Post 70, Robert Daniel Brinsmead: A Reflection After Fifty-seven Years

My memories of the years 1954 to 1957, while I studied for a Bachelor of Arts (Theology) degree at the institution that is now known as Avondale College of Advanced Education, are peopled by individuals that illustrate a great variety of stances toward the principal theme of this website, Adventist Studies. Few were to become as well-known as a Queensland/North New South Wales farmer (I was a cutter of sawmill logs) with whom I shared classes for two years: Robert Daniel Brinsmead.

Bob was a superior student. When Pastor Nelson Burns (“Nubby”) was off campus, he sometimes arranged for Bob to make class presentations in his stead. Bob was passionate about his faith; at times his face would redden visibly and the veins in his neck would expand markedly as he engaged in vigorous discussion during Ministerial League and other meetings with his peers. Little by little we came to understand something of the years of conflict between the Brinsmead family and such leaders as Queensland Conference president Robert Greive. That rift became clearer when the church published its most-controversial volume ever, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957).  Fifty years later some us tried to unpack the significance of the book during a major conference at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA. The papers presented, readily available on the internet, are vital for anyone who wants to understand the development of Adventist thought since the 1950s.

Both Pastor Greive and Bob Brinsmead were early victims of the conflict that erupted during the 1950s and is unresolved for some Adventists today. Bob was fervently on the right, taking a high view of 1844 and struggling to understand the dynamic General Conference of 1888. Robert was passionately on the left, seeking to better interpret such conflicted doctrines as the nature of Christ during the incarnation and Righteousness by Faith. The two were cast aside as either too proscriptive or too innovative for the community of faith they so highly valued.

The cross-currents that were so violent almost ended my ministry early in the 1960s. As a church pastor I and my members welcomed a young man who came to our church while visiting his non-Adventist relatives in our city. We invited Mike to engage with us in community evangelism and home visitation, as in the Appeal for Missions (now the ADRA Appeal). As the months went by, we were convinced that we should invite him to become a member of our congregation on Profession of Faith, knowing he had been a baptised church member for some years. The fact that Pastor Greive and his team had disfellowshipped Mike (as a schismatic heretic) seemed an incident of the past that should be reversed by reason of Mike’s commitment to Adventism and its mission.

Earnest souls saw matters in a quite different light. They were firmly of the conviction that Mike and people like him should never darken a church door again. They were “sure” Mike was in some type of communication with Bob, and that if I as a church pastor suggested Mike was suitable to receive as an Adventist member, I was suspect. Intense hours of discussion in Christchurch led to a decision by the Executive Committee: if I could say six words (“Robert Brinsmead is of the devil”), there was a continuing place for me in ministry. I could say that, like me, Robert Brinsmead had done some devilish things, but my conscience would not allow me to mouth the desired proscription. In the intensity of the moment, I requested leave of absence to prepare a paper setting out the issues for examination by the Committee on Special Study (the comparable body is now known as the Biblical Research Committee) at the Australasian headquarters of what is now the South Pacific Division. Ten months later my Conference president received a cable, “Replace Patrick in ministry if satisfied of his loyalty,” and I was assigned to the most exciting pastorate of my career.

Meanwhile, Mike was not available to be welcomed into church membership in our conference; he had moved to Africa to share the Good News. I lost all contact with him for 38 years, until Joan and I visited the Palm Springs Church in California. When we read the bulletin and saw the name Michael Marsh as one of the Sabbath School teachers, we attended his class (and enjoyed his presentation). A stroke had somewhat impaired him but he was obviously a loyal and appreciated teacher.

Looking back on those effervescent years, I am deeply saddened by the conflicts that impacted individuals and congregations. We needed to ask all the questions that people like Robert and Bob were asking. Without the abundance of primary historical sources that are now so readily available, we had no hope of forming final answers, so we needed to engage in what Fritz Guy calls “the dialogue and dialectic of a community,” for years, until clarity was possible. In Bob Brinsmead’s case, I was convinced that wise leadership could avert the destructive tsunami that impacted New Zealand, the United States, Africa and elsewhere.

This short blog is not the place to offer anything like a detailed history of the effervescent life of Robert Daniel Brinsmead. In the 1970s he ardently asked questions about Adventism and its relationship to Reformation teachings. He excelled as a writer and publisher before putting more of his abundant energies into an enterprise that called for the skills of a farmer and the initiatives of a tourist operator. How cheered we were when Bob and his then-wife Val came to an Avondale Homecoming, an event that emphasises fellowship as far above any notions of conflict. Bob and Val planned to come to the next Homecoming, until a tragic aneurism ended Val’s life. Since then, Joan and I have only visited Tropical Fruit World once. Bob warmly insisted we come up to his house; I was a bit awed by the extensive readings in two rooms of his home. One set of books focused on the planet, the other on Jesus and the way he dealt with people.

On Thursday this week, after a few years without contact, Bob and his new wife Irene sent me an e-mail that is of immediate interest: this weekend they are launching a book Bob has written written about a remarkable medical doctor. You can read the following about Laugh and Tough it Out on the website of

Sam Underwood was born into a Tamil family in the old Ceylon. He grew up at Penang in the old Malaya under British rule and dreamed of becoming the best medical doctor he could possibly be. His life was dramatically changed by his very personal encounters with the Japanese Occupation during the War and by the Communist insurgency after the War. His life too was vitally impacted by the remarkable transformation of the old Malaya into the fully independent nation of Malaysia in 1957.

The beginnings of Malaysia’s career as an independent nation co-incided with the beginnings of Sam Underwood’s very distinguished medical career in which he earned 5 medical degrees, including a PhD in plastic surgery and the man has forged remarkable success stories, neither of them are unblemished success stories. Sam has experienced the commendable and not so commendable features of his nation’s multi-racial policies. He has met both triumph and disaster in his own personal life – illustrating that excellence is never achieved by the absence of human fault-lines, but in spite of them.

Bob has given me his kind permission to cite this description on my website. I also asked him to send me “a descriptive paragraph on the most significant events” of his life during he past ten years. Here is what he wrote:

During the past ten years:  Lost my life partner (almost 50 years together) and married again about 3 years later.  Watched my grandchildren grow up and my own children advance in their work/business ventures etc. Retired from local politics and operations at Tropical Fruit World. Always thinking about theology and the meaning of it all, always reviewing and updating my ideas, continue to pursue, read the best material I can find on the historical Jesus. Wrote a bio about a medical doctor in Malaysia who became a friend over 15 years ago. Starting to gather ideas of putting together an account of my spiritual/intellectual journey.  Playing tennis, trying to keep moderately fit. Attached please find outline of my thinking on Apocalyptic – this is only the start of an extended treatment. The heart of my thinking in this Paper is actually an extended footnote on the historical Jesus. The Paper is unedited, in the rough as yet, but an SDA would find my thinking pretty scary I suppose; I did not come to such views suddenly, but have been years in development.

This website encourages the idea that the better we humans understand each other and the Word, the more satisfyingly we will find our existence and our mission. We could well be challenged by Bob Brinsmead and spend more time “thinking about theology and the meaning of it all”! I look forward to his account of his “spiritual/intellectual journey.”

Arthur Patrick, posted 17 August 2012