Dr. Desmond Ford: A Life Sketch
by Milton Hook | 11 March 2019 |
Dr. Desmond Ford passed away peacefully around 1:15 a.m. on March 3, in the confident assurance of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.
Ford was born in Townsville, northern Queensland, Australia, on February 2, 1929, and was raised in that district. His parents were nominal Episcopalians. His father worked as a post office telegrapher. His mother was the first family member to show an interest in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, especially its health emphasis, but she never became a member. They moved south to Sydney, New South Wales, where Desmond completed his schooling and began a cadetship in journalism at a Sydney newspaper office. He was an avid reader, studying a number of Adventist volumes and a Bible course from the Advent Radio Church. An Adventist member gave him a Bible that he read through before he had completed elementary school. He was baptized in 1946 and immediately prepared to attend Avondale College for ministerial studies.
Dr. William Murdoch was principal of Avondale College at the time. Desmond attended some of his Bible classes and was impressed with both his scholarship and character. Murdoch became a mentor for Ford. Desmond graduated in 1950 and served as an intern in the North New South Wales Conference. In 1952 he married his college sweetheart, Gwen Booth, an elementary school teacher. Together they served for five years in various districts of the North New South Wales Conference.
In 1958 Desmond returned to study at Avondale College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Theology) degree, one affiliated with Pacific Union College. Under sponsorship he then attended the SDA Seminary in Washington, DC, where Murdoch had been transferred and Edward Heppenstall was also lecturing. Both men agreed Ford was wasting his time getting a non-accedited degree from the Seminary but should, instead, apply to enter Michigan State University. There he completed his Ph.D summa cum laude in 1960 and returned to lecture in the Theology Department at Avondale College in 1961.
During the 1960s Gwen Ford battled cancer. It finally claimed her life as the sun was setting on Friday, April 24, 1970. Gwen had written a short list of women she thought might replace her as Des’s wife and stepmother for their three children, Elenne, Paul and Luke. Des was in no hurry to remarry, simply wishing for a quiet haven to pursue further studies. Church administrators advised him that the care of his children and the benefits of marriage outweighed any thought of bachelorhood, so seven months later he happily chose Gillian Wastell as his new partner. She had been one of Des’s students and an assistant at Gwen’s nursing home. At times she had cared for the children.
A Turning Point
In 1971 and 1972 Ford did postgraduate studies at Manchester University and was awarded a Ph.D (Theology) after submitting a dissertation on the topic “The Abomination of Desolation.” He returned to Avondale College to resume lecturing in 1973. In mid-1977 Ford took up an appointment to teach at Pacific Union College. It was during this term of service that he accepted an offer from the Angwin Chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums to speak about the investigative judgment theory. On Sabbath afternoon, October 27, 1979, he presented his landmark address, highlighting key problems with the topic and attempting to defend the indefensible. The airing of the problems, long known to church scholars, unleashed a wave of opposition that prompted the 1980 Glacier View meeting and Ford’s eventual firing.
Ford had personally wrestled with questions about the investigative judgment from the days of his pastoral ministry when he encountered many members, some on their death beds, who were fearful of losing salvation when their names allegedly came under review during the investigative judgment. A significant element in his response was to emphasize justification by faith in Jesus Christ. It became the distinctive characteristic of his preaching and teaching, attracting thousands to his simple gospel messages but at the same time drawing fire from a bevy of staunch proponents of perfectionism. The 1960s and 1970s were decades of controversy surrounding the topic.
The Shape of the Controversy
Some thought the controversy was about justification by faith. It was not. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike believe in justification by faith. Others thought the controversy was about the investigative judgment—but that was only the pretext to dismiss Dr. Ford from the work. The festering core of the controversy lay in the doctrine of sanctification that spawned perfectionism. It remains a thread in Adventism that has rope proportions.
Some Christians subscribe to the belief in sacramental sanctification, the process of a lifetime beginning with infant baptism and proceeding to confirmation, participation in the Mass, attendance at the confessional and receipt of the Last Rites. Seventh-day Adventists teach that sanctification is the process of a lifetime, beginning with the surrender of the will power, an existential entrance of the Holy Spirit into one’s being, obedience to God’s commandments, much prayer, the daily study of Scripture, and compliance with a long list of behaviors. It takes a lifetime, allegedly, to be perfectly sanctified and one can never be certain, having reached the end of the road, whether or not one is perfect and eligible for heaven. The usual rationalization is that, having tried to work for your salvation and perhaps being short of perfection at the end then Christ’s righteousness makes up the shortfall. This is offered as a good alternative for the Last Rites.
The latest summary of this lifetime process leading to perfection is found in Ted Wilson’s Autumn Council sermon when he said, “Christ will reproduce His character in us as we daily surrender our will to Him.” Christ’s character, of course, is a perfect character. No suggestion is made that Christ’s perfect character is imputed to a believer. The standard teaching is that imputation happens at conversion, and from that time onward the chances of salvation are improved by keeping the commandments.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”
Throughout the controversy Ford echoed Paul and Silas with messages grounded in the words,”Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). His critics, the perfectionists, cried, “That’s cheap grace.” Their objection was a terrible slur on the high price paid at Calvary for the gift of forgiveness and justification. Christ and salvation, Ford held, was always only one step away, the step of acceptance, not a lifetime of little steps to Christ and perfection. The controversy, therefore, arose from a non-biblical view of sanctification, and thousands fled the pews, not wanting to be associated with specious error.
When Ford was fired from the Adventist ministry a group of friends who loved the gospel joined with him to establish an independent ministry called Good News Unlimited. This offered a broader scope for him, taking him to many corners of the globe to share the gospel based on Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
Ford retired from America in 2000, settling close to family at Shelly Beach near Caloundra, Queensland. From there he continued to conduct seminars under the auspices of the Australian branch of Good News Unlimited. He also published ten more books, adding to the seventeen issued under his name prior to his retirement. Indicative of an abiding sentimental attachment to Adventism, he and Gillian continued to attend the local Seventh-day Adventist church until Desmond’s health issues prevented it a few months before his demise.
Milton Hook graduated from Avondale College in 1964 and was a pastor in Australia, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, a Bible teacher at Longburn College in New Zealand, and a pastor in the United States, where he earned a Ph.D. in religious education at Andrews University (1978). In retirement he is an Honorary Research Fellow at Avondale College. He is the author of Avondale: Experiment on the Dora (1998), Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist, and Flames Over Battle Creek (1978), as well as more than 40 journal articles and monographs on Adventist history. He is currently writing church history articles for a new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists.