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Historians of Adventism:
Their Agony, Ecstasy, and Potential

by Arthur Patrick, La Sierra University

ABSTRACT: Beginning with the 1930s, Seventh-day Adventist historians have demonstrated a growing professional competence in research and writing. While the church still demonstrates an ambivalence toward this reality, there are encouraging signs that the severe tensions which surfaced in the 1970s are now being transformed into a greater openness toward serious historiography.

In 1976, when I was placed in charge of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Center serving the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I was told that my appointment to work for the White Estate was "like marriage, for life." By 1980 I was sure the Australasian church needed a stronger historical orientation, so I chose as my principal avocation, between 1981 and 1991, the academic study of history. With the approval and support of the South Pacific Division and its major educational institution, Avondale College, this program was financially supported by the church for a decade of "own-time" study, plus eleven months of full-time study. Yet in 1983 I was dismissed from the Research Center where history seemed to be the director's daily bread, and, in 1991 when a vacancy arose, a new set of administrators declined to re-appoint me to the Research Center because they felt "conflict may occur" yet again.

My stance as an interpreter of Adventism is adequately represented in two theses, a dissertation, and a few dozen other items: book chapters, published articles, and unpublished papers. Indeed, the specific ideas for which I was disciplined during 1983 were published in Ministry a mere eight years later, and probably represent a middle-of-the-road position in the present. Reference to these matters is not made to reawaken old controversies, but to provide a context for what I now wish to emphasize: that church leaders often seem to imply the church needs historians, and at times the church helps people qualify in history; yet often some leaders and members appear dissatisfied with or critical of historians and their output. On occasion that has meant selected historians have been quietly relocated or openly driven from the practice of their profession; at other times it simply meant historians were marginalized, their writings being deemed unsuitable grist for the church's publishing mills, or even dangerous for the faithful to read.

Now my experience did not require the patience of Everett Dick, whose 1930 doctoral dissertation on Millerism was so unacceptable to the church that F.D. Nichol's 1944 volume (The Midnight Cry) and L.E. Froom's 1954 tome (The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers) benefited from it but failed to acknowledge its existence. We can better assess such events now, for Dicks ground-breaking study was published in 1994. R.W. Schwarz's Light Bearers to the Remnant (1979) involved some delicate negotiations during the writing phase, yet little real conflict; indeed, the published volume received quite widespread approval. Ron Numbers and Don McAdams produced pioneering (though, in Numbers' case, controversial) historiography during the 1970s; their work evoked widespread concerns and no official accolades from the church. At the International Prophetic Guidance Workshop in 1982, the most significant such gathering since Sabbatarian Adventism began, historians were deeply appreciated by many of the delegates even though they were officially marginalized. Hindsight suggests that the Adventist community of faith owes a cluster of people, not least Jon Butler and Ron Graybill, a debt it doesnt seem to know how to pay.

The Trouble With History

The first thing that needs to be noted about Adventism's love/hate relationship with history is that the Adventist struggle is a subset of a far more pervasive phenomenon. A senior at La Sierra University clearly has an historian's heart, but is choosing another career partly because of a perception that even the field of secular history has perils. Many Americans, this student suggests, do not want historians to research the darker subjects like slavery, discrimination, poverty, and racism. Similar shortsightedness can imperil the work of Christian historians: a recent book indicates that George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll have not enjoyed trouble-free careers as evangelical historians. So the Seventh-day Adventist experience with historians and history is simply another dimension of a human problem which is also a religious problem.

A second consideration is that the professionalization of Adventist historians is a recent phenomenon, so the church has not had long to adjust to it. My research in the primary sources and published historiography of Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Methodism indicates that these larger branches of Christianity have shared comparable changes in their historiography. Denominational histories and biographies of church leaders often portrayed larger-than-life persons triumphing over seemingly insuperable odds. Hagiography (even as idealized biography) has become less marketable in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Therefore, rather than trying to crush or curtail historical research, the church needs to embrace it as a constructive aid in its journey toward maturity.

