Post 21, Diversification: Engaging With Adventist Studies Since 2005

The writing of the past seven years has been driven by circumstances that I did not foresee well in 2004. Within the early months of 2005, several new books about Ellen White entered circulation. For authors and presses to invest time and money in that way demonstrated that ninety years after her death Ellen White retained a unique significance amongst Seventh-day Adventists. Two of the volumes presented the research of an Australian medical specialist: Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (Warburton, Victoria, Australia: Signs Publishing Company, 2005) and The Prophet and Her Critics (Nampa, Idaho, United States of America: Pacific Press, 2005).

The Prophet and Her Critics was co-authored by Dr Leonard Brand of Loma Linda University and Dr Don S. McMahon of Melbourne, Australia. Brand sought to intensify the appeal of McMahon’s research for North American readers, providing a context for re-evaluating the earlier research of Ronald L. Numbers on health (1976), Jon Butler on prophetic fulfilment (1979) and Walter Rea on literary relationships (1982) in particular, proposing that the “quality of their research” should be examined to see “(1) whether their logic meets an acceptable scholarly standard, avoiding serious logical errors; (2) whether their data support the conclusions they reach; and (3) whether their research design adequately supports their conclusions” (page 14). Then Chapter 5, entitled “The Test,” summarised McMahon’s research and suggested the value of the CD included with McMahon’s volume, making available the data from which his conclusions were formed.

The core issue treated in both these books was the doctrine of inspiration as illumined by a study of Ellen White’s writings on health. In 1976, Numbers published the first edition of Prophetess of Health, demonstrating the value of careful historical research in the primary sources of Adventist history. Numbers frankly stated that he “refrained from using divine inspiration as an historical explanation” (Preface, page xi), a somewhat understandable stance since neither his familial upbringing nor his church nurture had offered him a doctrine of inspiration that was adequate in view of his discoveries. Since then, other studies have enlarged the church’s understanding of Ellen White’s contribution with reference to health and the benefits of the Adventist lifestyle, as in a doctoral dissertation by George Reid and a volume by Gary Fraser. In addition, the doctrine of inspiration has been explored in greater depth.

Enter Don S. McMahon, M.B., B.S., F.R.A.C.S., D.L.O. McMahon’s Adventist lifestyle as a young medical student in the late 1950s was deemed by then current medical opinion as either “irrelevant” or “dangerous,” hence the labelling he experienced from a lecturer in the University of Melbourne and the “friendly ridicule” of fellow students (page 1). However, at the 25-year reunion of his class, McMahon found that many of his colleagues remembered his “humiliation” at their hands, but also by that time a lot of them had adopted important features of his lifestyle and were advocating the same for their patients (page 2).

By 1987 McMahon was re-reading The Ministry of Healing, testing his hunch “that most—if not all—modern, health/lifestyle risk factors were covered by Ellen White” (page 139). A long engagement with the historical and scientific issues followed, as he identified “health and medical statements” that implied what should be done by the individual and why it should be done. Finally, with the help of a CD-ROM that enabled him to search Ellen White’s writings on computer and date any given statement, he was ready to compare her writings with those of five other nineteenth-century health advocates. Three of his medical colleagues checked McMahon’s analyses; a statistician contributed a probability study that gave him his greatest surprise: “The chances were astronomically against random chance” (page 141). Or, as Brand expresses the outcome:

After study of his findings, I find it difficult to see how it would be possible to explain Ellen White’s health principles without a definite input of information from a non-human source, since her health principles of how we should live reveal an accuracy level far above anything available anywhere in human health concepts anytime in the 19th century. McMahon’s work also gives fascinating insight into the nature and limits of the communication Ellen White received regarding health and the reasons for these health principles (Foreword, page iv).

I suggested at the time that there may well be extended discussion amongst medicos and others about the specifics within McMahon’s analyses of the whats and the whys enunciated by Ellen White, and the ways in which these transcend or compare with the recommendations of Graham, Alcott, Coles, Jackson and Kellogg. I deemed that mathematicians and statisticians would pore over the issues of probability and variance that McMahon proposed. But the big issue seemed clear: whereas most nineteenth-century medical writers wilt under scrutiny, Ellen White is exceptional. McMahon concludes: “When the knowledge of the mid-19th century is taken into consideration, it is impossible to exclude inspiration from Ellen White’s writings”; indeed, these writings “should not be rejected; it is essential they be carefully studied and appreciatively implemented” (page 142).

McMahon’s research was widely interpreted as reinforcing the contemporary relevance of the Adventist health message. Further, bolsted by Brand’s contextual framework and prescriptions for research design, it seemed to offer a compelling case study in the process of inspiration. This appeared to make it of profound significance for historians, students of Scripture and, indeed, for everyone interested in Adventist thought, lifestyle and mission. No single finding under the rubric of Adventist Studies during the past two decades seemed to offer such potential to enrich the ongoing conversation about Ellen White and how to understand and apply her spiritual gift.

However, I soon found myself located between McMahon and a highly-skilled neuorscientist in California, Dr T. Joe Willey. The caveats outlined in the paragraph above were discussed with unsubdued energy, especially McMahon’s distinction between Ellen White’s whats and the whys, and his statistical analyses in relation to the doctrine of inspiration. A complicating factor was that many of McMahon’s affirmations were sustainable on historical grounds, but Willey’s cautions were cogent as statistical considerations. A vast quantum of data accumulated rapidly. I attempted a preliminary review of the McMahon/Brand volumes and three others in Spectrum, but the dialectic remained vigorous for years.

