Post 24, More on the Ellen White Project: Portland and Beyond

As previously reported on this website, the Ellen White Project reached a high point on 27 October 2011, when the editors passed a book manuscript to a major academic publisher. This website will, from time to time, offer historical perspectives on the process that created this volume and, when the book is published, it will be reviewed. Here is a reflection that I wrote two months after the Portland conference. (Note some of the facts are dated; Bert Haloviak has retired, Dr David Trim is now the Director of Archives, Statistics and Research at the General Conference. And some of the spelling is American, not Australian!)

The conference held in Portland, Maine, 22-25 October 2009, may well transpose a long-continuing discussion about Ellen White into a new key.  As a working conference, it followed a long series of forward initiatives taken in various parts of the world. For instance, research into the Millerite origins of Sabbatarian Adventism began its slow development with Everett Dick’s doctoral study of 1930; the process accelerated with a conference on the rise of Adventism in the 1970s; it matured with the subsequent publication of a series of substantial volumes, including The Disappointed (1987). Ellen White Studies as a serious but still un-named discipline began a new and torturous course in 1970 when trained historians began to achieve better access to archival facilities. Adventist Studies as a named academic discipline became available as an accredited option for PhD students at Andrews University during 1993. More recently, State and Federal authorities in Australia have accredited PhD programs in education, health, history, and theology at Avondale College. Avondale’s struggles since 2006 to develop Adventist Studies as a doctoral option may be assessed with the help of a 20-page document that is available on the institution’s website, entitled “A Brief, Annotated Introduction to the Field of Adventist Studies for Higher Degree Students.” Now, in the light of the Portland conference, the future of the effervescent dialogue and dialectic about Ellen White has never seemed brighter.

The perceived success of a conference on a difficult historical/doctrinal topic that convened at Andrews University during October 2007 encouraged at least one of its organisers to join the team planning the far more ambitious event in Portland this year. The 2007 conference sought to hear voices representing the array of opinion, developed over a half-century, regarding the most controversial book ever published by Seventh-day Adventists—a volume usually referred to by its short title, Questions on Doctrine (see qod.andrews.edu). Whereas the 2007 conference was mainly theological in its orientation, the 2009 one was more overtly historical, climaxing discussions held since 1998 at meetings of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians. (ASDAH, it must be remembered, had fostered The Disappointed, back in the 1980s.) Further, the 2009 conference had a much wider focus: the life and writings of Ellen Gould Harmon White (1827-1915) as simultaneously an American prophet and one of Adventism’s three co-founders (for basic information, see the Ellen White Project website).

Now that the message of Michael Campbell’s dissertation (2008) is becoming widely known, Adventists better understand the 1919 conference that engaged Adventist administrators, Bible and history teachers. Much of the wide-ranging conference agenda focused on the interpretation of Bible prophecy, but spirited discussions occurred about Ellen White, especially near the end of the conference. Since Ellen White had died in 1915, it was appropriate for the church to reflect on her life and the continuing significance of her writings. Memorable comments were recorded from loyal Adventist leaders who knew Ellen White personally and worked closely with her for decades as she wrote, compiled, and edited her major writings. These men revealed a thoroughly- informed, historically-accurate view of Ellen White, her spiritual giftedness, and the appropriate application of her writings. However, due to threats made and misinformation promulgated in a violent pamphlet war, their insights were sidelined in favor of an Ellen White heavily conditioned by Protestant Fundamentalism. So thoroughly were all memories of the 1919 Bible conference submerged that the Adventist community was startled when selected transcripts of the 1919 conversations were published in Spectrum during 1978. (Roy Branson, editor of Spectrum for 23 years, during a mealtime conversation on 24 October 2009, suggested to me that the 1978 publication of the 1919 transcripts was the journal’s most important initiative, 1969-2009. Anyone who finds it difficult to access Campbell’s dissertation about the 1919 event may care to read one of my summaries of it, such as that on sdanet.org/atissue.)

To write good Adventist history, historians require access to primary sources. Although Everett Dick in 1930 established a benchmark for Millerite historiography, it took another four decades for the Adventist community to develop a group of well-trained historians who effectively made public the results of their (still limited) access to primary documents about Ellen White. The processes described in Jonathan Butler’s illuminating essay, “The Historian as Heretic,” would rob Adventism of several of its finest scholars between 1976 and 1983. It was within that climate of vigorous debate that the first-ever International Prophetic Guidance Workshop convened at Adventism’s world headquarters, during April 1982.

