by Jonathan Butler | 5 September 2023 |
The following remarks were delivered at the Loma Linda University Church, Fellowship Hall, for the Ronald Numbers Memorial, September 2, 2023, celebrating Ron’s contributions to the history of Adventism. The entire service may be accessed on YouTube.
When Ronald Numbers arrived at Loma Linda University in 1970, a fledgling 28-year-old professor, the Dean of the Medical School, David Hinshaw, made an impractical request of him: he asked Ron to teach a graduate level course to medical students on the history of science and medicine. In spite of the crushing demands of their medical studies, the students would be required to attend Ron’s lectures, read a scholarly book a week, and write book reviews and a major term paper.
What sounded good to the dean did not sound good to the students. In fact, on the very first day of class, an overworked medical student, with a look of despair, asked Ron if he could speak to the class. The student held up a petition for his classmates to sign. It requested that the class be canceled. As a result, it soon was.
Dean Hinshaw then turned to Plan B. He asked Ron to instead do a lecture-only class on the history of Adventist health and medicine. The average professor might have prepared for such a class by reading Dores Robinson’s The Story of Our Health Message and placing the Adventist story in its historical context.
However, there was nothing average about Ron Numbers.
The metal cage
As Ron wandered in the Loma Linda medical library, he noticed a metal cage with books and documents locked away in it. In that collection, he came across a book by well-known health reformer Larkin B. Coles. In the margins of the book, Ron saw shorthand notations that he believed might be John Harvey Kellogg’s. He got help deciphering the shorthand, then traced the Kellogg references to Ellen White’s book Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene. Ron found that, some 75 years earlier, Kellogg had uncovered Ellen White’s literary dependence on Larkin Coles. More than a set of lectures came from Ron’s discovery—or rediscovery—that day. The book Prophetess of Health was born.
Many of us here today recall that that book created quite a furor in the church—quite a furor! Adventists had never seen a book quite like it. The boy from Southern Missionary College had been to U.C. Berkeley, where he had learned to write as an accomplished historian.
Up to that point, Adventist historians had written about Ellen White gently and reverently—standing high on a pedestal, without clay feet. Ron wrote about her as if she were any other historical figure, as he would have written about Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Mary Todd Lincoln, or Susan B. Anthony. In Prophetess of Health, Ron saw Ellen White as a flawed and imperfect human being. He saw that she had been influenced by her surroundings, in good ways and not so good. She was a woman of her times, a product of her cultural setting. This created a firestorm.
Ron stood shoulder to shoulder with the new crop of Adventist historians who arrived on college campuses in the 1970s. Young, talented, and well-educated, they all understood the writing of history in the same way. But there was one big difference between them: Ron practiced his historical craft on Ellen White herself; most others did not. For some, it was too risky professionally within the church. Perhaps some felt too parochial to be appreciated outside the church context. Maybe Ellen White should be left to pastors or theologians.
But Ron changed all that. What he did—and he was the first to do so—was write a full-fledged historical biography of Ellen White, which placed the Adventist prophet alongside other faces in history where she belongs.
Prophetess of Health
After his discovery in the metal cage in the library, Ron was still reluctant to publish a book about Ellen White. He thought there would be too little interest in it. Fortunately, his best friend Vern Carner strongly encouraged him. Vern believed that Ron was sitting on a great story, and he was just the one to tell it. Ron and Vern were inseparable at Loma Linda—Ron the academic writer and Vern his agent and promoter. They formed the ideal tandem to get a lot done. Vern was pleased when Ron did show that Ellen White’s story was worth telling.
Harper and Row wanted to publish it. And Time Magazine wanted to report on it. And the University of Wisconsin wanted to hire him for doing it. Ron Numbers had introduced a relatively unknown woman to the world.
Ron knew his book was controversial, and he expected blowback from the church. He was dismayed, however, when his fellow Adventist historians failed to support him. He felt abandoned and betrayed. He had done his best to build capital with the church.
