Post 10, So it is October 22, again!

One of my cherished documents is a photocopy of Hiram Edson’s handwritten account of his experience in Millerism and early Sabbatarian Adventism. Edson’s narrative underlines the pervasive impact of his dark experience on 22 October 1844. When Dr Richard B. Ferret speaks, tomorrow, at Avondale College of Higher Education on “Doctrine or Deed: Ongoing Tensions in Adventism,” his stimulating message will be deliberately timed for the 167th anniversary of the Great Disappointment.

Rick’s doctoral thesis on the development of Adventism won a prestigious award from the Sydney College of Divinity in 2006; he now lectures in Avondale’s Faculty of Theology. Incidentally, his address will be available on a CD from the College Church Office, so that anyone, anywhere, can share the last of the six Educational Events planned for College Church members and their friends during 2011. Some of the readers of this website may like to scan an earlier report that I prepared at the time Rick finished his doctoral study, before he turned it into a scintillating book that was published in England (2008).


The Millerites who embraced the practice of baptism by immersion did so with deep conviction and a sense of intense urgency, as when Charles Fitch immersed successive groups of believers on a single day shortly before 22 October 1844. For Adventists now, baptism not only recapitulates the death, burial and resurrection of Christ: it also incorporates the believer into a remnant community that cherishes boundaries completely unknown to Fitch. Baptism is an act of acceptance that usually follows an extended period of instruction and requires formal approval from a congregation, typically through its elders and church board. North American evangelists like Fordyce Detamore pioneered ways to prepare candidates for baptism during three-week campaigns; however, in some mission fields, converts have at times spent years in a “class ready” (to employ a term from Papua New Guinea) prior to immersion.

Historical studies, in a sense, began “instruction for baptism” into Adventism eight decades ago when Everett Dick enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. The quality of Dick’s research and the maturity of his conclusions indicate his dissertation was worthy of incorporatation without delay into the thought and life of the Adventist community. Eminent authors like Francis D. Nichol (1944) and LeRoy Edwin Froom (1954) used Dick’s dissertation but declined to mention it in their Review and Herald publications. After six decades, historian Gary Land wrote a Foreword and an extended Bibliographical Essay for Dick’s dissertation when Andrews University Press decided to publish it (1994). However, during the long wait for recognition, the church lost much of Dick’s potential—instead of Adventist history, he focused his historical skills on the American frontier.

Painful terminations and covert marginalisations of Adventist historians for alleged heresy marred the church’s record for more than a decade after 1975. However, even by 1978, constructive initiatives were evident, when Gary Land contended that the professionalisation of Adventist historiography was in process and when, in 1979, the first textbook for the study of Adventist history to be written by a trained historian came from Pacific Press. During 1983, Adventism in America: A History was edited by Land and published by Eerdmans, the only volume of a projected Studies in Adventist History series to see the light of day. By then the indefatiguable George Knight was getting equipped to write books at about the rate some scholars produce articles. Slowly and painfully, the discipline of Adventist history reached a level of acceptance that indicated its Adventist “baptism” was a recognized reality.

Sociology’s Turn for Instruction

Two early initiatives highlighting the value of sociology for Adventism came in the writings of North American Charles Teel (1980) and Fijian/Australian Robert Wolfgramm (1983). Ronald Lawson, trained in history and sociology, patiently conducted interviews with Adventists worldwide; some of the finest journals of their genre published his perspectives. Gregory Schneider’s sociological study of Methodism and his Spectrum articles on Adventism caused us to wish Schneider would apply his toolkit to the study of Adventism more fully. In Australia, building to some extent on pioneering research by John Knight at the University of Queensland, Harry Ballis and others employed sociology in their studies of Adventist ministry, education and publishing. Such master and doctoral studies indicate that sociological insights may at times be uncomfortable for the Adventist church but they may also be particularly instructive.

Enter Rick Ferret

For the past seven years Rick Ferret has juggled the demands of employment while undertaking a doctoral program with the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD). Early this year when Ferret completed his dissertation, the SCD appointed three examiners to assess it and provided them with fifteen criteria to apply in the process of evaluation. On Friday, 4 August 2006, the SCD advised Ferret that the reports were in hand: all three examiners rated Ferret’s work in Category A, accepting it as meeting the requirements for a PhD degree without change of argument or content. The comments of one typify the general tone of all: “the research is particularly thorough, academically responsible, historically accurate and complete, balanced, its conclusions credible, and expressed with a suitable academic precision.”

The two examiners in the United States and the one in Australia share long experience in higher education with particular expertise in history, theology and sociology; they were chosen by the SCD as matching well the historical substance of the dissertation, its theological content and its sociological orientation. Ferret’s title, “Charisma, Sectarianism and Institutionalisation: Identity Issues in Seventh-day Adventism,” developed from long years of struggle with the history of his church since 1844, including its teachings and its controversies. His bibliography (pages 384-416) indicates a thorough grasp of the diverse literature.

Ferret claims that “Seventh-day Adventism has proved immensely successful in terms of both evangelism and institutionalisation.” He also states:”The proliferation of SDA institutions throughout the world suggests, however, that Adventism remains embroiled in tensions between imminence and occupancy; between apocalyptic ideals and modern realities, between what it teaches and what it actually does (361-2).”

