Jim White Visits Silver Spring
by Edwin A. Schwisow, AT Director of Development/Guest Writer, February 12, 2015: What would happen to our Church today if James “Jim” White could visit? An interview with a young Adventist Today reporter might go something like this.
Adventist Today: Elder White….
Jim White: Hold it there, just hold it. Call me Pastor Jim, will you? Let’s not get into old-fashioned titles and such, okay? I never cared for hierarchy and its trappings….
Adventist Today: Sure thing, Pastor Jim. So….Here’s my question: Our General Conference president today believes that we need to return to a simpler time and pattern our behavior after the Blueprint of your times. What do you say to that?
White: Well, I’m tremendously flattered, but concerned too.
If you try to return in time to an era when things were simple and absolute, be very careful—that era probably didn’t really exist the way you think it did. And how far back do you want to go? To the time when we believed Jesus was simply a created being (however exalted)? Should we go back to a time before Ellen received her first credentials as an ordained minister? How about a time when we were all devout Sunday-keepers? When does “going back” start to consume the meat along with the apostate fat?
Our early days were rife with fear, doubt, and confusion. We were young and unsettled, and winds of doctrine blew hither and yon. There was absolutely nothing simple during those times, except that a lot of us were at each other’s throats. Yet, if we had been told not to study, not to speculate, not to try new things, we as young people would have given up and I’d have ended my days as a church school principal somewhere. That’s my take….
AT: How can we harmonize the vision of you as a young man seeking truth from many sources, and the man who became the most renowned chief executive of the Adventist Church, in any era?
White: You’re much too kind; I made many, many mistakes in my time. Every generation has to rediscover Christianity for itself, and this is why I am set against long creeds and required lists of beliefs. These kinds of documents militate against our youth remaining active with us. I believe this was one of the great downfalls of Protestantism. In my day in the Adventist Church, we had no list of Fundamental Beliefs, other than the Second Coming, the Pre-advent Judgment, the Law of God and Sabbath, and the Old Testament sanctuary service as a microcosm of the Plan of Salvation.
AT: We see in the Church today an increasing tendency for young people to move away from the denomination, especially during certain phases of life—in their early 20s, about the time you and Ellen married. How did you in those early days contend with youth who seemed bent on leaving?
White: As a writer and publisher, I worked diligently to write fairly about even the most speculative ideas of our time in the pages of our journals, believing that if we did not discuss them there (and write fairly about them, (let me emphasize), the youthful membership would sample and discuss them anyhow. I also encouraged letters and essays of response that represented a wide range of thought. It made the old Review and Herald a must-read publication, and it allowed me as editor to “get there first” on topics of emerging interest. I understand that Adventist Today does much the same thing. Many of these issues are near and dear, especially to perceptive, thoughtful youth. By bringing forward these issues from primarily a centrist position, you are providing a tremendous value to the denomination, while modeling to the youth a sense that the Church is not closed to new light. Throughout my short lifetime much “new light” reached our readers, particularly the conviction that in our earliest days we had done a deplorable job of preaching Christ and Him crucified….
AT: Looking back on your youth, what advice would you give us today, when there seems to be a growing conservative wave in the Church, coupled with an increasing level of youthful departure from fellowship….
White: It may be that the word “conservatism” is interpreted differently in your time, but I can say without hesitation that in our day we were seen as very liberal. Our position on the Second Coming was seen as outrageously destructive of the conservative Christian order. Our preaching on health was seen as wildly speculative; our views on abolishing slavery were clearly not in line with conservative Christian beliefs. Certainly our acceptance of a woman as a co-founder and primary promoter of our denomination played very poorly in conservative churches.
We need conservatives, for conservatives are the preserving salt of the earth; but it’s the so-called “liberals” that often shine new light on old problems. Neither conservatives nor liberals are “dangerous” except where the concentrations become too great. Too much salt desolates the soil of growth and turns people away from the banquet table of Christ; too much light at one time, or light inappropriately filtered or framed, can turn people away from salvation. We ideally seek a balance, and we find that balance in the ministry of Ellen and many early, young leaders. We had the flame of liberalism, but the maturing strength of conservative conviction. We did not multiply many rules, but the guidelines we established were carefully maintained and articulated. Youth seeks and values structure, but not a rigid template. I would recommend that same moderation in the Church today. Neither demonize your older conservatives, nor impugn your young firebrands. Grow together, press together. Do not separate into labeled camps, insofar as possible.
And by all means discuss new ideas continually; never blacklist a young person because he or she brings forward what to you may seem heretical ideology. Don’t fear getting those ideas out in the open for analysis and study. Challenges to orthodoxy in the early Adventist Church were some of the greatest stimulants to serious Bible study and revival.
Young People Are Rambunctious
Finally, recognize that young people by nature are a rambunctious lot. Had Ellen and I been in our 40s at the time of the Great Disappointment, I doubt we would have had the energy or impulse to help form a new denomination. We wanted to see change, and we recognized that the Protestants of our day were determined to reject our message. If we wanted to do things in an orderly way, we would have to form a new organization.
We remained open to change, in part because of the influence of Ellen as a messenger, calling us to higher standards, calling us away from over-emphasis on legalism. The other Advent denominations became enclaves of resistance to new ideas, and most are technically now extinct.
If we retrench and become yet another restrictive faith where new light rarely shines and the ground of faith grows increasingly salty with caustic levels of preservative, our denomination will follow the ways of those denominations. First our youth will give up on us, as consortia of liberals and conservatives battle for the crumbs, and the rest of us flail at windmills and dragons whose threats may be obsolete….
Let me suggest you take these steps as we look back and learn from the past 100 years since Ellen’s passing: (1) Consider your youthful lay people as your most precious treasure as a community of faith. Treat them well, listen to them well, bring them forward as quickly as possible into positions of strong relevance in your churches; (2) Plan to face troubling issues squarely and fairly, at least once each new generation. Communities of faith go through stages. The teachings of the Church must be experienced again and again, emotionally, with passionate writing and provocative discussion; (3) Encourage young thinkers to begin writing and publishing at an early age. Keep doing what you’re doing, just do it better on behalf of youthful writers; and finally, (4) Maintain your independence, but treat the denomination kindly, with gentle Christianity and dignity. Use humor and irony, and use it well. The support the youth see you give to this magazine will send a strong message to them about where their Church is headed, with them or without them.
Note: Adventist Today is dedicated to including more and more young people in its talent base of writers and workers. These young people, like James and Ellen White of old, can help us express things in new ways that are more readily understandable by younger, contemporary people of the world. During the past 10 weeks Adventist Today has raised $20,000 to help begin this initiative. Our campaign continues through the month of February, and we invite you to participate. Phone me at 503 826-8600 and we can discuss this outreach and its challenges, or donate through www.atodayarchive.org….We live in exciting times…. EAS