Historian Who Wrote Ellen G. White Biography Honored with Academic Symposium
by T. Joe Willey
Ron Numbers recently retired from the University of Wisconsin after nearly 40 years as a professor specializing in the history of science. He has served at various times as president of three different scholarly groups—the History of Science Society, the American Society of Church History, and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science—and scholars from many nations who know him organized an academic conference in his honor on February 15 and 16 in Tallahassee, Florida.
Numbers is the author of two books that are among the most widely recognized sources on key figures in Adventist history. Prophetess of Health, a biography of Ellen G. White, one of the cofounders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was first published in 1976 by Harper & Row, with a third edition coming out in 2008 from Eerdmans, the noted Evangelical publisher in Grand Rapids. The Creationists, a history of creationism that includes a major section on Adventist educator and author George McReady Price, was first published in 1992 with an updated version in 2006 by Random House.
The grandson of a former General Conference president and the son of an Adventist pastor, Numbers graduated from what is now Southern Adventist University near Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1969 he earned a PhD in the history of science at the University of California in Berkeley and became a faculty member at Loma Linda University. He is considered by fellow historians as the greatest living expert on American creationism.
T. Joe Willey attended the event and filed the following report for Adventist Today: With a warm welcome, the tall, casually dressed Pastor Brent Coupland stepped to the lower stage in what is called the most beautiful building in Florida and gave a brief history of the Presbyterian church in Tallahassee, where the conference was held. The event was titled "Science without God: Religion, Naturalism and Sciences." This church is the oldest public building in continuous use in Florida.
To begin the conference, Coupland introduced his "favorite agnostic," Michael Ruse, who welcomed the participants and announced the proceedings. The conference was organized by three of Numbers' friends: Ruse, who is Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University; Jon Roberts, the Tomorrow Foundation Professor of American Intellectual History at Boston University; and Peter Harrison, formerly the Idreous Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and now Research Professor and Director of the of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, Australia.
More than 60 historians, all friends of Numbers, attended the conference, which explored the growth of so-called methodological naturalism in science, an approach which excludes any appeal to supernatural explanations but leaves scientists free to believe whatever they want about the reality of God.
Naturalism does not deny the existence of God. The scope of science is limited to explanation of empirical phenomena without reference to forces, powers or influences that are supernatural. During the conference there was a brief summary of each paper by a presenter. Then a commentator offered suggestions for improving the paper, followed by open discussion. A book based on the conference has been solicited by the University of Chicago Press. Presenters came from Turkey, Israel, Greece, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Among the participants were three Adventist scholars: Terrie Aamodt, professor of history at Walla Walla University; Rennie Schoepflin, professor of history at California State University at Los Angeles and formerly a faculty member at La Sierra University; and Jonathan Butler.
Launching the conference was the question, "What was the relationship between naturalism and religion among the Greeks and Romans?" Subsequent papers dealt with the Middle Ages and early modern natural philosophy, as well as with such diverse disciplines as astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, medicine, anthropology, biology, psychology, the social sciences, and biblical studies. Surprisingly, in most cases the impetus to adopt methodological naturalism came from devout Christians, not skeptics or unbelievers. This arrangement made it possible for practitioners of all stripes to work harmoniously in the scientific vineyard, though disputes occasionally erupted.
Many expressed appreciation to Numbers for his genuine promotion of their careers and intellectual interactions as editor and conference organizer for such books as When Science and Christianity Meet, Science and Religion Around the World, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, God and Nature, Caring and Curing, and Disseminating Darwinism, The Disappointed: Millennialism and Millerism.
Under current consideration by Oxford Press is a new book edited by Terry Aamodt, Gary Land and Ron Numbers titled, Ellen Harmon White: An American Prophet. Although in retirement, Numbers is also researching and writing a biography of John Harvey Kellogg, a key figure in the development of Adventist health ministry.
T. Joe Willey is a scientist and scholar who was a faculty member at a number of universities throughout his career. He is a regular contributor to Adventist Today.