Ostriches and Canaries: Coping with Change in Adventism 1966-1979 (Westlake Village, CA: Oak and Acorn Publishers, 2022).

Reviewed by Reinder Bruinsma  |  12 July 2022

What follows is more a personal reaction than a formal book review. Because reading Gilbert M. Valentine’s newest book Ostriches and Canaries—Coping with Change in Adventism 1966-1979 was an intellectual feast but also an emotional experience.

I remember having a similar sentiment when, around 1985, someone gave me a book by Merikay McLeod called Betrayal: the Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver Vs. Pacific Press Publishing Association, in which the author had chronicled the lamentable way in which two female workers were treated by their denominational employer.

I wondered: “Do these kinds of things really happen in my church?” It greatly depressed me at the time. I asked myself: Even if this story might be biased, and even if it were only fifty percent accurate—do I really want to be part of a church where such unethical and discriminatory things happen?

There have been other books which have had a somewhat similar effect on me. Valentine’s masterly biography of pioneer John N. Andrews (especially the last part of the book) also left me wondering how fellow church leaders (including Ellen G. White) could be so heartless and unchristian in their relationship to others.

Now, once again in Ostriches and Canaries, I was faced with a book that created a distinct uneasiness. Did all this happen in my church?

Personal experience

However, there was also another reason why writing this review is important for me: I was close to some of the things Valentine writes about.

I never met Robert Pierson (1911-1989) personally, but I did listen with a sense of apprehension to his inaugural sermon in Detroit, on the final Sabbath of the session when he was elected. I was a student at Andrews University in 1965-1966. I sat in classes of Siegfried Horn, Edward Vick, Herold Weiss, Sakae Kubo, and Earle Hilgert, and attended the lectures of Arthur White and Leroy Froom. Later I became well acquainted with Roy Branson and Gottfried Oosterwal, and to a lesser extent with William G. Johnsson, Kenneth Wood, Ron Graybill, and Richard Coffen.

I started my church career in the Pierson era, and although I was soon far removed from the arena where most of the events of Valentine’s new book were playing out, I was distinctly unhappy with some of the things that filtered down to where I was. I remember being particularly distressed by the documents that were initiated by Willis J. Hackett, and people around him, about inspiration and creation (pp. 375ff).

And I was keenly aware of the anti-intellectualism that was also shared by Dutch church leaders. Hans K. LaRondelle, who was to become a prominent systematic theologian at Andrews, experienced heavy opposition from the brethren as he was pursuing graduate study at the Amsterdam Free University in the early 1960s. The leaders of the Dutch church frowned upon my decision to embark on MA studies at Andrews and, upon my return to the Netherlands, did not want me to consider further graduate study.

Resisting change

Valentine gave his book the subtitle: “Coping with Change in Adventism 1966-1979.” Perhaps “Resisting Change” or “Fighting Liberalism” would have been an even more fitting description of the priorities of the top leaders in the Adventist Church during that period. A few sub-themes run as uninterrupted threads through the story that the author so ably chronicles.

First, there was the strong pull towards fundamentalism, which the church had mostly resisted during the presidency of Reuben Figuhr, but embraced in the Pierson era. Then, there was a new concern about the literal inspiration of Scripture. The subject of beginnings and a literal reading of the Genesis account became an obsession for the denominational leadership.

Finally, beneath all of this was the ever-present question, “What did Mrs. White say?” More and more she was given the final word in any dispute about theological or administrative matters.

In the first three chapters Gilbert Valentine provides us with the background to the story of the Pierson presidency. He describes the ways in which the Adventist Church related to fundamentalism, and how in the fifteen or so years before Pierson was elected the church in many ways had attempted to move away from this. Under Elder Figuhr’s leadership, the church experienced a period of relative theological openness, in which the steadily increasing number of Adventist academics enjoyed a fair amount of academic freedom. The creation of the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (1953-1957) could only have happened in this more relaxed atmosphere.

Robert Pierson

The ten chapters that follow describe the presidency of Robert H. Pierson, from his election in 1966 to his resignation, for health reasons, twelve and a half years later.

One almost feels sorry for Pierson, who, with only two years of junior college education, and after a cumulative 25 years in overseas mission service, was chosen to lead the Adventist movement during the roaring sixties and seventies of the previous century. His presidential period was a protracted battle against the dangers of liberalism that he perceived encroaching from many sides upon the church. He was confronted with developments at two major educational institutions—Loma Linda University and Andrews University—as they were seeking to establish themselves as full-fledged universities.

Surrounding himself with counselors who, to a large extent, shared his suspicion of “liberal” theologians and science teachers who deviated from traditional Adventist teachings regarding a literal six-day creation week and a 6,000-year chronology for the earth, he was determined to ensure that the teaching staff at the theological seminary and the scientists involved in the Geoscience Research Institute would be orthodox Adventists. This led to a series of crises at these institutions and disenchantment among Adventist intellectuals elsewhere in the church.

Valentine describes how, as ostriches, Pierson and many of the other leaders were unable (or unwilling) to see the theological and scientific problems facing the church, how they were putting their heads in the sand of tradition, and how many scholars felt they had to remain silent if they wanted to survive in this obscurantist climate. However, the story is also about canaries that continued to sing and warned about developments that they felt would ultimately destroy the church.

