Post 14, Fresh Analysis of the Controversial 1919 Bible Conference

Two lectures at Avondale College four years ago (on 15 November 2008) invited Adventists to replace decades of controversy with effective understanding. The lecturer, Dr Michael W. Campbell, was pastoring three churches in Montrose, Colorado (USA). The lectures focused on the context, content and results of a conference held by Adventists in Washington, D.C. (USA), during 1919.

Three years of coursework helped Michael Campbell assemble the kit of scholarly tools he used during another three years to research and write “The 1919 Bible Conference and Its Significance for Seventh-day Adventist History and Theology,” a PhD dissertation. His 305 pages of historical analysis were completed during July 2008 for the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, under a supervisory committee that included Drs Jerry Moon, Gary Land and George Knight.

The first printed copy of the dissertation, displayed and summarised at the November 15 lectures, reached Dr Campbell days before he flew with it to Australia. This report refers to both the lectures and the dissertation.

The 1919 Bible Conference was set in a watershed era as Fundamentalism was rising and its prophetic conferences were impacting North American Christianity and Adventism. The 1919 event was epochal for Adventists, coming as it did soon after the end of Ellen White’s 70-year ministry and the crises of World War I. Dr Campbell’s third chapter summarises an important component of the conference.

Finally, several speakers, most notably W. W. Prescott, emphasized the importance of progressive revelation. Truth is progressive and Adventists needed a Bible Conference to continue to mine the depths of God’s word, they argued. Adventist thinkers were feeling the pressure of a number of doctrinal conflicts that made it advantageous to discuss theological issues candidly yet behind closed doors. The 1919 Bible Conference was ultimately an opportunity for leading thinkers in the church to seek both theological unity and spiritual revival (page 101).

To read such a comment is to activate important questions. Who were the participants and what did they say? What were the “truth” issues, then and now? Were theological unity and revival achieved? After ninety years, does the conference agenda still matter, anyway? Why has 1919 been so incendiary?

The first answer to the last question is simple: two stalwart believers who probably did not participate in the conference (there is some ambiguity in the extant evidence!) soon waged a pamphlet war, claiming the 1919 discussions compromised Adventism and led it toward the deadly “omega of apostasy.” The second answer concerns the present. Similar charges have for a long time been levelled by stentorian voices. For instance, in a series of books and many magazine articles published in the United States and Australia by Russell R. Standish and Colin D. Standish, the 1919 conference is presented as an illustration of “doubt” to the extent that they declare simply, “The 1919 Bible Conference was a disgrace to our church.” See their volume The Greatest of All the Prophets (2004), 162-172, plus their comment on Daniells in Half a Century of Apostasy (2006), 237.

Campbell’s Appendix A (222-3) identifies 65 attendees, their job descriptions and ages at the time they met between 1 July and 1 August 1919. He helpfully separates the main conference, at which theoretically all 65 attendees participated, from the smaller group of about 18 administrators, Bible and history teachers who conferred after the close of the main event. In an earlier footnote, Campbell states: “The 1919 Bible Conference was actually composed of two concurrent conferences. The primary conference was the 1919 Bible Conference which extended from July 1 to 19, 1919. During the evening there was an additional series of teachers’ meetings that extended beyond the Bible Conference until August 1, 1919. Both will be collectively referred to in this dissertation as the ‘1919 Bible Conference’” (xiii).

During the discussions, the physical temperature was at times either “sizzling” or “stifling”; the human engagements were spirited, often frank but never malicious. Perhaps nine stenographers, including three women, attempted to record the proceedings. The stenographers could not always hear the remarks made from where they were sitting and some entire discussions (in one instance, a block of sixty pages) were deleted from the conference records at the direction of the chairperson (the General Conference president). Campbell laments on page 94: “It is regrettable that only a fraction of what could have been recorded has been preserved.” But any historian is likely to be excited by the fact that more than 1,300 pages of transcripts are available for study, as well as a consensus statement, articles and books written by participants, plus a growing number of historical reflections. A set of the existing transcripts is available, neatly bound in five volumes, on the shelves of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale College. Since similar copies are located on the Internet and in Adventist research entities around the world, Campbell’s oral and written reports can be read in the light of unusually-rich primary documentation.

The dissertation is part of the extensive resources in the Avondale College Library used by undergraduate and graduate (including PhD) students whose interest is in the discipline of Adventist Studies. The two lectures are available from the Research Centre (egwrc@avondale.edu.au) as a compact disc and offer a succinct introduction to Fundamentalism and its impact on Adventism, as well as the 1919 Bible Conference and its outcomes. The dissertation is reviewed more fully on http://sdanet.org/atissue/white/patrick/campbell-review-1919.htm.

Four years after I heard and reviewed Campbell’s lecture at Avondale College, I believe its message is more important now that it was back in 2008.

Arthur Patrick, 17 November 2008, edited 28 October 2011

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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