There were so many examples of this. The University Church celebrating his life today as an historian sponsored a lecture series on the roots of Adventism. Ron and Vern organized the event and invited prominent non-Adventist historians to the church. They lectured on the world in which Adventism came into existence. The book The Rise of Adventism, published by Harper and Row, is an enduring monument to that special event in this church. Ron was also the founding editor of Adventist Heritage, a popular magazine on Adventist history.
When Prophetess of Health exploded, all the capital Ron had earned quickly dissipated. It was a dark period for him. He had done so well, but it was not good enough for the church or his historian friends within the church.
The Adventist Heritage board threw him off the magazine he had founded. I knew first-hand how upset he was. I was on the board that dumped him, and he blamed me. We were close friends by then, but he still thought I was at fault. I explained to him that I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, when the board met, not in Loma Linda, but he wasn’t buying it.
Once we were in Walla Walla together for history meetings, and I was driving and he was in the backseat, and we were quarreling again about Adventist Heritage. I slowed down every time I was talking and sped up every time he talked. A cop pulled me over. But that’s not the end of the story. Ron graciously paid half of my ticket, which says a lot about him.
We could not have been closer friends when I wrote the essay “Historian as Heretic,” which became the introduction to Prophetess of Health. It dealt with all the fallout over the book fifteen years earlier. I met Ron in Colorado Springs and, for several days, we talked about that turbulent, distressing time. We walked the streets into the night and ate dinner where the students hung out.
Ron was especially unhappy with the amateur psychobiography written about him. Critics had said he came from an inflexibly fundamentalist background and that explained his view of Ellen White. Ron disagreed. He adored his grandfather (the General Conference president W.H. Branson) who spent time playing with his grandson, talking to him “man to man,” and even taking him to the movies. (How many of us here today had a GC President for a grandfather who took us to the movies?)
Ron’s father took the criticism of Ron the hardest. He asked him, “Was I unreasonable as a parent in the way I raised you?” Ron told his father, “No, you were a great dad, and far more reasonable than any of my friends’ parents.” As we talked, Ron remembered an Insight article I had written about my own dad. I had done it in a kindly way. Ron said, “When you write about me, promise you’ll take care of my dad in the same way you did yours in Insight.” Father and son had disagreed on spiritual matters, but there was no personal animosity between them, only mutual affection and respect.
What took time for the church and its historians to realize was that Ron Numbers had brought something new to Adventism: a new way of studying our history. He was no D.M. Canright, writing an exposé on Ellen White and devoting himself for the rest of his life to declaring her a fraud and trashing his tradition.
When he was at Loma Linda, Ron wanted to become an historian. He wrote three books in the four years he was here. He wrote three more books, scores of edited books, and countless articles in the following forty years. Ron was all about building a career as a historian, not tearing down a church.
The historians began to realize this when Gary Land, a colleague of Ron’s at Andrews, wrote a review of the White Estate Critique of Prophetess of Health. Land showed that White Estate staffers believed, in effect, in Ellen White’s infallibility. They rejected Ron’s book because it pointed out where they were wrong. The historians saw Land’s point and began coming around—not overnight and not all at once.
But the historians—and many in the church at large—began to see the light. Fortunately, Ron, from the vantage point of a named chair at the University of Wisconsin, got to see it happen. Spectrum magazine, for its 25th anniversary issue, declared Ron Numbers one of the five most influential Adventists in the last quarter century. Ben McArthur, an historian at Ron’s alma mater, Southern Adventist University, declared Prophetess of Health the most important book on Adventism in the last 40 years.
When Ron left Loma Linda, in a way he left home. But he left to become one of the more prominent historians of science and medicine in his generation. He became an academic celebrity. Yet he never forgot his roots; never got so far from home that he lost contact with his old friends in the Adventist community.