And the story is most definitely also about the continuing tension around the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the status of Ellen White. The inability, and/or unwillingness, of Pierson and his supporters to give due weight to new discoveries regarding the methods used by “the prophet” in the production of her writings, and their remaining stuck (if not in theory, certainly in praxis), in a verbal, inerrantist view of her work, was a tragedy with results that continue to be felt today.

Richness in detail

Many of Valentine’s readers are probably aware of the main issues that occupied the Adventist church in the Pierson period. But the richness in detail in this 450-page book ensures that they will, like me, undoubtedly find many elements that are new to them. Looking at the footnotes throughout the book underlines the important contribution of the Association of Adventist Forums and, in particular, its journal, Spectrum, in informing the church about key issues that could no longer be disregarded. I found the many details about the roles of men like Lenel Moulds, Richard Hammill, and Willis J. Hackett very enlightening. It made me wonder whether one of our historians should perhaps undertake a full-fledged biography of Hammill, to supplement Hammill’s own reminiscences.

Valentine’s access to the diaries of archeologist Siegfried Horn provides an insight into the behind-the-scenes events that is as informative as it is alarming. I much appreciated this focus on the role of Siegfried Horn, and hope that at least part of his diaries will one day soon be published. Horn was a German, but started his denominational employ in a time when the Adventist Church in the Netherlands was administered by the German Union. He did his ministerial internship in the Netherlands and was sent as a missionary to the Dutch East Indies. When the Second World War began, the Dutch colonial government imprisoned Horn, now considered an enemy. Understandably, Horn had ambivalent feelings about the Dutch, even though his second wife was Dutch. My conversations with Dr. Horn were always in English. He was rather careful in voicing opinions that might get him into trouble. He defended his reticence to speak out on certain topics by emphasizing how much he owed to the church. Therefore, he was determined not to cause any problems for his church.

Loyalty and power

The uneasy feelings that I mentioned at the start of this piece resulted, at least to some extent, from what I read in this book about the ways in which Pierson and other leaders were constantly looking for evidences of a lack of loyalty to Adventist principles on the part of Adventist academics, and from what I learned about their willingness to listen to gossip and to use (often dubious) schemes to move people who were considered dangerous to other positions and/or have them replaced on vital committees.

I realize that part of my uneasiness is certainly also caused by the Americanness of my church. The enormous influence of the president of the General Conference in many ways reflects the power of the president of the United States. In my European setting it is generally considered very unhealthy and dangerous to invest so much power in one person. In European politics and church life a “president” does not have the power to steer an organization on a particular path as is, regrettably, possible in the United States.

Uncanny parallel

A few years ago, as I was writing a book that targeted church members on the margins of the Adventist Church, I became aware of the many striking parallels between Robert Pierson and the current General Conference president, Ted N.C. Wilson. Many of the themes and slogans (e.g., revival and reformation) resurfaced in the programs Wilson has promoted in recent years. Although Wilson completed an educational trajectory culminating in a PhD degree, he shows a similar suspicion as Pierson of academic theologians and scientists at our universities.

Wilson regrettably shares Pierson’s belief that theological issues must be decided by administrators and not by theologians. Like Pierson, Wilson defends a literal interpretation of the Genesis story and believes that those who seek for alternative interpretations cannot be true Adventists. Like Pierson, Wilson is much more concerned about liberalism from “the left” than extremism from “the right,” and he promotes the fundamentalist position of a “plain reading” of the Scriptures and of an inerrantist use of the writings of Ellen White with all his heart. It seems that Wilson and those who rally around him belong to the ostriches that refuse to look at new evidence and always have an Ellen White quote at hand to reject any possibility of change.

Ostriches and Canaries gives much food for thought, although one might note that its focus is concentrated on the United States, and even there it is limited in its treatment. Developments and crises at other Adventist educational institutions (apart from Loma Linda and Andrews) are hardly mentioned. The problem created by the Brinsmead brethren, and the response of the Pieson administration, should, I think, also have received attention, as these impacted in a significant way on other regions of the world.

I realize it is difficult to assess to what extent theological issues that worried the administrators, and ideas of university professors that were perceived as dangerous, impacted on the religious experiences of “ordinary” church members in local congregations. It is, however, an aspect that I would like to hear more about.

But my assessment of the book is praise and admiration for Valentine’s minute research.

Will there be more canaries?

I hope Valentine’s fascinating (and highly readable) book will be promoted widely, and help many to see that today we are re-living a period of denominational obscurantism. Will the church be able to turn the tide? Will there be future leaders who are open-minded like Reuben Figuhr and Jan Paulsen?

Ostriches and Canaries paints a sad picture of a church that did not allow for creative thinking and could not accept the possibility of doctrinal change. It is a picture of a church that turned its back on science and expected scientists to discover what confirmed nineteenth-century beliefs. However, this darkness is mitigated by rays of light: some of our creative thinkers were silenced, but canaries could be heard and were an inspiration for those who wanted a different kind of church. Come to think of it, I have tried to be such a canary, and I hear many other canaries who hope and work for the change and openness the church needs in order to be relevant and responsive to the questions of people in the twenty-first century.

Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the author of I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.

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