As one of about 70 attendees, I listened expectantly to conversations that included Arthur L. White, Robert W. Olson, Ronald D. Graybill, and many others whose writings I had been avidly reading since my 1976 appointment as director of the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre serving the South Pacific Division. Unlike 1919, these epochal exchanges were not stenographically reported; instead, they were recorded on cassettes. I looked forward to sharing both the 941 pages of documents distributed to attendees, and the cassettes, upon my return to Australia during April 1982. But my Division president quickly decreed that such materials should not be shared. Since 1979 in Australia, conflict over Ellen White had been escalating as a main reason why a third of the South Pacific Division’s ministers would either resign or be dismissed, between 1980 and 1988. A prime reason why destructive controversy spiralled upward was that sources for effective study were under such tight control.

Even my brief articles published on sdanet.org/atissue seem to present sufficient evidence to validate the claim that the 1982 Workshop was a sterling attempt to deal with crucial issues relating to the life and writings of Ellen White, but that the outcomes were constrained due to the limited access people had to the recorded conversations and the 941 pages of documentation, let alone essential primary sources. Reports of the Workshop were largely unwelcome, unless they were edited to the point that they retained minimal information about the event.

How different is the situation in 2009!

Interestingly, the number of participants in the conferences held during 1919, 1982, and 2009 are quite similar. But the composition of the 2009 group vastly contrasts with the all-Adventist attendees at the earlier conferences. The official list of participants given to us in Portland has 66 names on it; about a third of them are persons of non-Adventist background, mostly well-known authors who have written effectively about American religious history. The rest of the attendees were raised as Adventists, or embraced the faith, before writing doctoral dissertations or publishing studies that in some way illumine the life and writings of Ellen White. A number of the attendees contributed substantively to the intense discussions of the 1970s and 1980s before the church marginalized their participation. Fifteen other participants are current employees who are contributing to the present understanding of Ellen White due to their background as historians; a smaller number of professionals were present from such disciplines as biblical studies, theology and sociology.

Three Reasons Why the Portland Event Was Successful

In the after-glow of the Maine conference, it seems to me that its potential may be assessed in the light of observations like the following.

First, credible historiography thrives on effective access to primary sources by competent professionals. In this respect, the Portland conference towers far above all its parallels. Adventist Studies in general (and its sub-set Ellen White Studies in particular) are now quite thoroughly democratized. Access to resources for effective study could be prevented by an administrative decree as recently as 1982; currently, an unquantifiable array of primary documentation is available to anyone who has a computer connected to the Internet. (See, for instance, the website of the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics, superintended by Bert Haloviak, and the bibliographies compiled by Gary Shearer of Pacific Union College.) If acclaimed doctoral dissertations, refereed journal articles, and scholarly books are measures of competence, many of the historians who participated at Portland are of world status. Obviously their research reaches far beyond the capabilities of the Internet, and any claim they made at the conference was subject to the immediate scrutiny of colleagues well versed in the matters that surfaced in lively discussion periods. Such a climate for research and dialogue was beyond our wildest dreams as recently as 1982. The conference revealed that a wide consensus has developed regarding the historical Ellen White; a present need is for effective interpretation to further develop along the lines of the scholarly volume that is anticipated next year, as an outgrowth of the conference.

Second, the conference highlighted crucial chapter topics that focused the efforts of 21 authors. At the foundation of the assigned chapters was a biographical sketch of Ellen White and a focus on the historiographical volumes produced about her, from the early Adventist period to the present. Next, the religious culture within which Ellen White ministered was observed as influencing the methods she chose to shape the Sabbatarian community and build a new denomination, considerably through her testimonies. One specialist contextualized Ellen White’s early religious experiences; another depicted her engagement with health issues; others treated subjects as complex as race relations, or mind and metaphysics; yet another offered perspectives on her attitudes toward popular culture. Larger contexts for the conference were provided on the first night by the scholar who wrote a recent biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and on the second night by an established author who is writing a new biography of Billy Graham. A worship experience on the second main day of the conference featured a homily entitled “Joy in the Morning” by a New Testament specialist, Dr Kendra Haloviak. Next we were led to consider Adventist understandings (and mis-understandings!) of Ellen White, her engagement with American society, her theology, her eschatology, her roles as institution builder, author and public speaker. Other chapter authors explored Ellen White’s perceptions of women’s roles and education; how observers outside of Adventism interpreted her writings; the nature of her legacy. The reflective, concluding hour of the conference began with a six-member panel whose members addressed the theme “Ellen White: Looking Forward.”  While it would be difficult to see how the conference organisers could have packed more content into the event, it is obvious that all the important data cannot be compressed within the covers of one scholarly volume.