A major Adventist historian
A few years ago, I wrote about Ron’s ongoing relationship to Adventists and published it in a non-Adventist journal, Church History. I suggested that, in a sense, a part of him had never left Adventism behind. For Ron, the church was a little like the Eagles’ “Hotel California”—where “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” Before I sent in the article, I showed it to Ron, as I showed him everything I wrote on Adventism. I said to him, “I’m not sure you’ll want me to put in that Eagles line. He said, “No, I do want you to—leave it in.” That told me my hunch was right. A part of him had never left—never could leave.
All the books on Adventism that he published after he left Loma Linda prove the point. Among Adventists, he will always be best known for Prophetess of Health, but in the world beyond Adventism he is even better known for The Creationists. Prophetess of Health put Ellen White on the map as a health reformer. The Creationists let the world know how important she was for scientific creationism and intelligent design. At a History of Science meeting in San Francisco, Ron flashed a photo of Ellen White onto a wide screen. He asked his academic audience if they knew who she was. No one did. He then told them that there’s no explaining the creationist movement without her. She’s its founding mother.
Ron edited two major books on Adventist history: one, The Disappointed, on “Millerism and millenarianism in the nineteenth century.” The other, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. In both cases, so typical of Ron, they were collaborations. He co-organized the conferences that produced the books, co-edited the books, and he found the publishers.
In 1984, the Millerite conference met in Killington, Vermont, near William Miller’s farm. In 2009, the Ellen White conference met in Portland, Maine, the prophet’s hometown. At any conference on Adventist history, Ron wanted non-Adventists meeting with the Adventists. In his mind, the best way to understand Adventists was to invite non-Adventists in on the discussion.
At the Portland meetings, it was the non-Adventists who often said the most positive things about Ellen White. They talked like excited miners who had stumbled onto gold. They exclaimed over Ellen White’s value to religion, to women, to culture and society. The non-Adventist women found her particularly valuable—and admirable—as a resource. In the evenings, Ron sat around with the participants and held court. He was done with academics for the day. He wanted to talk with people personally, to draw them out about their own backgrounds, their own life journeys.
The book Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet came from that sort of conference, that sort of personal chemistry, which Ron was so good at creating. The book is a brainchild of four scholars: Julius Nam, to whom the book is dedicated; and Terrie Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ron Numbers, the three who co-edited the book. They needed Ron for his academic rigor, his experience, his connections to other academics, and for help in finding a publisher. He was the key to producing a state-of-the-art book on Ellen White. He’s the reason Julius Nam flew from Washington, D.C., yesterday on his way to South Korea tonight—to honor Ron. It’s the reason Terrie Aamodt flew from Walla Walla—to honor Ron.
At the Portland, Maine, conference, Grant Wacker, the renowned professor of religion from Duke University, spoke of Ron’s importance to Adventist history. “In the history of every religious community, there’s that watershed historian who marks the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of how its history is written. For Pentecostalism, it is Robert Mapes Anderson; for Mormonism, it is Richard Bushman; for Seventh-day Adventism, it is Ronald Numbers.”
What Ron did for others
When I reflect on Ron’s life today, however, I think less about the magnificent accomplishments of his career. I remember, instead, all he did for others. A generation of Adventist scholars know him for his generosity, his willingness to read and critique everything they sent him, the way he found a place for them in his own projects, the connections he made for them, his help finding a publisher—the new friends to whom he introduced them—in a wider scholarly world.
I look back on my own modest achievements as a scholar, and realize that every good thing I did has his fingerprints on it. So many of us as Adventist historians are indebted, in this way, to Ron. To write history now, without his help, is to walk the highwire without a net below. It’s to look down and no longer see his broad face and impish grin, as he coaxes you to take the next step. We will certainly miss him.
Jonathan Butler lives in Riverside, California, where he has taught religion and history at the high school and college level. He has also published two books and many articles, most notably on Adventist history. He and his wife, Marianne, have two daughters, four grandchildren and a chihuahua.