources in her writing of The Desire of Ages (1898). Such a thing was “known” to be so impossible that our group passed the idea off as a figment of an irresponsible imagination.

All was not calm in the Australasian Church, however. By 1974 the battle lines were being drawn between loyalists who later dubbed themselves “Concerned Brethren” and Dr Desmond Ford, a friend of mine since 1950, now my departmental chairperson. I was a member of the South Pacific Division Biblical Research Committee that listened to the spirited exchange of two opposing sets of ideas about Righteousness by Faith: those fostered by Dr John Clifford and the Drs Russell and Colin Standish on the one hand, and those of Dr Ford on the other. Our verdict in support of Ford failed to endear us to the reactionary forces that were against him. The Palmdale Conference in California (1976) had real potential for solving the growing conflict, except it also seemed to lean toward Ford’s position on Righteousness by Faith and thus evoked more controversy. Always threatening for the church at the time were the effervescent activities of Robert D. Brinsmead. However, Ford’s transfer to Pacific Union College in California during the first half of 1977 was perceived by our Division president as a hopeful solution to Australasia’s problem: Ford would no longer seem like a big fish in a small pond.

By 1979 the Division officers were both concerned and optimistic; they decided to publish a book on the historical and theological issues under discussion that would put disputed matters to rest. Pastor Keith Parmenter, as president of the Division and chair of the Research Centre supervisory committee, had me appointed to write a chapter for the forthcoming book; it was to tell church members what they needed to know about Ellen White in terms of the contemporary discussion about her life and writings.

I had little time to work on the chapter before the end of the college year, and then I had a series of presentations to give in Fiji, for ministers. However, by devoting most of my holidays to the task, the first draft of my assignment was passed in at the nominated time, March 1980. The paper was entitled “Ellen White in the Eighties,” and it can be readily accessed (along with many of my papers, some of which are listed by date in “Ellen White and South Pacific Adventism: Retrospect and Prospect,” a paper presented at the Ellen White Summit, 2-5 February 2004, see pages 19-23), catalogued in the Document Files of the Research Centre and, in many cases, available on the CDs produced by the Centre.

I was quietly amazed that my chapter was not acknowledged, and the publishing project was abandoned without comment. Meanwhile, Desmond Ford had delivered his memorable 27 October 1979 Adventist Forum address at Pacific Union College and transferred to the church’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to write his Glacier View document. I decided my task was to understand Ellen White in view of the swelling tide of new information that daily inundated my desk, so I wrote papers of various types that tried to locate her life and writings within a factual but constructive frame of reference. Ford had simply provided the spark that lit tinder-dry issues of the time; the consequent inferno in places like Australia and New Zealand seemed all-encompassing, for Ellen White as well as the Sanctuary doctrine.

Between 1976 and March 1980 the halo that Hedwig Jemison and Arthur White had placed on my head seemed secure, but thereafter it began slipping, increasingly. The chairperson of my supervisory committee was unable to spend even an hour digesting resources that were taking me years to understand, but he and his closest associate, Division secretary Ron Taylor confided they had a problem. The church’s ministers, teachers and members wrote to me for answers to their questions, and they wrote to the Division brethren for the same purpose. But the answers they received were not the same, in the eyes of the Division officers. I pointed out that the church had entrusted me with its memories and that I must be faithful to what the primary and other sources disclosed. Probably such an answer was inadequate; certainly it fuelled my leaders’ concerns.

The year 1982 filled me with new hope for a brighter future. Appointed as one of two South Pacific Division delegates to attend in Washington, D.C., the first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, I felt that at last the Workshop had placed the essential data on the Adventist corporate desk. There is no need to repeat here the reports that I have written about this landmark event (see, for instance, issue), except to underline my deep disappointment when I was instructed from the Division office not to share its recorded discussions, written documents or my initial reports of the Workshop (note the diluted report, Arthur N. Patrick and Arthur N. Duffy, “Prophetic Guidance Workshop,” Australasian Record, 28 June 1982, 13). However, I felt a new surge of optimism when I was given about five hours to address the Victorian Conference ministers, Trans-Australian Union office personnel and others. An affirmative report (G.E. G[arne], “Understanding the Prophetic Gift More Fully,” Australasian Record, 16 October 1982, 3) seemed to indicate that it was possible to be both honest and affirmative with reference to Ellen White; at least that was the burden of the document from which I spoke, entitled “The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982.” Pastor Robert Parr, president of the Greater Sydney Conference, reported to me that he had heard good reports of the September event in Victoria and wanted that repeated in Sydney during October. I did my best in the two hours allocated, but the last “Amen” was scarcely said before the telephones in Gordon and Wahroonga were ringing, reporting to the Trans-Tasman Union Conference and the South Pacific Division that my stance was unorthodox.