The other volumes that I reviewed for Spectrum were by Graeme Bradford, Alden Thompson and the Standish brothers. I was deeply concerned by the negative reactions that Bradford’s books encountered, in that for two decades he had proved one of the most believable apologists for a sustainable understanding of Ellen White and her role within Adventism. Alden Thompson’s book accorded with his well-known stance as a staunch believer who capably examines all the data and lets it speak coherently. Russel R. Standish and Colin D. Standish, friends since we were at Avondale together in the early 1950s, rated my attempts at being faithful to the evidence as producing the most “disingenuous” material ever to blight a Seventh-day Adventist publication.

However, soon even more arresting condemnations were on my desk. Twenty-five years after the Sanctuary Review Committee met in 1980 at Glacier View Ranch in Colorado, the Sydney Adventist Forum invited me and others to offer historical perspectives on that effervescent event. I was glad to be able to participate, since four years earlier, as chairman of a committee appointed by the College Church, I had spent perhaps 500 hours reviewing the literature and interviewing people who maintained an interest in Glacier View and its aftermath. Part of my presentation at the Forum was summarised in Spectrum. Our interpretations failed to accord with the mind of an Australian employed at Adventist world headquarters, who wrote on official stationery suggesting that in view of my expressed opinions, I was no longer a Seventh-day Adventist. Other criticims came to me for writing a series of articles on Righteousness by Faith that was published by Good News for Adventists.

One immediate response was to offer a staff colloquium at Avondale College under the title “Adventist Studies: Troublesome Adolescent or Maturing Adult?” With the helpful comments of colleagues in mind, I deemed that the basic analyses presented should be in the public arena as a journal article. By November 2006, a first draft was sent to the Journal of Religious History, as a follow-up to my article the Journal had published in 1987 about sources for the effective study of Adventism. The text of the latter piece, before it was twice refereed, is now on the College website; the published article finally appeared in 2010. It seemed important that the issues be discussed responsibly, fully and irenically.

The idea that thorough discussion could constructively illumine Adventist controversies seemed to be established by the outcome of a conference convened at Andrews University in 2007, as a fifty-year review of the volume Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957). The organisers deliberately included high-profile representatives of the contrasting perspectives currently held with reference to the most controversial book ever published by the church. My paper needs to be read critically, in tandem with the other submissions that are available on the official website (qod.andrews.edu). The apparent success of that conference helped pave the way for an even bolder initiative, “The Ellen White Project,” aiming to prepare a manuscript for a major academic publisher, introducing Ellen White to scholarly readers. I was deeply appreciative of the opportunity to be one of 21 chapter authors, an Australian invited to participate in an essentially North American project. My chapter on Ellen White as author was commissioned to confront the issue of plagiarism; I greatly valued the Portland, Maine, conference held during October 2009, and was gratified that in its amended form my chapter was passed to the publishers, along with the others, on 27 October 2011. The outcome will be a book that, for the first time, offers a contextualised introduction to the life and writings of Ellen White for well-informed readers who are beyond the borders of the church.

Meanwhile, it seemed crucial to seek a better understanding of the ground-breaking workshop held in Washington in 1982 when, for the first time, an international group sought to assess the newly-discovered data relating to Ellen White. This endeavour developed two papers that I presented to the Ellen G. White Coordinating Committee of the South Pacific Division, and placed on sdanet.org/atissue as “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White, Part 1: 1982 in Historical Perspective” (2007), and “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White, Part 2: Assessing Five Examples of the Documented Evidence” (2008). A paper presented at the New Perspectives on Christianity conference, held at Avondale College in January 2009, was entitled “Religious History in Century 21: Reflections of the Demand for Credible Historiography.” As a backdrop for reports about the Portland conference of 2009 that I presented at Loma Linda University, La Sierra University and the Dan Diego Forum, I prepared a paper entitled “The Re-parenting of Seventh-day Adventists: Reflections on the Historical Development, Substance, and Potential of Ellen White Studies,” an intem published on the Adventist Today Foundation and Avondale College websites.

During 2006, I wrote a guide for higher degree students who might be contemplating research in the area of Adventist Studies. The content of this pamphlet was revised in 2009, and is now available in printed as well as in electronic form on the Avondale website. Forewords written for the published forms (2007, 2008) of Michael Chamberlain’s and Rick Ferret’s doctoral theses gave me valuable opportunities to assess the ongoing status of Adventist Studies. The documents named above form a major strand of a much larger body of material written since 2005 and published by Signs of the Times in the United States and Australia, Record, Ministry, Teach: Journal of Christian Education, and other sources, including the Internet. An increasing amount of my time has also been devoted to consultation with PhD students for whom the discipline of Adventist Studies/Ellen White Studies is crucial.

Conclusion

Ellen White’s importance for Seventh-day Adventism is illustrated vividly by the discussion about her life and writings that is ongoing and vigorous. It has been my privilege to engage in this dialogue and dialectic increasingly since those effervescent classes in the SDA Theological Seminary four decades ago, but more especially since 1980. The opportunities for fruitful study in 2012 are attractive indeed: the church has developed many excellent resource centres; scholars in various parts of the world have contributed important aspects of the big picture; while major outlines are beyond dispute there are many options for continuing research; we have the amazing support of computer technology. I cherish the Seventh-day Adventist communion and firmly believe in the crucial role Ellen White has for both historic and contemporary Adventism. Whether my writings are seen as problematic or constructive is a matter best left to the judgment of others. For my part, I simply desire to continue walking by faith and pursuing “the truth as it is in Jesus,” with gratitude for grace abounding in the past and vibrant hope for the future.

Arthur Patrick, 9 November 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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