By Loren Seibold  |  29 July 2018  |

Recently a friend in the General Conference building said to me (she had a smile on her face, but she was serious) “I like Adventist Today, but there’s one thing I’m having a hard time forgiving you for.” “What’s that?” I asked. “That article with a ‘proposed letter’ from the General Conference president to the Pope,” she said. “We get calls here constantly asking why Ted Wilson wrote a letter to the Pope to apologize for anti-Catholicism in The Great Controversy.”

To clue in the rest of you who haven’t stumbled across this bit of pot-stirring, she’s referring to this 2015 article by Adventist Today writer Ervin Taylor, in which Dr. Taylor suggests a letter for Ted Wilson to send to Pope Francis, apologizing that a group of Adventists led by Remnant Publications were distributing cheap copies of the book The Great Controversy to every mailbox in Philadelphia. (Full disclosure: Ervin is one of the founders of AT magazine, and a veteran pot-stirrer.)

What you must understand about this article is that there is no way you could have mistaken it for a real letter from Ted Wilson to the Pope unless, A. you were tragically, willfully stupid or B. you were deceived by someone who removed the introduction (longer than the proposed letter itself) and passed it off to others as a real letter. And the latter is precisely what some did. They edited the article to make it look to the gullible (of whom we Adventists have a smattering) as if Elder Wilson had written the letter. This intentional deception has spawned articles and youTube presentations denouncing Elder Wilson. (And not a few denouncing Adventist Today.)

This is completely unfair to Elder Wilson, and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to him that he was thus accused. Believe me, what some folks read wasn’t what Adventist Today published. We had no intention of misleading people about Elder Wilson’s loyalty to the historic teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church. For the record, Elder Wilson is deeply and sincerely Seventh-day Adventist—has been from the cradle and I’m certain will be to the grave. He is a true believer in the ministry of Ellen White, including the anti-Catholicism in The Great Controversy. It is inconceivable that he would ever write such a letter.

So let me clear this up once and for all: we at Adventist Today have no desire to misrepresent Elder Ted Wilson. He is a kind, good and godly man, though one with whom some of us disagree on some matters. And one of the areas in which we disagree with him is that The Great Controversy is a good first-line evangelistic tool when sent unsolicited to millions of mailboxes in America’s cities.

A Book Whose Time Has Passed

I believe that sending The Great Controversy to entire cities was not only ineffective, but embarrassing to the Seventh-day Adventist church. It was not the way to reach Americans and impress them to look more closely at our teachings.

That is because The Great Controversy is not a good expression of who we Adventists are today. It reflects not modern attitudes, but 19th century American nativism. America had long seen itself as a Protestant Anglo-Saxon nation, and in the 19th century Americans became alarmed by an influx of poor, uneducated Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe. These people were regarded as being almost sub-human but even as they were denigrated (like immigrants from Latin America today) they were much employed as cheap and abusable workers. Catholicism was represented in that era in the most false and scandalous ways, such as by the stories of the mentally ill Maria Monk whose book Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed (1836) claimed systematic sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic priests, and infanticide of the resulting babies in pits of lye, in a convent in Montreal. Awful Disclosures was utter nonsense, most of it not written by Maria Monk at all, but it was extraordinarily popular: I can remember these stories being told in sermons even in my lifetime.

The Great Controversy wasn’t about immigrants and convents, though, but about something much more serious. “A regrettable part of [Seventh-day Adventist] heritage,” Taylor wrote, “was the continued affirmation of conspiracy scenarios concerning alleged attempts of Roman Catholics to establish some sort of political advantage, usually by some nefarious means, in America.” Thus The Great Controversy’s charge that Roman Catholics would take over the United States government and attempt to legislate Sunday worship.

However you feel about its teachings, The Great Controversy is hardly the kind of introduction to Seventh-day Adventism that is likely to capture people’s attention nowadays. It is long: even the condensed version is 400 pages, the full version over 700. It is wordy and pedantic. Those of us who like Victorian literature understand that people wrote more formally then than they do now. Most of us can make our way through Steps to Christ with appreciation for its encouraging message. But hand an ordinary person, one not already invested in our history or beliefs, 400 pages of dense Victorian writing on church history and eschatology and see how far they get. The Great Controversy strikes modern Christian readers as not just dull reading, but unhopeful. It is a book featuring persecution, betrayal, threats and fear, without the encouragement and assurance of salvation found in Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages.