Earlier, the South Pacific Division had set up a small committee under the chairmanship of Pastor Ron Taylor to assess and approve papers that I wrote, but the only item that I recall being approved was a relatively short list of documents held by the Research Centre. I had also proposed that a Spirit of Prophecy Resource Committee be appointed to vet and pass on useful information to the church, and I was appointed as a member of the said committee. However, the task proved to be too delicate to handle effectively; a paper that I wrote took many weeks to be acknowledged and more valuable time to study and discuss. I was overjoyed when at last consensus was reached that the document was accurate. But, immediately that decision was made unanimously by the committee, a union president rose to his feet and in a forthright speech convinced the committee of peril, should these ideas become known by others than the members of the committee.[1] It was immediately agreed that only members of the committee would have access to the paper. (Eight years later, the essential ideas were summarised in my article, “Does our past embarrass us?” Ministry, April 1991, 7-10, currently available on the Avondale College website. Subsequently, a letter to the editor from Elder Joe Crews indicated that he had “never read a more dangerous and deceptive article in one of our magazines” during his 44 years in the ministry, see Ministry, August 1991, 2.)

Way back in May 1980 I had been a guest speaker at the Townsville (North Queensland) camp meeting, and was assigned to preach on the topic of the Sanctuary for the final Sabbath sermon. I accepted the task as a wonderful opportunity to draw a divided congregation together on the essentials of this great theme. The next week I was called to the Division office for extended questioning, focused not on what I had said but on what I had failed to say. By 1983, I had become rather accustomed to many hours of such interrogation in Wahroonga, often accompanied by urgings to resign. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when Avondale’s principal, Dr James Cox asked me to be the College Registrar, beginning with the 1984 academic year. Sensing that a change of responsibilities was inevitable, I had already completed a Master of Literature in Australian religious history at the University of New England, thereby qualifying for PhD study in the same discipline at the University of Newcastle. The next thirty years would see my research and writing focus more particularly upon the field of Adventist Studies, in particular the life and writings of Ellen White.

Looking back, I remember the eight years, 1976-1983, as filled with exciting discoveries and escalating tensions. It was a huge disappointment at the end of 1983 to be ejected from a task that I fully accepted as being like marriage, for life. My principal regret is that my efforts to protect ministers, teachers and members threatened by termination of employment or disruption of fellowship were only sometimes successful, in part due to my inability to effectively share both data and the viable interpretation of information. The files of the Research Centre provide a rather diary-like account of how information surfaced, what its essentials were, and how the facts were perceived. Three potential responses are writ large in the story of Seventh-day Adventism in the South Pacific Division: neither reversion to the church’s tradition nor alienation from its heritage are indicated; only transformation of its tradition delivers an adequate response as fresh information is received and incorporated into the life and witness of believers. Hence, I cherish the contemporary (2012) climate of relative openness and comparative maturity that characterises the church that I love deeply and serve gladly.[2]

Arthur Patrick, 29 November 2012


[1] My impression, during the years of crisis, was that the idea new information relating to Ellen White’s life and writings required some adjustment of Adventist thought and practice was particularly threatening, especially for some administrators. For instance, I developed seven statements that indicated what the church was saying prior to 1970 and what it must say (to have integrity, on the basis of newly-available information) after 1970. Each sentence was examined intensely and approved by the Spirit of Prophecy Resource Committee, albeit un-willingly, on the basis of unmistakable evidence, before being restricted specifically to the members of the SPRC. The wording, as published eight years later (Ministry, April 1991, 9), was as follows: “For example, prior to 1970 most believers accepted the following statements with little or no hesitation: 1. Ellen White’s writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth. 2. They contain certain unique elements. 3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living. 4. She made effective use of the Bible in her writings. 5. She often helped the church develop and express its theology. 6. She retained control over her literary output. 7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty.” Then the article suggested “some change or modification to the above statements, somewhat along the following lines. 1. Ellen White’s writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth even though they are historically conditioned to a significant degree. 2. They contain certain unique elements even though they are related in an evident way to both Adventist and non-Adventist literature of her time. 3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living, even though she reflected some of the ideas of her Adventist and non-Adventist contemporaries. 4. She made effective use of the Bible in her writings, even though she employed Scripture in a variety of ways, not all of which express the meaning and intent of the Bible. 5. While she often helped the church develop and express its theology, her doctrinal understandings underwent both growth and change during her lifetime of ministry. 6. She retained a position of control over her literary output, but her literary assistants and advisors did have more than a minor mechanical role in the preparation of her writings for publication. 7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty, but her use of sources and the role she assigned her assistants/advisors indicate that this literary beauty should not be used as proof of her divine inspiration.” Of course, to be well understood, any such article needs to be read in the light of the sources that it cites.

[2] I explicate such thinking in recent conference presentations and articles that are on the Avondale College website or available on the website; see especially “The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Historiography: Idealisation, Conflict and Maturation,” a paper presented (with Daniel Reynaud) at the “Divining the Past” conference of the Evangelical History Association, 23 July 2010, Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University, now available on the Avondale College website, and “Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism: ‘A Constant Process of Struggle and Rebirth’?” Journal of Religious History 34:3 (September 2010), 272-288. The original draft of the latter paper (before it was refereed) is also available on the Avondale website.