Light on the Dilemma

Ferret retains some of the patience and active listening skills fostered by his initial training as a nurse, to which he has added the insights of tertiary teacher, chaplain and pastor. To read his dissertation is to note the effective way that he incorporates published studies of Adventism like those of Rolf Pöhler (1999, 2001) and Douglas Morgan (2001). Pöhler’s dissertation at Andrews University investigated the nature, extent and direction of Adventist doctrinal developments in the light of the religious background of the church and the sociological forces at work in it, analysing the Adventist response to doctrinal adjustments and discussing Ellen White’s involvement in and conception of doctrinal change. Based on Pöhler’s work, Ferret argues that Adventist teachings have been significantly affected by theological and hermeneutical developments under the impact of sociological forces that have tended to move the denomination closer towards evangelical Protestantism. Ferret also finds Morgan’s dissertation written at the University of Chicago particularly illuminating in the way it traces continuity and change in Adventist apocalypticism within American society.

However, Ferret also draws upon the insights of many other major researchers. He cites Michael Chamberlains’ trans-disciplinary study (2001, later published by Post Pressed) of Adventist education at Avondale College with its special interest in socio-cultural change and the associated need to develop a thoroughly informed hermeneutic for Ellen White’s writings. Ferret is clearly appreciative of Bruce Manners’ dissertation (2004) and its implication that Adventist publishing is at its finest when it is frank. However, although Ferret drinks from many deep wells, he provides his own cup: an interpretive model that (he claims) fits the church’s need.

An Overview of Adventism

Ferret’s exploration begins with Millerism and the painful transition that birthed Sabbatarian Adventism. A long introduction (pages 9-51) introduces Weberian methodology, defines charisma, legitimation, and its routinization. Chapter 2, “American Revivalism, Millennial Dreams, Crisis and Charismatic Inauguration” prepares the way for two chapters on how Ellen White’s charisma was legitimized and Adventist identity was formulated. Chapters 4 and 5 (“The Routinisation of Charisma in Adventist Experience,” “Imminence and Delay: A Constant Impasse”) prepare the reader for two chapters that tour the sectarian controversies within Adventism from 1844 to the present. Chapter 8, “Doctrine and/or Deed: Dilemmas of Institutionalisation” summarises the main issue of the dissertation in readiness for ten pages of conclusions.

I finished reading a compelling PhD study by Paul McGraw of Pacific Union College on the day that Ferret received notice of his examiners’ approvals. 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 eight years ago.2 I almost held my breath as I re-read Ferret’s final copy in the light of McGraw’s dissertation: both plough some of the same ground. The two studies are vastly different in methodology: McGraw uses well copious and often new primary sources; Ferret offers fresh syntheses and applications of existing literature. Both dissertations are greatly needed by the church, not least because they demonstrate why two scholars working in total isolation from each other arrived at congruent conclusions.

Adventism in the Information Age

Ferret observes that the student of SDA theology “can easily recognise the themes of restorationism, perfectionism, Arminianism and revivalism that were common” in the society that birthed Adventism as one of 279 utopian communities established in the United States between 1787 and 1919. While he displays a deep commitment to the Adventist pioneers who transformed a Great Disappointment into a dynamic new movement, he wants contemporary Adventists to better implement Scripture as the church’s authority. He deems that in the controversies of the past generally, and particularly in those occurring since the Evangelical Conferences of the 1950s, too many of his fellow believers have polarised around rival extremes that may be described as reversionist or rejectionist. Ferret’s advocacy of a transformationist response to new data will resonate with those who seriously accept Ellen White as “the Lord’s messenger,” given to us as a lesser light to lead us to the greater light.

A Subjective Interpretation

What potential is evident in Ferret’s work? It will stand the test of time and scrutiny as well as prove to have outstanding significance for the lively, ongoing discussion relating to Adventist identity. How might we compare it with other explorations of Adventism?

I write merely as an historian. My passion during the Adventist crisis of the 1980s was to interpret Ellen White’s nine years in the lands Down Under faithfully, in terms of the cultural and religious context in which she ministered between 1891 and 1900 and in the light of newly-available primary sources. For me, that task required a stimulating decade of research in order to understand something of Australian history, via a PhD program at the University of Newcastle. One by-product of the process was the opportunity to note the contribution of Australia’s pioneer explorers as they traversed this vast, dry continent, seeing it with European eyes for the first time. Some of my United States friends equate a journey of similar rigor undertaken by Lewis and Clark as highly important within their culture. Before Lewis and Clark, Americans knew there was a West Coast with its Pacific Ocean. But was there a way from the Mississippi River via the Missouri and the Columbia to the Pacific? The courage, skill and effort of Lewis and Clark demonstrated that there was.

A major reason why Adventism lost so many ministers, teachers and members during the 1980s lay in our inadequate understanding of continuity and change with reference to Adventist teaching. Rolf Pöhler fills for Adventism a Lewis and Clark role, demonstrating with his Andrews University dissertation of 1995 that change was a reality and that it could be constructive if we related to it coherently. There was a way through the Rocky Mountains of Adventist controversies; equipped with the grace and the graciousness of God the rivers could be forded and the dangerous passes negotiated.

Rick Ferret cannot redo the more pioneering explorations already undertaken by Rolf Pöhler and others; he is a mapmaker for some of the road construction that is needed for the Adventist journey toward the Kingdom of God. Ferret adds to the growing evidence that historical and theological studies are crucial for our self-understanding and mission. More than that, his dissertation offers convincing evidence that it is time for the Adventist church to plan another baptismal service. Sociology has been in a “class ready” long enough; it has now proved itself as a constructive discipline that can reliably assist the Adventist quest to understand the way the Lord has led and taught us since 1844.

Let’s baptize this illuminating social science. Now. Without further delay!

Written by Arthur Patrick in 2006, slightly edited and then posted 21 and 23 October 2011