However, it is a fact that many of the faithful are not yet ready for serious historiography. The assumptions, concerns, and fears which condition the minds of believers are many. Isn't Christianity a revealed religion, and thus in a sense beyond historical analysis? Is there any value in questions which may seem to create a conflict between certitude and relativism? Hasn't Ellen White told us what we need to know about our roots, and isn't her inspired narrative of early Adventism more reliable than any other historiography? Might not the church's uniqueness and its divinely-ordained mission be weakened by comparative studies? A deep-seated sense of exclusiveness often characterizes the Christian sub-cultures we call denominations, whereas historians often seem to suggest there are common patterns amongst religious groups. Thus to some it may seem logical, or even imperative, to stifle or at least control historical research. One effect of negativity towards historical research in an organization is that the confidence in the organization amongst its members, especially those with inquiring minds, tends to be diminished. In hindsight, it seems that during the crises of the 1970s and 1980s some church leaders feared that openness might lead members to reject the church, whereas historians felt a need to transform the church's understandings in the light of newly-available evidence. Such a situation always presents risks, particularly if the dissonance is serious and the pastoral care is hesitant or ineffective. To prevent historical inquiry may stimulate hostility in the short term; a more problematical long-term result may be a pervasive apathy.

However, there is a positive side to the Adventist debate on the significance of history. One of the best-known statements of the most prolific Adventist author declares: "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history." The picture is further enhanced by Ellen White's assertion that ours is "an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light." She further declares that "no true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation," adding that Adventism has "many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn." Such statements have helped to engender amongst Adventists a passion for a constructive understanding of their past. Even so, history seems to be a tiger's tail we cannot let go of, but also something which troubles us as we hold on to it. Some of us may wonder whether nurturing a young Adventist toward a career in history is passing on a poisoned chalice. Further, as we assess present patterns of thought in the church, we are apt to conjecture whether historians of Adventism will always be seeking for bridges over troubled waters.

Since the professionalization of Adventist historiography is so recent, there is, as yet, little evidence that peace will reign between historians and the entire church in the short term. Gary Land (of Andrews University) has documented well the early years of the maturation process, and Ben McArthur (of Southern Adventist University and Pacific Union College) has described clearly some of the effects of this new situation. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that there may be, at present, a shortage of well-trained historians waiting in the wings to fill academic vacancies in Adventist studies, so the church needs to assess its past record as well as its future needs. Historians are reserved about predictions of the future, but it could be useful to mention some harbingers of hope and to explore ideas which may mitigate the agonies of Adventist historians as they enter the new millennium.

Gleams, but not of a Golden Morning

There are cogent reasons to believe that the study of the Adventist past has a brighter future than the recent experience of historians indicates. Let us notice some of the signs of hope which light this particular horizon.

1. Light Bearers was a major step forward when it was published in 1979. Although now far from adequate, due largely to the importance of the events which have occurred during the past twenty years, we anticipate its enhancement in the near future when Floyd Greenleaf's present assignment is completed. Thus this book, revitalized, will be a major factor in shaping the thinking of the next generation of Seventh-day Adventists.

2. Time is already giving us a better perspective on the yeasty period of the "Great Bereavement" in Sabbatarian Adventism, 1970-1982. The church greatly needed its innovative historians, including McAdams, Numbers, Butler, and Graybill, but we now have the opportunity to place their major accomplishments in fuller perspective. There are dimensions of Ellen White's contribution to the church's health initiatives that are not well conveyed in Prophetess of Health. There is more to be said about The Great Controversy than to report the way in which it used historical sources, and there are more benefits in the prophetic gift than those which The Power of Prophecy presents. Adventist historiography can never proceed in the future without acknowledging its indebtedness to such studies, nor can it rest from its search for a more comprehensive understanding. It is likewise clear that the older apologetics of Uriah Smith and Francis D. Nichol lie in ruins; nor can we in the 1990s maintain integrity and stand where the White Estate stood to attack Numbers. These facts, particularly when they are linked with the work of Walter Rea and the research of Fred Veltman, can seem to locate contemporary historians in an uneasy, no-man's land. Since we cannot often expect much active support in creating a new consensus from the church's official presses, we need to prize the publications and occasions that enable us to be open with each other, even valuing fragmentary e-mail exchanges and electronic publishing as ways of communicating and sharing information and its interpretation.

3. However, already the church's publishing houses have embraced some of the newer, more adequate historiography. George Knight's books have helped the church travel the rutted road away from apologetics toward history, as has Gary Land's editing of Everett Dick's dissertation with its associated historiographical introduction. A significant number of the Andrews University Dissertation Series, and other dissertations published as books, are historical works based on substantial scholarship, but it takes time for this information to be mediated to the church at large. There is a slow trend toward a more reliable historical framework for popular books coming from major denominational presses: probably volumes on the level of Omega are a thing of the past. But some of the best-sellers on the shelves of Adventist Book Centers are apt to give the historian who prizes the well-being of the church a heavy heart.