Much of what it predicts about persecuting Catholics and the Sabbath being taken away from us, leaving persecuted Seventh-day Adventists as the only true Christians left, is so different from how history has actually developed around us that hardly any of us, even the most faithful, construct our everyday lives and choices around those expectations. Nor, for that matter, does the institution of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which nurtures a vast networks of hospitals and colleges, helping ministries, churches and church administration, and gives every evidence of having settled in for the long term.

No, if The Great Controversy was ever our best first-line evangelistic tool, that day has passed.

Did It Work?

But you needn’t go by my assessment of the book. Here’s the test: in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia, how much did the church grow? All of my (admittedly informal) research shows that there was no spike in church attendance or baptisms in those cities because of these mailings. Where there were evangelistic series, such as during NY13, there were baptisms. But this had nothing to do with unsolicited pulp copies of The Great Controversy cluttering people’s mailboxes, and everything to do with the health education programs and encouraging gospel-oriented meetings and personal Bible studies that went on in those cities.

How would the mailers justify their the investment? I think they’d say, first of all, that they did what Ellen White told them to do. “The Great Controversy should be very widely circulated,” she wrote. “I am more anxious to see a wide circulation for this book than for any others I have written…” Colporteur Ministry, p.127. So the mailers can feel faithful even if they weren’t successful.

Second, there is a notion among us that the people of earth must merely be warned before Jesus can return—whether or not they respond and churches grow.[1] If so, then sending out these books puts us a million or two people closer to the Second Coming, even if all the books were discarded. Most San Franciscans and Philadelphians have now been warned, even if it was in a way unlikely to attract them.

But I rather think the argument could be made that this effort was negative PR: that it made us look a bit cultish, and may have inoculated people against the Seventh-day Adventist church. Numerous pieces in newspapers and blogs across the country made fun of the book, rued the bother and the mess of it, and described how the books were dumped directly into recycle bins. I think that there was only one winner: Dwight Hall of Remnant Publications, who printed and mailed the books.

Itching Ears

Though I agree with Dr. Taylor that the The Great Controversy is a poor first line of outreach, I have also wondered whether Adventist Today might have been better not to have published his article in the first place, because of the confusion it caused and the unfair accusations it brought against Elder Ted Wilson.

Still, those who spread the notion that Elder Wilson wrote such a letter—even though Dr. Taylor’s article clearly said otherwise—ought to be ashamed of themselves. We have in this denomination nurtured a class of people who have little regard for verifiable truth. Some lie intentionally and boldly, such as those who altered that article and passed on the letter as factual. Of the rest, it is unclear to me whether they lack the ability to distinguish a spurious story from a true one, or just prefer to believe any bit of mythology that feeds their hunger for novelty, and affirms their fears.

Paul saw this back in his time: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” 2 Timothy 4:3-4 KJV. The good news of Christ’s opening the door of salvation by the cross, as taught by the apostles, wasn’t exciting enough for these folks. They preferred titillating myths—even as so many do today, from stories about an unfaithful General Conference president, to Jesuit infiltrators, to unverifiable rumors of Sunday laws.

The “work of an evangelist” that Paul talks about in verse 5 wasn’t about preaching anti-Catholic teachings or even warnings about persecution (which, back then, was a reality), but a return to the plain facts of the gospel: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NIV. Why do some Seventh-day Adventists so under-appreciate that simple message? What makes them so anxious to add fables to the glorious good news of forgiveness for the sinful, salvation for all who accept Jesus, instruction for a good life here, God’s comforting presence in our sadnesses and sufferings, and eternal life beyond this one?

At the end of time, should the history of this denomination be written to be read through eternity, it will say that we Adventists had the good news, girded by beautiful teachings about the Sabbath, health, and Jesus’ return. But it will add that that wasn’t enough for some of us: that some manufactured myths and fables, while others salivated to hear them, believed them, and passed them along without critical evaluation.

I hope that the history will add that many were added to the kingdom because of us anyway, not just in spite of us.

  1. This “warning theology” is based on emphasizing only the act of preaching in Matthew 24:16: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” In judgment God can say, “Remember that book you got in the mail? That was your chance. You could have opened it and read the truth. You merely discarded it.” This notion ignores the fuller command of Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” This latter would suggest that you reach out to people in a way that actually appeals to them, to bring them to the Lord, to a transformed life, and to the church—not merely throw tons of printed paper at them and hold them responsible for reading it.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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