by Edwin A. Schwisow
General Conference President Ted Wilson's leadership style in Russia in the mid-1990s may offer insights into his narrow tolerances for perceived orthodoxy in the Adventist Church.
Eyewitness sources close to Wilson during his short tenure as president of the Euro-Asia Division and chairman of the board of the Division's central publishing house, have told Adventist Today that Wilson planned to ban and destroy the then-unreleased Russian-language printing of the bestselling gospel book "Beyond Belief" within the Euro-Asian Division.
According to eyewitnesses contacted by Adventist Today, the book, authored by now-retired revivalist/college professor Jack Sequeira and published first by Pacific Press Publishing Association in English, had been specifically requested in the Russian language by publishing house staff pastors in the Euro-Asian Division, who believed the book would help combat legalism in Russian Adventism at the time.
Adventist Today first alluded to Wilson's order to ban (one source recalls the word "burn") the book in a letter to subscribers last year, as an example of the then-new General Conference president's determination to stand firm against any perceived deviation from conservative theology in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The story first broke as Adventist Today reporters heard credible reports that Wilson had wanted the printing of 15,000 books literally burned—incinerated.
Further investigation by Adventist Today staff, however, calls into question whether the actual word Wilson employed was “burn,” and in later discussions with eyewitness Roy Terretta, Adventist Today found that Wilson used the words “ban” or “destroy,” rather than “burn.” Terretta, who served as general manager of the Russian Adventist press during Wilson’s tenure in Russia, says that Wilson told him specifically that the book was not to leave the publishing house intact.
“Had I followed through with his instructions, I would have had the books cut up and baled for recycling, at three or four cents on the dollar,” says Terretta. He did not immediately comply with Wilson’s wishes, since the book had been authorized by board action prior to Wilson’s arrival and was nearly ready for distribution.
“We had more than $10,000 tied up in that book, at that point,” he told Adventist Today. “It would have been a tremendous financial loss to us to have recycled the whole printing, and Wilson told me the division was not prepared to buy out our expenses. So Wilson said he would put the matter on the agenda for consideration at the upcoming executive board meeting.
"I asked him why the book needed to be destroyed, since it was circulating widely in English. Wilson replied that the church's BRI (Biblical Research Institute) had a problem with it. I asked him if he had read the book in English, himself, and could point out the problem areas, and he said he had not read it. This bothered me.”
The American-born Terretta is the son of Ukrainian parents and now has his own investment, management, and real estate sales business in Durham, N.C. A trained marine biologist with a masters of business administration degree from Duke University, Terretta says he was tapped for the managerial post in Russia because of his background in finance, knowledge of the Russian language, and eight years of experience in Adventist publishing in the United States and Africa.
“I knew that the board members strongly supported the book,” says Terretta. “In their opinion, the book was urgently needed in the churches. I knew there would be no support for the idea of destroying the book."
Terretta recalls that board meetings at that time were conducted on a semiannual basis, and as promised, Wilson presented his concerns about “Beyond Belief” as an agenda item in the next meeting. “It was clear from the discussion that there was no support among the 14 or so board members for destroying the books,” Terretta recalls.
He says that Wilson sensed this lack of support, and did not call for a vote that day. But for the next meeting of the board, Wilson brought his father, former General Conference president N.C. Wilson, who spoke fervently against the publication of the book “at some length,” according to Terretta, who served as board secretary.
“But, again, the board was clearly unconvinced,” Terretta recalls. “Several members spoke out, saying, ‘Here in Russia, we do not destroy Christian books. The Communists burned and destroyed our books, but we do not feel that it is appropriate for the Church to destroy Christian books. The people need these books.’”
The books remained on pallets in the press’s storage area, with Wilson clearly at a stalemate with Terretta and other board members. The issue resolved itself when Wilson was called back to the General Conference offices in Silver Spring, and the new Division president/chairman voiced no objection to its release.
“So the book escaped destruction,” Terretta says, “despite Wilson’s adamant opposition.” Other sources have told Adventist Today that Wilson’s opposition to the book actually promoted its sale, though Terretta himself says he is not aware of such a connection.
“To this day, I do not understand why there was such opposition to the book,” says Terretta. “I found Wilson to be a competent leader in the general sense, attentive, aware. But I really questioned why he was willing to suppress a new idea without taking the time to try to understand the idea or the author’s viewpoint.”
Sequeira’s 12 published books have not been officially challenged for orthodoxy within the United States, according to the author, though he acknowledges that not all Church theologians concur with some of his views on justification by faith.
In his keynote address to the Church, on the final Sabbath of the General Conference Session, last summer, Wilson emphasized the importance of unity of belief in the Church. Evangelical and progressive Adventists have noted that unity in minute areas of belief was not a salient characteristic of either the early Christians, or early Adventist believers; insistence on uniformity of belief emerged only after the churches achieved a high level of institutional organization.
When asked to comment on the story of his embattled book in Russian, Sequeira said, “I do not consider Pastor Wilson to be my enemy. There’s room for exploration and varied interpretations within the gospel of Christ. We should encourage dialogue in the Church, encourage study. I hope Pastor Wilson is learning this, by God’s grace, as he helps guide the Church God has called to carry the gospel to the world.”