4. Non-Adventist publishers are also making a positive impact on Seventh-day Adventist understandings, as they publish the work of Adventist and other scholars. If C.H. Dodd "made righteousness readable" in biblical studies, Gary Land as editor and one of the authors of Adventism in America has performed a similar service in Adventist studies. Bryan Ball's volumes show that Adventism has important conceptual antecedents outside North America. Ron Numbers and his colleagues, building on the earlier foundation of The Rise of Adventism, helped to mature the interpretation of Millerism with their volume The Disappointed. By producing Seeking a Sanctuary, Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart lifted the discussion of Adventism to a new level of usefulness and sophistication. Michael Pearson's Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas demonstrates the kinship which exists between historical research and theological concerns and, as a bonus, Pearson documents the way in which Spectrum has enriched the thought of the church. Roland Blaich's articles show us that North American Adventism has much to learn from its experience elsewhere. Ron Lawson's fast-growing corpus confirms the fact that as a worldwide movement we are, even though haltingly, developing an enhanced openness. Meanwhile, historians and sociologists in many places (to name some: Douglas Morgan, Greg Schneider, Delmer Ross, Alberto Sbacchi, Floyd Greenleaf, Rennie Schoepflin, Harry Ballis) have extended our appreciation of Adventism's historical context, its roots and/or its encounters with cultures outside North America. Not to be forgotten are the insights of researchers who paint on a much bigger canvas, like Bryan Wilson, Martin Marty, and William S. Bainbrige, and have have enabled us to see ourselves in better perspective, discerning in particular our relatedness to other movements. Therefore, it can be said that the work of many authors from various academic and faith backgrounds is indicative of important trends in Adventist historiography, and there seems to be some willingness in the church to embrace fresh concepts after they have been published elsewhere.

5. The contribution of papers delivered at conferences or shared informally amongst historians is also crucial. Perhaps the most comprehensive interpretation of Adventism ever embodied in a series of lectures was that organized earlier in this decade by Paul Landa and his colleagues in the Loma Linda/La Sierra area, entitled "Great Disappointment, Greater Vision." Bert Haloviak, as a General Conference archivist, has produced a number of stimulating papers which enlarge the church's understanding of its theological development. Graeme Bradford, a ministerial leader in the Trans-Tasman Union Conference, has organized symposia where historians and others have fruitfully shared their insights. A year ago in his address to the Association of Western Adventist Historians, Ben McArthur offered the kind of reflective overview which is needed to spur the church toward a better understanding of itself at the end of the twentieth century. Fred Hoyt's papers are a constant reminder of the essentiality of research in the primary sources which illumine the wider landscape through which Adventists have journeyed. While not usually thought of as an historian, many of the ten thousand pages Raymond Cottrell has written may be classified as insightful believer-participant historiography. The reception of my "Re-visioning" paper is another small straw showing that a breeze of constructive change is blowing. There have been a few strident criticisms from both edges, but some of the best-informed historians, as well as scientists, pastors, Bible exegetes, social scientists, editors, and administrators appear to think that it gives Adventists a place to stand with integrity.

It was in 1991 that I delivered the substance of the first of the three parts of my "Re-visioning" paper, essentially calling for a more faithful telling of the Ellen White story. That task was further delineated in the next two parts, dated 1993 and 1995. Now that the paper is available on the internet as a more integrated whole, I trust some of its proposals may suggest agenda items for the church in the near future. Clearly such a fragmentary treatment needs to be expanded at least to a book-length manuscript, so as to better cover the subject in hand, yet that need may be met by Herbert Douglass in his forthcoming volume, Messenger of the Lord. I touched on Ellen White's relationship to Adventist educational initiatives as one of the themes in the inaugural Murdoch Lecture marking the centenary of Avondale College, but much more ought to be done in that regard. Further analysis needs to be applied to the work of religion teachers in relation to Ellen White, a matter explored in a paper delivered at the 27th West Coast Religion Teachers' Conference. Perhaps as colleagues in the discipline of history we should think more creatively about how we might keep in closer contact as we seek to support the church through historical research, speaking, and writing.


At the core of Seventh-day Adventism is the call to live as authentic Christians in the contemporary world and simultaneously to look for "that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ." Our church has millenarian roots, but it cannot fulfill its mission if it is frozen into its nineteenth-century apocalyptic understandings. Nor can we proceed coherently if we ignore what Isaiah would describe as the quarry from which we were hewn. In more practical terms, Adventists cannot proceed with integrity unless they know how God did and did not lead their community of faith in the past. Thus the church should nurture a symbiotic relationship with its historians. Agony we may have had, ecstasy may have largely escaped us, but our profession has much to offer the church as it contemplates its identity and mission in the immediate future.

—Draft dated 8 April 1998

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