Third, an effective dialogical process pervaded the conference. Two specialists were appointed to respond to each chapter, one an Adventist, and one a non-Adventist. Chapter authors had the option to comment briefly about the scripts that were already circulated to all attendees before the conference, then respondents shared their written observations. Next, for about ten of each 45 minutes, roving microphones facilitated the vigorous group discussion that was likely to spill over into informal conversations in the dining room or on the streets of Portland. Therefore, the conference maximised the exchange of perceptions between two groups: people who had sought for decades to understand Ellen White’s life and writings, and acknowledged specialists in American religious history.

My argument here is that, unlike any earlier era in Adventism, adequate primary sources are now readily available for serious study. The Adventist community has developed women and men who are able to offer competent leadership in the daunting process of interpreting these extensive documents coherently. Further, the conference organisers planned effective communication between specialists in Ellen White Studies and other scholars whose lives are devoted to understanding American religious history in its broad contexts. These three considerations facilitated a constructive outcome for the Portland event.

Concluding Observations

The organisers of the 2009 conference have given Adventists and the scholarly world a fresh opportunity to foster a mature, sustainable understanding of Ellen White amongst believers and the wider community, especially that of North America. From a handful of disappointed Millerites, the Second Advent Movement is now a world religion of about sixteen million baptized members. Will we, without further delay, transcend the unnecessary conflicts and the false assumptions about our church’s “mother” that have been both pervasive and destructive in the past? (Note the content of my paper on the Avondale and Adventist Today websites, entitled “Re-parenting Seventh-day Adventists.”) Will we invest a commitment comparable to that of Ellen White in spreading the message of grace revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the message of hope focused in His Second Coming? Seventh-day Adventism is, above all, a global family with its eyes set towards “the truth as it is in Jesus” (a favorite refrain in Ellen White’s writings). The Alpha and the Omega of our faith has too often been supplanted by controversies that are no longer necessary, now that the facts about “the way the Lord has led us, and His teachings in our past history” are so freely available.

Afterword

The above remarks were written to offer the reader a context for the following oral presentations.

I. “Seventh-day Adventism, 1919-2009: ‘a constant process of struggle and rebirth’?” The 1919 conversations between administrators, Bible and history teachers and the October 2009 conference in Portland, Maine (on the life and writings of Ellen White), frame 90 years of Adventism’s encounter with modern and post-modern culture. A Catholic author, Paul Johnson, writes in the Epilogue to his volume A History of Christianity: “Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth—a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding.” This presentation cited a number of doctoral studies that illumine Johnson’s comment as it applies to Adventist struggles, suggesting trends that seem likely to become more significant in the near future.

II. “The Life and Times of Ellen Gould Harmon White: Assessing Fact and Faith After the First Scholarly, Inter-faith Discussion of the Adventist Prophet.” This presentation reflected on the conference held in Portland, Maine, 22-25 October 2009. Those interested in the topic were invited to read the “backdrop” piece, mentioned above (“Re-parenting Seventh-day Adventists?”) that is available on the Avondale College website and on the Adventist Today website.

III. “Forty Years of Ellen White Studies: Tradition, Transformation, and the Adventist Future”

I expected attendees at each of these presentations to share a plethora of comments and questions, and was not disappointed. I am still in the process of listing a range of matters regarding Ellen White Studies that seem to merit particular consideration at the present time.

Arthur Patrick, 22 December 2009         

Internet addresses for further information and comment:

The official website of the conference project is http://ellenwhiteproject.wordpress.com/

For an interview with Dr. Gary Land, lead editor of the proposed book, see spectrummagazine.org.

For a report by Dr Alden Thompson see http://spectrummagazine.org/blog/2009/11/10/reflections_maine_event.

For comment about the conference by Dr Jon Paulien, see http://revelation-armageddon.com.

Photos from the conference are available at

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ellenwhiteproject/.

The Avondale website location of the “Re-parenting” paper http://www.avondale.edu.au/research::Journal_Articles/

For comment by Randall Stephens, Eastern Nazarene College, see http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2009/10/ellen-white-project-portland-maine.html

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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